Reorganizing Venezuelan Labor


When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, inaugurating a process of radical political and social changes, it looked as though labor might be left behind.  The main labor central, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) was one of his most avid critics, and Chávez in turn lashed out verbally against the CTV on a regular basis.  But the image of Chávez vs Labor, repeatedly thrown at the unsuspecting casual observer by the mainstream media, is precisely intended to mislead.  The unpleasant truth is that the CTV has not adequately represented Venezuelan workers since the 1970s, if not before.  The reality of Chávez vs the CTV, then, does not exclude the active and enthusiastic participation of a large proportion of Venezuelan workers in his Bolívarian revolution (named after Latin American Independence leader Simón Bolívar).

In an era of accelerated globalization all over the world, fed by the trail-blazing violence of American empire, Chávez’ loud rejection of the neoliberal model is particularly resonant.  And this rejection has proven to be more than mere rhetoric.  In direct contradiction to the neoliberal play-book, Venezuela has begun experimenting with an alternative model of development based on an unapologetic prioritization of social welfare.

Fundamentally this process is about democracy, but not the way we in the North are used to thinking about it—in Venezuela the term has incorporated social and economic dimensions, as well as political.  Popular participation means local planning councils that debate community budgets, but it also means a shift from production for the world market, to production for the Venezuelan people.  Thus, a trend that has had Venezuela importing 70% of its food is slowly being reversed in the interest of ‘food sovereignty’.

The phenomenon of participatory democracy has its manifestation in the labor movement as well.  Progressive currents within organized labor have articulated their opposition to globalization and their alternative strategy of co-management and self-management of factories by workers.  But while the identification of co-, and self-management as a part of an alternative to neoliberalism is an important first step, the democratization of the economy will eventually require a more detailed strategy that addresses control over production at a national level.

As vice minister of Labor Ricardo Dorado noted recently, this does not imply that anyone in Venezuela has ceased to respect property rights, but rather the assertion that they are not untouchable.  According to Dorado, human rights should take precedence over property rights.  Such logic is an important step towards the creation of what Dorado refers to as a ‘solidarity economy’—an economy oriented towards social investment, rather than exclusively towards profit.  This requires the participation of the 50% of Venezuela’s workforce based in the informal sector, and of the 14% without work at all—both groups historically unaddressed by organized labor.

Labor in the Chávez Era

Three main factors caused the CTV to lose credibility with the rank & file throughout the nineties.  The CTV was long perceived to be subordinated to the interests of the two traditional parties: the social-democratic Acción Democratica (AD) and the social-Christian Copei.  The CTV’s complicity in the implementation of a neoliberal program in the 1990s was a product of this subordination of workers’ rights to clientelist politics.  Finally, the CTV’s alliance with big-business beginning in 2001 and extending to the present was the last straw for many workers.

Giving voice to rising discontent among grassroots labor activists, the government forced the CTV to hold leadership elections by the base in 2001.  This was the first such election in the federation’s history.  But the elections backfired—abstention rates were between 50-70%, and there were so many reported irregularities and accusations of corruption, that the supreme court refused to recognize the results.  Nonetheless, the alleged winner Carlos Ortega assumed the Presidency and began a determined campaign to overthrow Chávez, brining the CTV into close alliance with some of Venezuela’s most reactionary sectors.

Rank & file workers and local progressive leaders sympathetic to Chávez’ movement, or simply fed-up with the CTV, called for the establishment of an alternative confederation, resulting in the 2003 formation of the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT).  Support for the break was due more than any other single factor to the intensified cooperation between the CTV and big-business.  Between 2001 and 2003 the CTV and the country’s largest chamber of commerce federation Fedecamaras cooperated in four general strikes, including one in April 2002 which led to a military coup against Chávez with the active cooperation of both the CTV and Fedecamaras.  The coup was overturned by massive popular mobilization 48-hours later.   But perhaps the most effective of these general strikes was one held from December, 2002 to January, 2003 and widely reported to be an employers’ lock-out—yet strangely, one led by the CTV.

For the past year the UNT and CTV have fought head-to-head over the country’s unions, each claiming they are the representative federation, and no-one really knowing the truth.  Part of the difficulty stems from the lack of any independently confirmed registry for either federation.  There is a lot at stake in proving themselves to be representative, not the least of which is the coveted right to represent Venezuelan labor at International Labor Organization (ILO) meetings.  But more than merely a question of competition, the UNT represents a genuine threat to the CTV, advancing strategies in the interests of working people, in direct conflict with the CTV’s history of corporate unionism.

Building Organic Unions

Democratic unionism has been a contagious concept for Venezuelan workers, and the UNT has played an important role in promoting it.  Over the past year and a half two main strategies have developed that are designed to initiate profound changes, both within labor organizations and factories.  To increase their participation in unions, workers have begun pushing for regular, transparent elections.  To increase their participation in factories, workers have been promoting the idea of co-, and self-management.

Many local unions have never held elections since their formation, and of those that have, their transparency is often extremely questionable.  In many instances, these unions have had the same leadership for the last 30 or even 40 years.  Many workers reveal that while their unions did hold occasional assemblies to discuss policies or to hold elections, the worker that openly criticized, or spoke out against the leadership often arrived at work the following day to find that he had been fired.

As a result, many workers are beginning to exercise their constitutional right to form parallel unions in a bid to replace the old union.  Once the parallel unions have garnered sufficient support amongst the workers, the choice between the two unions is submitted to a referendum.  The victorious union is the only one legally allowed to represent the workers in collective bargaining.  Such referendums have begun occurring more frequently, with at least 9 union referenda already in 2004—all with the new unions winning, and almost always by astonishingly high margins.

These new unions have excited workers about their prospects for advancing much-needed improvements in working conditions, wages, health care, and vacations.  Increased rank and file participation has given workers more say over what is placed on the bargaining table in the first place, instead of being limited to ratifying or rejecting a platform designed exclusively by the leadership.  And both the new-union leadership and the rank and file are acutely aware of the precedent that the referenda have set: if the new unions fail to deliver, or return to the corporatist tactics of old, they can always be replaced in a new referendum.

Democratizing the factory is also on the agenda, largely as a result of bankruptcies caused by the CTV and Fedecamaras’ general strikes and lock-outs.  Supported by the UNT, which has adopted the slogan “No to globalization, Yes to worker-management,” workers have occupied some of these factories, seeking to restart production under worker-management.  An important example currently developing is the occupation of paper factory Venepal, after the company stopped production last September.  If Venepal workers maintain control over the factory and restart production, it will set an important example for workers in similar situations elsewhere in the country.  A successful example of existing co-management in Venezuela would be an important step in the development of an alternative economic and industrial strategy—with worker participation at its core.

Conclusion

The formation of the UNT and of the myriad new local unions replacing the CTV and their local partners represents a dynamic shift among Venezuelan workers from passive criticism of the old class-collaborationist policies to a truly new unionism that prioritizes democracy, and class-based politics.

The political discourse of these new unions and of the UNT is decidedly radical.  They go far beyond bread and butter issues, including demands for pronounced political changes from the local grassroots level to the national, and the international.  They argue that in the struggle against the neoliberal policies that have ravaged Venezuelan workers it is not enough to bargain for higher wages, or better benefits.  Rather, a more profound struggle against neoliberal practices themselves are necessary, and this requires workers to take the fight to capitalism directly.  Not merely inflamed rhetoric in a country whose President has publicly and consistently criticized the distorted logic of capitalism, the new unionism has spawned serious debates on possible alternatives

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