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Venezuela: Wages, prices and lessons in working-class power

By Sean Orr |
December 10, 2018
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The working class of Venezuela is advancing.
The working class of Venezuela is advancing. (Fight Back! News/staff)

Chicago, IL - In the months since President Nicolás Maduro’s re-election, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie - more politically and socially isolated than at any point in their history - has launched into a vicious struggle against the working class, which is rising to a position of revolutionary potential not yet seen.

Unable to struggle politically, as their parties have worked themselves into irrelevance with their embrace of fascist violence and open affiliation with the U.S. government, the bourgeoisie are increasingly battling the working class at the source of their irreconcilability: the point of production.

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its landlord allies, is a class in open contempt with the present reality. This contempt takes a violent form in the countryside, where the big landlords order the killings of communists among the farmworkers and campesinos. In the cities, this contempt takes a more well-known form - workers are illegally fired, collective contracts are blatantly ignored and union militants are harassed by bought-off police on the laughable charge of “acts of hate” against their employer.

Prices: Workers held hostage by the rich

While this repression targets organized workers specifically, the bourgeoisie lashes out against all working people in general with their price hikes. Since 2013, the Venezuelan state has had the power to set the price for basic goods and services through the Law of Just Prices. The Maduro government enters into negotiations with the largest privately-owned companies to win them over to the new prices, which are then announced and implemented across the country.

In October, new “agreed prices” were declared by Maduro, timed with the Labor Ministry’s announcement of a new national minimum wage at BsS 1800, the first minimum wage pegged to the new currency. Workers could finally afford to shop at grocery stores without spending their entire paychecks, which has been the norm during these brutal years of corporate economic warfare.

Relief, however, was short-lived. Grocery store chains that had agreed to the new prices suddenly changed course and raised prices how they saw fit. Outrage soared. Officers of the SUNDDE (National Superintendence for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights) occupied what stores they could to enforce the agreed prices, but they could not be everywhere at once, and when they left stores prices rose once again.

While the agreed prices were made irrelevant, employers made use of the confusion around the new wage table - implemented by the Labor Ministry, which adjusted other wages according to the new minimum wage - to go on the offensive against trade unions. They attempted to scrap union contracts as irrelevant under the new currency and fired worker militants. Functionaries in the Labor Ministry, tasked with defending workers, looked the other way.

Workers on the march

These attacks were not taken lying down - they are responded to with the march of the working class. At the head of this mobilization, bringing together great swathes of the labor movement and broader working class, stand the communists. On November 8, two assemblies were held in Caracas - the National Gathering of the Working Class held by Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Popular Unity (UPRA), and the National Gathering for Class Struggle Unionism held by the National Front for Working Class Struggle (FNLCT). Both mass fronts are connected to the revolutionary parties of the working class - UPRA to the Revolutionary Party of Labor (PRT), while the FNLCT to the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).

Out of these assemblies, which each brought together hundreds of delegates from trade unions, communes and social movements, came similar demands: a raise in the new national minimum wage, which had actually led to sharp wage cuts; the reinstatement of all illegally fired workers; a nationally-enforced freeze of prices and swift justice to any business owners that refuse to cooperate; and the removal from the Labor Ministry of any corrupt elements.

Following the lead of the FNLCT and UPRA, thousands of workers have mobilized across the country, holding demonstrations outside of government buildings and the local chambers of commerce. Both have demonstrated outside of the Constituent National Assembly, and their comrades within the legislature have ensured their voices are heard.

Alongside of these political demonstrations, workers continue to seize greater power for themselves in the economy. A shining example of this can be seen in the state of Lara, where the statewide labor federation — the FBST-CCP Lara, led by the Marxist-Leninist Labor Current — has taken up the task of transforming the workers into the organized vanguard they need to be. Every day they organize more workers in their state to form workers’ productive councils (CPTs) to directly take control of the means of production. There is nothing that the bourgeoisie fears more.

These demonstrations are not anti-government — there is no opposition to “worker president” Nicolás Maduro or “comrade Minister” Eduardo Piñate. They are demonstrations for the advance of the Bolivarian Revolution to a new stage. They are demonstrations of workers who can no longer tolerate half-measures in the struggle. As the FBST-CCP Lara said in their press statement on the recent crisis, "What we have won with our lives, our victories will not be negotiated over with the parasitic bourgeoisie, much less when they do not respect the agreements of the prices of products. No more conciliation with the enemies of the people.”

The demonstrations have been met with positive moves. At the beginning of December, Maduro announced that the minimum wage would be raised, from BsS 1800 to BsS 4500. While time will tell if this will have a long-lasting impact on wages (hyperinflation is still a problem, although much less so under the new currency), this is nonetheless an improvement, and a direct response to the workers. On December 8, Labor Minister Piñate addressed the outrage over price hikes, and stated that the only way to end speculation lies in the seizure of production by the workers. “It is the workers who really know the costs of production,” said the Minister, “and this is one of the CPTs’ tasks in the public and private sectors, to put themselves at the head of production and in the struggle against speculation. It is a very important task.”

Some lessons

Venezuela still remains within the confines of capitalist social relations. Swathes of the economy are state-owned, yes. And workers organized into communes or workers productive councils continue to surge, taking control of this factory or that workplace, ensuring that the new economy will work in their interests. But the bourgeoisie remains, and its claws are dug deep, particularly in the service and distribution sectors. This is why the economic war is felt the most on the shelves of grocery stores - it is where the bourgeoisie has its firmest grasp.

Prices decided on by the national government matter little when the bourgeoisie refuses to cooperate. Setting a new wage table that seeks to “emancipate the working class” (in the words of Eduardo Piñate) cannot happen in an economy that is still unplanned and still belonging to a parasitic class. And the revolutionary caliber of a government minister matters little when many of the functionaries on all levels are crooks, willing to work for the bourgeoisie that is the source of all of their country’s woes.

But the workers are in motion, and once they have begun their march to liberation they can be unstoppable. Communists in Venezuela have long argued that socialism can only come to their country once the working class comes into leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution. With workers winning victory after victory, and with their exploiters desperately holding on to what power they can, it seems that this question of leadership may soon be answered.

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