Venezuela: Workers Taking Back Control

The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, which is working to change the political and economic structures of Venezuelan society in favour of the poor majority, is also creating a mini-revolution in the nation’s labour movement.

In May 2003, the National Union of Workers (UNT) was formed in opposition to the existing corrupt and bureaucratic trade union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV).

Although the UNT is still a new formation, with many internal debates on the best way forward, it is beginning to develop a new and democratic unionism, based on rank-and-file involvement and demands for workers’ control over production.

In May this year, in a decisive demonstration of workers’ preference for democratic unionism, more than 1 million workers attended the UNT-organised May Day march in Caracas, under the slogans of “Co-management is revolution” and “Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian socialism”. The CTV-organised march attracted just a few thousand, calling for support for its former leader, who is accused of involvement in an unsuccessful coup against President Hugo Chavez.

CTV Since its creation in the 1930s, the CTV has been allied to Democratic Action (AD), one of the two parties that alternated in government between 1958 and 1998.

In the last two decades of this period, harsh neoliberal policies imposed by imperialist institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led to staggering wealth disparity. While Venezuela became the fifth largest oil supplier in the world, by 1998, 80% of Venezuelans were living in poverty. Casualisation and an increase of temporary contracts meant a downward slide in conditions for many workers. With increasing unemployment, the informal economy expanded to more than 50% of workers, dramatically reducing the unionisation rate. According to Jonah Gindin, who wrote a two-part article on unionism for Venezuela Analysis () (published on October 28 and January 27) just 14% of those employed in the formal sector were organised into unions.

Although the CTV initially spoke against the aggressive neoliberal legislation unveiled in 1989, by the mid-1990s it abandoned all such criticism, even going so far as to sign on to a Venezuela-IMF agreement. At the request of then-President Rafael Caldera, CTV participated in a commission to draw up the 1997 labour legislation, which disadvantaged workers in low-paid jobs and the informal sector. This legislation, combined with the broader neoliberal attacks, was devastating to working people, and the CTV became increasingly discredited for its repeated collaboration with bosses.

Partial or total privatisation of many industries in the 1980s and 1990s, including telecommunications, ports, steel and airlines, along with significant attacks on workers’ rights, created widespread disillusionment with the existing order. This paved the way for the election of radical anti-neoliberal Hugo Chavez as president in 1998.

While the CTV’s failure to oppose vicious attacks on workers’ rights was highly unpopular, the federation’s lack of internal democracy meant that the rank-and-file were powerless to stop it. The CTV leadership repeatedly ignored calls from its members for referendums and democratic elections

Chavez election Chavez’s election in 1998 heralded a fundamental shift in state priorities, to put the needs of the country’s majority poor ahead of multinationals’ profits. A new constitution, overwhelmingly adopted by referendum, enshrined democratic rights. In two years, the Chavez government built more public housing than his predecessor did in the previous 20. A massive campaign was launched to eradicate illiteracy, and a free healthcare system was established for the first time in history. Revenue from taxes was redirected towards social projects.

The minimum wage was increased by 30% in 2004, and then by another 26% on May Day this year. Gindin reports that the reforms gave renewed confidence to workers accustomed to a long tradition of corrupt corporate unionism — one based on deals with political parties and employers’ federations, not grassroots struggle.

Contrasting with its sycophantic approach to the neoliberal governments of the 1980s and ’90s, the CTV has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Chavez government. Its complete bankruptcy as a pro-worker organisation was shown vividly in 2002, when CTV supported a Washington-backed military coup that kidnapped Chavez and put the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Fedecameras, in as president, before popular protest forced the collapse of the plot, and Chavez’s return to the presidency.

In December of that year, CTV collaborated with bosses and Fedecamaras to lock-out oil industry workers, in an attempt to cripple the economy.

For many workers, CTV’s failed call for a strike in support of the bosses was the absolute final straw, and the struggle against the lockout had radicalised many workers, and given them confidence in their ability to organise — even without the CTV. In May 2003, workers from nearly every sector of Venezuelan labour came together in Caracas to form a new confederation — the National Union of Workers (UNT).

