Miguel Campos of FRETECO Speaks About Workers' Control

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Miguel Campos of FRETECO Speaks on Workers’ Control in Venezuela

November 4th, 2006

Postal Workers Union Hall

St. Louis, MO, USA

Speech by Miguel Campos

Translated by John Peterson

 

Introduction

First of all, I’d like to thank everybody for the invitation and the presence of all the comrades that are here.

The movement to occupy the factories in Venezuela began in 2002/2003.  There were a number of attempted coups against the government in Venezuela and attacks by imperialism, and it was out of this struggle that this movement emerged.  But if we’re really going to understand the movement for workers’ control, we have to have a bit of an understanding about the whole situation, about the revolutionary situation that’s taking place.  I’ll give just a few general points here about the process.  Perhaps, many of you already know a lot about what’s going on, but I’ll give just a brief outline.

 

Background on Venezuela

The first thing we have to understand is that this is an extremely wealthy country, a potentially wealthy country, with rich oil reserves, iron, and all kinds of natural resources. But the wealth of the country wasn’t getting to the people.  It is calculated that in the last forty years in Venezuela, the country has produced the equivalent of three Marshall Plans worth of wealth.  Of all that wealth, very little trickled down to the ordinary people.  70% lived in poverty.  50% work in the informal sector, the underground economy.  The resources were systematically sacked and extracted by the ruling oligarchy and by foreign imperialism.  The majority of the people, didn’t have their own homes and would go up and build their own little shacks up in the mountainsides.

There was illiteracy, a lack of basic health services in the poorest areas, and a corrupt government based on mutual favors.  There were two political parties that since the beginning of the 1960s had gone back and forth, one to the other, and they effectively controlled the entire political life of the country.  There was a situation where the vast majority of people didn’t participate in politics.  They didn’t think it mattered to them.  They never voted.  They hadn’t even registered to vote, up until the recent period, where we have this whole process that’s taking place.  There was a whole series of fraudulent elections, for example in 1993.  It’s quite likely that [La Causa Radical] candidate Andrés Velásquez, was not only robbed of the election, but the political parties wouldn’t put up a fight to defend against this.

So, combined with this façade of democracy, you also had very selective repression, especially of activists, people on the left.  Actually, Venezuela is the first country where we have the phenomenon which is known as the “disappeared” – where people are simply “disappeared”.  Up to this day, nobody has been put in jail for several massacres that have taken place, the Massacre of Cantaura for example, where 22 young people were killed and others, including the big massacre in 1989.  There was an uprising called the “Caracazo”, which was brutally repressed.  And nobody’s been tried or put in jail for any of that.

The “Caracazo” was a sort of spontaneous uprising.  It was a reaction against all of these conditions.  The government raised the prices on a whole series of basic necessities.  They doubled the price, or more than doubled the price, on things like gasoline and transportation, basic items like that.  As part of this generalized corruption, you also had the corruption of those organizations that were supposed to be defending the people, for example the trade unions.  After this massacre of over 2,000 people who it is believed were killed during the “Caracazo”, the first thing that the main trade union federation did [The CTV – the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers] was to condemn the uprising as a bunch of hooligans.

 

Chavez enters the scene

Throughout the 1990s, you had a process where working people, poor people, peasants, young people, were all looking for some kind of a way out of this situation, but nobody really offered them a way forward.  They finally found someone that expressed their interests and this was Chavez, who in 1992 had attempted a coup against the corrupt and rightwing government.  The people saw him as a guy that was actually standing up for their rights and fighting against corruption.

Chavez’s attempted coup was itself a reaction to all this repression.  It was the reaction of a group of military officers, who were against the use of the military for repression, for example in 1989.  So, when he presented himself as a candidate for the presidency in 1998, all the powers that be in society, all the rich people, all these people organized to stop him from getting the presidency.  They would attack him with any label they could come up with.  He was a “communist.”  He was a “nationalist.”  He was trying to “destabilize the country.”  But all these attacks had the opposite effect, because the average person was like, “Whoa!  If they’re attacking him, there must be something good with this guy.  I’m against them, so we’re going to go for this guy.”

