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Venezuela: Unionists debate call for new federation; Chavez sacks labour minister

By Kiraz Janicke

Caracas, April 15, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) -- In a joint press conference with Venezuela's labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero on Sunday, National Assembly deputy and coordinator of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force (FSBT), a faction within the National Union of Workers (UNT), announced the formation of a new national union federation and called on unions to disaffiliate from the UNT.

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STOP PRESS

CARACAS, April 16 (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez named a veteran communist leader as labour minister on Wednesday, days after ordering the nationalisation of a giant steelmaker whose workers are fighting for better pay. The first task facing Roberto Hernandez, a [former] long-term member of the Venezuelan Communist Party, will be to negotiate a new labour contract with the union at the Ternium Sidor steel works.

The appointment was published in the government's official gazette.

Hernandez replaces former minister Jose Rivero, who was criticized for failing to resolve a fierce labour dispute that caused months of sporadic strikes and bloody clashes between workers and police.

SEE ARTICLE BELOW.

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Vera's announcement was preceded by a public attack on the UNT by Minister Rivero (also from the FSBT), who was quoted in an interview with regional daily Notitarde on April 11 as saying ``the National Union of Workers does not represent the spirit of the Venezuelan revolutionary process''.

The UNT was formed as a pro-revolution national federation on April 5, 2003, after the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) became widely discredited for participating in the April 2002 military coup against the government of President Hugo Chavez, carried out by rightwing opposition sectors and business elites, and later for siding with management in the 63-day oil industry shutdown again aimed at overthrowing Chavez in December 2002-January 2003.

With 24 national coordinators, the UNT was formed essentially as an alliance of union leaders that later came to represent five major currents within the Bolivarian labour movement -- the FSBT, the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CTR), the United Revolutionary Autonomous Class Current (CCURA), the Alfredo Maneiro current and Union Autonomy, as well as a number of smaller currents.

It was promised that elections for the national leadership would be carried out within three months of the founding congress. However, after much internal wrangling over the modalities of the vote, they were repeatedly postponed and have so far never taken place.

The UNT ``does not represent workers'' and is ``incapable'' of responding to their demands Vera claimed.

Of Venezuela's 11 million workers, 3 million are unionised (the majority of which are affiliated to the UNT, though some still remain affiliated to the CTV). Of these 3 million, Vera said the new union federation aims to organise 2 million.

``Each one of the national federations and unions will be directly represented in the executive committee; there will be no professional union leaders who don't represent anyone, as has been the case until now'', Vera claimed.

The Venezuelan trade union movement also has to overcome the ``bad practice'' of failing to hold elections, he added in an interview on state-owned television station VTV.

However, Vera's current was instrumental in opposing elections proposed by CCURA and others in the 2006 UNT congress. Critics have also accused the FBST of failing to hold elections in individual unions they control.

Vera also praised the formation of the United Federation of Venezuelan Oil Workers (FUTPV), in September last year, as a great example of uniting three major oil worker's federations.

However, Jose Bodas, general secretary of the Fedepetral Anzoátegui responded saying, ``this is a big lie, the FUTPV, the federation that will group oil workers still does not exist legitimately. Elections have not been held to form it and in reality there is only a provisional leadership handpicked by the minister of labour and the minister of energy.''

Vera claimed the proposal to form the new national federation has the support of 17 out of 19 of the most important national sectoral unions, including the energy and oil, higher education, health, electricity, public service, transport, construction, flour production, education and telecommunications sectors, among others.

The 17 unions referred to currently belong to the National Union of Workers (UNT). However, Vera is calling on them to disaffiliate and join the new national federation being set up by the FSBT.

In addition, he said important non-federated unions in the companies Ferrominera, Metro de Caracas, Polar, CocaCola Femsa, PepsiCola and Cigarrera Bigott also support the move to create a new federation. According to Vera this accounts for 80% of the Venezuelan trade union movement. The FSBT has claimed for some time that it represents 80% of the union movement after fusing with the Alfredo Monero current and Union Autonomy.

However, other national coordinators of the UNT, including Stalin Perez Borges, Marcela Maspero and Orlando Chirino rejected Vera's claim that the majority of national sectoral unions support the new federation. Chirino, a leader of C-CURA accused the ``red bureaucrats'' of the government of carrying out a ``coup'' via the FSBT ``against the autonomous and democratic will of the Venezuelan workers''. For Chirino the proposed new federation is a sign that Venezuela is heading towards Stalinism because ``the government wants to control the labor movement.''

On the other hand, Máspero, the only female national coordinator of the UNT and leader of the of the CTR current, said this new federation ``emerges from the endogenous right wing of the revolution'' and accused the FSBT of implementing ``the same bureaucratic practices as the CTV''.

Nationalisation of SIDOR

The proposal for the new union federation has to do with the ``failure of the methods and practice of the labour minister in the SIDOR conflict'', Máspero said.

On April 9 President Chavez nationalised Venezuela's largest steel plant, the Argentine-controlled SIDOR, after a 14-month dispute for a collective contract. The United Steel Industry Workers Union (SUTISS) had roundly criticised the labour minister for ``violating union autonomy'' after he intervened in negotiations and attempted to impose a referendum of the company's final pay offer.

In contrast, during a speech on April 13, Chavez praised the workers' struggle and the nationalisation of SIDOR and called on the working class to assume a ``protagonistic role'' in the revolution.

Rivero has subsequently been sidelined from the collective contract negotiations between the government and the SIDOR workers, which will be carried out by Vice-president Ramon Carrizales.

