"As a product of four weeks of meetings between the different currents in the National Union of Workers (UNT), together with important union federations, we have democratically decided, in consultation with the grassroots, that [on September 19-21] we will hold a national congress.
"By no later than February next year, we will go towards a transparent, democratic process of internal elections."
This important announcement was made by Stalin Perez Borges, a UNT national coordinator and leader of the Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) current, at a press conference convened by the promoter’s commission for the congress on July 15. It comes after crippling divisions have severely weakened Venezuela’s union movement — at a time when President Hugo Chavez has called for the working class to be at the forefront of the push to construct a "socialism of the 21st century".
Present at the press conference were UNT national coordinators, leaders of the majority of union currents, representatives from numerous national and regional federations as well as from 12 regional union centrals from across Venezuela.
These announcements mark an important step forward in forging working class unity and come at a time of an upturn in struggle as well as further steps towards union democratisation.
Formed out of the struggle by the workers to defeat the bosses’ lockout in December 2002-January 2003, which aimed to overthrow the Chavez government, the UNT brought together the pro-revolution unions and federation. It quickly became the dominant central in the country, surpassing the corrupt pro-capitalist Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) that had backed the lock-out.
However, internal divisions led to its second national congress, held in 2006, splitting in two and the UNT ceasing to function at a national level.
Divisions further deepened with the appointment of Jose Ramon Rivero as labour minister in early 2007, who used his position to favour the current from which he came, the Bolivarian Socialist Force of Workers (FSBT), and attack the others.
However, a series of recent events has opened up a new phase.
One of the most significant was the government’s decision to re-nationalise the Sidor steel works, one of the most important in Latin America, after an 18-month struggle by its work force.
Perez Borges explained to Green Left Weekly that "the historic victory of the Sidor workers, who demonstrated in practice the results of unity" had been fundamental to opening up new space.
Not long after, Rivero was replaced as labour minister by Roberto Hernandez. Rivero sided with Sidor’s multinational owners, and, just before his sacking, had also publicly backed plans by the FSBT to split the UNT to form a new federation.
Since then, plans have been underway for a number of important elections within union federations. The lack of democratic elections for union leaderships has been a key source of tensions between the different currents and discontent among the rank-and-file.
In the teachers’ union, the slate of the Bolivarian Educators (which supports relaunching the UNT), won national elections by a wide margin against the slate of the FSBT.
Moreover, in the important public sector federation, with elections four years overdue, nearly all the currents together with the labour ministry have been able to agree to hold elections on October 1. At the same time, they have reopened discussions on their collective contract, which expired over a decade ago.
Only the FSBT has refused to be a part of this process.
Important elections are also set to be held shortly in the United Steel Industry Workers’ Union (SUTISS), the union of Sidor workers, and a newly formed federation of petroleum workers that unites the four main unions in that sector.
On July 29, the FSBT is set to organise a workers’ mobilisation to accompany it in legalising its new central, announced without any discussion with the other union currents, and which initially had the support of the presidents of 12 major union federations.
"These events are not coincidental" explained Orlando Perez from Bolivarian Educators, whose victory has cost the FSBT one of its allies in its project for a new central, at the press conference.
"Since the re-election of President Chavez [in December 2006], within the revolutionary movement an internal struggle has broken out. The different positions are due to this ideological struggle, which cannot just be defined as between the government and the opposition. It has to do with what type of socialism we support."
"We are at a crossroads, and it is incumbent on us to push for unity, despite our differences, we have to apply a criterion of unity in diversity, in order to build instruments of the workers: unions, federations and a central."
Angel Navas, recently re-elected president of the Federation of Electrical Workers, Fetralec — another federation that the FSBT had initially counted on to support its project — stated that the recent announcements marked "an important step forward in effort to find unity".
Navas argued that everyone should first put their efforts into building the central, within which differences could be debated. This could help realise "the dream of workers for a powerful central that supports this process and supports the workers in releasing their social creativity and who want to transform themselves and their country".
Ramon Piedra, from the Cruz Villegas current that is aligned with the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), announced that they had decided to move towards dissolving their separate central, the United Confederation of Venezuela Workers (CUTV), in order to push for the maximum unity of the workers’ movement.
"If there is something that this revolution needs", argued Orlando Chirinos, a UNT national coordinater and leader of the CCURA current, "it is a central that can win the hearts and minds of … millions of workers."
Felix Martinez, representative of the soon to be legalised united federation of automobile industry workers added: "What we need is unity, within a central there can be differences, but we need unity in order to raise the consciousness of the workers. Division does nothing to help raise the consciousness, organisation and mobilisation of the working class."
Replying to the statements made by the president of the Venezuela Confederation of Industries, Eduard Gomez Sigala, that one of the major causes of insufficient production was labour conflicts that are "increasing in number", and caused by unions "trying to impose their revolution", Marcela Maspero, UNT coordinator and head of the Workers in Revolution Collective, said that the real cause was the exploitation of workers by the capitalists.
"We are clear that what unites us is that we agree with the socialist project. The path is socialism and the working class … has to be the spearhead of this process."
All those present called on all the other national coordinators of the UNT, as well as unions and federations, to come to the discussion table and be part of the new unity process.