The violent dispersal of a protest by workers and the subsequent arrest of several prominent union leaders has generated an angry response among the Venezuelan labour movement.
The events occurred last Monday 3 December when workers from the Galletera Carabobo factory, a private biscuit producer, protested against a court order they say infringes on their right to strike.
The workers had been on strike for 91 consecutive days to force negotiations for a new collective contract, which the company boss has been refusing to do.
However, a recent decision by a Carabobo state labour tribunal effectively removes the ability for workers to legally strike over the conflict, according to the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (Unete).
During the 3 December protest by Galletera Carabobo workers and Unete leaders against the court’s decision, which blocked a highway near the factory, members of Venezuela’s National Guard reportedly arrived at the protest armed and proceeded to violently disperse the workers.
The soldiers then arrested nine union activists, including Unete national coordinator Marcela Maspero. The activists were released the next day, but await a tribunal for alleged “obstruction of the public way”, “destruction of national assets (the highway),” and “aggression against public servants (the National Guard)”.
Yet Maspero, in a phone call to alternative news site Aporrea, argued that it was the National Guard who attacked the workers, and that those arrested were subject to further mistreatment while in their custody.
The Unete, which is considered a pro-government but independent union federation, has called the events a “violation” and the judicial and military actions as “the criminalisation of the right to protest and to strike”. The federation also reports having received no word from any state institution over the incident, including the Ministry of Labour.
In its coverage of the events, Aporrea commented that “it draws attention that this should happen while (Venezuelan) President Chavez is recovering his health in Cuba, after announcing a new period of the revolution with “correction and self-criticism”, and that it "causes great worry”.
The events have drawn a furious response from the Unete and other labour organisations in Venezuela.
In a Unete press conference last Thursday 6 December, Marcela Maspero reiterated that the Carabobo labour tribunal’s decision on the ability of workers to strike in their conflict with their boss is an “infringement” of the right to strike, “which violates international agreements signed by the country and the [National] Constitution”.
Passionately banging her fist on the table, she declared, “Today (in Venezuela) the working class is stronger than ever before and we are going to fight a considerable battle for the right to strike, for union freedom, for collective negotiation, that are fundamental rights that the working class has won over the years and we aren’t going to give up or give in to anyone."
Maspero outlined the actions that the union federation would take in reaction to the week’s events. These included making a formal request for the intervention of the president of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the case, and filing a complaint with Venezuela’s Attorney General.
Flanked by other Unete and workers representatives, the union leader also called on all sectors of the Venezuelan labour movement to participate in a national rally this Wednesday in Caracas.
The march is set to turn up outside the Ministry of Labour, where workers will demand resolution to over 250 labour conflicts that Unete claims are on-going in public and private companies.
In her statement, the Unete leader also criticised the treatment that state media had given to the conflict, highlighting that not one state outlet had turned up to the Unete press conference nor reported on last week’s protest by Galletera Carabobo workers.
Conversely, she thanked both private media outlets and grassroots and alternative sources such as Aporrea “who have accompanied us in this struggle”.
A group of Galletera Carabobo workers have since released a statement accusing the factory’s union of pursuing strike action for “political reasons” against the “labour stability” of the plant.
They also accused union leaders of attacking the National Guard during the 3 December protest and Maspero of “pretending” to be arrested, again for “political reasons”.
However Marcela Maspero finished her press conference speech last Thursday by calling for the “unity” of the working class, arguing, “We’re definitively going to achieve it in this country, to fight [against] those who try to infringe on our rights, whoever they are: this is indeed revolution”.