Sunday, November 19, 2006

Workers in Control: Venezuela’s Occupied Factories

Interview with FRETECO representative

Thursday, Nov 09, 2006

Latin America’s occupied factories and enterprises represent the development of one of the most advanced strategies in defense of the working class and resistance against capitalism and neoliberalism. This new phenomenon catching hold throughout Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela continues to grow despite market challenges. More than 30,000 Latin American workers are employed at cooperative-run businesses, which were closed down by bosses and reopened by employees.

In Venezuela alone, it is estimated that 1,200 business and factories have been occupied by their workers after bosses and owners abandoned them. In response to the Bolivarian revolution, many oligarchic and foreign investors have fled Venezuela leaving workers out to dry. Venezuela’s working class has stood up to the destiny of unemployment and helped to build a road to socialism: taking over ransacked companies, calling for the nationalization and implementing worker self-management. Since 2005, the Venezuelan government passed a number of legal decrees expropriating abandoned factories for workers to start up production. Today in Venezuela some 20 companies have been nationalized and function under worker co-management or control.

One such group working to coordinate the grass-roots based worker takeovers in Venezuela has been FRETECO (Co-managed and Occupied Factories’ Worker’s Revolutionary Front). Workers from the state-worker co-managed industrial valve plant INVEVAL formed FRETECO earlier this year to strategize how the worker occupied factory movement can multiply industry under genuine worker control. FRETECO held a small, but important conference in October where 15 worker co-managed companies (several producing and some still fighting to start up production) gathered to share how worker controlled companies are moving away from capitalism and challenges they must face.

Pablo Cormenzana representative from FRETECO and INVEVAL traveled to Buenos Aires in November as part of the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. I caught him before a talk at the BAUEN hotel, a recuperated enterprise and worker run cooperative in the very heart of the city. In the interview and talk, Cormenzana overviewed the successes and challenges of the worker occupied factory movement in Venezuela.

M.T.: What happened at INVEVAL that pushed the workers to take over their workplace?

P.C.: INVEVAL started when the owner shut down production in the plant which was formerly called CNV (National Valve Manufacturer) in 2002. The owner of CNV, Sosa Pietri, was part of Venezuela’s oligarchy. He decided to extend a management lock out and closed the company down on December 9, 2002, leaving all the workers out in the streets. On top of that he didn’t arrange any indemnification for the workers, leaving them out to dry without paying their salaries, social security etc. Originally, there were 330 workers at the plant.

A group of these workers decided to begin a fight to demand that the former owner pay them back what he owed them. Later, this demand transformed into the idea of recovering their jobs and to re-open the company. This stage lasted for two years, from March 2003 until April 2005. A group of about 65 workers continued fighting. They were alone in their fight, visiting labor courts and the labor ministry to demand the salaries that the owner never paid. This long and difficult process had a demoralizing effect on the workers and many abandoned the fight. The group was really dispersed at that time and in December 2004 only one worker continued to camp outside the factory.

Around this time, the former boss decided that it was the perfect moment to empty out the factory. Until December groups of workers had been camping outside the plant’s doors. One night the boss secretly began to transport the semi-constructed valves and tools from the plant. The workers found out that the owner was stealing material from the plant and re-mobilized. This time, more workers camped outside the company’s doors so that the boss wouldn’t continue to ransack the plant. They were thinking ‘this guy left us out in the streets and now he’s leaving with the few things that could be sold to pay us back what he owed us.’

At the very same time, two very important situations developed in Venezuela. In January 2005 during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, President Chávez launched his proposal for socialism. This was very important moment for the worker controlled factories. The other important event for INVEVAL was the nationalization of the paper mill INVEPAL. The paper mill VENEPAL was in a similar situation as INVEVAL. The owner in this case claimed bankruptcy with the idea of breaking up the company and selling off shares to the transnational cardboard producer, Murphy. The owner of VENEPAL went bankrupt and left the workers out to dry. The Venezuelan government told the workers at VENEPAL that if they led a serious struggle and rallied on a large scale, President Chávez may consider nationalizing the company. The workers accepted the proposal and began to rally. They protested, pushing for nationalization of VENEPAL. The president accepted the proposal and decreed the nationalization of VENEPAL. The workers later formed INVEPAL.

The nationalization of INVEPAL motivated the workers of INVEVAL and they launched a new campaign to get their jobs back. The president decreed the nationalization of CNV, which is to later become INVEPAL-national endogenous valve industry in April 2005.

M.T.: How has the factory been re-organized since the worker take-over?

