Guayana is a powder-keg: Class identity comes through struggle

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"Guayana is a powder-keg". This phrase is often repeated by the representatives of the bourgeoisie, the leaders of political parties and unions, whether they are members of the opposition or favourable to the Chavez government; this is how all of them talk about the struggles and mobilisations being carried out by the working class in Cuidad Guayana (also known as the ‘Iron Zone', a huge working class concentration in the state of Bolivar, Venezuela) - movements that express the profound discontent of the Venezuelan working class as a result of the repeated attacks on its living conditions."

What is that frightens the bourgeoisie and its union guard-dogs so much?

The region of Ciudad Guayana is one of the biggest working-class concentrations in the country, with more than 100,000 workers who work in the so-called "Basic Companies" that produce and process iron, steel and aluminium; including an important number of workers in small and medium size companies that supply the big companies.

The whole of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie knows that Guayana is an area to be reckoned with. Since the 1960's the Guayana proletariat has shown its will to fight; one of the more remarkable struggles took place at the end of the decade, when the workers of the SIDOR steel company (one of the biggest in Latin America) confronted the state forces and the main union at the time, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV). At that time, angry steel workers travelled the 380 miles from Guayana to Caracas to protest opposite the CTV headquarters, which were burnt by the strikers.

Chavez's government had a direct experience of the worker's courage in May 2001, when the SIDOR workers struck for 21 days due to the management's refusal to discuss the recently expired collective agreement[1].This forced the CTV and the steel union SUTISS[2] to join forces in order to prevent the strike spreading to other businesses in the region. So serious was the conflict that Chavez himself had to praise the strike's success to save face for the "workers' government".

From 2002 on, in Guayana as in the rest of the country, the proletariat was more and more led into political traps by the CTV-controlled unions, who opposed Chavez, as well as by the pro-Chavez unions (with Trostkyist currents acting inside them), who were starting to grow stronger. In this way the bourgeoisie got some peace on the labour front, leading the proletariat onto a ground where its interests didn't lie, creating division among the workers and weakening  their class solidarity.

But in 2007, at the same time as the oil workers were coming into struggle, the Guayana proletariat took up the fight again: the Venezuelan proletariat was searching for its class identity, confronting its enemies with its own demands. In view of this increase in labour conflicts Chavez's government, with the union's support, ordered SIDOR's nationalisation in March 2008; this was greeted with great fanfare. Nevertheless the nationalisation trick failed to stifle the workers' discontent even if it slowed down the demonstrations for some months. The workers kept putting on pressure for the discussion of the collective agreement; the precarious workers of the small businesses linked to the steel company mobilised to demand being hired directly by the steel company. As the permanent workers started showing their solidarity towards the precarious ones, the government and the unions began to attack and weaken this movement. Even so retired SIDOR workers as well as workers in the aluminium, iron and electrical industries held several demonstrations in 2008, demanding outstanding wages among other things (see the article ‘The bourgeois state of Chavez attacks the steel workers', )

But it was during 2009 that the struggle intensified:
- in July the aluminium workers started demonstrations that went on for a week: they demanded the payment of social benefits the workers are normally given in the middle of the year. The government suggested paying this in several parts; this enraged the workers who protested opposite the offices of the CVG (Corporación Venezolana de Guayana), which forced the government to divide the payment into two parts only;
- a few days later a SIDOR worker was killed in an industrial accident. That provoked a 24 hour strike in the steel plant: the workers demanded more investments for repairs because the accident happened as a result of a lack of maintenance in the system;
- that very month SIDOR workers started demonstrations in Guayana to demand payment from a profit-sharing scheme, a bonus the workers get in the middle of the year but which the company had failed to pay;
- in August in Ferrominera Orinoco (an iron extracting company), there was a strike that went on for 16 days in Ciudad Piar. The struggle was particularly strong in the San Isidro mine, where the workers remained firm on their demands for back payments and safety measures, all of them recent benefits achieved in the collective agreement. For 16 days the government and the management kept the strike "blacked out" A month later the general secretary of the Ferrominera union along with 10 workers was put under arrest;
- in October several workers and the CVG union leader were put under arrest too, while protesting opposite the Basic Companies Minister, Rodolfo Sanz, demanding the supply of work uniforms and other contractual claims;
- in December SIDOR workers went on an 8 hour strike because of the delay in the payment of the end-of-the-year bonuses; also the workers of the Basic Companies Carbonorca, Bauxilum and Alcasa protested because of the delay in payment of wages and bonuses;
- in 2009 the Ferrominara, Orinoco and Bauxilum co-op workers protested and so did the precarious employees of a company nationalised in 2009, Matesi.

