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Venezuela's labour movement at the crossroads; Stalin Borges Perez on May Day

 

See http://www.links.org.au/node/388#comment-527 for a report on the Caracas May Day March.

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Venezuela's labour movement at the crossroads

By Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes

April 29, 2008 -- Venezuelanalysis.com -- First came the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on April 9 to re-nationalise the Sidor steel plant—privatised by a pre-Chavez government in 1997—after a long workers' struggle. This was followed shortly by the call from Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force’s (FSBT), a faction with in the pro-Chavez National Union of Workers (UNT), to split away to form a new national federation. Two days later, labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero, a member of the FSBT, who was accused by Sidor workers of opposing their struggle, was replaced by National Assembly Vice-President and former Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) member Roberto Hernandez, now a United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) member.

These events have once again brought to the fore the question of the role of workers in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, whose participation as an organised class has been sporadic at best, in this process aimed at constructing ``Socialism of the 21st Century''.

Neoliberal unions

Prior to Chavez’ election in 1998, Venezuela’s political system had been dominated for 40 years by two traditional parties: the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI) and Democratic Action (AD), a social-democratic party. The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the main trade union federation, although having emerged out of workers' struggle, had quickly become subordinated to AD, and by the 1980s and '90s became a bastion of support for the policies of consecutive neoliberal governments.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans march in Caracas on May 1, 2008. Photo: ABN (more pictures at http://www.radiomundial.com.ve/yvke/noticia.php?5429).

In the context of an emerging wave of privatisations, increased casualisation, spiraling unemployment and 80% poverty, Chavez was elected president on an anti-neoliberal platform in 1998. His election not only put a stop to further planned privatisations (which included the petroleum and electricity sector) but ushered in a new era of state policies directed at empowering the poor and exploited, causing a profound impact on the workers' movement.

In 2005, unionists from the industrial town of Valencia told us what the Chavez presidency had meant for workers. ``If you do a survey of all the companies, in all of them are new groups of [unionists] that have sprouted, because they have won referendums, because the new laws [introduced by President Hugo Chavez’ government] protect them'', explained Luis Flugo, one of the new layer of union activists, whose union at the time was involved in a nine-month struggle against the Aseven (KR) soft-drink company. ``That is what has helped take the blindfold off and see that [workers] can win their rights.''

The new laws enabled workers to hold referendums in their workplace to decide who would oversee their collective contract and opened the space for a new layer of militants to rise from the ranks. While the new laws and government policies provided tools for workers’ struggle, it was struggle from below that profoundly shook up the labour movement. In the context of the open collaboration of the CTV with the business federation, Fedecamaras, in a wave of rightwing anti-government protests from the end of 2001, and its participation in the failed coup attempt against Chavez in April 2002, a national gathering of pro-revolution unionists in September that year, voted against breaking with the CTV to form a new labour federation, and to continue to fight from within to win leadership of the CTV.

New federation

It would take the experience of the bosses’ lockout (once again with the open collaboration of the CTV), initiated in December 2002, for workers, organised as a class, to enter into the arena of the revolution. In response to the wave of factory shutdowns, in particular the management shutdown and sabotage of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, workers moved in and began to take control of their factories, including restarting the oil and electrical sectors, which were crucial to breaking the bosses’ lockout.

This situation led to a definitive break with the CTV and the attempt by militant unionists to form a new revolutionary labour federation. The National Union of Workers (UNT) was born on April 5, 2003. Diana Barahona, writing for CounterPunch on October 24, 2005, noted that while the UNT’s first congress ``left structural issues [essential for democratic unionism] unresolved … there was general agreement over principles and the plan of action.''

Spurred on by a government discourse—backed by the constitution—of support for workers' participation and co-management in industry and a government moratorium on lay-offs of lowest paid workers, UNT affiliation grew dramatically, representing 76.5% of all collective agreements signed in 2003-2004, rapidly overtaking the CTV as Venezuela’s principal labour federation.

Despite this growth, unionisation remains only slightly above 20% of the formal work force, while 47% of workers are in the so-called informal sector, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics.

At its high point in 2005 some 1 million workers participated in a UNT-organised May Day march in Caracas under the banner of ``Co-management is revolution'' and ``Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian Socialism''. ``Factory closed, factory occupied and run by the workers'' became the catchcry of both Chavez and the union movement, with a list of 800 factories that had been shut down across the country earmarked to be taken over.

Divisions and setbacks

However, three years later only a handful have been recuperated, and in a number of important cases, workers' co-management has been rolled back or defeated altogether. Today, many unionists agree that the labour movement is more dispersed and fragmented than it has ever been in the last nine years of Chavez government. A number of factors have contributed to this situation, including bitter divisions within the union movement itself, conflicting views over the experience of co-management and issues such as union autonomy and democracy.

