Posted May 21, 2009
This past April, I had the privilege to participate in a brief campaign to defend workplace rights here in the Andean city of Mérida, Venezuela where I currently live. The campaign was to defend a very well regarded and popular director of the local Comedor Popular (“popular dining hall”) located in downtown Mérida and run by the government of the state of Mérida.
Five times a week, the comedor, like thousands of other dining halls scattered throughout the country, serves hot nutritious lunches and dinners at a very low price, or for free to those who can’t even afford that. Every day, many merideños take advantage of the tasty, nutritious and ample meals served there. I usually eat lunch there a few times per week. For five bolivars—the equivalent of less than a dollar at the “parallel” currency exchange rate, or about $2.50 at the official rate—you get soup, a main course, rice, a salad, vegetables, yucca or plantain, natural fruit juice, and sometimes dessert. During the busy lunch hour, you may have to wait a half hour or more to get served cafeteria-style, but it’s almost always a chance to see friends, make new ones, and maybe catch up on news of local political importance. Most, but not all, of the overwhelmingly working class and poor people who eat there would count themselves as supporters of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.
Serving lunch at the comedor
The case of Mayela Rodriguez
Mayela Rodriguez, the director of Mérida’s flagship comedor is, in my view, no small part of why the place felt so inviting. I was introduced to her shortly after first eating there and she truly is a highly personable human being. You can quickly see why so many in the community and the 30 or so employees there are so devoted to her. Anyone who knows her seems to like and respect her. She radiates a strong sense that she takes her role of guaranteeing high-quality nutritional food for all extremely seriously.
A typical lunch
So it came as a shock to people when Mayela was abruptly terminated from her position as head of the comedor and told she had to take a cook position in El Vigia, a city about an hour from here. Workers and community members immediately took to organizing a campaign for her immediate reinstatement.
The ostensible reason given for her dismissal was that Mayela lacked a university degree. However, she has had 15 years of experience in the field and a federal certification that was regarded as an equivalent. What seemed to be the common speculation was that because Mayela is an honest administrator, certain powers-that-be high up in the Autonomous Institute of Nourishment and Nutrition of the State of Mérida (known by its Spanish initials IAANEM), the administrators of the facility, likely wanted her out in order to replace her with someone pliable and corrupt. The director for the each comedor is in charge of making purchasing decisions where corruption could easily filter in. I should emphasize that this was merely widely-held speculation and that there was no direct proof of this. But I have no reason to believe it’s not true.
After less than 24 hours of a worker-community struggle on this issue, Mayela was able to win her position back. Upper management who shared responsibility for either making this unfortunate decision, or had the unenviable task of trying to explain it publicly, were suddenly forced to backpedal and apologize to her in a public meeting in which all the workers and a few dozen community members were present, including myself.
So how did this happen? What makes Mayela’s story of success so much different than what usually happens to a worker in the United States fighting the same kind of thing?
USA: Arbitration behind closed doors
As a union steward in the U.S., I’ve seen my share of wrongful terminations. First, as an AFSCME steward in a service and maintenance workers union at the University of Michigan, then later in a similar capacity in Broward County, Florida for an OPEIU local representing county “professional” workers. I’ve seen that even with clear evidence, with union representation including a union and/or lawyer committed to the case, and with solid evidence of discrimination or harassment, workers still end up losing. To win a case often takes several years. Even then—as is all too familiar to labor advocates—there’s usually little or no punitive damages to management. Fighting such cases almost always involve a number of legal and/or labor-management hearings such as arbitration spread over a very long period of time and can be very expensive. Quite often, union leaderships simply abandon most cases given the expense and an overall reluctance to take on management.
It’s a long cumbersome process that usually goes on behind closed doors and with a deck stacked against working people. That’s how it is in the U.S.
It was very different with this struggle here in Mérida, Venezuela.