Given that these mobilisations couldn't be stopped, either by the bureaucrats in government or by the unions, Chavez himself had to handle the issue: in March 2009 in Ciudad Piar he gave the Basic Company workers the stick, accusing them of pursuing "wealth" and "privileges", trying to sow discord between them and other workers and the population of the area in order to demoralise them, the same way he did with the oil workers in 2002[3]. Playing the fear card didn't work however, and the protests carried on, so he had to come back to Guayana two months later, this time "praising" the workers as a way of winning their support for the Socialist Guayana Plan which was supposed to take the local companies out of the crisis.

According to Chavez Venezuela is armoured against the crisis of capitalism. In fact the Venezuelan state is in a dangerous position because the fall in raw material prices after 2008 has limited national revenue and shown up a long-hidden reality: the Basic Companies are practically bankrupt and are a heavy burden on the state because of their low productivity, resulting from their obsolescence and lack of maintenance. The workers are made to pay the consequences of this of course: the state has refused to discuss the collective agreements on wages and bonuses, wage payments are delayed and the workers are even threatened with redundancies. As the bourgeoisie does at a global level, the crisis is used as a tool to attack workers' living standards and make their employment less secure. And since the end of 2009 rationing in electricity supply has been used to limit the production of iron and aluminium, putting pressure on part of the staff to take forced holidays and developing a situation of distress and insecurity among workers. Pushed by the workers' mobilisations the state has been forced to sign a number of collective agreements but delays in the paying of wages are common and are a frequent source of distress among workers.

It can be seen that capitalism's world crisis and its effects on Venezuela has become a factor that increases the workers' willingness to fight, since it cuts the state's income and therefore the national bourgeoisie's leeway, and they inevitably try to unload the crisis onto the workers' backs. The Guayana companies' unions, mostly pro-Chavez, are quickly losing credibility among the workers; the attempts to turn the local masses against the workers - using the Consejos Comunales (communal councils)- have failed, since the population is mainly made up of proletarian families whose survival depends on the workers, most of whom work precisely in the Basic Companies. Owing to the high working class concentration and the resistance shown by the workers, the bourgeoisie is not easily able to use the weapon of mass unemployment since it could be the fuel for upheavals and revolt among the population.

This situation has led to an impasse in the region: the bourgeoisie can't apply its plans in its own way and the proletariat, for the time being, hasn't got the force to impose itself against the state. This means that Guayana is a pressure cooker that could explode at any time.

The trap of worker's control

For Chavism and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, Guayana has been a laboratory in its efforts to his wish to make employment more precarious. After having progressively weakened the working conditions of the oil workers, the bourgeoisie wants to do the same to the workers in the Iron Zone - workers which it sees as part of the "labour aristocracy" produced by the Social Democratic and Social Christian governments before Chavez.

In the middle of the last decade it was intended to make ALCASA (an aluminum producing plant and the first co-managed company) a model for the rest of the companies in the country. Actually the example it set was in the way it attacked the conditions of the aluminium workers, through the promotion of "socialist values", that is, work more and earn less; something like Stakhanovism, the "socialist emulation" promoted by the Stalinist bourgeoisie, whose main mouthpiece in Cuba was Che Guevara[4]. But workers in ALCASA didn't buy that, didn't accept worsening working conditions and reduced benefits, and co-management in the aluminium sector was a complete failure.