Since its inception, internal debates and conflict have wracked the UNT. Lack of internal structures and horizontalism, perhaps necessary at the start but never redressed, lead to the UNT have 21 national coordinators. Elections were continually postponed due to factional wrangling. With political differences and personal rivalries increasingly dominating the federation, it reached a point where each current began to act independently of the other, though all in the name of the UNT.

This lack of structure led to the Communist Party of Venezuela-aligned United Confederation of Venezuelan Workers deciding to remain outside the UNT.

By the time of its second congress in 2006, five major political currents had emerged: the FSBT (initially the Bolivarian Worker’s Force, which predates the UNT as a current within the CTV) led by Oswaldo Vera; the Alfredo Maneiro current, whose key leaders included Ramon Machuca in the steel industry and Franklin Rondon in the public sector; the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CTR), lead by Marcela Maspero; the United Revolutionary Autonomous Class Current (CCURA), headed by Orlando Chirinos and Stalin Perez Borges; and the smaller Union Autonomy, lead by Orlando Castillo.

While the FSBT and the Alfredo Manerio current involved leaders of some of the largest union federations, predominantly in the public service and state-owned industry where they worked to maintain control, the CTR and CCURA focused on promoting the discussion of co-management and on winning the new emerging unions, generally in the private sector.

The situation came to a head in an acrimonious dispute at the 2006 congress, ostensibly over the timing of elections, but in reality masking personal and ideological differences including over how to relate to the Chavez government.

CCURA, which appeared to have a majority at the congress, called for immediate elections while the other factions argued they should be postponed until after the 2006 presidential elections so as not to distract from Chavez’ presidential campaign. The congress ended in disarray and since then, the UNT has effectively ceased functioning as a national federation despite a number of strong regional sections.

In addition to these divisions, another feature of the union movement, particularly striking in the context of the radical social changes occurring in Venezuela, is the lack of any political strategy aimed at deepening the Bolivarian process towards the construction of a socialism and genuine workers' control.

This is reflected in the overwhelmingly economist nature of their demands. As Canadian Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz puts it, ``Their whole orientation towards higher wages and their tendency to act like a labor aristocracy in a society where so many people are poor.''

The UNT, like the CTV before it, has largely avoided any attempt to organise workers in the informal sector, focusing overwhelmingly on the demands of the most privileged layer of Venezuelan workers. This has led to a disjuncture between the organised trade union movement and the masses of poor Venezuelans who form the backbone of the Bolivarian Revolution.

New political developments

New political developments in 2007, such as the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which unites many pro-Chavez groups and hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms aimed at ``opening the path to socialism'', and the appointment of FSBT leader Jose Ramon Rivero to the position of labour minister led to further debates within the union movement.

While almost all the currents agreed with the necessity to join the PSUV, the CCURA current split over this question. Pointing to comments by Chavez against ``union autonomy'', a wing of CCURA lead by Chirinos rejected participation in the PSUV as it moved towards a more hostile position in relation to the government, including calling for a spoiled vote in the constitutional reform referendum of December 2, 2007.

The majority of CCURA, however, voted to go into the PSUV, forming the Socialist Tide (Marea Socialista) current, led by Stalin Perez Borges.

Growing conflicts between labor and the state have also impacted on the debate over how the labour movement should relate to the government. As momentum built for greater workers' participation, sections of the state bureaucracy seeking to protect their own interests began to actively undermine the process.

One example occurred in the state-owned CADAFE electricity company. After a long struggle, winning the right of workers' participation in their collective contract, and establishing workers' committees to make it a reality, management moved to crush any real participation, limiting it to decisions over what Christmas decorations would fill the halls of administration offices.

This pattern has been repeated in many different spheres of Venezuelan society -- a push by the ranks, in alliance with Chavez, for popular power has encountered the resistance of sectors of the state bureaucracy who do not want to cede control. These vested interests intersect with the right wing of the Chavista camp, which has strong institutional weight and seeks to slow down the revolutionary process.

This conflict has led to a debate over what role workers should have in running the economy, with some supporting a more passive role while others demand more active workers' participation and control.

In response, the Revolutionary Front of Workers in Co-managed Factories (FRETECO) was formed, grouping together many of the workers in the handful of worker-run factories that exist.

Labour and the state

The conflict between labour and the state increased dramatically with the appointment of Rivero as labour minister. He intervened into disputes to advance his own current, the FSBT, or even sided with the bosses, as with the case of Sanatarios Maracay, an occupied ceramics factory where workers say he intervened to set up a parallel union and hand back the factory to the boss.