 

Chavez’s election and the attempted coup in 2002

This was the beginning of this revolutionary process.  Of course, the first thing that the capitalists did when he did win the presidency was try to control him and buy him off, keep it within safe limits, but he didn’t allow himself to be bought off and he passed a series of laws.  It wasn’t a huge, fundamental attack on the system, but what they were trying to do was basically just address some of the basic needs and concerns of the poorest people.  Even that was too much for the people who had traditionally ruled.  That was when they decided to try to overthrow him.

For example, the oil company is state owned.  It’s been state owned for awhile and they passed a law saying that you cannot privatize this state owned company.  That was one of the laws. Also, addressing the land question, the agriculture question, and also asserting more state control over the gas stations and everything that was controlled by the state oil company, but had been controlled by an elite.  They, also, opened up, an attack, so to speak, on the bureaucracy of this oil company that had been running it kind of as their own fiefdom for many years, and also an attack on the trade union bureaucracy, basically saying that all trade union positions had to be elected by the rank and file.

So, this set off alarm bells and there was an alliance made by all kinds of powers to try to stop this process, from big business interests in the United States to big business interests in Venezuela to the trade union bureaucrats.  In April of 2002, there was a coup against Chavez, which if you look at how it happened, it follows the pattern almost exactly of the coup against Allende in 1973 in Chile, but what the coup mongers hadn’t counted on was what working people thought about this.  They massively threw themselves on to the streets to kick out the coup leaders and to bring their president back.

 

Lock out in the oil industry

After this direct military coup failed, they tried another tactic, which was a sabotage and lock out of the oil industry, which is the most important industry in an oil producing country, which lasted for two months.  This is where we see the beginning of this process of workers’ control in Venezuela, where a sector of the workers in the oil industry took the initiative to take the industry back and get it working again.  It shows the tremendous power of working people, where a relative handful of people, the way that this lock out was broken was at Puerto la Cruz about a hundred or two hundred workers organized themselves and got production going again and were able to break this sabotage.

One of the very important factors in this whole thing was that the workers of the oil industry, after the coup in April, had begun to organize before hand knowing that something like this could happen, organize in a collective manner within the factories to prepare for something like this.  There was a sector of the better off workers, the bureaucracy of the oil industry that stayed away, so it was really the rank and file that had to get in there and organize with the community, the entire community, bringing in people that hadn’t even worked in the industry, in a democratic collective way, to get this going again.  This then spread to a number of other parts of the country, and that was what really broke it after a month or six weeks.

Even sectors of the army, leftwing sectors of the army, were dragged into this process by the movement of the workers to recover their industry and get things producing again.  For example, the military barracks in this one area, Puerto la Cruz, the officer was in support of the sabotage, of the bosses lock out, and didn’t want anything done about it, but many of the rank and file soldiers broke discipline and went to help the workers.

 

Beginnings of workers’ control and the need for revolutionary leadership

Again, a reflection of how this process of workers’ control started changing people’s consciousness is, after about a month or so of this workers’ control, the government named a new manager, a more friendly manager, to come back to the factory.  So, this manager guy, appointed by the government, a friendly government, came and said, “Ok, very good.  You guys got things going again.  Everybody back to work.  I’m the new manager here.  I’m supportive of the revolution, so you can all go back to work.”

And they said, “Ok friend, very good.  You know, you can participate in the workers’ assembly like anybody else, give your opinion and, you know, that’s how we’re running the factory now, the industry.”

That’s sort of the atmosphere that exists, and I think something very important, based on the discussions we’ve had throughout the day.  This situation basically slipped through the hands of the workers, because there hadn’t been in place before hand the vanguard of the organized workers, the most militant people, as someone mentioned earlier, the workers being organized and prepared for a situation like this.  Basically, the situation slipped away.  For example, all the different factories that were being run under workers’ control, they weren’t linked up, they weren’t connected on a national scale, they weren’t connected with the rest of the labor movement in a really serious way, and this allowed sectors in the government that were more reformist, more bureaucratic, to gradually end this situation where you had workers actually running industry.  But this experience has stayed with the people, the experience that they went through.

