Venezuela’s National Union of Workers

       For some time, there has been a lot of confusion outside Venezuela about what exactly has been happening there. How could progressives and trade unionists support the Venezuelan government despite its support of the poor through land reform and income redistribution and its attack on neo-liberalism and the FTAA—- given the dedicated opposition of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV)? How, when there was a general strike, could we side with the government rather than workers? For trade union organisations, the problem has been even more difficult— given the support for the CTV by international labour organisations (including the ILO). Nevertheless, as the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) noted in the statement issued by Ken Georgetti on 18 April last year after the defeated coup, the role of the CTV in that coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez raised serious questions about the character of the CTV and its place in the crony capitalism and sham democracy that had left 80 % of the population in poverty in an oil-rich nation.

        Today, though, there should be no confusion. Because the CTV has been exposed as just an arm of the Fedecamaras, the Employers Association with which it has been allied– in the coup and in the so-called general strike. A strange general strike, indeed. One in which workers in the oil industry (blue collar), electricity, transport, public sector, basic industries and the subway, among others, kept working. One in which workers were laid off by the conglomerates (the monopolies) and transnationals and told that they would get full pay for the period of the lock-outs— only now to discover that this promissory note was dependent on the c! ompanies defeating the Chavez government. (They are being offered half-pay, loss of vacations, etc… and those that protest? They’re in the queues at the Ministry of Labour filing complaints over their dismissals.)

        Make no mistake about it— this so-called general strike was a capitalist offensive, supported by the US and its clients, against the Chavez government. Its immediate effect has been an enormous blow to the economy because of the loss of oil revenues for several months as the result of the sabotage (economic, technical and physical) of PDVSA, the national oil company, and also because of the tax revenue losses resulting from the lockouts and a tax strike by the companies. The resulting ‘Opposition Deficit’ will make this year a difficult one under any circumstances but particularly so in the attempt to meet the enormous needs of the Venezuelan people.

        Yet, a longer term effect of this offensive by Venezuela’s oligarchy has been the increase in the consciousness of the poor  (most of them in the informal sector) and organised workers. There is a mood among workers of self-confidence– one which emerged when the workers in PDVSA ran the company by themselves after the management and technicians abandoned it. In workplace after workplace, workers are talking about auto-gestion and co-gestion, about taking over and running their enterprises as cooperatives (as is occurring in the Sheraton Airport Hotel and was the subject of discussion among the workers in the hotel in Caracas where I was staying). PDVSA itself now has two representatives of its workers in its management, and an associated firm in petrochemicals is being run as a cooperative. In particular, the take-over of enterprises by workers is occurring when the owners threaten to shut down— in one case occurring as the workers decided to prevent the removal of machinery. This process is just beginning,! but it looks like capital has lost one of its major weapons, its ability to threaten a capital strike— rather than giving in, Venezuelan workers are moving in.

        There is another significant aspect of this new consciousness among workers— which is why there should be no longer any confusion about the CTV and its role in the Venezuelan working class. Yesterday (29 March), a new labour federation was formed— the National Union of Workers (UNT), which has been described as a ‘classist, national and revolutionary’ union. This new federation has emerged as the result of a long process of discussion which began last July among the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT), the workers movement fully aligned with the Chavez government and with the Bolivarian movement active among the poor in the Bolivarian Circles, and independent unions (both in and outside the CTV) that are not ‘Chavist’ but which support the general direction of the government. (This latter group includes in particular the steel workers, subway and petroleum workers.) At the core of these discussions was the question of how autonomous the new federation would be in relation to the government; now, after the last capitalist offensive, the matter has been resolved— UNT (‘unity’) will be independent, class-oriented, democratic and revolutionary. 

        This new federation begins with more workers than have been nominally represented by the CTV, which will lose any credibility it has had outside Venezuela as its member unions leave. (Indeed, the petroleum workers union from which Carlos Ortega, the current head of CTV, came is itself a key union in the formation of UNT.) Of course, capital does not give up so easily. Through the CIA and its various fronts such as the National Endowment for Democracy (which financed the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in its support for the CTV), the opponents of ‘the proces! s’ in Venezuela will attempt to maintain their hold over the positions of labour federations such as the AFL-CIO, international labour federations like the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) and the ILO.

        This is why it is especially important now for progressives and trade unionists to inform themselves of what is happening in Venezuela and in the Venezuelan workers movement. I’m including below a call from the organisers of the ‘Bolivarian Forum’  which will be taking place in Caracas on the anniversary of the defeated coup. Take a look at those topics for discussion at the Forum, and you’ll get the sense that something quite significant is happening in Venezuela and that this occasion to demonstrate international solidarity with this process which has been scrupulously democratic and constitutional will be quite unique. As you’ll see near the bottom of this notice, too, during this period there will also be a conference for trade unionists organised by the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT)— the themes of these meetings will be worker solidarity and the struggle against globalisation and neoliberalism.

        No one in Venezuela thinks the struggle is over— not when the stakes are so high. Caracas on 10-14 April offers an opportunity to show solidarity with the most significant movement happening right now in the Americas and to inform yourselves so you can battle effectively against the enemies of this process (who are the enemies of anything similar elsewhere).

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