``Vera as well as the minister placed themselves on the side of the company, whilst SUTISS was able to defeat the hired labour contracting of employment and with that awoke a new consciousness within the workers'', Máspero declared. However, she added, ``We have no fear either to incorporate ourselves into the new federation, or to remain in the UNT or to debate this, we are open to anything.''

`Divide the union movement'

Perez Borges, a leader of C-CURA and of the new union current Socialist Tide, said the labour minister had received ``a very big setback'' when President Chavez withdrew him from negotiations in the SIDOR conflict and was now trying to divide the union movement. Perez Borges said Rivero was largely viewed as a ``traitor'' by workers and argued ``if he had any dignity he would resign''.

A Socialist Tide statement released yesterday called on President Chavez ``in the same manner in which he intervened in the SIDOR conflict'' to ``listen to all the currents of the UNT to discuss the role of an autonomous and independent union federation in the revolutionary process''. Socialist Tide argued that it is necessary for the union movement to be reorganised from the grassroots ``because we are conscious that while we continue to be dispersed the bosses and the endogenous right win. As long as we are disarticulated the workers will not be the social subject in the revolutionary process that we are living through in Venezuela''.

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Venezuelan labour minister dismissed

Newly appointed Labor Minister, Roberto Henández (VTV)
Newly appointed labour minister, Roberto Henández (VTV)

Caracas, April 16, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) – In a decision announced late Tuesday night (April 15), Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dismissed labour minister José Ramón Rivero. Official gazette number 38.910 indicated that Rivero has been replaced by former Communist Party (PCV) member and vice-president of the national assembly Roberto Manuel Hernández, and that the change was to take effect ``immediately''.

The move appears to be a repudiation of recent actions of the labour minister, who only two days prior, held a joint press conference with one faction of the National Union of Workers (UNT)—the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force (FSBT)—and announced the formation of a new national labor federation calling on unions to disaffiliate from the UNT.

Rivero, (a member of the FSBT) publicly attacked the UNT in an interview with regional daily Notitarde on April 11, saying: ``The National Union of Workers does not represent the spirit of the Venezuelan revolutionary process.''

Rivero had also recently presided over negotiations between the management of Venezuela's largest steel plant, the Argentine-controlled SIDOR, and the United Steel Industry Workers Union (SUTISS) in a long running and bitter dispute for a collective contract.

However, the former minister became widely discredited among the SIDOR workers and was accused of violating union autonomy after he attempted to impose a company run referendum on the management’s final pay offer or face arbitration.

The ongoing conflict provoked the intervention of President Chavez last week, who overrode the labour minister and ordered the steel plant to be re-nationalised. Rivero was subsequently sidelined from collective contract negotiations between the government and the SIDOR workers, responsibility for which has been assigned to vice-president Ramon Carrizales.

National coordinator of the UNT and leader of the Socialist Tide (Marea Socialista) union current, Stalin Pérez Borges, who had earlier called for Rivero to resign, said: ``Like the absolute majority of Venezuelan workers, Socialist Tide cannot hide that we receive the news of the exit of labour minister José Ramón Rivero with great happiness.''

``This is a new triumph of the workers; now we are going to campaign for the unity of the UNT and the revolutionary union movement. This demonstrates that President Chavez listens to the demands of the workers and the people'', the union leader added.

Marcos García, a coordinator of public sector union FENTRASEP said: ``The workers movement, with the triumph of the SIDOR workers and the people of Guayana, who achieved the nationalisation of the principal steel producer in Latin America, has produced a change throughout the country.

``This triumph has helped so that a policy of deepening the process can be developed, so we can attack old problems and resolve the necessities of working people. Now, finally, an emblematic company has returned to the hands of the Venezuelan people.''

The attempt by the former labour minister to ``decree a new divisionist, sectarian, bureaucratic and pro-bosses union federation'' was a desperate measure, but ``no one will accompany him apart from a few accomplices from his own current, the FSBT, who have been repudiated by the majority of workers'', Garcia continued.

Vilma Vivas, the regional coordinator of the UNT in the state of Táchira, asserted in view of these new developments: ``All the leaders and currents that are active in the UNT, nationally and regionally, have an enormous responsibility. We need to overcome the dispersion within our movement and, together with the workers, regroup and put back on its feet our national federation that was born in the heat of the struggle against the coup of April 11 and the sabotage of the boss’s oil lockout.''

“It is necessary to put aside old differences and take the necessary step towards a united federation, truly democratic, pluralist, independent and autonomous from the state and political parties. A federation ready to support the demands of the workers and disposed to defend the Bolivarian process, as has been demonstrated in various moments and to struggle for the deepening of the revolution in the sense of promoting the path to socialism'', she added.

As a way forward Pérez Borges said Socialist Tide was proposing a meeting ``between all the currents that are active within the UNT and the revolutionary process to give firm steps towards the necessary regrouping and unification of a worker’s leadership consistent with the process but democratic, pluralist and independent of the state.''

As the second step towards a workers' movement capable of ``occupying the place that it deserves in the Bolivarian revolution'', Pérez Borges said Socialist Tide was also calling for a united mobilisation and march in Caracas on May 1.

Third, it is necessary to ``initiate a democratic process within the working class, their grassroots unions and their natural leaders to re-group and reorganise the UNT, without exclusions of any currents who support the revolution'', he explained.

[Kiraz Janicke is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective of Australia resident in Venezuela. This article was first published at VenezuelAnalysis (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/). Published under a Creative Commons license (by-nc-nd). See http://creativecommons.org for more information.]

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