 

The formation of the UNT and the broadening of workers’ control

When they were faced with a broader economic sabotage of the economy…between 2002 and 2003, the GDP fell by 18% each year.  It was a huge collapse of the economy, because of sabotage.  A lot of factories were being closed.  A lot of them were closed through outright sabotage.  Other ones were being closed because they had been so hurt by the oil lock out that they now were declaring bankruptcy, and they were going to take out their problems on the workers.

It was out of this process then that we had a much more generalized movement towards the occupied factories emerge.  You, also, had the beginnings of the formation of the UNT, which is the National Union of Workers, to form a new labor federation out of the ashes of the CTV, the old federation.  So, at first, it was a defensive reaction by workers at these factories, to prevent the closure of the factories and their livelihood and their communities’ livelihood or to prevent the stripping of assets, the selling off of machinery from these factories.  They just went and started occupying them.

Also, some of these occupations started taking place when some of the workers decided, “Well, we want…We need to build our own rank and file trade unionism against the CTV.”  You have the bosses and the CTV bureaucracy coming after these workers, a lot of those workers being fired for trying to organize a new union.  And that, in some cases, was the spark that led to the occupations.

Just an anecdote, to show what kind of people we’re dealing with here, there was a phone conversation that was intercepted between bureaucrats of the CTV, and what they were saying was, “Well, what we need here is a military dictatorship for 15 years to put people in their place.”  The vast number of the companies reacted in this way, because the last thing they wanted was a new union that wasn’t controlled by the CTV, which was a very nice arrangement for them.

 

Inveval

One of the first companies that was occupied is now called Inveval, back then it was called the CNV, the National Producer of Valves.  It’s factory, a private factory, that produces gaskets and valves and things like that for the oil industry.  At the same time, the president of this company was also the president of the state oil company.  So, he’d take state money from the state oil company, and he’d buy from himself, at whatever price, valves for the industry.  So, of course, he had an interest in getting rid of this government, and when the oil lock out came, the oil lock out sabotage, he also shut down the valve factory.

Once the sabotage was broken, and things went back to normal, he came back to the factory and he gathered the workers.  He said, “Well, you know, we’ve had a lot of losses because of this sabotage in the oil industry, therefore I’m going to have to lower your wages.”  And so, the workers, most of them were, of course, opposed to the oil sabotage, because this guy was making all these threats, they occupied the factory that day.  They thought it was going to be a one day thing, just to prevent them from selling off the machinery.

The trade union supported the bosses, was against this occupation.  So, they had to sort of invent, in the heat of struggle, their own organization.  They formed a workers’ assembly within the plant.  They were in struggle for two years, until they managed to have this factory expropriated and nationalized by the government.  There were sectors that were opposed to this happening because they said, “Well, if the Chavez government nationalizes this factory, they’ll accuse him of being a communist and everybody’ll attack us.”  But they built up enough public pressure in society, in the labor movement, and in the government itself  that it finally did expropriate this factory.  One of the important factors in this struggle was building links with the community and explaining to the community that this was not just about the workers at this factory, because those jobs would provide other jobs for the community.  It was all linked together.

 

Invepal

Another of the occupied factories is called Invepal.  It used to be called Venepal.  It’s a paper factory.  It’s practically a city in itself, this factory.  It’s a huge complex, 5,000 hectares.  It covers an area of land that’s in three different states.  The scale of this place reflects an earlier stage of Venezuelan capitalism when the bosses had the huge, grandiose ideas.  It even has its own airport, because the owner of the company wanted to land at his own business and not with the rest of the people.  Within the borders of this company, they had their own bank.  The Venepal company had its own bank!  They had 5,000 head of cattle on the land.  They had their own forests from which to get the wood to make the paper.  There was even a movie theatre within this…this…business-factory-complex, and yet in the town, where all the workers lived, there wasn’t a movie theatre.  There was even a hotel.

So, there was all this wealth, all this potential, for the community that one-by-one the owner was just abandoning and letting just go to waste.  First, the workers organized themselves to do a kind of co-management with the owner.  Gradually they started getting ideas about having full workers’ control, because they were realizing how much power they had.  They were the ones going to the boss and saying, “Why isn’t this machine producing?  Why is this being left to go to waste?  Why isn’t this land being used?  Why aren’t we producing wealth for our people?”

