This year's May Day solidarity brigade to Venezuela, the seventh brigade from Australia to be organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN), had 12 participants representing various unions. One of those was Chris Spindler, an organiser for the Victorian Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
Spindler was sent on the brigade as an official AMWU representative, to report back on how the Bolivarian revolution being led by President Hugo Chavez's government was improving the lives of workers and the poor. On June 11, the Victorian AMWU voted to affiliate to the AVSN and to send a message of solidarity and congratulations to the workers of the giant steel plant Sidor — which was nationalised in April following a long struggle by its workforce.
Green Left Weekly's Trent Hawkins spoke to Spindler about the his impressions of the revolution.
What is your impression of how the revolution is improving the lives of the poor?
Before we went on the brigade, participants knew of the social programs launched by Chavez, particularly in literacy and health. To see the benefits first hand revealed what a monumental achievement the institution of these basic entitlements was.
One important example is in the area of health care. We saw the first level health missions, which were thousands of small health centres set up across the country, mostly staffed by Cuban doctors providing immediate care free of charge to everyone.
Now they are constructing a second level of care, increasingly staffed by Venezuelan doctors, which is more diagnostic and preventative, but still offering total care with medicine free for anyone in the country — including the 4 million Columbians and 2 million Ecuadorians living in Venezuela and even visitors like us!
There are still major problems of course, but just as we were leaving the government announced the building of 50,000 new houses and the creation of industries to provide ongoing work for the unemployed.
It is clear that people, even the poorest of people, can and are encouraged to get involved in the process. We met with an indigenous leader who emphasised that this was the first thing Chavez did for the indigenous people — ging them an avenue to be involved. This more than anything is a revolution of the poor people.
What is the state of the union movement in Venezuela?
The union movement is growing. This obviously is tied to the clear support Chavez is giving to workers taking control of their own destiny. The number of unions registering in Venezuela each year has climbed dramatically under Chavez's
presidency, from 209 new unions in 1997 to 588 today.
However it needs to be understood that a union in Venezuela is formed in a single workplace and then they can affiliate to a federation. Many federations seem out of touch with the general working class or even their own membership. They often lack credibility because they have not had elections for their leadership.
The leadership of the National Union of Workers (referred to as Unete to distinguish it from an opposition party with its initials of UNT) is hamstrung by internal and often personal differences. When Unete was formed in 2003, any union who could afford and wanted to employ a national coordinator for the federation was allowed to do so — making 21 national co-ordinators.
No elections have taken place for the national leadership. There are ongoing debates about workers' participation in management and union independence from government.
What seems incredible is the lack of perspective or political direction coming from the union movement. The preoccupation is with divisions and most demands raised are purely related to shopfloor issues. This is while huge social changes are taking place in Venezuela.
Unete, like the corrupt right-wing Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) before it, has avoided attempts to organise the informal sector (almost 50% of the workforce). Rather, they continue to focus on the demands of the most privileged section of the working class. This has lead to a real fracture between union leaderships and the great mass of workers.
How is the government acting in the interests of the working class?
I think the government, in particular Chavez, is very conscious of the role of the working class in the revolution. He wants workers to take control of their own situation — not wait for the union federations or the government. Chavez wants cooperatives, workers' control and socialist-style factories to exist and be successful.
We saw examples of factories that had been given a start by the government but were now self sufficient and working in the economy. Coops and worker-run factories are seeking to create a "new economy".
The government is making sure that workers, particularly the poorest, are looked after. For example, there is a law that states you can't sack anyone earning less than twice the minimum wage, and the minimum wage was increased by 30% on May Day. There was a 30% increase to all public servants too, although inflation is running over 20%. Chavez has pushed for the reduction of the working day from eight hours to six as a way of creating jobs.
You spoke to workers at the newly nationalised Sidor steel company. What can you say about the significance of their struggle and the impact it had on the workforce?
We met with the third secretary of the United Steel Industriy Workers' Union (SUTISS) at the factory gate, surrounded by at times hundreds of sidoristas — as they call themselves. The other union leaders were in Caracas signing a new collective agreement with Chavez.
The workers' enthusiasm in our discussion backed up their claims that it was the workers at Sidor — 13,000 of them — who won the 10-year long campaign to be re-nationalised after the pre-Chavez government privatised the company and their 18-month campaign for a new collective agreement.
It wasn't Chavez who gave it to them — it was them who won it!
This is a great example of what Chavez is repeating to workers and communities: "get organised, create a collective plan, campaign for yourselves. And we will back you up." I believe Chavez is trying to break dependency on the state and create a society of people who are confident in their own actions.
The sidorista campaign drew out the real attitude of the former labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero, who sided with the transnationals against the striking workers.
Sidor, one of the largest metal manufacturers in the world, has 13,000 workers, but only 4000 full-timers. Over the last 10 years, 18 workers had been killed and the company had violated industrial laws.
The demands of the workers for their collective agreement included; salary fairness, permanent jobs for the workforce, holidays at normal pay and an end of year bonus. After the company refused to negotiate and the labour minister sided with the company — after 18 months of struggle — Chavez stepped in and backed the workers, nationalising Sidor and settling a new contract with the workers.
In the week after the nationalisation, the production at Sidor doubled and workers stated they are committed to making Sidor a "socialist factory" with increased production and efficiency.
The new agreement with the government includes: US$53 per day increase now and another $10 per day in November — a 150% increase on what is currently paid; retrenchment and retirement plans; social security and health plans for the family and all 9000 casuals to be made permanent. The Sidor workers confidence is sky high — not just in the government but in their own ability to organise and act.
What lessons can Australia workers draw from the Venezuelan revolution, and how can we lend the process our solidarity?
The inspiration comes from seeing normal, working-class people getting involved and taking control. People are organising together to improve their lot and the government is backing them. This is not handouts — this is constructing a new society where people are at the centre.
That inspiration should encourage people to get involved — don't leave it to someone else. Get active.
If we can keep providing information about Venezuela, we should gain a sense of strength from victories for any working people, get confidence from knowing that people can win.
Also, Venezuelans need to know that people here are interested and care about their struggle. We should offer as much support as we can. The Victorian AMWU will try to develop an ongoing relationship with the Sidor workers and offer any services we can — for example, health and safety processes.
It may be a small start, but at least it is a direct contact with some of the Venezuela's campaigners for a better world.
[For information about, or to get involved in, the AVSN, visit http://venezuelasolidarity.org.]