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Report from Venezuela: Aluminum Workers Choose Their Managers and Increase Production

Marta Harnecker is director of the Centro de Investigaciones Memoria Popular Latinoamericana (MEPLA) in Havana, Cuba, an organization for research on the history of popular movements in Latin America. She is the author of numerous books and articles about the Latin American left including Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chavez Talks to Marta Harnecker, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press. The article was translated by Dawn Gable. It originally appeared on March 28, 2005, on Venezuelanalysis.com.

Alcasa, a state-owned aluminum processing plant in the southeastern state of Bolívar, has long been an important employer in a region where the lion’s share of Venezuela’s mining and processing plants are located. Yet since the mid-1990s it has been plagued by inefficiency and corruption. According to Trino Silva, secretary general of the union, Alcasa’s production has been in “the red” for the past sixteen years. Though the aluminum they produce is in high demand and despite considerable production increases over the past few years, the company has been unable to turn a profit. Silva blames a corrupt factory management that used Alcasa as its piggy bank throughout the 1990s, all the while holding the threat of privatization over workers’ heads. It was no idle threat. A few miles down the road, SIDOR, one of Latin America’s largest steel plants and long the pride of the state Venezuelan Corporation of Guyana (CVG), was privatized in 1997. From a workforce approaching 20,000 full-time direct employees (with several thousand more contract and temporary workers) in the late 1980s, SIDOR has downsized to only 4,000 direct employees and approximately 6,000 contract workers.

Yet in recent years the political landscape in Bolívar has changed significantly. Radical unionism, near-dormant throughout the 1990s, has been resurrected in a region with a tradition of radical syndicalism. And for the first year of Trino Silva’s term as secretary general of Alcasa’s union, he has made the fight against corruption a cause célèbre.

Last January, Silva caught a break; the head of the newly created Ministry of Basic Industry Victor Alvarez, shares his commitment to eradicating corruption and inefficiency at Alcasa. To do so, Alvarez is relying on the workers themselves. Alcasa is to be the region’s guinea pig for the national government’s strategy of state-worker co-management, a system of shared management between state representatives and workers. On January 18, the government expropriated bankrupt paper company Venepal, reinvesting $14 million to restart production at the factory under a system of co-management. In a speech to the National Assembly where Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez announced the decision, he called for state control of all basic industry, and for the conversion of state run enterprises to co-management. In the industrial state of Bolívar, Alcasa is the trail blazer, and in only a few months they are beginning to see results.

On March 2223, I visited Alcasa and was moved by what I saw. Silva was meeting with workers in the factory lobby explaining the trajectory of the business and speaking to them about Alcasa’s responsibility to the community and to unemployed workers. Later, workers elected Gustavo Márquezan electrical maintenance technicianas the new manager of lamination (under the old system he would have been appointed by the factory president). The next day, there was an inauguration of a cell repaired in record time by an enthusiastic group of workers. After exhibiting the newly functioning cell, the workers were hosted as guests of honor by the president of Alcasa, Carlos Lanz, in recognition of their effort. After lunch, fifty-nine students of the recently founded Institute for Endogenous Development, who strictly attended their third week of training nine-to-five every day, were recognized for their eagerness to become promoters of the participatory process that is being encouraged by the new CVG leadership, presided over by Minister Victor lvarez. Finally there was a ceremony in which the managers, newly elected by the workers, assumed their responsibilities.

The following is a brief interview with the union general-secretary, Trino Silva, and the new manager of lamination, Gustavo Márquez.

Marta Harnecker: I see a ballot box; can you explain to me what is happening?

Trino Silva: We are choosing the manager of lamination and two workers’ representatives to share in that management. We want the manager to arise from the heart of the workers. The manager will not direct alone or with only the two workers’ representatives. He must meet with all the workers, and a managerial assembly will make macro-decisions such as how to advance, how to make the budget, and how to be productive. God gives us a body, a right leg, a left leg, but the body cannot walk with only one leg, right? We need each organ to function so that the body functions, thus it is with Alcasa. In each management sector, the workers will name a manager. After that we will discuss the kind of company we want.