Then one month, the owner came and said, “Well, we’re having economic problems.  I’m going to have to pay you part now, and then, you know, a few weeks later I’ll pay you the rest of what you’re owed.”

So, the workers said to him, “Well, you know, we’re having some problems, too.  Perhaps we’re going to have to produce half of what we’re supposed produce this month, and we’ll produce the other half after you pay us the rest of the money.”  Of course, after this little conversation, the owner realized that he really wasn’t the owner anymore of this place.  So, he decided to close it and sell off everything to whoever the best investor was.  But this happened at a time when the Venezuelan people in general were very excited, because they had just had won a referendum to keep Chavez as president.  Then they occupied the factory calling for the nationalization of the place.

The slogan that they had, these workers had, was to turn this factory into what in Venezuela is called a “nucleus of endogenous development.”  The concept behind this is that it wasn’t just, again, defending the posts of these 400 workers (historically there had been 3,000 workers at this place), but the idea was to develop it for the whole community, to get the hotel going again, to get the cattle going again, to get all these assets and to create five thousand, six thousand jobs for the whole community.  They held a series of meetings in different parts of the community to explain this question to them, and this was very important in building that solidarity with the rest of the community so that the struggle couldn’t be isolated.

International solidarity, also, played a big part.  At that time, the Hands Off Venezuela campaign launched an international appeal to support the workers at Venepal and calling for the nationalization under workers’ control.

 

Workers’ control

Finally, Chavez nationalized this company and said that it should be run under workers management and that the highest decision making body in that factory should be the workers’ assembly.  The legislation that was originally drafted for the expropriation of this company included a provision that the president of the workers’ assembly could be appointed by Chavez himself, by the president, but he, himself, had it changed to say it was the workers themselves that would elect their leadership.  Seven to eight months after this happened, they revoked the first president that they’d elected.  They recalled him, because they thought that he was no longer in sync with what they wanted.  There were sectors that said, “No, we can’t recall this president, because people will say that this experiment is failing, that it didn’t work, we’ve elected the wrong guy.”

But we explained, we said, “No, actually, this proves that this does work, that the workers themselves were able to correct the wrong path that was being taken and that this model does work.”  And the reason they got rid of this guy wasn’t because of a struggle over wages or conditions or anything like that.  It was because the bigger plan, the broader plan, to involve the community in this sort of endogenous development, community development, and also the workers’ participation in the assembly itself was being sort of dampened and taken away.  It was because of that that they got rid of this leadership.

So, now there’s a struggle taking place between those sectors in the bureaucracy that say, “Well, you know, the workers obviously aren’t ready enough for this.  Maybe, we should just appoint someone and wait for the workers to be ready.”

But the workers are struggling to say, “No, we want to be able to elect our leadership.”  At Inveval, this other company, the workers have maintained control.  They meet in weekly assemblies where they discuss all the aspects of production and distribution and all that.

So, with financial support from the government, they themselves have fixed up the factory, repaired the roof, repaired the machinery, and gotten everything working again.  There were people in the government, again, saying, “Well, why don’t we bring in some outside contractors, some private contractors, to do some of this work?”

They said, “No, no, we’ll do it ourselves.”  And they’ve actually surprised people by bringing the factory back into production quicker and more cheaply than had originally been planned.

 

FRETECO

This shows the tremendous potential of the working class, but we think that this needs to be extended to the rest of the economy because you can’t just have little isolated islands of workers’ control or isolated islands of socialism in a capitalist economy.  This model has spread to other companies like Alcasa, for example, which is a state owned company, where they are saying that the workers should elect their leadership.

But this process has kind of stagnated, in some ways, because there wasn’t that sort of coordinated network of working people that could extend this to the rest of the economy.  I mean, we had a situation where Chavez, the president, came out with a list of over a thousand factories that were underused or in danger of being closed, and said that these need to be put back into production, but it wasn’t done because there wasn’t this coordination.