The comedor is a public institution run by the state of Mérida. The governor and the most of the governmental apparatus nationwide is in the hands of the governing party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or as it’s known by its Spanish initials, the PSUV. This is the party led by head of state President Hugo Chávez Frias.
Venezuela: Community support for workers
When word spread about Mayela’s removal as head of the comedor, members of the community and workers quickly mobilized. Petitions were drawn up during the lunch rush and circulated. Germán Morales, an artist and revolutionary (who, in the interests of full disclosure, is also my partner) led the charge, climbing the railing where people had lined up for lunch, denouncing her dismissal and urging people to sign petitions. Over the course of the day, he and others had gathered hundreds of signatures from the public.
That evening, comedor workers met with several community supporters to plot strategy. A meeting had been planned by upper management for the next day to try to explain the situation to the workers. The strategy of Mayela’s supporters was to also get people there and demand her reinstatement at this meeting which was set for 9am the next day in the main dining hall.
Germán and I arrived at that meeting at 9am. One male security guard and one policewoman were also present. Initially the idea of opening up the meeting to the community was resisted. However, they had to relent in the face of opposition to this and with the acknowledgment that this was a public issue and therefore constitutionally had to be considered an open public meeting. Soon more community members trickled in. Mayela was there along with her husband and all the workers. Several representatives of upper management were there as well, mostly wearing red, the official color of the PSUV.
As the head administrator for the location, Mayela is not represented by a union. Her defense was conducted by herself, her husband, community supporters, and workers. The workers and community assembled weren’t buying any official doubletalk. Germán and others spoke of further actions including a picket/boycott and mass demonstrations if Mayela was not reinstated. Mayela spoke movingly and compellingly on her own behalf.
Sensing that the workers and community were united and determined to continue this struggle with further actions and lots of bad publicity, the management representatives were forced to back down. Mayela was promised her job back immediately. Apologies were made to her on the spot.
We had won.
Pro-socialist government, capitalist state
What was especially interesting to me was that everyone there spoke in terms of what was best for the revolution and the interests of “socialism.” This included the workers, community members and upper management who were either responsible for the decision or were there to defend it. This is true even of the most self-interested, opportunist and ultimately pro-capitalist government bureaucrats. That’s the contradictory reality of Venezuela today: a pro-socialist government administrating what is still a capitalist state (albeit one that has been transformed through mass struggle from a more traditional clientist neocolonial model) and presiding over an economy that overwhelmingly remains in private hands.
The administrators at all levels of the Venezuelan state run the gamut from the most sincere and revolutionary-minded to the most self-interested and opportunistic. Unfortunately, despite good rhetoric to the contrary, the model of a top-down management still prevails within the state sector. Thus workplace struggles like this one will emerge just as they would in any bourgeois state.
“Here, the people lead”
The difference is that here in Venezuela, there is at least a commitment in stated policy and in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic adopted in 1999 mandating that “here the people lead”. People take that seriously. The workers and community members united in this struggle fully believed that this was part of a revolutionary defense of their interests, a gain that had to be defended. That we had to go through this at all shows that there still is a capitalist state at work here. But the fact that this fight was essentially socialized from the very start—that those making the decision had to react to the mobilized workers and community—is something that makes the Venezuela of today very different. Those responsible for this unpopular decision had to reverse course immediately and in front of all assembled.
The perception of “here the people lead” is what’s crucial. With Mayela’s firing, that was initially taken away, but then reasserted. It’s the mere fact that people expect to be in control that makes a real difference.
It’s that sense of self-confidence on the part of the Venezuelan working class that continues to be so inspiring. This self-confidence is the key ingredient that can serve to propel the great masses of people forward to create the organizations needed in order to overthrow capitalism and democratically administer all the resources of society. We saw a small example of this in winning Mayela’s job back. We’ll need more of it to win bigger victories ahead.
In Venezuela, as elsewhere around the globe, it’s this sense of self-confidence and self-organization on the part of the working class and all the oppressed that will be the ultimate difference between our victory and our defeat.