Megan Hise reports from Maracay on the latest attempt to destroy the struggle of the workers at Sanitarios Maracay for expropriation under workers' control.
Last November the 800 workers of Sanitarios Maracay, Aragua, Venezuela received notice from their employer, Pocaterra, that their services were no longer required, announcing that the shut down of the plant until further notice. This followed a previous attempt earlier last year when the workers were compelled to occupy the installations for 42 days before reaching a settlement, to which he later refused to comply.
This tactic was part of a transparent union-busting campaign to destroy the organization of the workers who had successfully managed to remove the company boys and elect militant rank-n-filers who meant to enforce their collective bargaining agreement and fight for their rights. Refusing to bargain in good faith to resolve the labor disputes in the plant, Pocaterra threatened to abandon ship, negating the back-wages, damages, and benefits owed to the 800 families who depended on these jobs.
Any hope of recovering damaging from the boss depended on maintaining the assets of the plant. If, for instance, the porcelain paste were left to dry in the tubing and machinery, recovery would have been extremely costly, if possible. If one of the massive industrial kilns would fail, the plant would lose production capacity. Therefore, the workers assembled and voted to occupy the factory once again. In mid November, rather than enjoy the Christmas holidays with their end-of-year earnings, the workers instead had to get organized for a fight. They began selling inventory. They marched. They reached out to the community. This time the occupation was more than vigilance. This time the factory became theirs and they started producing.
They established a factory council, a democratic articulation of the workers to administer on a day-to-day basis the operations and assets of the plant. Under worker control, the factory faced serious obstacles. The bad debts of the boss risked the utilities like electricity and gas. Raw material ran low and without serious credit, capital, and legal legitimacy, it proved difficult to purchase.
Through all this, the project moved forward. They demanded nationalization, which seemed to be the surest way to guarantee the benefits never paid by the boss. In view of the government's plans to mitigate the housing crisis converting "ranchos por viviendas," it could be a perfect fit. Every proper house constructed by the government would need a toilet and sink. They sold their products to the community at fair prices. Each week those who worked their 4-hour shift receive a bag of food staples and a distribution of the cash available for payroll. By pooling their resources, they were able to purchase the blend used to make the toilets.
By April, the workers were earning a little over minimum wage. As active union members, their labor federation, the UNT of Aragua, stepped up to the plate, organizing resources and mobilizing the membership to keep the struggle going. Retired brothers came to the plant to work shifts free in solidarity with their brothers and sisters. Governor Didalco Bolivar arranged a contribution of about one-month's pay in a moment of political compassion or stress before later turning his back. A high profile march for nationalization of the strategic industries like electricity and landline phone service in February also highlighted the campaign in Sanitarios Maracay.
As time has worn on, here in San Miguel, patience has been tried, hope has faded, energy drained, and workers repressed. In late April, just starting the journey to Caracas to join representatives from other worker occupied and nationalized companies, the police detained a busload of workers for not having the permission of the governor to march to Mira Flores.
The workers stood their ground, demanding their constitutional rights to do business in the Capital. The situation escalated and the workers found it necessary to take the highway, the lifeline between Valencia and Caracas. The confrontation resulted in around 21 arrests and 14 injuries at the hands of the police and National Guard. The very same governor who had lent a financial hand to the plant gave the order to detain the workers, making him a very popular target.
This abuse became the rallying cry for the Mayday march followed by a regional, one-day strike, shutting down interstate commerce in Aragua. In recent months, the decisions have become more difficult.
Choosing between raw material and wages is a catch 22, and unfortunately the reality of their economic situation.
That said, the campaign has certainly matured. Last week, two community forums were held, one in the plant and another in nearby Valencia. On the table was a proposal to produce 6,000 toilets for new housing projects organized by the Conejos Comunales of Carabobo.
Moreover, the comrades of Sanitarios were organizing the distribution piece with another worker-managed transportation company in the area in a similarly precarious legal situation. This is what a solidarity economy looks like.