P.C.: The workers had to fight hard to recover the factory. The factory has been worker run since April 2005, a factory that was abandoned. We’re talking about a huge factory that runs with computers and giant machinery. And yet, the workers were able to make it work. They’re proving the theory that workers can run industry without bosses. Not only are the workers at INVEVAL successfully running a company without bosses or an owner, they’re also doing it without technocrats or bureaucracy from the government. The government has had

little participation in the functioning of the company. The company was solely recovered by the very worker.

M.T. So no professionals stayed on in the plant? How have the workers managed without professionals?

No, only manual workers stayed on in the plant. Middle and high level management abandoned the company along with the boss. They had alliances with the boss. I imagine that the former owner paid them their salaries and indemnity for laying them off and they later found new jobs.

The workers not only recovered a factory by taking over the manual tasks. The workers are also taking charge of the administrative areas. Currently, a group of workers are studying administration at the state-run university. They are proving wrong the theory that workers are unable to run a factory if they don’t have a manager watching every move they make. Factories under worker control function democratically, unlike with a boss. All of the decisions made at INVEVAL are made in a workers’ assembly. The factory is run by worker delegates. The current president of INVEVAL, Jorge Paredes worked in the plant’s stock deposit. The delegates and president were voted democratically by the workers’ assembly. If the delegates and representatives do not fulfill their responsibilities according to what the assembly says, the assembly can revoke the delegate from his or her position. All of the workers make the same salaries, it doesn’t matter if they are truck drivers, line workers or the president of the company. They are putting into practice genuine worker control at INVEVAL.

M.T.: What is the future of the worker controlled factory movement in Venezuela?

P.C: From the perspective of FRETECO we have a very positive outlook for worker control in Venezuela. October 13-14, FRETECO held a national congress. Over 10 worker co-managed factories participated in the congress, though more than 15 companies are participating in FRETECO. Five companies couldn’t participate because they couldn’t access transportation and because of limited resources due to lack of government support. It’s necessary to understand that in some cases workers are occupying factories that have been closed down and they have no income. Right now FRETECO is working with 15 companies, but we are getting a lot of calls from other companies that would like to join FRETECO.

There are more than 1,200 business and factories that have been occupied by their workers after bosses and owners abandoned them. President Chávez has nationalized more than 20 companies that are all in different situations. VENEPAL and INVEVAL are at the forefront of the worker controlled factory movement. The working class in Venezuela is gaining strength and there’s a lot of interest to continue to nationalize industry and put it in the hands of workers. After the December elections, which President Chávez is sure to win, the worker controlled factory movement will also move forward. We are going to push so that workers can recover their companies shut down by the owners and start up production under worker control.

Workers without bosses at a turning point

November 09, 2006

In recent years leading up to Argentina's 2001 financial crisis, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost. Many workers have decided to defeat the destiny of unemployment, taking over their workplace and recuperating their dignity as workers.

More than 180 recuperated enterprises are up and running, employing more than 10,000 Argentine workers at cooperative-run businesses, which were closed down by bosses and reopened by employees. In almost all cases workers took over businesses that had been abandoned or closed by their owners in the midst of a financial crisis.

Many worker controlled factories today face hostility and frequently violence from the state. Workers have had to organize themselves against violent eviction attempts and other acts of state violence. This impacts the workers and the enterprises as it means that employees have to leave the work place, invest energy in a legal battle and fight for laws in favor of worker recuperated businesses.

To counter oppose an uncertain legal future, many recuperated enterprises have mobilized to press for the government to resolve their cooperative's legal status. On October 27, workers from Renacer domestic appliance cooperative, CUC worker run shoe company, BAUEN hotel, City Hotel, Bahía Blanca ex-Paloni slaughter house, La Foresta meat packing cooperative and Zanon-FaSinPat worker run ceramics plant rallied outside a federal court to push for a national expropriation law.

Many of the recuperated enterprises have functioned and competed in a capitalist market for years with no legal standing. Without legal support, many worker run businesses have fallen behind in competition, unable to catch an edge on the market and get rid of middlemen.

Since 2003, workers have operated the BAUEN cooperative hotel with no legal standing or government subsidies. Since taking over the hotel on March 21, 2003, the workers have slowly begun to clean up the ransacked hotel and rent out the hotel's services. The hotel re-opened with 40 employees and now employs some 150 workers.

Employees rallied throughout December last year to pressure the Buenos Aires city government to veto a law in favor of putting the hotel back into the hands of the former owner. The B.A. government refused to veto the law. If the BAUEN cooperative does not succeed in pushing through a new favorable law they risk losing their hotel.