The situation intensified in January this year with the Sidor dispute. After more than a year of struggle for a collective contract the Sidor workers found themselves in a situation of open confrontation not only against management but also with the policies of the local ``Chavista'' governor, Fransisco Rangel Gomez, and the labour minister, who tried to impose a referendum on the company’s final pay offer. At one point the workers were brutally repressed with tear gas and rubber bullets by the national guard and the local police.

The labour minister also slandered the Sidor workers, claiming they were ``counter-revolutionary'' and falsely alleged they had supported the boss’s lockout of December 2002, when in fact, they had heroically seized control of the plant to help break it.

Chavez eventually overrode Rivero and sent in Vice-President Ramon Carrizalez to settle the dispute and announced on April 9 the government's decision to nationalise the plant. ``This is a government that protects workers and will never take the side of a transnational company'', Carrizalez said.

Reinvigorated union movement

This act, long demanded by the Sidor workers, has reinvigorated the labour movement, as Marcos García, a coordinator of public sector union FENTRASEP explained, ``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.''

In this context, Rivero launched a public attack on the UNT, telling the April 11 edition of Venezuelan regional daily Notitarde, ``The [UNT] does not represent the spirit of the Venezuelan revolutionary process.''

Then on April 13, Rivero and national assembly deputy and coordinator of the FSBT Osvaldo Vera announced the formation of a new national union federation calling on unions to disaffiliate from the UNT, claiming to have the backing of 17 of the most important sectoral federations.

However Chavez, while addressing 300,000 supporters on the sixth anniversary of the 2002 coup on the same day, praised the SIidor workers and called on the working class to assume a ``protagonistic role'' in the revolution. ``The working class is fundamental to any socialist revolution'', he insisted.

In what appears to be a clear repudiation of the right-wing role of Rivero in the Sidor dispute and his public support for splitting the UNT, Chavez sacked him two days later and he was replaced by former Communist Party member and national assembly vice-president Roberto Hernandez. The new minister has called for unity and proposed a union constituent assembly to re-found the labour movement, which has the backing of Socialist Tide, CCURA and the CTR.

One important question will be what happens in Sidor: will the creative spirit of the Sidor workers in struggle be unleashed through active participation in the running of the company, or will they be relegated back to simply fighting for a better collective contract, like the electricity workers before them?

However, broader questions for the union movement centre on whether it will be able to overcome its serious divisions, which could potentially deepen with the call for a new alternative federation to the UNT.

Undoubtedly the UNT, at the very least, needs to be refounded, but this requires a dialogue between the different currents, and more importantly, a democratic process involving rank and file workers in order to create a genuine revolutionary trade union movement that can advance the Bolivarian revolution towards socialism.

[Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes are members 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.]

 

`This year May Day is very special'

As May Day approaches once again, Federico Fuentes on April 30 from www.greenleft.org.au interviewed Stalin Pérez Borges (SPB), national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT) and member of the editorial board of the newspaper Marea Socialista and Marcos Garcia (MG), national coordinator of the public sector federation, FENTRASEP and member also of Marea Socialista. Both are militants in the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

How is Marea Socialista preparing for May Day?

SPB: We believe that this year May Day is very special because a historic change has been produced in the country. The re-nationalisation of Sidor has changed the political map for various reasons. President Chavez understood that the nationalisation was a fair demand of the Sidor workers and the revolutionary people of Guayana and Venezuela. And the struggle, without quarter, of the workers and comrades of Sidor was an example of unity and commitment for the entire workers' movement around the country. In this manner a new opportunity has been opened; for the workers so that we can be protagonists of the first order in the changes that are necessary to be carried out; for the government to reunite with the workers and for the revolutionary process it has ignited a powerful motor and gives more strength to the famous five motors that many have spoken of recently.

MG: The political change that this measure signifies has given a new boost to the working class and now the increased involvement of the workers is notable in the sense of fighting for the deepening the revolutionary process. This is why this May Day is different. For us the change that has been produced is truly historic. I don’t want to say that everything is assured. Of course not, but yes, today the conditions to achieve our demands and political objectives are much better. I can now say that in my sector in particular, the public sector, we have been injected with more energy to continue fighting for our collective contract for which we have been waiting for more than four years and we see that now this could be fulfilled soon, as well as the elections in our federation.

SPB: To answer your question, in regard to how we in Marea are preparing ourselves for this historic date, I can say to you that we are internationalists and are very worried about the situation in Bolivia. It is a fact that the Bolivian bourgeois is extremely racist, and retrograde, the child of North American imperialism, and has the intention to destroy the revolutionary process in Bolivia and the government of Evo Morales using whatever type of violence.

