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Venezuelan models of co-management

Published May 12, 2005 3:08 PM

Two experiments with workers’ control or “co-management” were discussed in mid-April during an electrifying two-and-a-half day conference on the role of workers in the Bolivarian Revolution. The meeting was facilitated by the National Union of Workers (UNT) in the Vene zuelan state of Carabobo.

Over 500 Venezuelan workers from oil, transit, electric, aluminum, paper and other industries were joined by international delegates from Canada, Mexico, Bra zil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba and the United States.

It is important to understand that the models of co-management or self-management being promoted by the UNT have nothing in common with the top-down versions often promoted by bosses in the U.S. attempting to break unions by circumventing contracts. Joaquin Osorio, representing the Bolivarian Workers Force, told the gathering, “We are not talking about the Toyota model of quality control.”

Alexis Onero, a national director of the UNT and a leader of the workers now controlling the Invepal (formerly Venepal) paper plant, was a keynote speaker. Venepal had been one of Venezuela’s main producers of paper and cardboard, employing 1,600 workers. In 2003 the plant’s owners—supporters of the attem pted anti-Chavez coup—let the plant lose revenue and filed for bankruptcy, announ cing plans to sell off the company’s assets.

Workers at Venepal responded by occupying the plant. As Onero described it, when no bosses showed up, the workers did what workers know best and ran the plant until they exhausted raw materials. The workers made Venepal more productive than the bosses ever had. During the occupation the paper workers received broad support through donations collected by other workers and food provided by local fishers and farmers.

Workers transformed

Onero described the transformation workers underwent as they became aware of their collective power through their struggle to keep the plant open and productive. These workers, having just organized into a union, proceeded to take on the tasks of running the plant, creating committees to learn about sales, developing production schedules, figuring out how to get raw materials, etc.

Onero noted that a big part of this education came when the workers opened the books and learned just how much the previous owners had lied to them about profits and benefits.

“Everything that workers visualize can be achieved,” Onero told the gathering, emphasizing that “unity was the key to our success.”

In January, President Hugo Chavez signed decree number 3438, expropriating Venepal and opening the way for a 51-49 percent co-management arrangement between the government and Venepal workers. When it resumes operation soon, the plant will produce books for use in Venezuela’s literacy campaign.

Conference participants were able to tour the plant on the final day of the

The other model of co-management discussed at the gathering was the CADAFE electric company. CADAFE’s Planta Centro in Carabobo is Venezuela’s largest power plant, producing 80 percent of the electricity used in the country. CADAFE is a public utility, where co-management allows workers to elect plant managers who are subject to recall. Angel Navas, president of Fetraelec, a UNT-affiliated union representing 34,000 workers, sits on the CADAFE board.

This experiment with co-management has improved benefits, made for safer working conditions, and given workers more say over production, but it has stopped short of workers’ control.

Speakers and participants addressed the importance that workers’ control not be limited to failing industries like Venepal or public utilities like CADAFE. Concerns were raised about the need to protect the role of the unions; how co-management would affect relationships between worker-owners and consumers; and who would “own” Venezuela’s resources under co-management.

Maria Cristina Iglesius, Venezuela’s minister of labor, addressed the conference. She cautioned, “It’s not possible to succeed by having capitalism with a more humane face. The idea of co-management is not for the unions to give up power, but for the workers to gain power. We have to change labor relations—we have the power to make the extreme change in the productive apparatus that will bring us revolutionary socialism.”

The final morning of the gathering was set aside for workers to meet in small groups to evaluate what they had heard and make recommendations to be presented to President Chavez. It was an example of true participatory democracy—only possible when workers are in control.

Piette participated in the Third World Gathering in Solidarity with the Boliv ar ian Revolution April 13-17 and in the conference workshop in the state of Carabobo that examined the experiences of workers with co-management of their workplaces.