On Friday, August 10th a sizeable group of "empleados" (administrative staff, engineers, supervisors, managerial staff) of Sanitarios Maracay staged a coup against the workers who had maintained the factory, running it under workers' control since November 14th, 2006 and dismissed the Factory Council which had been elected by the workers. They had the implicit support of the Ministry of Labour for a proposal to set up a commission made up of Sanitarios workers, the former owner and the Ministry with the aim of settling the payment of back wages and some other monies that were owed to the workers.
Nearly nine months had passed since the day the workers, faced with the declaration of bankruptcy on the part of company owner, Alvaro Pocaterra, decided not to accept his terms and take over the running of this factory making bathroom ceramics in Maracay, in the state of Aragua. It is time to draw some lessons from this exemplary struggle.
The first thing that has to be said is that the workers of Sanitarios Maracay did not take the decision to occupy the factory and to run it under workers' control, while demanding its expropriation, in a light-minded manner. The conflict really started in March-April 2006 and it was over health and safety issues. The workers, as part of the revolution Venezuela is living through, had managed to remove the old corrupt leaders of their union and put in place a more militant and democratic trade union leadership which was part of the recently created UNT.
Faced with increasing demands from the workers, many of whom suffer from permanent injuries as a result of heavy lifting, and others suffering from lung problems as a result of the dust and chemicals used in the production of ceramics, the owner of Sanitarios Maracay, Alvaro Pocaterra, a known supporter of the coup against Chávez in 2002, launched a war of attrition against the union. When the workers occupied the plant in defence of their demands in March-April 2006, he made the conflict last as long as possible in order to exhaust the strike fund that the union had built over a long period of time. After 42 days the workers went back to work with an agreement with the employer on a whole range of issues.
During that dispute the trade unionists at Sanitarios Maracay made contact with Freteco, the Revolutionary Front of Factories Occupied and Co-managed, which had been set up in February 2006 at the initiative of the workers at Inveval, the valve-making factory in Los Teques which had been expropriated by Chávez in April 2005 and is now running under workers' control. Luís Primo, a member of the Revolutionary Marxist Current and of the UNT leadership in Caracas-Miranda, and other comrades from Freteco held discussions with the workers of Sanitarios about the meaning of workers' control and the experience of the factories that had been expropriated (see this report on the Freteco site http://www.controlobrero.org/content/view/44/30/)
Freteco activists warned the workers of Sanitarios Maracay that Alvaro Pocaterra, the company owner, was going to break the agreement they had reached. His aim was, clearly, to destroy the union. Having to deal with a militant union was not an option for him, he would rather close the factory, as so many other businessmen have done in the last few years in Venezuela.
At the end of October 2006, the trade union leaders at Sanitarios Maracay contacted Freteco again and asked that the workers be given education courses on workers' control. Weekly mass meetings and workshops were organised. They realised that Pocaterra was planning to close down the plant and wanted to know how to keep it open, to save their jobs and livelihoods. Wanderci Bueno, a representative of the movement of occupied factories in Brazil, also participated in these education meetings. He was in Venezuela participating in the setting up of Petrocasa, a Venezuelan state-owned company to make houses which was being built with the advice of workers from CIPLA, the Brazilian occupied factory, in an agreement between the Cipla workers and the Venezuelan government.
These courses did not last for long. Very quickly Pocaterra made his move by proposing that all workers be made redundant and re-hired on the basis of individual contracts, that is, destroying the collective bargaining agreement, the union, and all acquired rights and conditions.
The workers refused this and decided to occupy the installations on November 14th. In a weeks' time they had elected a democratic Factory Council accountable to the weekly mass assemblies in order to run the struggle and with the aim of starting production under workers' control (see http://www.marxist.com/factory-committee-sanitarios-maracay211106.htm and http://www.marxist.com/sanitarios-maracay-woods241106.htm)
Learning the lessons from previous experiences
From the very beginning the workers aimed to learn the lessons of the other factories that had been occupied and expropriated before in order not to make the same mistakes. First of all, they decided to maintain their trade union organisation and the executive members of the union became part of the Factory Council, and they remained part of the regional UNT body. They also agreed they did not want to set up a cooperative and become part owners of the factory (as had been the case in Invepal and Inveval) but rather that they would ask for the company to be expropriated and run under workers' control.
