Workers’ combat and union maneuvers in Venezuela
The agitation and combativity that appeared during the negotiation of the last pay agreement in the textile industry have not disappeared. A general assembly, called by the textile union (SUTISS), ended by naming a ‘conflict committee’ at the regional level, with the aim of organizing a workers’ counter attack. That this committee was dominated by unionists of the PAD1 does not at all diminish the importance of the fact that a need was felt, however confusedly, for a combat organization distinct from the union apparatus. This is similar to the engineers’ demand for the presence at the negotiating table of a delegate elected by the general assembly. The ‘conflict committee’ put forward the idea of a regional strike for 17 October 1979. The union Federation was reticent at first, but finally gave way to the committee (even lending it their premises), and after a bit of diplomacy to try to get the CTV’s2 consent, a strike call was finally put out for Wednesday, 17 October. The CTV then began to talk about a national strike for 25 October. What was about to happen in Aragua was seen as a test which would determine the course of events to come.
“Follow Aragua’s Example!”3
The dawn of 17 October found Maracay (capital of the state of Aragua) paralyzed; in several outlying districts, all kinds of obstacles dumped in the streets interrupted the traffic. The workers arrived at their factories, and then made their way towards the Plaza Girardot in the town centre. The unions had distributed the strike call, but they intentionally remained silent about the time and place for the assembly. The union leadership wanted the strike to be a numerical success, but they were just as concerned that it should remain under their control. This explains why they put out the strike call, and why they kept a monopoly of information about the action that was planned. Nonetheless, the workers didn’t want to lose this opportunity to demonstrate their discontent, and accepted these conditions in their desire to unite in the street with their class brothers.
At 10am the Plaza was full of people. The vast majority was workers; a whole host of hastily-made banners were visible, indicating the presence of particular factories, demanding wage rises, or simply affirming a class viewpoint (for example, “they have the power because they want it”).
Then began the never-ending speeches, whose main lines were: the rise in prices, the need for wages to be adjusted, the government’s bad administration, the struggle against the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and the preparation for the national strike.
In the crowd, you could feel that the workers interpreted the strike as well as the assembly as the beginning of a confrontation with the bourgeoisie and its state. Clearly, the mass of workers weren’t satisfied with listening passively, but wanted to express themselves as a collective body, which they could only do by marching through the streets. The pressure on the union leaders was so strong that they ended up by calling for a march down the Avenue Bolivar as far as the provincial Parliament, despite the fact that they had only planned on an assembly.
Beforehand, groups of young workers had patrolled the streets of the city centre, closing down all the shops (except the chemists’), with an attitude of determination to enforce the strike, but without any attempt at personal violence or individual aggression. In the same way, they intercepted buses and taxis, made the passengers get out and left the vehicles to go on their way without the slightest hindrance.
The demonstration gets out of control
The working class practically took possession of the streets of the city centre, it blocked the traffic, shut the shops, let its anger burst out, imposed its power. From this moment, events took on their own dynamic. The 10-15,000 demonstrators (the press talked of 30,000 probably because of the great fright the day gave them, for example, E Mendoza’s heart attack4, began to take up improvised slogans, especially insisting on ones that expressed their class feelings (“the discontented worker demands his rights”, “in shoes or sandals, the working class commands respect” were a couple of them). It was impossible to go back to the whining tones of the CTV’s explicit support for the wages law. The only figure put forward was for a 50% rise, but in general the demonstrators didn’t formulate precise ‘demands’; they expressed their rage and their will to struggle. There were frequent comments about the total uselessness of this famous law, about the beginning of the war of “poor against rich”. Near the Palace of Parliament there suddenly appeared a small detachment of the ‘forces of order’. Those at the front of the demonstration hurled themselves against it, and the police were obliged to run for shelter in the Palace, where they felt more protected. Immediately, the crowd concentrated before the entrance, which was obviously locked. The demonstration had not been prepared for this, and decided not to try to force an entry, but it fully felt the difference between ‘the people’ in the street and their ‘representatives’ barricaded in the Palace. Predictably, the union bureaucracy made every effort to pacify the demonstrators and to divert attention by calling for a return to the Plaza Girardot to close the day. After some hesitations, the cortege started off again, but instead of going straight to the Plaza Girardot, it preferred to make a tour of the ‘Legislative Palace’. Thus the workers marked out the places they would have to occupy tomorrow. One after another, spontaneous orators spoke standing on car rooves and the demonstrators savored the taste of being masters of the street, in contrast to the aggravations and impotence that they are daily subjected to.
At the Plaza Girardot, a new series of union speeches greeted them, with the aim of putting a stop to ‘all that’. But part of the demonstration, once it arrived at the Plaza, carried on to the Labor Inspectorate building. It was, of course, shut. So they returned to the square. There, thousands of workers, already tired, were sitting in the street on the pavement. They don’t have any clear idea of what to do, but no-one seems to feel like going home to the intolerable, monotonous round of daily life. The leaders had already left, and the union militants were rolling up their banners. Apparently, this is the end.
But it goes on …
Suddenly, at midday, a small demonstration of textile workers appeared. Things got lively again, and a wild march began all through the town, and this time without the union leadership.
