'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Venezuelan Series (Part 4): Co-management Reveals Fissures in the Bolivarian Revolution 

[This is a series based upon my participation in a Global Exchange sponsored tour of Venezuela. Each post is a stand alone commentary, and Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 address related aspects of my experience there. Comments can be e-mailed to me at restes60@earthlink.net.]

What is the proper, most beneficial, relationship between labor, capital and the community? It is a vexing question, especially if one eschews the simplicity of neoliberal orthodoxy: the frenetic, unregulated reverberation of global investment necessarily produces the best possible outcomes under the circumstances.

Is there an alternative Bolivarian answer to it? Chavez habitually expresses his contempt for neoliberalism in just about every public forum. Even so, rhetoric is not be a substitute for a program, no matter how skillfully packaged as rebellion. As noted in Part 3, Chavez intends to industrialize Venezuela through state controlled enterprises. In the two weeks since Part 3 was posted, Chavez has asserted state control over the mineral sector, and announced plans for the formation of a state owned steel company to compete with the privatized SIDOR. With US troops incapable of escaping the Iraqi mousetrap, and preoccupied with the prospect of a nuclear Iran, Chavez hardly lets a day go by without some new initiative.

Even so, the Bolivarian Revolution aspires to inscribe itself into the historical record as somthing more than a flawlessly executed economic development program. One does not find murals of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew adorning the walls of Caracas, even though it is probable that Chavez would, on balance, comment quite favorably upon Yew's achievements if asked, emphasizing his participation in the struggle against colonialism and his insistence upon a prominent governmental role in the allocation of resources. Chavez must further redefine the relationship between labor, capital and community to fulfill the revolutionary expectations created by his rhetoric. At present, he tentatively seeks to do so through an initiative to empower workers in the conduct of their businesses, an initiative described as cogestion, or co-management.

Cogestion: What Is It?

Currently, cogestion is an evolving concept, as Chavez has yet to seek legislation to provide for its implementation throughout the country, rendering it highly susceptible to people projecting their own societal visions upon it. According to BBC reporter Iain Bruce, it is only being attempted within some publicly owned companies, primarily within the aluminum industry, and a couple of bankrupt ones. Elie Sayago, an environmental specialist at CVG Alcasa, the state controlled aluminum company in Puerto Ordaz that produces primarily for the domestic market, defined cogestion as a radical break with the traditional hierarchical methods of management. Workers participate in the fundamental decisions of the company, such as the methods of production, the election of managers, including the director, and the preparation of the budget. Both myself and Bruce, who must have visited the facility shortly after I left the region, had similar conversations with line workers, workers who expressed improved morale and enhanced productivity as a result of their direct involvement in the management of the company. Carlos Lanz, the recently appointed president of CVG Alcasa, told Bruce, "This is about workers controlling the factory and that is why it is a step towards socialism of the twenty-first century."

Conversely, the situation at CVG Venalum, the state controlled aluminum company in Puerto Ordaz that produces primarily for export, was a little different. Jose Seguea, the president of the company, said, in a remark certain to terrify business organizations like the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and Fedecameras, that cogestion was for the private sector, not the public one. Admittedly, there could have been some difficulties with translation, because it is possible that he understood cogestion to be a term of art that described the expansion of public sector management practices to the private sector, but this was not my impression. Furthermore, during the course of a discussion with three prominent labor leaders at CVG Venalum, Estilito Garcia, Fernando Serrano and Dennys Lara, cogestion did not emerge as a major theme, except to the extent that they emphasized the involvement of worker representatives on committees responsible for health and environmental safety. CVG Venalum has an atmosphere of cool professionalism that provides a subtle contrast to the more improvisational one at CVG Alcasa.

Meanwhile, in Caracas, Franklin Rondon, the president of FENTRASEP, the national federation of public sector workers, understands cogestion differently than either Sayago or Seguea. Describing it primarily as a means of improving Venezuela's economic performance, he said that cogestion involves consultation with workers to develop strategies of competitiveness and quality. He maintained that it originated in Germany, and characterized it as a shared responsibility between business owners and workers for the creation of management proposals through conferences and forums. If so, Rondon and Albis Munoz of Fedecameras, the business association, may not be too far apart, as Munoz told Bruce that she doesn't have a problem with the kind of co-management developed by the Christian Democrats in Germany, purportedly, in the words of Bruce, "a freely negotiated, strategic alliance between employees, employers and consumers". For me, such comments evoke the type of allegedly pro-management relationship that some American union leaders, like Andrew Stern of the Service Employees' International Union, present as an ideal.

Cogestion: Can the Interests of the State, the Workers and the Community Be Reconciled?