The disbanding of the trade union and the setting up of a cooperative at Invepal in Carabobo (the paper mill expropriated in January 2005) had been a serious mistake. It lead the workers to adopt a capitalist mentality of being owners of the company and the people they had elected to run it made all possible mistakes. The most serious of those was for the workers' cooperative to hire workers at the plant Invepal had in Maracay, thus becoming themselves employers. Worse than that, the workers at Invepal-Maracay had been hired on worse conditions than the workes at Invepal itself and were then made redundant by the workers' cooperative! This led to a struggle of the workers at Invepal-Maracay to defend their jobs and to the workers at Invepal to dismiss the directors of the company and the cooperative in a conflict that has yet to be fully resolved.
The workers at Sanitarios were fully aware of this, through the discussions they had had with Freteco and also because Invepal-Maracay is in the same town as the Sanitarios plant.
The workers also took steps in order to maintain the unity between workers and "empleados" (office and managerial staff), even reserving seats on the Factory Council for them.
The workers also decided to link their struggle to the Bolivarian revolution, explaining that the bathroom ceramics they were producing could be used for the housing programmes that the government was developing and particularly for the houses that were to be built by Petrocasa.
The role of the different wings of the UNT leadership
It has to be said that at the beginning no section of the leadership of the UNT paid attention to this very important struggle.
First of all, the Bolivarian Workers' Front (FBT) which has a key influence in the current Ministry of Labour, was against workers' control and expropriation, and the Ministry of Labour has blocked all proposals in this direction. This was the opposite of the position adopted by the same Ministry at the time when Maria Cristina Iglesias (now in the Ministry of Light Industry and Commerce) was Minister and the nationalisations of Invepal and Inveval took place. This position has been reinforced by their opposition to the CCURA wing of the UNT which has a majority in the UNT in the Aragua state, where Maracay is.
On its part, the leadership of the Colectivo Trabajadores en Revolución (CTR) wing of the UNT, around Marcela Máspero, tried to play on the divisions in the workforce and attempted to set up a yellow, pro-business union based on the empleados, who from the beginning had refused to accept the decisions of the workers' assembly.
Finally, prominent leaders of the CCURA wing of the UNT (around Orlando Chirino and Stalin Perez), who only went to the factory on December 5th, nearly 20 days after the beginning of the struggle, were opposed to the demand of the workers for expropriation. In fact they went as far as to bring about negotiations with a businessman who was prepared to buy the plant. This was after the workers were already producing under workers' control and selling bathroom suits to the nearby communities in order to maintain the factory producing!
They argued that Chavez's was a bourgeois government which was never going to nationalise the factory and that therefore it was not even possible to fight for that. This was incidentally the same line they had adopted initially during the struggle of Invepal workers in 2004 which finally ended up in the nationalisation of the plant.
Their arguments were rejected by the workers and finally the leadership of CCURA accepted the decisions taken by the assembly and supported the workers' struggle. (for details of the position of Marcela Máspero and Orlando Chirino at the beginning of the struggle see: http://www.marxist.com/sanitarios-maracay-bolivarian-revolution.htm )
Here we can see how the sectarianism and the struggle for power of the different tendencies of the UNT played a pernicious role in the struggle of Sanitarios Maracay.
Freteco, from the very beginning gave support to the struggle and tried to take it forward with its proposals. The Revolutionary Marxist Current and the International Marxist Tendency did all it was in our power to popularise the struggle and build support for it nationally and internationally. The solidarity campaign Hands Off Venezuela did strenuous work in solidarity with Sanitarios Maracay and in fact it was the work of the HOV delegation which was in Venezuela at the time of the elections, that first got widespread media coverage for the Sanitarios Maracay struggle.
The main issue was to make this struggle visible nationally, to link it firmly to the fate of the revolution and above all to spread it to other factories. A first national demonstration was finally called on December 14 (http://www.marxist.com/nationalisation-sanitarios-maracay-workers-control151206.htm). The situation could not have been more favourable. Chávez had already appealed on many occasions for workers to take over factories that were being left idle by the bosses under the slogan of "Factory closed, factory occupied" (fábrica cerrada, fábrica ocupada). The Ministry of Labour under Maria Cristina Iglesias had even published a list of more than 1000 factories that were paralysed or semi-paralysed and repeated the appeal for workers to take them over, on the eve of the Latin American Gathering of Occupied Factories in Caracas.
Freteco called on all wings of the UNT to call for a national plenary meeting of trade union delegates to discuss the issue of workers' control and factory occupations and for such a meeting to call for a national day of action of factory occupations.