The state's lack of concern for the future of these 800 families has not gone unnoticed. While the worker-run Sanitarios Maracay struggles for resources and clients, PDVSA's housing project, Petro Casa, recently granted a contract for 36,000 toilets to Venceramica, the rival company located just down the street.
This contract could have fed these abandoned workers for months and breathed new life into the plant as the pursuit of a permanent solution continued. One of the convenient excuses stalling resolution has been the apparent disunity in the work force. The "empleados" (office workers, engineers and supervisors) and a small group of laborers who never supported the occupation and, in fact, organized against it, protested for their back-wages and benefits from their coworkers as if they held the purse strings of the plant.
This division came to a head last week when it was leaked that the former secretary general of the union had sold out and was now working with this opposition group. Humberto Lopez had been absent for months, ostensibly for health reasons, gradually distancing himself from the other leaders of Sanitarios. All suspicions were confirmed on Friday when he arrived at the plant with a sizeable group (some count 150) of the "empleados," including old, abusive supervisors, and staged what is now being known as a "Carmonazo Sindical," making reference to short lived presidency installed by a hostile coup against President Chavez years ago.
The employees instigated an impromptu assembly of the workers awaiting their weekly food subsidy. Humberto Lopez assumed the stage and addressed his criticisms of the direction taken by his fellow union leaders, harping on the issue of the money owed by Pocaterra to all the workers, accusing the factory council of mismanagement, and posing himself as the alternative. His proposal involved a new commission organized by the ministry of labor, which would consist of 5 representatives for the owner, 5 for the workers, and 3 from the labor ministry. Entailed is the return of the factory to the hands of Pocaterra in exchange for the back-wages and benefits owed to each worker.
As if planned and executed according to script, the agitated crowd did not allow any other union leaders to address these concerns. In place of healthy debate before a legitimate assembly of the workers involved in the occupation, the body present included the very workers that had been sabotaging the struggle from the beginning. The factory council leadership, who had sacrificed the most for their commitment to fight, honing a political conscience far beyond the norm, was removed from their responsibilities. Conscious of the hostility in the room, the workers in question chose not to fight the coup in order to prevent a violent scene that would have invited the police and national guard to the scene to evacuate the workers.
The undemocratic recall of the factory council and union leadership places the entire campaign at risk. When the council members were removed from the premises, the transition happened quickly without the necessary attention to detail to ensure the financial records and systems had been appropriately debriefed. Also, the level of vigilance maintaining the occupation remains in question. In fact, every process painfully learned and adjusted, every policy could be up in the air, even the bags of the Venezuelan food staples picked up on Fridays and Saturdays.
The following Sunday, the removed leadership called a meeting with their supporters and allies to analyze the situation and develop a game plan for recovering the factory. The UNT of Aragua has denounced the proposal offered by the Ministry of Labor via Humberto Lopez as a trap for the workers, releasing a public statement of support with seven demands, the first of which being the vindication of worker control in the plant. Since Friday, these workers have not been allowed to enter the premises to work a regular shift. As a compromise, they have taken custody of the installations on the other side of the Avenida Aragua.
Over the course of this struggle, many of the workers most involved realized that the goals of their resistance were transforming into something more than the securing payment of their benefits, than the vindication of their contract and legal rights, but to prove that workers do not need bosses, that this relationship of exploitation is becoming obsolete. In this sense, they have been working, and by working resisting, and by resisting, butting heads with a system that does not want these ideas to spread.
Sanitarios Maracay worker Luis Alvarado shared his point of view on Friday while walking out of the office where he would have had guard duty if weren't for the surprise dismissal: "I think that we lowered our guard and were too flexible with that aspect with them. But here we did everything to maintain worker control and to demonstrate to Venezuela and to the world that workers can control a business. We can practically rule the world. We are those that fabricate and labor. We are those that give the sweat from our bodies every day for a miserable salary. Now we had the opportunity and we still do to have a decent life, that our families live with dignity, and all that, and it is going to happen."
The struggle for justice at Sanitarios Maracay continues.