Indorca workers are the stuff of legend in Venezuela, but their experience teaches us that democratic self-management is a real possibility.
Industrias del Orinoco, C.A. (Indorca) is a factory without bosses in the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz in Bolívar state, the home of Venezuela’s basic industries. Indorca’s workers carried out a heroic three-year struggle to gain control of the factory after the former owner brought it to a halt. Since 2015, when Venezuela’s Ministry of Labor extended a mandate giving the workers control over Indorca, the enterprise has been democratically managed by the women and men who produce here day in and day out.
In Part I of this two-part interview, the workers of Indorca tell us about their fight to keep the former bosses from dismantling the factory and regaining control of the plant. In Part II we will learn about the struggle to maintain the factory afloat in a sanctioned country and also about Indorca’s educational initiatives.
A history of struggle: Indorca workers occupy the factory
After an owner-imposed lockout, Indorca’s workers organized a watch to protect the factory. They slept in the “maloca” [open-air structure with a roof and no walls] right outside the plant and they debated about a more democratic way of running things. They also mobilized so that the government would apply Article 149 of the Labor Law, which entitles workers to take control of an enterprise when the owner sabotages the production process.
Eliezer Perdomo: Indorca is a metallurgic workshop, built to serve the basic industries in Guayana [historic name used to refer to Bolívar state], from Sidor [state-owned steel production plant] to Venalum and Alcasa [both state-owned aluminum plants]. It was founded in 1976. The former owner was Oscar Jiménez Ayesa, a capitalist with both industrial and banking interests.
José Cedeño: Around 2010, when Chávez was trying to radicalize the Bolivarian Process, the first signs of an economic war against the Venezuelan people became evident. Here in Guayana, the bosses began to drag their feet in many privately-owned factories. They were remiss in paying workers’ benefits, began to make layoffs, and purposely generated supply-chain bottlenecks.
This was happening at Indorca as well, so we decided to organize a union in 2011. Needless to say, the bosses didn’t smile upon this process. They fired several organizers in the middle of a collective bargaining process, including me. The bosses also put a restraining order on us, and we were not allowed into Indorca’s perimeter. However, that didn’t hold us back: we continued the fight from the ropes.
Those were difficult times, but they were also beautiful: we were without jobs, but worker solidarity kept us alive, and we began to think about our potential as a class: if we produced the goods and the bosses were sabotaging the production, could we take over the process?
In 2012, just two months after the new Labor Law came into effect, the bosses shut down the plant. They were not the only ones to do this: other privately-owned factories closed shop as well. It was a coordinated sabotage effort driven by political objectives. The bosses didn’t want Chávez anymore, even though many had benefited from government credits and contracts for years.
When the owner declared bankruptcy and closed up shop in Indorca, it became clear that he also wanted to dismantle the plant. This had happened in other factories, and we were not going to let it happen here. That is why we set a 24-hour watch to defend the installations. We slept on pieces of cardboard and hammocks in the maloca, while eating the fruit we could gather and the iguanas we scavenged. However, we also got solidarity from the workers in other enterprises.
All the while, we began to think about a different production model that would be closer to us: if we took decisions in an assembly in the defense of Indorca, why couldn’t we collectively run the factory in an assambleary manner? Things were not pretty, but we were learning a lot.
Meanwhile, the bosses introduced a lawsuit for trespassing private property against 20 workers, so we had to report to tribunals every two weeks for three years. The owner also sent the National Guard, the police, and the SEBIN [Bolivarian Intelligence Services] to harass us.
Levi García: As José said, we decided to organize a union in 2011; the existing one responded to the interests of the bosses. The workers’ union got the majority vote, and we began a collective bargaining process. We advanced in our negotiations, but when it got to the issue of economic incentives, the process came to a halt. Finally, the Ministry of Labor had to intervene and we reached an agreement. Shortly after, however, the company began to fire workers.
The bosses also tried to get some of us to collaborate in the process, which we obviously didn’t do. Eventually, they brought the factory to a halt. That is when we decided to organize to protect Indorca: we knew that if we didn’t do this, the owner’s men would dismantle the factory.
Finally, on March 23, 2015, we got control of Indorca: the Ministry of Labor recognized us as the legitimate administrators of the factory and applied Article 149 of the Labor Law.
Eliezer Perdomo: On July 30, 2012, the bosses dismissed all the workers, put them on a bus, and closed the factory. Those workers never got paid.
It was obvious that we had to protect the means of production so we set up a camp of sorts in the maloca. We had to sleep out in the cold and hunt our own food, but we were not going to let Oscar Jiménez have his way and dismantle Indorca.
