In Venezuela, Productive Workers' Battles are restorations of state-owned and worker controlled industrial facilities. Since 2016 these battles have been organized by the Productive Workers' Army (EPO) in partnership with workers in occupied factories and communal councils.
Problems and Purpose
The drop in the international price of oil in 2013 caused a severe slump in the Venezuelan economy. The economic situation severely deteriorated after the United States, Lima Group, and European Union instilled a sanctions regime on the Maduro government in response to the 2016 presidential elections. The Maduro government has labeled the sanctions as a form of economic war against Venezuela led by the US. Pro-government Venezuelan social movements have denounced this foreign aggression as a non-conventional hybrid war that aims to cause the breakdown of the economy while encouraging uprisings against the government . These hostile actions have exacerbated the economic crisis triggering capital flight and shutdowns of production nationwide  .
The economic crisis poses serious problems for the majority of Venezuelans. From taming runaway inflation of basic goods to the food crisis to the closure of basic industries to the waves of the poorest Venezuelans fleeing on foot the Bolivarian government has not been able to stop the closure of industries. Increasingly, the popular classes are leading grassroots responses “from below and from within” . Productive Workers’ Battles have been repeated instances of popular participation aimed at restoring productive capacity in strategic sectors ranging from seafood to gas production and food processing machinery. Organized by a collective volunteer network of mechanics and engineers from Venezuela’s industrial heartland, what has become known as the Productive Workers’ Army (In Spanish the Ejercito Productivo Obrero or EPO), has been leading an effort to recuperate enterprises paralyzed by the economic war . Between 2016 and 2019 the EPO has engaged workers in 14 idle are state-owned factories nationwide to participate in the re-starting of their factories.
Background History and Context
Since the 1930s, Venezuela has historically been an oil-dependent state with strong state participation in the oil sector and heavy industries . The democratic revolution in 1958 ushered in an era of pacted democracy where the two main parties – Democratic Action (AD) and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) – would alternate in governing the spoils of the petro-state . Pacted democracy unraveled in the wake of popular protests against government corruption, austerity, and privatization throughout the late 1980s through the 1990s . The Bolivarian Revolution swept Venezuela in 1999 ushered an era of popular participation with a progressive constitution. The government sought to decentralize the political system by empowering communities to govern and manage themselves through the method of communal councils. Since the early years of the Bolivarian Revolution during instances of factories going idle or capital flight workers’ would occupy their factories and run them on the basis of workers’ councils .
Venezuela was destabilized in 2013 in two profound ways. First, the premature death of the populist President Hugo Chávez initiated a rapid and steep decline in support for his political party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) . Mass political disillusionment has been catalyzed by rampant corruption in the state often expressed in the criminalization and repression of the popular sectors in favour of the boliburgesía – PSUV insiders who have enriched themselves . Second, the drop in global oil prices precipitated a period of acute economic contraction . Catalyzing the pressures on the national economy, the position of Chávez’s successor President Nicholas Maduro has been contested by Canada, the United States, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Japan, Australia, and much of the European Union which recognize Juan Guaidó as president . Since 2016, many of these nations have applied coercive measures including coordinated sanctions and expropriation of Venezuelan state assets.
Worker control and management of factories through workers’ councils have proliferated in Venezuela during the Bolivarian Revolution. But the conscious aim of the Productive Workers’ Battle of re-starting, integrating, and upgrading productive capacity in worker controlled factories is a first in Venezuela. In 2013 workers in Venezuela’s industrial heartland at the Indorca, Calderys, and EQUIPETROL factories occupied their plants alleging that management was infringing on workers’ rights and sabotaging production . After the occupation, workers established control of the plants and got production running again. Having run production on their own for a few years, they were invited to re-ignite idle factories.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
State-owned enterprises that were expropriated under the Chavez chronically run into issues with mismanagement and importing machine parts. Often the bureaucrats put in charge by the government to manage the plants would not attempt to re-start production. Workers in expropriated-factories that ran idle went past their management by inviting workers from Indorca, Calderys, and EQUIPETROL to re-start production . Workers’ in these factories were motivated to initiate Productive Workers’ Battles to re-moralize the ranks of chavismo while catalyzing the creation of workers’ councils and feminist brigades in more industries. Battles to re-start production were organized as collective educational projects where workers would share experiences learned through work . Re-starting production took acts of collective participation in industrial design and engineering.
