Miners in Bolivia celebrated 1984 in their own way with an example of workers’ management that is without doubt unrivalled in the third world in these times of crisis and the decline of self-management.
As I write these lines this experience is already more than a year old. It was in 19 April 1983 that the officers of the Federacion Sindical de los Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) (the Bolivian Mine Workers’ Union), backed by their members and by the trade union movement in general, occupied the seat of the Corporacion Minera Boliviana (COMIBOL), the largest enterprise in the country, being made up of the mines nationalized in 1952 and now exhausted. The movement had made its debut a week previously in the south of the country, when workers decided to reopen the mines and treatment plants, at that time paralyzed by a strike of foremen and technical personnel, and to manage them themselves. This was the realization of one of the traditional claims of the Bolivian Labour Movement: that of worker participation in the making of economic decisions as well as political ones.
Since this claim was first formulated forty or fifty years ago it has given rise to various projects and various attempts at realizing these projects, all quickly interrupted and defeated.
In past decades this aspiration was taken up and used by the Trotskyists and by the Movomiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the party of the 1952 revolution. In the latest instance it has been adopted by the "independent" sectors of the trade union movement which are seeking the independence of the unions and the primacy Central Obrera Boliviana over the political parties, and by ground level groups. It was the latter who imposed co-management with a workers' majority over both the Trotskyist group, which saw it as a form of class cooperation and management of the crisis, and over a government dominated at present by the left of the MNR and by the communists, who saw it as a bare hint of self-management and a threat to the authority of the state.
It is impossible to understate the unique nature of Bolivian trade unionism, of which this anti-authoritarian experience is yet another example, and one must also take into consideration the persistence and vitality of its refusal to subordinate the workers’ movement to the state and to accept limitations on the field of the workers’ actions. In the other countries of Latin America the statist and authoritarian currents and forces (national-populist and Marxist) have assured their hegemony over trade union action and organization for several decades. Could Bolivia be the last country of the workers’ utopia?