A dozen workers from Renacer (Ex-Aurora) traveled over 5,000 kilometers for the rally in Buenos Aires, to press for the permanent expropriation of their plant. The Renacer domestic appliance producer cooperative formed in 2000 after the former owner decided to shut down operations, owing banks and workers' thousands of dollars in unpaid salaries. The plant formerly known as Aurora produced washing machines. For decades industry activity had declined in the region, which is the most expensive places to live in Argentina. Ushuaia is also known as "the end of the world," with a harsh artic climate, less than 500 kilometers from the Southern Artic.

"The auctioning off of our plant is a constant threat, we are looking for a permanent solution so we can produce our own products independently of the state," explains Monica Acosta, the current president of Renacer. Over 100 workers and their families rely on the cooperative, which hasn't been able to put out full production inside the plant. "Most of the expropriation laws that recuperated enterprises have won last two years. After two years, the cooperative has to go through the process once again and look for a legal solution in order to continue to produce." Without subsidies and much less a permanent solution, the cooperative has had to work for companies like Sanyo, piece milling appliance parts.

"There are months when we take home 300 dollars, but there are other months when we don't have enough resources to take home a pay check. After paying taxes and our costs we end up failing to meet our basic necessities," says Acosta. She also says that workers not only have to figure out how to successfully run their business but also worry whether authorities will pass a law to evict the business. "We have to do two things simultaneously: produce and struggle. We can't stop either, because the day we stop fighting or producing the recuperated enterprises are fried. We know that no politician in this oligarchic and imperialist state is going to permit workers to own the means of production."

Hundreds of workers from several other worker run factories joined the Renacer cooperative in their demands for a national expropriation law, including the workers from the FaSinPat cooperative. The workers from the ceramics plant Zanon celebrated a recent victory. On October 20, the workers won a long standing legal battle for a federal court to legally recognize the FaSinPat cooperative for three years.

The long term demand at Zanon is for national expropriation under worker control. However, the workers from Zanon have fought a parallel battle in federal court to legally recognize FaSinPat (Factory without a boss), their worker cooperative. In October 2005, FaSinPat won a legal dispute, pressuring federal courts to recognize it as a legal entity that has the right to run the cooperative for one year. Earlier this year with the October expiration date nearing, the worker assembly voted to step up actions and community efforts.

According to Omar Villablanca, a Zanon worker who has worked at the ceramics plant for 9 years, FaSinPat will never put down their arms in the fight for a national expropriation law. "We didn't win a three year legal status for FaSinPat because the judges are understanding people. We won legal recognition because we, the workers, fought for the courts to see what we've accomplished. The workers are the only ones willing and restore a factory that was in ruins that had a million dollar debt that the former owner Luis Zanon left behind. We, the workers, were the only ones capable of creating jobs. Nationwide politicians speak of Zanon and the rest of the recuperated enterprises, but they haven't approved policies that would provide a definitive solution so that the more than 10,000 workers employed at worker run businesses can work without the pressure of risking eviction."

With legal status, the FaSinPat can concentrate on production planning, improve working conditions and community projects. As part of their celebration, the FASINPAT cooperative has invited workers to visit Zanon to learn that workers can function without a boss or owner. The workers' assembly has resolved that the body of workers is now in the position to teach other workers from the four and a half years of learning from worker self-management.

Though, Villablanca made it clear that even with a temporary legal status, the FASINPAT collective will not abandon their roots. "The first thing that we did after receiving the news that the judge approved our 3 year legal status was to vote in a our workers' assembly that we have to continue to march in the streets and to support other workers' and grassroots struggles."

During the October 27 rally workers from Renacer, BAUEN and Zanon expressed their solidarity with workers who days before faced a violent eviction. Over 50 police officers violently attacked 14 workers who were occupying a gas station in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. Two years after the owners claimed bankruptcy, the workers formed the Punta Arenas cooperative. They are demanding that the gas station be expropriated and handed over to the workers in compensation to back salaries that the owner never paid. Despite differences with the pro-capitalist lawyer Luis Caro who represents the Punta Arenas cooperative, worker run businesses from diverse groupings said: if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us.

"Factories that close down are factories of death that kill entire families," said Fernando Velazquez from City Hotel, a worker run and recovered hotel in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. The occupied factories and enterprises are proving that they are organizing to develop strategies in defense of Latin American workers susceptible to factory closures and poor working conditions. While these experiences are forced to co-exist within the capitalist market they are forming new visions for a new working culture. "Factories that close down should be recovered by the workers and the courts must recognize the right to work," commented Velazquez. "We all deserve definitive expropriation because we are recuperating jobs and dignity."

Marie Trigona is an independent journalist, writer and documentary maker based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at

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