First of all, it decided to march together onto the Municipality, where, after filling the staircases on all four floors, the workers demanded a confrontation with the Municipal councilors. These latter didn’t seem to appreciate the insistence of an elderly worker knocking on the door with his stick. Then someone put forward the idea of marching on the premises of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where, strangely, nothing was to be found apart from a few cases of mineral water, which were swiftly used to calm the collective thirst. From there, the workers decided to go to the transport terminus. On the way they closed down a construction site and looked up the foreman in order to give him a bit of ‘advice’. With an elevated social and democratic sentiment, they divided up the contents of a poultry shop which had had the unfortunate idea of staying open.
It was after 2 O'clock in the afternoon, and the demonstration had travelled some ten kilometers. Hunger, heat and fatigue had considerably reduced the number of demonstrators. It was time to put an end to the collective intoxication and bring them back to sad reality. Given that the union leadership had failed, this task fell to other organisms. With truncheon blows and other ‘persuasive’ methods5, the ‘forces of order’ showed for the nth time that the streets don’t yet belong to the people, out to the police. At 3 O'clock in the afternoon, order reigned in Maracay.
The day had been extremely rich in lessons. Instinctively, the working class had identified several nerve centers of power; parliament, the Municipal Council, the Ministry of Labor, the unions and the passenger terminus, this latter as a springboard for extending the struggle outside Maracay. It was like a kind of reconnaissance mission for future struggles. Apparently, there were demonstrations during the night in some districts. It was a proletarian holiday.
CTV: Oil on troubled waters
If any worker might have entertained some illusions about this being a first step in a series of triumphant struggles, apparently thanks to the support of the union apparatus, the next day’s papers took care to remind them of their condition as an exploited and manipulated class. In fact, the CTV, as if by magic, transformed the national strike into a general mobilization ... for 4 O'clock in the afternoon of 25 October. Clearly, the CTV didn’t want to be overtaken again by the spontaneous initiative of the masses, and this time on a national scale. Let the workers work all day first, and then go and demonstrate, if they still feel like it! The night would calm down any hot-heads. For the unions, it was now a matter of trying to arrange an impressive demonstration, but without a strike, a formula which would allow them to maintain social control without losing an appearance of militancy. Moreover, some industries in Aragua, profiting from the strike of 17 October’s juridical illegality, carried out massive lay-offs (especially in La Victoria, an industrial town in Aragua, where some 500 workers were made redundant). In this way, they put into practice already planned projects of ‘reduction of personnel’, ‘industrial mobility’, and ‘administrative improvement’. The object was to confront as cheaply as possible the particularly critical financial situation of the small and medium-sized businesses. This maneuver created a very tense situation in La Victoria, with marches and protests opening up a perspective for new struggles in the weeks to come, but this time without the fake support of the CTV. Either the workers of La Victoria will learn to struggle for themselves, or they will be forced to accept the conditions of the dictatorship of capital.
In spite of everything, anger explodes
Despite the characteristics we have described above, the day of ‘national mobilization’ on 25 October gave rise to new demonstrations of the workers’ combativity. In the state of Carabobo, and in Guyana6, there were region-wide strikes with massive and enthusiastic marches. In the capital, Caracas, where union prestige demanded that the demonstration should be well attended, the CTV even took it on itself to bring in coach-loads of workers, who for their part took advantage of their first opportunity in years to express their class hatred. Aware, after the events of the 17th, of the danger of a working class outburst, the government could not allow the demonstration to invade the centre of the capital, as had happened at Maracay. Furthermore, the ‘forces of order’ had themselves decided to confront the workers practically from the outset. This wasn’t an ‘excess’ or a ‘mistake’; the police were just valiantly carrying out their class function. The confrontation took place. Instead of running in panic as usual, the demonstrators put up a stubborn resistance for several hours; they destroyed symbols of bourgeois luxury in the neighborhood, and a climate of violence persisted for several days in the working class districts, especially in “23 de Janero” (a working class district with a very concentrated and combative working class), leaving a balance-sheet of several dead.
Meanwhile, in Maracay, the mass of workers who had already tasted the events of the 17th were not won over to participation in what seemed to everybody to be a watered-down repeat performance. Very few workers bothered to turn up to the meeting. By contrast, the false rumor that a student had been assassinated in Valencia7 (in fact there really had been a death in Valencia: a worker) brought some 2,000 students into the streets. It’s typical of students to be shocked by the murder of one student by the police, and to remain blind to the less spectacular daily destruction of the working class in the factories: 250 fatal accidents and more than a million industrial injuries and diseases a year reveal capitalism’s violence to the full.
It was a student demonstration; the working class character of the 17th had disappeared, the whole affair was drowned in a sea of university, youth and other slogans. Despite this, it was worth noting the absence of the traditional student organizations, and the participation of many ‘independent’ students, who could in the future converge with the emerging workers’ movement. Only a group of teachers -- they were on strike -- maintained a certain class character.
The working class had shown its readiness to express its extreme discontent as soon as the opportunity arose, but it was not, and is not yet, prepared to try to create this possibility autonomously through its own initiative.
