On Tuesday morning, around 70 workers from a toilet factory in the state of Aragua, Sanitarios Maracay, loaded up into three buses to participate in a small mobilization in Caracas supporting worker occupied factories. Two buses had already taken off to make the
2-hour trip when the police detained the third bus (with several union leaders) before it entered the highway. Under orders of the Governor, the police informed the workers that they needed special permission to head to Caracas to deliver documents to the Capital, and could not even head there for a friendly visit. Refusing to roll over and accept this blatant violation of their rights and the precedent it might set, they began to protest in the streets and called for back up. The other buses returned and the workers who had remained at Sanitarios showed up with materials from the factory. The situation escalated and the workers decided to climb the entrance to the interstate leading to Caracas and shut it down.
While the around 40 police officers and National Guard tried to suppress the demonstration with guns and gas canisters, the workers fought back with rocks, porcelain shards, and the aluminum balls used to refine the raw material for the paste. It is important to note that Sanitarios Maracay's workforce is disproportionately older, due to prejudicial labor practices that make it difficult for senior workers to seek new jobs. The police were beating grandfathers with the butts of their pistols while the old men defended their rights to protest for the right to work.
The disturbance moved to the Avenida Aragua, a busy, 4-lane street that passes the front of the factory. To guard their territory, the workers launched the imperfect merchandise onto Avenida Aragua, broken glass everywhere preventing the entrance of motorized police and effectively shutting down two lanes.
At the end of the day, the police and guard officers had managed to corral 21 of the demonstrating workers and hauled them to jail, including Jose Villegas, a well-respected leader of the workers' union. It was reported that 14 people sustained injuries, of which six (I believe) were hospitalized. In the fray, one journalist without identification was hassled by the authorities and sustained injuries as well.
After the dust had settled, there was a meeting with the regional leaders of the UNT and local allies to plan the response. May Day should be very interesting, as socialist labor now has an important issue around which to unify. There had been talk for a while about a one-day regional strike, which was later tabled for fear of exacerbating certain issues championed by the opposition. Plans for the strike are back on table. Aragua will be shut down.
That night, so much commotion threw off the daily routine that had been established. The electricity went in and out in their zone (some say on purpose by the governor), which is a dangerous situation in the factory because it can cause damage to the massive kiln that fires the toilets. It is the most expensive, important machine in the factory. Without 24-hour supervision, it could fail and destroy the pieces, or just breakdown. This kiln is their livelihood, and was put at risk in the aftermath of the fight.
Wednesday morning, the workers of Sanitarios Maracay marched, many of them limping and most aching, from the factory to the justice department demanding the release of their 21 fellow workers. Taking the streets, they walked chanting, "LIBERTY FOR THE WORKERS/PRISON FOR THE BOSS", informing the community about their struggle with the bullhorn.
After threatening to protest as long as it would take, negotiations between the justice department and the leadership of Sanitarios and the UNT of Aragua, and international pressure, the prisoners were released Wednesday afternoon.
It is not that clear what precipitated the decision to repress their movement suddenly this week, as the workers in the past had organized or participated in several marches in Caracas, Tuesday's being of lesser significance. The governor's office, at one point, had offered aid (political strings attached, of course) to Sanitarios in the form of a loan representing one-month's pay. The workers demand justice for the unsolicited abuse Tuesday ordered by the governor of Aragua, Didalco Bolivar, who as of a few weeks ago had a public falling out with President Chavez.
The struggle for recognition of workers' control in the factory continues...