The UNT has grown astonishingly fast. Gindin argues, “one way of estimating [UNT’s] momentum is to count the percentage of collective agreements signed with each confederation. According to the Ministry of Labor, 76.5% of collective agreements signed in 2003-04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT, and only 20.2% with the CTV.”

Gindin quotes Freddy Contreras, the secretary of culture for a new UNT-affiliated union at a Coca Cola Femsa plant in Valencia, on the old union’s approach: “It was the perspective of the bosses, a perspective that strengthened the company and weakened the new workers movement.”

The new “parallel” unions face great challenges: they have to battle against the old unions, as well as the bosses. But through this struggle comes useful experience. A key task for the union leaders is to enshrine rank-and-file participation in structures. An emphasis on referendums shows workers that ultimately they hold the power. If a leader fails to respond to the membership, they run the risk of being shown the door.

Government support The support of the Chavez government has helped the development of the UNT. In April 2003, following the failed oil strike, the government declared a moratorium on lay-offs for low-paid workers that still holds today. The UNT’s regional Carabobo director Jos‚ Juaquin Barreto told Gindin: “The company could not fire the workers organizing new unions, and organising the workers to start fighting for their rights because there is currently a moratorium on lay-offs. Thanks to the government, these workers had the breathing room they needed to organise the new union, hold the referendum, and now have some of the tools necessary to take the fight to the bargaining table and make some concrete gains.”

Another sign of government support for worker demands came with the nationalisation of Venepal, a paper- and cardboard-manufacturing company. The company had gone bankrupt, and participation in 2003 lockout was its final undoing. Workers occupied the factory and restarted production. After an attempt to make a deal with management failed and workers faced threats to sell off equipment, they campaigned for the nationalisation of the company under workers’ control. In January, the government met this demand. The government has since nationalised an important valve company occupied by workers under similar circumstances.

Demands for workers’ control of factories have been central to the unions affiliated to the UNT and in many cases, these are being put into practice. There are significant ongoing debates about how to introduce real workers control, instead of tokenistic cooption of a workers’ representative into existing management structures.

In a June 10 report posted at, English socialist Alan Woods quoted an oil industry (PDVSA) worker he spoke to on an April visit to Caracas: “”The workers of PDVSA are fighting for a change, but there are many on the management side who argue that the company is too complicated for us to run it. Well, in that case we will learn the necessary skills! We propose the setting up of a workers’ university to train the workers.”

Some of the furthest advanced attempts at workers’ control have been in Alcasa, the state-owned aluminium industry and among electrical workers at a Cadafe subsidiary in M‚rida, Cadela. The results have been encouraging. In a May 6 Venezuela Analysis article, Marta Harnecker reported on successes after a significant natural disaster in a regional area of Venezuela in February 2005. She quoted Zaida Gill, general secretary of the Cadela Electric Union of M‚rida: “Everybody calculated it would take two months to reestablish power in Santa Cruz, but let me tell you that mister Carlos Sanchez, engineer Raul Arocha, the transmission workers and almost 275 linemen, with astonishing team work capacity, walking, climbing hills, and carrying water, reestablished power in less than 48 hours. I’m very proud of their performance. It is the result of the workers’ effort and the community’s support.”

Considering the sizeable barriers facing the fledgling UNT, it is remarkable how far the union federation has come. In order to break with an entrenched corrupt and bureaucratic model of unionism, a process of re-education of labour leaders and the rank-and-file has been necessary, along with a re-imagining of how to build a positive union culture from scratch. Internal UNT elections are scheduled for July, which will be a further step towards entrenching UNT as the leading organisation of Venezuelan workers.

In October, Gindin quoted Freddy Salazar, a mechanic at Owens Illinois: “The new union has only been around for a few weeks, so it’s a bit premature to be evaluating their achievements. What I can say is that the referendum was important because it showed us that we can also remove leaders that no longer represent us, not only add new ones If the new union doesn’t represent our interests, we know and they know that we can just have another referendum and replace them like we did the old union.”

Katie Cherrington is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, and will be a participant in the first solidarity brigade to Venezuela in July-August.

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