From the street to Parliament
Without losing any time, the CTV at once concluded that such an opportunity should at all costs be prevented from arising. In fact, for the moment a relative calm is being imposed -- a situation that could well be overturned when the year’s end bonuses come up, given the financial difficulties of some companies. There is less and less talk of mobilizations, and more of parliamentary negotiations, which are supposed to put through the famous law proposed by the CTV; but this time, there’s no question of applying pressure at street level. On 29 October, the CTV’s consultative council concretized the results of negotiations between social democrats and Christian democrats, and decided that from now on the centre should be informed beforehand whenever a strike movement is decided by the local or craft federations. This was to keep control of any dangerous situation. And once this point was granted, all strikes in the ministries were declared illegal. If the centre behaves like this towards its own federations, you can imagine its attitude when confronted with a workers’ movement acting independently of the unions.
All this throws a clear light on the alternative which supposedly characterizes the unions: of being complaints bureaus or instruments of struggle. In reality, the unions are complaints bureaus in periods of social calm and organs of sabotage of the workers’ struggle as soon as it raises its head.
The old mole shows its nose and the leaders contemplate the heavens
The present situation is one of resurgence of the proletariat on the national scene. This is similar to what happened at the beginning of the sixties and during 1969-72. This resurgence is the product of the end of the oil boom, and of the national bourgeoisie’s delusions of grandeur. Today the bill has to be paid, which in plain language means rationalization of production, bringing bankruptcy in its wake for small and medium-sized companies (the maintenance of whose profits is one of the main preoccupations of our ‘socialists’ -- ah how beautiful capitalism was before there were any monopolies!), and intensified exploitation of the working class.
The liberation of prices is only one weapon of the policy of restructuring the country’s productive apparatus -- a policy which must be carried out along the only lines left to the capitalists: crisis and recession. Contrary to the assertions of the university professors, this policy is not mistaken -- it is inevitable within the framework of the capitalist system. To struggle against this policy without attacking the very foundations of the capitalist system (like those who demand the resignation of the economics cabinet for being supposedly ‘misinformed’ or ‘too ignorant’) is to show a socio-political shortsightedness which comes down to rejecting revolutionary struggle.
What must be put forward in the face of the problems that the development of capitalism imposes on the masses, is the imperative need to go beyond, relations of production determined by money and the market, to the takeover of production and distribution by the freely associated producers.
The bourgeoisie tries to divert the masses’ attention by orienting it towards a wages law, which is reduced to its bare bones thanks to the unions’ own fear of mobilizing the masses. In fact, this law hardly aims to compensate for inflation at the rate measured and recognized by the Venezuelan Central Bank since prices were liberated. Those who claim to be more ‘radical’ do so by demanding a higher percentage or even the nec plus ultra of a sliding scale of wages (which at best comes down to definitively tying the workers’ income to the oscillations of the bourgeois economy). While we’re on the subject, it’s interesting to note that the Brazilian workers have just opposed a similar law, because they say it would diminish their ability to struggle at factory level to win rises much higher than inflation, as did indeed happen at the beginning of the year.
The problem isn’t the percentage of the wage rises. What’s needed is to push forward all those struggles which tend to show up the autonomy of workers’ interests against those of bourgeois society, those struggles which tend to generalize, unifying and extending themselves beyond narrow craft limitations to all sectors in struggle, all those which tend to attack the very existence of wage labor. It’s not so much the particular reasons behind each struggle which matter but the organizational experience gained during them. It’s possible, moreover, to distinguish a watershed in the proletariat’s activity when we consider that since 1976, the number of strikes has not stopped growing, while the same has not been true for the deposition of the ‘claim casebooks’ demanded by law. This seems to indicate that the working class feels itself less and less concerned with bourgeois legality, that its action tends more and more to be a direct function of its interests.
Confronted with the liberation of prices, the workers will have to impose a liberation of wages; just as they will have to tear into shreds the schedules laid down in wage agreements. They will have to prepare themselves for a daily and permanent struggle in their workplaces and in the street.
The workers in Venezuela are not alone
What’s happening in Venezuela is not unique in the world; on the contrary, we are simply taking part in a phenomenon of universal dimensions. Nowhere has capitalism succeeded, and nowhere will it succeed, in satisfying humanity’s needs in a stable way. Unemployment in Europe and China, inflation in the USA and in Poland, nuclear insecurity and insecurity in the food supply, with the social struggles they engender, are the witnesses.
The battle-cry of the Ist International is still on the order of the day:
“The emancipation of the working class will be the work of the workers themselves.”
1 PAD: Partido Accion Democratica (social democrat). Went into opposition at the last presidential elections which brought the Social Christians in power.
2 CTV: Confederacion dos Trabajadores Venezuelons (Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation) dominated by the PAD.
3 Aragua is one of the states of Venezuela (textiles being the most important industry). Venezuela’s national anthem says “Follow the example of Caracas”.
4 Important representative of Venezuelan bosses.
5 In Venezuela, the police have the habit of beating up demonstrators with the flats of machete blades.
6 Two regions where industry is concentrated (engineering and steelworks).
7 Capital of the state of Carabobo.