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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 22:37 GMT 23:37 UK
Chavez calls for democracy at work
Iain Bruce
In Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela

Line 3 at Alcasa
Workers take decisions at Alcasa's aluminium plant
The heat and the noise are almost unbearable in the casting room of Line 3 at Alcasa.

This is one of two big aluminium plants in the south-eastern city of Puerto Ordaz, where most of Venezuela's basic industries are concentrated.

It is also the test bed for a new experiment in co-management, which President Hugo Chavez says is a key step towards a "socialism of the twenty-first century".

Alcides Rivero, who works here as a maintenance electrician, says co-management means that for the first time in this company's 37 years of existence, the workforce has control.

"It's us, the workers", he says, "who decide on questions of production and technology, and it's us who elect who will be our managers."

Marivit Lopez, from the personnel department, explains that the workers are also drawing up a "participatory budget" for 2006.

"The different departmental works councils are discussing and amending the existing proposal so that we get a budget that really fits the company's needs," she says.

Modern socialism

The works councils are the cornerstone of this co-management experiment at Alcasa.

Workers and strategists during a discussion at Rodding Shed No. 3
Both workers and strategists take part in discussions

During a session at Rodding Shed No. 3, one elected representative from each area team work amid reams of statistics, charts sketched on the white board and scale models.

The representatives are discussing possible solutions to their department's biggest technical problem; how to reorganise maintenance and procurement in order to get a longer working life out of the graphite anodes, the components used to separate the pure aluminium.

According to the man steering this whole process, one of the aims of co-management is to break down the barriers between intellectual and physical labour; between those who do the thinking and those who do the work.

Carlos Lanz, recently appointed president of Alcasa, and himself a former guerrilla leader, says the results are already visible.

"Democratic planning is such a powerful lever that even with rather outdated technology we have managed to increase production by 11%," he says.

Mr Lanz points out that this is not the co-management of European social democracy, which in his view has been limited to giving the workers shares and a seat on the board.

"This is about workers controlling the factory and that is why it is a step towards socialism of the twenty-first century."

Worker involvement

So far, Venezuela's co-management plans have been confined to state owned companies like Alcasa, and to two small private companies that had already gone bankrupt.

Carlos Lanz, president of Alcasa
Alcasa president Carlos Lanz believes in democratic planning

Early this year the government took over the Venepal paper factory and the Valvulas valve factory.

They were relaunched under co-management, with 51% of the shares owned by the state and the workers organised in a co-operative holding the remaining 49%.

But last Mayday President Hugo Chavez said he wanted to go further.

He suggested that many more private companies might qualify for government assistance if they too involved their workers in the management.

He announced that a draft bill was being presented to Congress for discussion.

State intervention

The president's announcement has made some business leaders confused and concerned.

Tony Herrera of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce
Mr Herrera fears the end result may fall short of the vision

Tony Herrera, of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, says it is still very difficult to grasp exactly what is meant by the government's co-management proposal.

He fears it may just mean more state control over the economy.

"The problem in Venezuela has been that the road to hell has been paved with good intentions in the past," he says.

"The state has made many attempts to intervene in the economy over many years, and the result is there for all to see."

The head of Venezuela's main business association, Fedecameras, agrees.

Albis Munoz says she doesn't want to see co-management imposed on Venezuelan companies by law, but she says she wouldn't have a problem with the kind of co-management developed by the Christian Democrats in Germany - in other words, a freely negotiated, strategic alliance between employees, employers and consumers.

That, however, does not seem to be what the people at Alcasa have in mind.

Marivit Lopez speaks enthusiastically of pressing ahead with what she calls "revolutionary co-management"; part of "the transition to a new system of production".

With government support, she and some of the others from the aluminium factory are running courses for employees at the other state industries in the region - on "how to organise your own system of co-management".

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