Venezuela: Worker control vs. Trump's blockade
Chicago, IL – Venezuela is a country where the dreams of the conscious workers of the world are being made real. It is a nation of 30 million people where, every day, the working class is becoming more conscious of its historic role in building socialism and taking steps to achieve it in the not so distant future. And in the face of an imperialist offensive that threatens them with starvation, where the threat of military invasion hangs over their heads like a storm cloud, they continue their struggle undeterred.
This past week, at the National Gathering of the Productive Worker Councils (CPTs), this stage of the struggle was made apparent. Formed by workers to directly control production at their workplaces, the CPTs are revolutionary formations. Today, over 1100 companies are run by worker councils, in every state and every sector of the economy. Addressing the assembled delegates, President Nicolás Maduro placed the councils in their proper context, referring to them as “the principal instrument of the nation and the working class in building our Bolivarian socialism.”
It is stunning to me as a worker in the United States that, in a country not too far from us, a process is underway where millions of my class companions are taking control over their own lives and leading the way for their country out of the crisis in which they are now engulfed. The Venezuelan working class did not spontaneously arrive at this point. The CPTs are simply the latest development in the class struggle of Venezuela, a daily battle which of late has remained tilted in favor of the working class.
Venezuela's labor laws and worker power
For decades, Venezuelan workers were hemmed in by a legal labor code not unlike what we have in the United States. Aptly named “the system of labor control” by labor theorist Joe Burns, these laws are written to confine the workers' struggle into narrow legal avenues. They have one explicit purpose – the preservation of capitalist control over the means of production. Then Hugo Chávez was elected, and the rapid expansion of democratic and social rights breathed life into a labor movement that had suffered decades of defeats. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Venezuela's trade unions broke out of their legal chains by launching a nationwide strike offensive, winning the support of Chávez and the country's revolutionary parties in the process. In this struggle they not only made the existing labor law irrelevant, they brought into question the very idea that the capitalists are the ones who have to hold economic power in the country.
To recognize this new reality, the National Assembly in 2012 passed the Law of Labor and Workers (LOTTT). A culmination of labor's victories in the past period, the law was written by trade unionists and worker intellectuals from the Bolivarian University of Workers. The heart of the LOTTT is the recognition of the “social process of labor” – the Marxist concept that human labor is a social effort, and therefore so too must be accumulation of the wealth it produces.
The LOTTT declares the alienation of labor to be over, opening the door for new productive relations. It not only enshrines rights common in the capitalist world – like the rights to collective bargaining and to strike, access to social security and the 40-hour work week – but it also guarantees rights that cannot exist under conditions of capitalism. Workers now have the right to take over companies and run them directly, either on their own or jointly with the state. If a privately-owned business is shuttered because the owner wants to make profits elsewhere, the workers have the right to take it over – “recover” it in the law's words – and reopen the workplace under their control.
The law transforms the role of trade unions as well. They have the unimaginable right of “exercising control and vigilance over production costs and profits” in their industries, to ensure that “the process of produced goods and services will be just for the people.” By taking away from the bosses the right to determine how much they receive in profit, the LOTTT hands over to labor the one of the greatest advantages it can have in the battle for economic power. The law also tasks trade unions with “the collective, integrated, continuous and permanent” political education of their members, transforming them from being simply the representatives of workers at the bargaining table into the “schools of socialism” that Marx dreamed of over 100 years ago.
Finally, the LOTTT redefines the role of the Labor Ministry. No longer can it act as an “impartial arbitrator” in the disputes between capital and labor, a role that more often than not favored the bosses. By being tasked with enforcing the new law, the ministry became a partisan institution firmly on the side of the working class. It is no wonder then, that at the top of the U.S.-backed opposition's agenda, is the repeal of the LOTTT.