MH: Why so much haste in electing the new managers?

TS: We had to move quickly to rid ourselves of the previous managers because they had abandoned the company. There were acts of corruption that we denounced long ago; they tried to sabotage the business. The managers that we are now choosing are transitory. They will hold their positions for three months only. In these three months we will establish the rules of the game; we will define the kind of management we want. We will discuss the salaries of managers.

In the past the managers here earned a bundle; we are going to discuss whether a new manager will earn that. Access to management should not be seen as a way to receive privileges. As a union leader I feel that the managers chosen by the workers should consider this a position of service and therefore should continue earning the same as they did before. An elected manager will hold the position for four years. If in four years, the person has done a good job, he or she may be re-elected. At the two-year mark we think that we should have a referendum to see how well a manager has done.

We believe that within two weeks the workers will have chosen all the transitory managers. These managers will have the right to be nominated for the upcoming, full-term elections.

MH: Do you believe that the workers alone can manage the business?

TS: The workers should choose the president of Alcasa. But the board of directors should not be composed only of workers. We are thinking of a fourteen-person board: seven primary and seven substitutes. Of those seven primary members, four should be Alcasa workers, two should be government representatives (so that they can oversee what we are doing with the business), and another should be a representative of the organized community.

Alcasa does not only belong to the alcasianos, nor to Trino Silva and the Alcasa workers, but to all of the people. Therefore the public has the right to representation on the board; first, for transparency and second, to insure that Alcasa benefits everyone. The community should oversee the relationship between Alcasa and the public. I think, for example, that jobs should not be given to contractors that carry off billions of bolívares. Let’s give these jobs to organized cooperatives. The organized public will participate in the control of the expenses of this business. For example, in 2003 Alcasa spent 18 billion bolívares in payments to private clinics for care for workers and their relatives; last year 24 billion was spent. What do we say to that? If so much money is being spent on health care and the union owns land in Citralcasa Curagua, why not hand over that land to the state to build a public clinic that will attend to not only the Alcasa workers, but to the entire community. We could also build one in Bolívar and another in Upata. This would create competition between the public and private clinics. We want Cuban doctors working in these clinics, caring for human life as an end unto itself, and not just working for the money. We also want likeminded Venezuelan doctors. With the Barrio Adentro II program we will have the necessary technical equipment.

Similarly, we are giving 15 billion bolívares to Friosa in payment for food for the workers. We suggest that if we were to give 15 billion, and Venalum and other businesses chipped in, Alcasa could create an industrial kitchen in Puerto Ordaz. We could spend some 3 billion creating kitchen cooperatives. There are around 200 young cooks working here. We organize them and we give them work.

The same could be done with transportation. Here there is a transportation mafia. There are four businesses that charge very high rates. The alcasianos, together with retired pensioners who want to participate, should form a transportation cooperative with part of our benefits. We could buy a fleet and have cheaper and more comfortable vehicles.

MH: Gustavo, what training do you have?

Gustavo Márquez: I am an electrical maintenance technician. I am in the ninth semester of electrical engineering courses.

MH: How long have you worked in the plant?

GM: Eight years.

MH: What is the main task that you have given yourself?

GM: My objective is to promote the process of joint management. My primary goal is to succeed in implementing the production plan, but not to produce only to produce, but also to reduce costs, and to form working groups among the workers.

MH: What did you tell the workers that convinced them to choose you?

GM: I suggested moving to a horizontal managerial structure. We are going to recognize that every worker has an opinion and I will listen to him or her with my ears. It is advantageous that we have all been companions and that we all come from below. I will not shut myself away in an office; I am a man of the area. If a thermal motor needs to be fixed, I will be there to do it. I am the same. We are not going to establish a difference between manager and technician. We are all workers.

MH: How do you feel about managers receiving the same salary as before?

GM: Up to now I have lived with that salary and I will continue doing so. My goal is not to earn more but to make this plant produce.