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