The government tried to do something similar with the "Socialist Gurayana Plan", based on "workers' control over production" through the "Consejos de Trabajadores" or "Workers' Councils", state institutions allegedly inspired by the Russian soviets of 1917.... Faced with the crisis in the basic industries, Chavism has taken on the Trotskyist slogan of "workers' control", which is very convenient for the bourgeoisie since it would lead the workers to accept the dterioration of their conditions with the excuse of "saving" the companies; thus, for example, the plan suggests the abolition of the "maximisation of profits at an individual level". Leading this project are the PSUV (Socialist Unified Party of Venezuela) and the companies' unions, all of them supporters of the Chavez project.

The Trotskyist unions, nowadays dissident Chavists, denounce this plan since it's not "genuine" workers' control and the state is still the boss. In this sense they serve to trick the workers into accepting the logic of defending the interests of the national capital, proposing that they should  save the companies through a true workers' control. In short, encouraging the workers to accept a form of self-exploitation where the bureaucrats are replaced by workers (preferably Trotskyist ones of course).

But the workers don't easily buy such fairy tales: after the Plan was approved last June they carried on the struggle for wage increases. This pushed the state to sign some collective agreements, while  the pro-government unions tried to divert workers' anger into a battle against the bureaucracy who, according to them, are the ones preventing "workers' participation"; they have even gone as far as supporting actions promoted by dissident unions to save their face in front of the workers. This context has been favourable to anti-Chavist union tendencies like the Trostkyist CCURA[5], who introduce themselves as equally critical of Chavism and the opposition.

Guayana's proletariat: a hard nut to crack

In view of the persistance of the workers in fighting for their demands, the government has attempted to criminalise the struggle: temporary arrests of workers, redundancy threats, even overt repression. These state actions, accompanied by union sabotage, led the protests to fall back at the beginning of 2010. Nevertheless in Guayana the atmosphere is of unresolved tension, an imposed calm that can explode any time.

The attacks of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie are leading the Guayana proletariat to take a stand on a class terrain, showing that it is not willing to sacrifice itself passively for the bourgeois project of "21st century socialism". It seems that with the acceleration of capitalism's crisis the proletariat is recovering its combativity.

The Guayana proletariat, like the whole of the working class, hasn't got any other option: either it carries on the fight against the attacks of capital (state or private) or capital will further impoverish workers and their families. The actions of the unions (those false friends of the workers but genuine defenders of national capital), corporatism, co-operativism, workers' control, co-management, all the schemes aimed at locking up the workers in "their " companies, all of them are factors that hinder the class struggle. The answer to these and other obstacles has been provided by the working class itself: the assemblies where grass-roots workers can express themselves; the spreading of struggles and the seach for class solidarity, not only in Guayana's companies but on a national, even international, level.

In Guayana the conditions are coming together for developing and strengthening solidarity between the workers and the population, since most of the inhabitants of the region have a relative in the  local companies. If Guayana's proletariat is able to keep the fight going in spite of the abuse from government, parties and unions, it will set an example to the rest of the workers in the country, and    create a link between its struggle and the movements of the global proletariat in Greece, Spain, France, Peru and other countries.

The task of the most politicised minorities in the class is to take part with all their strength in the process of resistance by the proletariat in Guyana and all around the country; their task is to denounce all the traps and obstacles on the path towards class consciousness. The proletariat of Guayana and Venezuela is not alone in its task, since its fight is part of a movement that is slowly emerging at a global level.

Internacionalismo, 06/03/2010

[1] At this time state capital had a minority paricipation in steel, the majority being in the hands of the private capital of the Tchint corporation


[2] Unified union of the steel industry, then controlled by a centre left party


[3] Chavez could not hide his anger at the workers at this point: "We are going to profit from this to clean up the enterprises of the CVG. If they threaten to stop work or they do stop work, I will deal with this myself! I have already been through the strike at Pàvsa....people who go on strike in a state enterprise are bothering the president of the republic" (Correo del Caroni, 7.3.2009).


[4] It's no accident that one of the government Missions is called ‘Che Guevara'. As it preaches on its website, it offers "an integral programme of training and qualification in the productive occupations, aimed at transforming the capitalist economic model into a socialist model" 



[5]  See the article in Internacialismo 58, ‘Correo del Lector: Los trabajadores inician la lucha, los sindicatos la sabotean' (‘Reader's letter: the workers enter into struggle, and the unions sabotage it')



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