This has been where FRETECO emerged, which is this Revolutionary Front of Workers in Occupied and Co-Managed Factories, where the workers of Inveval, that valve company, which was kind of the vanguard, the most advanced expression of this movement, made a call for other workers to come together and start organizing this to build a network, because if these individual factories are left in isolation they’re finally going to be crushed by the market or sabotaged by elements in the state bureaucracy that don’t agree with this revolutionary process.

In some of the factories, there are clear elements of sabotage by elements that are against this process.  For example, there’s machinery that lasts only half as long as in other factories, and it shows that there’s conscious sabotage taking place on a regular basis.  Or they put credit squeezes on these companies, make it difficult for them to get credit so that they can continue production or improve machinery and so on, and so the only way for this to survive is if it spreads.

Expansion of workers’ control

There’s been, in the last few months, about 15 factories that we know of that have been taken, occupied by the workers, often because, again, they were trying to organize a union and the bosses attacked them or because they were fighting for better wages and the bosses attacked them, and the response was to take these factories.

And yet, you also have now the development of unemployed workers taking things into their own hands and occupying factories that aren’t being used, for example an Avon factory, a cosmetics factory.  Unemployed people went and took it.

You have cases of workers, who may have been fired even as long as a couple of years ago, who are now saying, “Well, you know, I worked at that factory for ten, fifteen years.  I have more right to it than they do.”  And then they’re coming back and participating in these occupations.

The most recent incident, this was unemployed workers, who had been fired from Coca-Cola factories, five different Coca-Cola factories, that they went and occupied the factories and called up the government to expropriate it.  At the moment, this is sort of hanging in the air, because it’s been said that if Coca-Cola meets the demands of these workers, to pay back wages and injury pay and stuff like that they were owed, that if they meet those requirements that they won’t expropriate it.  But that option is there, and again, it just reflects the general mood of how people are seeing this question.

Spreading throughout Latin America

What’s interesting, also, is that it’s not just about Venezuela now.  This is now extending to other parts of Latin America.  There was the first meeting last year of workers in struggle and in occupied factories.  For example, in Argentina, there’s over 200 factories that not only are being occupied, but they’re actually being brought under production.  They are actually producing under workers’ control.  In Brazil, there’s four factories that have had this experience, for example, Cipla, which is a very important, big factory of PVC materials. It is one of the most important factories in the region and the Venezuelan government has entered into contracts with them to produce temporary housing for people made out of PVC.  So, you’ve got a situation where you’ve got the Venezuelan government, the Bolivarian government, making a deal with a worker occupied factory, providing cheap natural resources, a Venezuelan petroleum company, to this factory to produce housing that can be built in five days.  So, Venezuela gives the natural resources at a low cost and this factory gives their expertise and their technology.

So, these examples are important, because you might have the impression that, “Well, this can happen in Venezuela, because you’ve got a government that’s friendly to these kinds of things,” but it’s also happening in places like Argentina and Brazil.  So, you have a situation like in Brazil, where unfortunately the Lula government hasn’t carried out progressive reforms like this.  They’ve made agreements with the IMF and world imperialism.  The workers, because of their own struggle and organization, have been able to maintain these occupied factories.  They’ve linked up with the landless peasants movement, which is a very important movement in Brazil, to build that support and show that this is a struggle of the whole community and not just a particular company.

There’s this other company called Flasko, which had been occupied by the workers, the factory, and then the land around the factory was occupied by the community demanding housing.  There was at first a bit of confusion and there was a possibility of a confrontation between the workers occupying the factory and the community that just kind of invaded, but they came to an agreement.  The workers proposed, “Well, why don’t we build housing for all of us, together?”  Through this united struggle, they were able to prevent the police from coming in and kicking everybody out.

The ruling class often uses the question of “human rights” and that they do things for “humanitarian” reasons and all this, so playing on that, the workers at these factories have formed a human rights commission, so that when a new factory is occupied and there’s the threat of repression, they’ll go there and say, “Well, this is violating human rights,” and they’ll launch an international campaign to show, look this government is trying to violate human rights, et cetera.