We are ready for any campaign and solidarity action to defeat the Bolivian rightwing, which is to defeat the North American rightwing and the rightwing of the entire continent. And as May Day comes around we look back to remember once again, that the 1st of May is a very important day for workers around the world. This year we commemorate 122 years since those heroic fighters, the martyrs of Chicago, were assassinated. Their crime was to demand the 8-hour day in a world in which even women and children suffered the worst slavery. They did not lower their banners, they did not capitulate and they made history.

This demonstration of consistency clearly shows that when your struggle is just sooner or later you will win. The proof is that this year in Colombia, in the United Status itself, where they were assassinated, they established the 8-hour day for all public employees and those of private companies that contract with the State. Without doubt it is necessary to commemorate this date, but we in Venezuela also commemorate what we have achieved and what we are still fighting for. This May Day we are going for those victories that are still outstanding.

What can you tell us about what has been achieved and what remains unresolved?

MG: For us this May Day is very important and we consider it the first step to renew the struggle for the demands that the workers' movement still has not obtained. First a general increase in salaries for all workers is necessary. The basic increase announced by President Chavez every year is not enough, today we, together with many others demand a general emergency increase, higher than the indices of inflation. This is an increase that will serve to relieve millions who have not yet been able to discuss their collective contracts, their socioeconomic necessities. That is the first thing.

The second is the issue of casualisation. We cannot continue tolerating these contracts; continue allowing the bosses, the national government itself and the state and municipal governments to fail to comply with the law and without any sanction. It appears that this will change with Sidor, we hope this is so. Until now, the previous minister of labour and the inspectors (of the labour ministry) did nothing to stop this. And in the case of Sidor we hope that the government understands that we cannot repeat the same failed experiences of co-management or aim to implement the same type of management they are doing in CAN TV or Electricidad de Caracas. The steel plant must have a new productive model, truly socialist.

SPB: For us, the reduction of the work day is very important also. The 6-hour day can and should be established by presidential decree, this is an issue not only of work conditions, but a political issue of the highest important. We need a working class with the time to dedicate themselves to the management of affairs of state and government. That has time to participate democratically in the planning and implementation of the socialism that we want.

The reduction of the work day is more time to rest and live and care for nature and our environment, it is the possibility of creating more sources of employment, with salaries that satisfy the basic food basket. And the president can do it, he has all the tools to carry it out at his hand and the workers also can win this right. For this reason we will also march on May 1, to win the reduction of the working day.

Can you talk about the situation of the workers' movement, the union movement?

MG: Together with the nationalisation of Sidor, another fundamental step that we won was that the president has thrown out the ex-minister of labour, as he deserved, this was a demand of the majority of workers. José Ramón Rivero dedicated himself, while he was minister, to strengthening his own union current, of course he did not achieve it, as it is not representative, neither is this phantom of a new union federation that he is proposing.

The two acts, the nationalisation of Sidor and the dismissal of the minister, open up a great opportunity to overcome the dispersion of the union movement. From Marea Socialista we are calling for everyone to take the necessary steps, we call all the union currents that defend the revolutionary process to unite. To leave aside the differences that have us so divided and to put forward the points that unite us, there are many and they are very important. And this way give the workers the union organisation that they need. In this sense on May 1, we are going to march in every place, in Caracas and around the country, under these banners. We call on all the workers to take over the streets on May 1 and make it a great day of struggle.

Translated by Kiraz Janicke for Venezuelanalysis.com

 

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Venezuelan May Day rally attracts hundreds of thousands

Wages raised by 30%

Caracas, May 2 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Waving red flags and pro-revolution banners “against imperialism” and for “socialism and peace” more than 300,000 workers marched in Caracas on Thursday to celebrate May 1, the International Day of Workers Struggle. The rally also celebrated a decree by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez increasing the minimum wage by 30% giving Venezuela the highest minimum wage in Latin America.

A day earlier, at a special ceremony to swear in the new Minister of Labor Roberto Hernandez at the Teresa Carreño Theatre, Chavez announced a 30% salary increase in the minimum wage from Bs.F 615 (US$286) to Bs.F. 799 (US$371.6) per month, to take effect from May 1.

If the Cesta ticket (food subsidy) is included, minimum monthly earnings reach Bs.F. 1.199 or US$557; more than double the Latin American average the president added. The measure directly affects 5 million workers or approximately 20% of the population.

In addition to the increase in the minimum wage, Chavez also decreed a 30% wage increase for all public sector workers. The government expects the measure to spark demands for wage increases in the private sector.

