The Debate About Factory Takeovers
Representatives from 21 trade unions and 235 worker-occupied factories gathered in Venezuela at the end of October to share experiences and strategize about how to advance factory takeovers across the region.
The Venezuelan government hosted the First Meeting of Latin American Worker-Occupied Factories, signaling the willingness of the President Hugo Chávez to support Venezuelan workers who have taken over idle factories and are running them collectively.
Chávez compared the Latin American workers’ movement to the fight for independence from Spain, because, he says, workers’ struggles are part of a new movement for economic independence from the U.S. He proposed the creation of an international organization for worker-occupied factories, to enable activists across Latin America to collaborate around “concrete strategies and tactics.”
Most recently, Venezuelan workers took over Central Cumanacoa, a sugar-processing plant, and a series of metal-processing plants owned by Sideroca. While workers have been running the factories since September, Chávez only officially confirmed their appropriation at the gathering. “We made this decree, but the workers have taken these companies with their own hands,” he said.
The Venezuelan government is currently investigating over 700 closed enterprises, evaluating them for their suitability for worker takeovers via government expropriation. Chávez urged workers to consider their project as part of a larger one to improve the lives of all Venezuelans. “We haven't expropriated Cumanacoa and Sideroca for their workers just to help them become rich people the day after tomorrow,” he said. “This has not been done just for them -- it is to help make everyone wealthy.”
While Chavez said that Venezuela is approaching a “post-capitalist society,” he urged people to be patient. “We cannot speed up,” he said. “We cannot drive ourselves crazy. We must be conscious that this is a process with a far-off deadline. This has always been the case.”
Yet there are many in the workers’ movement who oppose this gradualist approach, and in many cases, workers are not waiting for the government to confirm expropriation before occupying and running idle factories.
At the National Gathering of Workers Toward the Recovery of Companies, a meeting of representatives of Venezuela’s workers movement in preparation for the Latin American workers’ gathering, attendees shared experiences that demonstrated the importance of initiative from below.
Luis Primo, from the Caracas-Miranda National Union of Workers (UNT) and a member of the Revolutionary Marxist Current, argued that the workers could only rely on their own strength and their own struggle. He concluded by quoting Karl Marx: “The emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself.” Primo proposed that the UNT set up teams around the country to organize the occupation and recovery of idle factories.
Representatives included workers from the paper mill Invepal (formerly Venepal), the first Venezuelan worker-occupied factory, expropriated last September -- and Inveval (formerly CNV), the valve-making factory expropriated earlier this spring. In both cases, workers’ actions and demands pushed the government to officially expropriate the plants.
Debates also surfaced about whether cogestión (co-management) should be replaced with self-management, and about whether cogestión is appropriate in “strategic industries,” such as the state-owned oil company PDVSA. Under cogestión, state-owned enterprises are run by elected representatives of workers, alongside government appointees.
Some argue that the oil industry is too critical to the success of Venezuela’s national project to risk workers’ participation in decision-making. But as one speaker asked, “If industries like oil production and electricity generation and distribution are to be excluded from co-management, what is that saying to the workers in those industries? That we don't want them to develop their potential through the process of decision-making? That we don't trust workers to be able to make decisions in the interests of society? What kind of vision for socialism of the 21st century is this?”
Eduardo Murua, president of the Argentinean Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER) attended the late October gathering to share lessons from the victories of Argentinean workers’ takeover. Rather than waiting for government approval, he said that when a factory is closed down by the employers, “the workers should occupy it, try to start production and discuss the legal aspects later.”
With protests against George Bush rocking the Summit of the Americas in Argentina a week later, it was clear that workers and the poor of Latin America have had enough of neoliberalism.
The struggles in Latin America are not only rejecting the free-market policies of Washington and the international financial organizations, but offering a way forward for the left. Factory occupations and the debates over cogestión point to the kinds of struggles it will take to defeat neoliberalism and the capitalist system itself -- workers taking matters into their own hands.
Sarah Hines writes for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.
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