Pan-American Gathering and International Solidarity

And so, it’s important then to keep in the perspective that the struggle isn’t just about the individual worker but that every factory that’s taken opens up a space and takes away space from the bosses, from reactionaries.  Now, we’re taking a new step, which is calling for, the next meeting is not just going to be of occupied factories, but of occupied factories, of the landless peasants movement, of occupied land, of workers in struggle, workers in conflict with the bosses, and we’re here with this proposal to present to you this information on the Pan-American gathering in defense of rights and workers that’s going to be taking place in Brazil.  The groups that are convening this, at first are the coordination of the council of the occupied factories in Brazil, FRETECO (this group that Miguel represents in Venezuela), the National Movement of Recovered Factories in Argentina, the main trade union federation in Uraguay, the MST the landless peasants’ movement in Brazil, and the Human Rights Center in Joinville, which is the city where this is taking place.

So, we’re calling on all kinds of people, people in all countries to come, workers that are in struggle with their boss, that are in conflict with the bosses.  We invite all of you people that are organizing this network, which we think is so important for people that are critical of the state of the labor movement and are critical with the relationship with the bosses of the current trade union leadership.  So, we are inviting you to participate in this gathering in defense of jobs, of rights, of agrarian reform, and of the occupied factories.

As the brother said earlier, one of the weapons that they use against us is dividing us and not letting us know what other struggles are taking place in other parts of the world, other parts of the country.  For example, they say to workers all over Latin America, “Why are you trying this?  You’re weak.  You’re alone.  Look at the workers in Europe and the US.  They’re all bourgeoisified.  They all live really well.  You’re alone.”  But anybody that’s lived or been to Europe or the United States, we know that working people everywhere are under the same exploitation, under the same pressure, under the same conditions.

In the same way, they tell that to workers here in this country.  They say, “Oh no, workers of Latin America or Africa, they’re lazy.  They come here to take our jobs.  They’re hungry in their countries, because they don’t want to work.”  They don’t want us to come to the real conclusion of what the problem is.

The work that you all are doing is very important.  Some of the messages that were said earlier, the people that spoke earlier, it’s clear the passion, the will to struggle.  Yes, things are hard and it’s hard times, but we need to stay firm.  This is very important for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.  Every time solidarity comes, especially from the United States, it really strengthens the resolve of people.

If there had been any Venezuelan worker that was here at this meeting and had heard everything that was said would have found so many similarities with their own situation, especially a few years before this revolutionary process erupted in Venezuela, where you had trade union leadership that’s completely betrayed and isolated from the movement, where you’ve got two political parties that share the power between themselves, where people just think that nothings going to change: “What can we do?”  But that’s precisely why we’ll have big explosions in this country.  It’s like a volcano.  I mean, all that lava, all that pressure building up, it’s got to find a way out eventually.  In Venezuela, it found its way out in a particular way, but I mean, all those contradictions, all that pressure that’s building up, it’s eventually going to have an effect here.

So, that’s why I think it would be very important for the workers from Brazil and Venezuela and Argentina that are going to be at this meeting to be able to meet some of you and be able to exchange experiences with you to realize that there are reinforcements here, to have these shared experiences, and as one of the brothers said earlier, this building of a working class army understanding that it’s an international army.

 

Declaration of Caracas

I’d just like to end this introduction with reading a few lines from the Declaration of Caracas, which was passed by the first Latin American gathering of workers in occupied factories and under workers’ control: “Each factory that is closed is a cemetery of jobs and also of the big landed estates in the countryside.  It is because of this that the workers of the field and of the city have the right to occupy the factories and the lands and to defend their work and the sovereignty of our people.  That’s why we have occupied the factories and have brought them under production.  They close and we open the factories.  They rob the land and we occupy it.  They make wars and destroy nations and we defend the peace and the sovereign integrity of the people.  They divide and we unite.  Because we are the working class.  Because we are the present and the future of humanity.”

So, I just wanted to say that it’s very important to extend this invitation to you to come to this Pan-American gathering, to share these experiences.  And yes, I want to say, “Long live the Venezuelan Revolution,” but also “Long live the Struggle of the International Working Class!”

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