As my encounters demonstrate, cogestion is a preliminary work in progress, with much uncertainty about its scope and implementation. Even so, there is a thread that runs through these alternative visions: Cogestion is a process designed to empower interests marginalized through neoliberalism: the nation state, workers and local communities. It appears evident, Sequea's remark aside, that cogestion will be initially implemented in the state sector and abandoned private facilities. According to Sayago, the concept of cogestion has been driven more by the government than by trade unions, which is consistent with their past collaboration with the political parties of the pre-Chavez era in facilitating privatization.

Embarking upon such an enterprise results, however, in the emergence of contentious issues that go to the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution. As David Hernandez, steelworker, sociologist and activist, told me, CVG, a complex of state-owned mining and metal production and processing facilities in Bolivar state that includes CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum, is considered an essential resource base of the revolution. He explained that there are four lines of thought about how to exploit it, although, as a cautionary note, one should be wary about seeing them as separate and distinct.

First, there is what Hernandez described as anarchismo, permitting the workers to own the company and control it. While superficially alluring, the social realities of Venezuela render this approach controversial. Historically, there has been pervasive corruption within Venezuelan unions. Many of the people that I met in Ciudad Guyana spent their lives working inside the steel and aluminum plants to reform them. Furthermore, the workers, having escaped the ruthlessness of the informal sector, have some of the best paying jobs in Venezuela. It is feared that this approach would relinquish assets, developed with the assistance of the state, to a privileged, sometimes corrupt, proletarian elite. CVG Alcasa leans in this direction, with workers selecting managements and developing budgets, but it cannot be truly said that they own it.

Second, there is statione, a system whereby the state runs the company in consultation with workers and management. Hernandez called it "the Cuban model". CVG Venalum, with its majority state interest, professional management style and plant committees, could be construed as an example of this method. Leftist labor unions do not appear to be very supportive. About two weeks ago, they made the following ascerbic comment within a statement issued after meeting in Caracas: "We reject the reactionary elements of the parasitical techno-bureaucracy in the government that have erected obstacles in the processes of co-management in the Basic Industries in Guayana, PDVSA [oil company] and CADAFE [electricity company]."

Third, there is the an alternative known as the cooperative association of workers, which Hernandez described as aecimista, a form of organization for participation in a capitalist system. Clearly, this is unacceptable to the industrialized workers in these industries, raising an obvious question: why shouldn't it be adopted, because, after all, the government promotes cooperatives all over the country for campesinos and participants in the informal sector. There is no obvious answer, except for the primary economic and political position of these workers historically within many variants of Marxism. In any event, the global economy will inevitably impose some market discipline on the workers, regardless of their domestic relationship with their industries.

Finally, there is the policy purportedly preferred by the government, running production for the benefit of the workers, the community and, ultimately, the state. It has the advantage about being suitably vague about whether anarchismo or statione will be selected as the preferred mode of internal operation, while requiring the workers to acknowledge their privileged position and share the earnings of their companies with the surrounding community. It is hard to know how quickly this will happen, with CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum fitfully moving in this direction. Sayago admitted that there was a need to make workers conscious of their elite status. Hernandez observed that trade unions fear losing power during this process. For example, there was a controversy about whether union membership was necessary to serve on plant committees. Militants, focusing more on class identity rather than union membership, opposed such a requirement.

Similarly, Puerto Ordaz, San Felix and Genares, where many of the workers and management of CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum live, have minimal, poor quality public services (no public transit and intermittent electricity in a region known for its generation of hydroelectric power, for example). CVG administered some services until it divested itself of them to the local governments in the 1980s. Neither CVG Alcasa nor CVG Venalum volunteered any willingness to participate in the enhancement and expansion of them, although, to be fair, one could plausibly assert that, with regard to electricity, this is the responsibility of CADAFE.

Of course, such a discussion runs beyond some obvious questions: Who speaks for the community? Cooperatives? Government officials? CVG managers? CVG workers? The numerous participants in the informal sector? All of them? Answers will significantly influence the ultimate form of cogestion, a subject that remains extremely controversial, engendering opaque comments like this one in the recent leftist labor union statement:

The workers and the union at CADAFE have been fighting for some time for real workers' control in the company as against the proposal of sections of the management that want to give only token representation to the workers. High functionaries in the government have recently expressed opposition to implementing co-management in the strategic industries such as the basic industries, oil and electricity. The workers reply that they themselves are the best guarantee for the normal running of these industries since they recovered them against the sabotage of the reactionary managers during the sabotage of the economy in December 2002-January 2003.

Hernandez humorously navigates the political cross currents of the dispute more succinctly: "I just say, I'm for the strong defense of the working class."

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