The decree of expropriation of Venepal in January this year was a major turning point in the Venezuelan revolution. When Chavez announced the decree, in the Ayacucho room of the presidential palace, the same place where the coup organisers swore in their “president” Pedro Carmona on April 12th, 2002, he made an appeal to "workers' leaders to follow this path". He added, “any factories closed or abandoned, we are going to take them over. All of them.”
CNV workers in struggle, August 2003
Photo : Frédéric Lévêque
The decision to nationalise Venepal and put it under the administration of the workers, and the very high profile way in which the decision was taken, was bound to have an impact amongst other groups of workers in the same situation. As part of the relentless campaign of the Venezuelan capitalists against the Chavez government they became engaged in a campaign of economic sabotage. This campaign reached its peak during the bosses’ lockout in December 2002 and January 2003. Some factories were closed for up to two months. After the failure of the lockout, soundly defeated by the action of the workers and the massive Bolivarian demonstration on January 23, the bosses tried to make the workers pay the price for the lockout, by not paying their wages, delaying their payment, etc. Some factories were declared bankrupt. In some cases the bankruptcy was genuine (the companies having been ruined by the reckless two month long lockout), in some other cases it was a tool of the economic sabotage against the government.
This created a situation in the spring and summer of 2003 of heightened class struggle. In many factories workers organised democratic unions and fought for recognition. The bosses replied with repression, making union organisers redundant, etc. In a number of cases the bosses just declared bankruptcy and abandoned the premises, forcing the workers to occupy them and take them over in order to demand payment of their wages and to defend their jobs and livelihoods. Venepal was the highest profile case, where the workers were better organised. They occupied the factory in July 2003 and ran Venepal under workers’ control for 77 days. After an uneasy truce, the bosses abandoned production again in September 2004. The workers occupied again and after more than 4 months of struggle Chavez decreed the expropriation of Venepal under joint management of the workers' and the state (in which the workers' have a majority of representatives in the company's board).
But at the time of the occupation of Venepal in the summer of 2003 there were a number of other factories that were also occupied: Industrial de Perfumes, a perfume making company in Caracas; the textile plant Fenix in Guarico; and the Constructora Nacional de Valvulas in Los Teques, Miranda, a factory that used to produce valves for the state owned oil company PDVSA. There were other similar conflicts at the time, but the workers in these three, together with the Venepal workers, achieved a degree of unity. There were joint meetings and declarations, and two joint demonstrations in Caracas in October 1. Unfortunately, by the time a certain amount of coordination between these different struggles was reached, the conflict in Venepal, which had the largest number of workers, had already been settled. The movement, in some cases after 4 months of occupation, progressively fizzled out. Tiredness, the need to look for other sources of income, the lack of a clear perspective of a way out of the struggle – with all these factors combined, the number of workers effectively occupying these factories declined, and the struggle basically died out. The leadership of the newly created UNT trade union confederation never put forward a clear plan of struggle. Though solidarity was forthcoming from other unions to the strike fund, there was never a well-organised national campaign in support of the occupied factories.
The nationalisation of Venepal in January this year had the effect of reviving some of these struggles. The first group of workers to re-occupy their factories again was at the CNV in the working class city of Los Teques, in the state of Miranda, right next to Caracas. On February 17, a group of 63 CNV workers decided to take over the installation, and unlike in 2003, when they just set up a picket line outside the installation, this time they occupied the premises (against the advice of a representative of the Ministry of Labour present).
The Constructora Nacional de Valvulas has been producing high-pressure valves for the state owned oil company PDVSA for more than 30 years. The CNV had a monopoly in the sector and was selling overpriced valves to PDVSA, sometimes in unnecessary amounts. This was possible because of the close relationship between the owner of the CNV, Andres Sosa Pietri and the managers and directors in PDVSA. In fact the relationship was so close (and corrupt) that Sosa Pietri himself in the 1990s became a director of PDVSA. From his position he was awarding his company PDVSA exclusive contracts for the making and maintenance of the industry's high pressure valves.
Photo : Frédéric Lévêque
Sosa Pietri belongs to one of the traditional families of the Venezuelan oligarchy, popularly known as "Los Amos del Valle" ("The Owners of the Valley"). His policy advice for the oil industry was clear. He advocated PDVSA to become a private company, to adopt a "market friendly strategy, withdraw from OPEC, and ally ourselves with our main commercial partners [i.e. the oil multinationals]". It is therefore no surprise that he actively campaigned against the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, because one of his main promises was to maintain the state owned character of the oil industry and to pursue a policy of strengthening of OPEC in order to achieve higher oil prices. At the head of his own right wing Liberal Party he joined the Democratic Coordinator, the umbrella group of the Venezuelan opposition which went on to organise the coup against Chavez in April 2002, which he wholeheartedly supported.
After the defeat of the coup, he formed yet another political party, called Alliance for Freedom. On December 9th, 2002, as part of the bosses’ lockout to overthrow Chavez, he closed down the installations of the CNV, leaving more than 100 working class families without any income. After the failure of the bosses’ lockout he refused to pay wages to the workers. After months of struggle and negotiations, in May 2003 a group of workers decided to occupy the entrance to the factory in order to prevent any finished products or machinery from being taken out of the premises. Sosa Pietri went to the tribunals which ruled in his favour. In August 2003 there was an attempt to remove the workers, but thanks to the solidarity of the labour movement and community organisations from the town this was prevented.
The workers have now set up a solidarity committee, and a meeting took place in Los Teques in order to organise solidarity with the struggle. The CNV workers are pointing out that CNV has a strategic importance from the point of view of the oil industry and that therefore it should be expropriated and put under workers' control and management, so that it can produce valves for PDVSA. The case is clear, the owner of the factory is a participant in the coup in 2002, he closed down the factory during the bosses lockout and has consistently refused to pay the workers the wages they are owed. As with many other workers' struggles taking place in Venezuela today, this is not only a matter of a fight between the workers and the bosses, but it has also a clear political character, of a struggle between the Bolivarian Revolution and the oligarchy, the owners of industry, the land and the banks, that use all possible means at their disposal to sabotage it.
Following the example of Venepal, the CNV should be expropriated under workers' control and management. This is the way forward towards the socialism of the 21st century of which Chavez has been talking about.
We appeal to the trade union movement of the world and all those who support the Bolivarian revolution to show their solidarity with the workers of the CNV (in struggle for nearly 2 years now), and to ask the Venezuelan authorities to act decisively to fulfil the just demands of the workers.
If you can make a financial donation to the strike fund, please send it to the following account 0039-01-0100309746 Banco Industrial de Venezuela under the name of Jorge Paredes y Rosalio Castro for the Resistance Fund, or contact the Hands Off Venezuela campaign for more details.