After three successful battles between 2016 and 2017, the Venezuelan government caught wind of the battles to re-start production on the basis of popular participation. On 23 June 2017, President Maduro appointed Sergio Requena – a lead organizer of the battles – to the Presidency of CORPIVENSA, the state agency promoting industrial and productive sovereignty . The objective of the state in facilitating Productive Workers’ Battles was to use popular power to re-ignite production. During a seven month period, with state supports through CORPIVENSA seven more battles were organized and a core networks of volunteers crystalized around the EPO . Eventually the state removed EPO affiliated people from CORPIVENSA . In the wake of the Coronavirus the EPO has slowed down organizing.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Initial participants involved a few hundred workers operating and managing worker controlled factories in the Guyana industrial region in Bolívar state. Specific efforts were made to contact workers in occupied factories, state-owned enterprises, cooperatives, and production facilities owned by communes. Some Productive Workers’ Battles have drawn in volunteer workers from over 30 industries both public and private. The process of selecting participants occurred from the more militant community networks of the Bolivarian process. Organizers focused on these demographics as a means of reaching their objective of reviving national production under social property so as to put the economy at the service of all Venezuelans  . By way of enticements, participants who agreed to collectively work to restart production were given the opportunity to begin working again, were taught technical skills to keep production going, and were taught organizational skills to manage the occupied factories.
Methods and Tools Used
Productive Workers’ Battles have been waged to re-start production in facilities owned by communal councils. Communal councils are methods of direct democracy where assemblies of citizens at the neighbourhood level are given decision making power to self-manage their communities. In every enterprise where a battle has been waged workers’ councils have been founded or re-started to manage production after the re-start. Fundamentally, the way Productive Workers’ Battles connect workers trying to solve technical issues that led to stalled production with the technical knowledge to re-start their plant is best characterized as a form of crowdsourcing. Some organizers view individual battles as a tactic to re-start the national productive apparatus to win the economic war.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The origins of the Productive Workers’ Battle are in the recent militant histories of recuperated, occupied, and nationalized factories. The first battle was waged from February 12 to 16 2016 at a state-owned fish-processing plant called La Gaviota in Sucre state. A workers’ council on the shop floor coordinated the project. It organized the voluntary labour of participants at the plant and those crowdsourced in from other plants while also managing material donations from the Venezuelan state. Participants came in from Indorca, Calderys, EQUIPETROL, Chocomar, Conmetsa, VENVIDRIO, Tomatera la Caicareña, EPS 13 of April and Bolivarian University of the Workers . Ultimately, 100% of production was restored.
The second battle took place in Maquinarias Barinas from October 4 to 7 2016 reviving 80% of the factory . At this battle organizers intensified the remoralization aspect of their campaign by implemented a parallel learning space in what they call “Collective, Integral, and Permanent Self-Formation” . In this instance, they organized a workshop on freehand drawing. From this point on parallel learning spaces where workers cold share experiences learned from work became a core part of the battles.
After two more battles waged in 2017, the initiative to re-start production by empowering workers’ councils and crowdsourcing expertise from the broader movement made it onto the state radar . State supports allowed for eight more battles to be waged. Where deliberation and decision-making on the technical aspects of factory re-starts as well as management of the battle was in the hands of workers’ councils. Results spread through official government channels, social media and grass-roots media initiatives like community radio and news.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The method of stimulating popular participation in industry by crowdsourcing organized by workers’ councils has proven effective. Because the immediate desired results undertaken by Productive Workers’ Battles of re-starting individual factories has been successful in 14 instances. Additionally, the educational component couple with the active building of workers’ councils have re-moralized working people who are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. The methods of battles have tightened the social fabric of the communities where they have taken place.
Productive Workers’ Battles have been able to influence public policy for a short time between 2016 and 2018. When organizers were given control of CORPIVENSA – owned by the Ministry of Popular Power of Industries – the Productive Workers’ Battles spread dramatically . However, soon the lead organizers were dismissed, faulted by the state for not fostering bureaucratic and clientelist practices . Despite the removal of Productive Workers’ Battle activists from CORPIVENSA, activists still maintain a working relationship with the state sector. As of 2019, the last Productive Workers’ Battle occurred in a workplace operated by the Ministry of Tourism.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
A key measure of success the re-opening of several industrial facilities closed because of bureaucratic mismanagement and a hostile international trade environment. As one activist puts it, the core goal of the participatory methods used in the battles was “to break with the inertia that installs itself due to bureaucracy” and to demonstrate that “workers are capable of recovering stalled factories and that large investments are not necessarily needed” . Testimony from workers involved in Productive Workers Battles – like the Socialist Comune El Maizal and Cacique Tamanaco Comunal Gas facility – speak to the empowering experiences of participating in re-starting production at their own plants.
Organizers have criticized the bureaucratic way public sector enterprises are often run . In their demands on the National Executive, the EPO labels state bureaucracy as one of the enemies of social movements – grouping them with imperialism, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, and fifth columnists in the state apparatus . In contrast to bureaucratic management, Productive Workers’ Battles emphasize popular participation of workers themselves in recovering national production.
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