The proof that only such a policy could really unite the Venezuelan working class and the UNT came during the national demonstration in support of the nationalisation of CANTV (telecommunications company) and EDC (electricity company) decreed by Chavez. The march took place on February 8th, with the participation of more than 8,000 workers from all over the country. Support for the nationalisations Chavez had decreed in January was mixed with the demands for the nationalisation of Sidor and Sanitarios Maracay. All wings of the UNT were forced to participate in this march because of pressure from below and though they attempted to keep their forces divided by calling their own rallying points in different places of the same avenue, finally the march united in a common stream. (http://www.marxist.com/struggle-sanitarios-maracay-venezuela130207.htm)
No wing of the UNT leadership replied to the appeal by Freteco for a national day of action on factory occupations. Such a policy would have allowed the left wing of the UNT to expose the leaders of the more right wing fractions if they had not agreed to it. Unfortunately, sectarianism prevailed.
The months went by and the workers of Sanitarios Maracay were offered no solution and their strength and resolve were being undermined.
Sabotage of bureaucracy
Even when hopes were raised in May, as the National Assembly asked for the factory to be declared "of public interest", usually the first step to nationalisation (http://www.marxist.com/nat-assembly-expropriation-sanitarios.htm), their hopes were quickly dashed as the new Minister of Peoples' Power for Labour and Social Security, Ramon Rivero, said publicly that Sanitarios was not of public interest. How could he say that when a few months later, the now inaugurated Petrocasa signed a contract for their bathrooms to be made by rival company Venceramica (owned by a Chilean multinational), also based in Maracay!
The same kind of sabotage on the part of the state bureaucracy was uncovered more or less at the same time in relation to Inveval. At a ministerial meeting with directors of public sector companies to discuss the new idea of setting up socialist companies, president Chávez asked Jorge Paredes, a member of the democratically elected workers' council at Inveval, if it was true that Inveval was not producing valves. Jorge Paredes replied that this was a straight lie, that they had valves ready to supply state-owned oil company PDVSA through Veneval (the part of PDVSA dealing with valve supply). A campaign of slanders and lies against workers' control at Inveval is clearly going on. Even after an agreement had been reached with Veneval, then Inveval was asked to supply a particular size of valves that they knew Inveval was not able to make. (see these reports: http://venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=2106 and http://www.marxist.com/historic-freteco-meeting-factories060707.htm) .
The workers were also met by repression on the part of the regional governor, Didalco Boliva, a member of PODEMOS, one of the parties of president Chavez's government coalition which has refused to go into the new United Socialist Party (PSUV). When a delegation of Sanitarios Maracay workers was on its way to Caracas to participate in a demonstration called by Freteco, they were met with tear gas and bullets from the regional police and the National Guard. This highlights the fact that the state apparatus in Venezuela is still a bourgeois state apparatus and that unless it is destroyed an replaced by new revolutionary institutions based on workers councils and community councils, the revolution will always be in danger. (see http://www.marxist.com/repression-sanitarios-maracay-workers240407.htm and http://www.marxist.com/meaning-attack-sanitarios-maracay270407.htm)
The workers, after months of receiving barely 100,000 Bs and a box of food went to receiving only 10,000 Bs and a box of food. Production had gone down due to their difficulties in procuring raw materials and supplies, many of which have to be imported, and above all finance for these, and the lack of a secure market where to sell their products. This underlines the problem that you cannot have islands of socialism within a sea of capitalism. Either workers' control is a step towards the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy to incorporate them into a democratic plan of production, or it will be inevitably defeated.
The workers have done what was really impossible in this struggle. They have shown that they can run the factory without need for bosses. All those who visited the factory while it was running under workers control are a testimony to the impact that workers' power had on the lives and minds of these workers. But such a struggle, if it remains isolated and with no clear perspective of advance, cannot be sustained forever.
It was at this time that the empleados, backed by the ministry of labour and the former owned, and helped by a traitor, Humberto Lopez former general secretary of the union, who had abandoned the struggle a few months earlier, chose to strike back. Overpowering the workers when they were receiving their food parcels, they held a mockery of an assembly in which, without allowing any of the members of the union executive or the factory council the right to speak, they removed the union leadership and the factory council and decided to accept a proposal for ending the occupation under workers' control in exchange for a dim promise of compensation and back wages payments from the former owner Pocaterra. Even this promise is not likely to materialise.
The main responsibility for this state of affairs lies squarely at the feet of the Minister of Peoples' Power for Labour, Ramon Rivero, who blocked the possibility of expropriating the factory.
But without any doubt the role played by the different wings of the UNT leadership was also extremely negative.
All lessons must be learnt from the courageous struggle of Sanitarios Maracay. The revolutionary situation that Venezuela lives means that this will not be a lasting defeat, more probably a temporary set back. Either in Sanitarios Maracay or in another factory, the struggle for workers' control as a component part of the struggle for socialism will emerge again.