We were penniless and tired, but we kept at it. Our esprit de corps was growing. It was then that we began to take decisions in a permanent assembly. We drew up a plan: some would be charged with protecting the plant, some would go to Caracas and make themselves heard, and some would sell raffle tickets to fund the struggle.
Levi García: The year 2013 was very difficult. We had no work and no income, and I remember that December was really hard because I had no money to get new clothes for my kids. However, the whole thing was also a wonderful learning experience. Mutual solidarity and fraternity emerged out of the vigil we carried out in the maloca.
Later, but still during the standstill with the bosses, we began to get some odd jobs. That meant that while things were difficult, we could bring something home.
Josefa Hurtado: Those years were really difficult: we had no salary, we had no work, but we were committed to going forward. The owner wanted us to fail, whereas we wanted to go on producing. In the end, we succeeded. It was us, the workers, who reactivated the plant. We did it without bosses and without engineers.
Victor Mujica: While we were doing our permanent guard to protect the plant’s assets, we received a lot of solidarity from workers in other factories, including Calderys, which was already under worker control. We also got support from Sidor workers and from workers in other companies. Our comrades sometimes got us odd jobs so that we would have some income. Class solidarity was very important.
Finally, in 2015, the government applied Article 149, which granted us control of the factory. When the Ministry of Labor applies Article 149, it opens the path toward worker control. First, a three-person junta is established with two representatives of the workers and one representative of the owner. Since the owner’s representative didn’t show up, we were entitled to fill the third seat with another worker representative. That is how we finally took control of Indorca.
The struggle to get there was a long one: almost three years defending the means of production – months sleeping outside, hunting iguanas, and being harassed by the police…
The struggle was worth it, but things were not easy after that. The owners’ thugs had removed the high-power cables and other machinery. We also had become a toxic example – because of our class victory – so it took us a while to get new orders. Finally, in 2016, we signed contracts with Venalum and Sidor.
José Cedeño: Indorca’s capacity for resistance became the stuff of myths in Ciudad Guayana [Puerto Ordaz]. We had it really hard – we were harassed and persecuted – but the most important thing is that we stayed together as workers. Why? Because we knew that Indorca was important for the basic industries and for the country.
When we were finally recognized under Article 149, we got control of the factory. Then we had to overcome other barriers, from economic to administrative ones. We knew how to produce, but the management side was all new to us. To register all our revenues and expenses we simply wrote them down in a notebook. In a monthly workers’ assembly, we took all important decisions, applying the democratic principles that we had learned under the maloca.
We also had to go out into the world to get new contracts. It wasn’t easy because we were in a kind of limbo as an enterprise that was neither private nor public. However, eventually, we got our first contracts. It was a three-year battle, but worth it!
Reactivation and democratic control
At Indorca, democratic control and collective management of a factory is not the stuff of a future utopia. Rather, the workers run the enterprise without bosses and take all important decisions in a monthly assembly where every worker has an equal voice and vote.
José Cedeño: The government’s decision to apply Article 149 came when Jesús Martínez of the Jesús Rivero Bolivarian Workers University [worker-run university] was Labor Minister. His support for the process was fundamental.
When the ruling came, we had already decided that we would run the enterprise democratically. Although Article 149 establishes that a democratically-elected three-worker junta will be in charge of the company’s administration, in Indorca it is the assembly that has the last word.
During the three years in which we held down the fort, we learned about equality and solidarity. As welders, mechanics, and supervisors, we all went through the same hardships, and we took the important decisions together. Things were going to be different in the new Indorca! Equality wasn’t going to be just about decision-making, it would also be about wages… We would all get paid the same, and that’s the way it’s been until now.
Whereas private enterprises and even public ones don’t show their accounting to the workers, here we review our accounts collectively once a month. Every bolívar that has been debited or credited gets reflected on the whiteboard [in Indorca’s meeting room].
In our monthly assembly, we also talk about workflow; address any problem that we may be facing at a particular time; debate about whether to accept a contract or not; and decide our salaries based on projected expenses and revenues.
Victor Mujica: When Indorca was privately-owned, we were just expected to be at our posts for eight hours a day and work with blinders on. When Article 149 was finally applied, we had a lot of learning to do. Of those who remained in Indorca, the most qualified worker had a high-school degree, but that didn’t keep us from running the enterprise!
We had to learn about accounting (which we had been doing in a notebook!), and we had to learn how to do cost analysis: how many man-hours were needed to produce a product and what inputs would be needed, etc.
Jesús Varela: The new Indorca is in our hands. What does that really mean? We don’t just produce, we also control the production process. Before, as workers, we were throwaway assets. Now we don’t only produce value, we also understand the production cycle. We are our own bosses… and it works!