To offset inflationary pressures from the wage increase Chavez said the government would issue ‘Worker’s Bonds’ with high interest returns in order to encourage saving and soak up excess liquidity in the economy. The government is also considering other anti-inflationary policies, but not at the expense of workers he said.

The president also signed a decree formalizing the nationalization of SIDOR, Venezuela’s largest steel plant previously controlled by Argentine-Italian consortium, the Techint group. Chavez first announced the nationalization of SIDOR on April 9 after a long worker’s struggle there.

“With this law, Venezuela recuperates SIDOR. Congratulations to our workers, to our unions!” he said.

Addressing approximately 2,000 specially invited union leaders, representing the major currents in the National Union of Workers (UNT) – including Stalin Perez Borges, Orlando Chirino, Marcela Maspero, Orlando Castillo, and Osvaldo Vera - as well as a contingent of workers from the SIDOR steel plant, Chavez declared, “The working class is essential for the construction of socialism.”

In the context of a recent call by one faction of the UNT – the Bolivarian Socialist Worker’s Force (FSBT) – for unions to disaffiliate from the UNT and form a separate national federation, he also emphasized that “The unity of the Venezuelan working class is imperative...It is fundamental in this historic moment.”

Union leaders must leave their personal differences aside and have the “necessary humility to unite,” he added.

However, the president clarified, the working class must be autonomous in its decisions and its capacity to choose its own leaders.

“Now the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela] is being born, it must contribute to the unity and struggle of the working class, the struggle of the campesinos, the youth, the students, and the women’s movement. But the party should never aim to take the reigns of the worker’s movement. It should never aim to supervise or subordinate it. Long live the working class, the workers movement!” he declared to a standing ovation.

The new labor minister who spoke at the May Day rally also emphasized the need for unity, otherwise “imperialism wins,” he said.

Despite their differences, this emphasis on unity was also reflected on the platform by UNT national coordinators Marcela Maspero and Stalin Perez Borges and FSBT coordinator Orlando Vera, who all agreed on the need to strengthen the worker’s movement.

Perez Borges spoke of the need to defend the UNT and Maspero argued that workers should take over control of production.

Omar Rangel, from the National Bolivarian Union of Education Workers said that the salary increase was an act of justice for the working class. “The salary increase will help the workers a lot to improve their living conditions.”

Others argued for the reduction of the work day from 8 to 6 hours, initially proposed in President Chavez’s constitutional reforms last year, as a way of allowing for increased worker participation in the political affairs of the country.

The rally also heard from John Cleary from the Electrical Trades Union in Australia, visiting Venezuela as part of a May Day delegation organized by the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network.

“The struggle of Venezuelan workers to build socialism is inspiring workers in Australia and around the world,” Cleary told the crowd.

International solidarity also featured prominently in the rally with banners and placards opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. interference in Haiti, Cuba, and Bolivia.

Thousands of workers also joined pro-revolution May Day rallies in the regional cities of Valencia, Maracaibo, and Ciudad Guayana, where workers celebrated the nationalization of the SIDOR steel plant.

The opposition aligned Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), largely discredited for its role in the April 2002 military coup against the Chavez government, held a significantly smaller demonstration of around 1,000 people across town, opposing the presidential decree increasing the minimum wage saying it would contribute to inflation.

In a document delivered to National Assembly deputies from the opposition party PODEMOS, the CTV argued, “In 2007 inflation reached 22.5% and in the food sector it reached 33%, everything indicates in 2008 these figures will be surpassed.”

Journalist Vanessa Davies from state television station VTV commented that the CTV march “curiously” had nothing to do with worker’s demands.

Australian unionists deliver greetings to Venezuelan workers

http://www.greenleft.org.au/2008/749/38732 


3 May 2008

The Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network May Day brigade of 15 unionists attended a massive May Day march in Caracas along with an estimated 500,000-750,000 people, all in red T-shirts, from all over the country. Two of the participants, John Cleary and Coral Wynter, addressed the rally. “It was amazing and exciting. We gave greetings on behalf of Australian workers and received a loud cheer. You really feel the power of the working class”, Coral Wynter told Green Left Weekly. “We had a great banner and as I think we were the only organised group of foreigners we were interviewed by three television stations — Telesur, VTV and Vive — and had numerous radio interviews. We danced and skipped along the route from La Bandera to Puente Laguno. Unfortunately President Hugo Chavez didn’t speak, but the day before he announced another 30% increase in the minimum wage. It was a great day!”

 

From: Australian News, Green Left Weekly issue #749 7 May 2008.

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