The CPTs: The working-class offensive in the economic war
Six years after the law's passage, the Venezuelan reality had once again changed dramatically. While roughly a third of the economy was now “social property” – belonging to the state, to the workers or to communes – the economy as a whole remains capitalist, and the capitalist class could no longer tolerate the existential threat to their existence that the Bolivarian Revolution represented. After Maduro was elected President in 2013, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its imperialist allies launched a brutal economic war, exploiting the weaknesses built into the capitalist economy to punish the Venezuelan people for their revolutionary process. In this war, the working class emerged as the nation's heroes. In workplaces around the country, they directly confronted owners for the hoarding of goods, for rampant price speculation and industrial sabotage.
In hundreds of cases of capital flight – when foreign and domestic capitalists suddenly close down their businesses to take their profits elsewhere – the workers simply broke the padlocks on the plant gates and restarted production under their control. The capitalists had abandoned the people to suffer; the workers stepped into the void to save them. Indeed, by launching their war the capitalists revealed to the Venezuelan people two facts about them – that they had no loyalty to their nation and would sell it to imperialism for a dime; and that they had no interest in producing to improve society, the just produced to line their own pockets. Maduro and the United Socialist Party (PSUV) put forward socialism as the alternative to this decrepit reality and declared “productive socialism” to be the goal of their current struggle. Capitalism was actively failing the Venezuelan people – only socialism can meet their needs and create a better future.
Reflecting this, the Constituent National Assembly passed the Law of Productive Worker Councils in February 2018. To the workers that had recovered their workplaces and were now running them directly, the law called them to two main tasks: improve production in order to meet the needs of the people, and install a “socialist management model” that can be applied across the entire economy. Within a year, over a thousand CPTs were established, primarily in the private sector. In factories that used to belong to multinational firms like Ford and Goodyear, workers are now producing to pull their nation out of the crisis created by imperialism.
Workers dream of the future, and plan to bring it into existence
At their national gathering, the CPT delegates displayed the enthusiastic revolutionary energy of their class. They shared their experiences in the past year of running their own workplaces, what had worked and had not, and through this collective summation they came to a series of conclusions:
The working class must be the vanguard of the Bolivarian Economic Agenda, the government's plan to defeat the U.S. blockade by developing production in 16 key sectors (the so-called “motors” of the Venezuelan economy). For productive socialism to be established, the working class must lead the process – this has been proved through practice by the CPTs.
The CPTs had been very successful at establishing a “socialist management model” on a micro level – for example, at one of the oil refineries owned by PDVSA. However, there had not been enough success in the food production sector. The CPTs and the trade unions will redouble their efforts to establish food sovereignty, under worker control, in Venezuela.
The CPTs will join the trade unions in their efforts to establish worker militias in every workplace in the country, to train their class in the defense of their homeland from imperialist invasion.
There has to be a drastic expansion of the CPTs across the economy. The delegates established a goal of 2,000 councils by the end of 2019 and 8,000 by the end of 2020, concentrated in the 16 “motors” established by the government.
A national leadership body will be established, to centralize the efforts of the CPTs around the country and coordinate their expansion into new workplaces.
On the final day of the National Gathering, the delegates brought these proposals and more to President Maduro, who united with them and declared that the workers had the full support of his government to achieve their vision.
With the working class at the helm, Venezuela has a future that many of us can only dream of. They are becoming more bold, more confident in their abilities, and therefore more capable of leading the necessary process of building socialism. They do this in the face of a U.S.-imposed blockade that intends to lead to the collapse of their society. Yet the workers of Venezuela are unfazed – they have their historic mission, and they are going to accomplish it regardless of the enemies in their path.
Migdelys Campos, representing a worker council that now runs a pharmaceutical plant, spoke on the brutality of this blockade. She boldly called out the truth that its imposition reveals: “the despair of a decadent empire that has not nor will ever break the people of Bolívar and Chávez.” U.S. monopoly capitalists are terrified of what Venezuela's workers represent. All the more reason for us to learn from them and join them in the struggle to determine our own future.