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it was easy once Article 149 came into play. Learning the ins and outs of the management process doesn’t happen overnight.
Eliezer Perdomo: Here we take all decisions collectively: everything from monthly wages to how much money goes to maintaining the Indorca bus and how much liquidity should be kept in the bank.
For me, the most important thing about self-management is that we are not bossed around, and we can solve our own problems. There is no workplace exploitation or oppression. I feel free here. That never happened before, when Indorca was in private hands. All that makes my job much more enjoyable!
Yaneth Carreño: A democratic, self-managed enterprise is not a common thing in capitalism because it puts the worker at the helm.
I came to Indorca six years ago on a temporary agreement. I had just retired from a long career in public administration, and I was going to help put things in order here. When I first came, I sat down with the books where they kept track of expenses and resources available. I could see that the workers were very meticulous, but they needed accounting tools to keep their house in order.
Little by little, I became attached to Indorca. The solidarity, the relentless commitment to learning, and the democratic processes here were all new to me. But I learned something even more important: workers are the ones who produce value, they are the ones who produce the goods that Venezuela needs!
In our society, the factory worker is invisible. The boss, the manager, or the engineer may spend eight hours in an office, and he may even be tired at the end of the day. But what is that compared to the machine operator who is exposed to high heat and intellectual and physical exhaustion? Who but the worker thinks of viable alternatives now that the blockade makes it impossible to get certain inputs and parts? Who but the worker stays in the plant for long hours when an order is due?
There is this idea that factory workers do mechanical work that doesn’t demand intellectual effort. That is wrong! Industrial workers have to solve all sorts of problems, from mechanical to chemical and operational ones. On top of that, Indorca workers know about accounting and collective management.
I worked in public administration for 25 years, and I have learned more from the workers here than I did in my entire earlier career. My job here is humble: I work on the administrative side of the enterprise, and I help with the accounting. This boils down to carefully preparing for our monthly assembly where we review Indorca’s economic situation with a great deal of precision.
Cruz Gonzales: Jump-starting the new Indorca has been a beautiful experience. Even though things aren’t easy because of the country’s general crisis, working without bosses is much better. Now we all feel that we are an important part of the puzzle. We work hard, help each other out, and make decisions collectively.
I have learned a great deal here, and I want to go on learning. I have learned about welding, but I also understand more about accounting. Most importantly, I have learned about how to run an enterprise collectively and without bosses.
Jesús Varela: It is very common to say that workers cannot run factories. The Indorca experience shows the opposite: not only have we been at this for seven years, but whereas most state and privately-owned enterprises have shut down due to the crisis and the pandemic, we kept our doors open!
Orlando Pereira: As a worker, understanding what really goes on in the firm is empowering. We know what is in our bank account at any one time. We know the work that we have to do, and nobody bosses us around.
That doesn’t mean that this is a world without conflicts. We have disagreements, sometimes big disagreements. However, having the space to debate and figure things out together actually helps us smooth out the process. In many cases, debates can lead to finding better solutions to the problems we face.
Gladys Rangel: Equality is a real thing here in Indorca… We actually live by its rule! When I was hired some two years ago, I was interviewed by José and Yaneth. The first thing they said was that Indorca is not just any enterprise, that this is a democratically-run, self-managed factory, where all workers take decisions together in the monthly assembly, and that we all get the same pay. They also told me that I wouldn’t get rich, which is true [laughs].
Since then, Indorca has become my second home: I have raised my baby here and learned from the workers. Here I discovered how the working class can run a factory – even while Venezuela faces one of the hardest crises in its history!
José Cedeño: Once it became clear that we, the workers, were going to be able to take control of the factory, the owner sent his thugs and they took 80% of the high-power cables that fed the machinery. They also took tools, air conditioners, uniforms, measuring tools, and welding equipment. Beyond that, they broke the windows and destroyed as much as they possibly could.
That was very painful for us!
The same thing happened in Calderys and Equipetrol, two factories that had gone through the same process. We got together with them to evaluate the situation and we said: We have no money, but together we have a lot of acquired knowledge. Let’s jumpstart the three factories together!
What Indorca needed and Equipetrol had, they shared with us. What Calderys needed and we had, we shared it with them. We also had some help from Alcasa, Venalum, and Sidor workers.
Our major bottleneck was re-activating the heavy machinery. To do so, Calderys was able to help us get 500 meters of cable. That is how, in one week, we were able to reactivate Indorca: a lot of hard work, a lot of solidarity… and of course, many years of experience put to good use!
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