Venezuelan workers\' movement at a crossroads

First came the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on April 9 to re-nationalise the Sidor steel plant, privatised by a pre-Chavez government in 1997, after a long workers' struggle.

This was followed shortly by the call from the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force's (FSBT), a faction with in the pro-Chavez National Union of Workers (UNT), to split away to form a new national federation.

Two days later, the labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero, a member of the FSBT who was accused by Sidor workers of opposing their struggle, was replaced by National Assembly Vice-President and former Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) member Roberto Hernandez — now a United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) member.

These events have once again raised the question of the role of the working class in Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution — with the participation of workers as an organised class having been sporadic at best in this process, which aims to construct a "socialism of the 21st Century".

Neoliberal unions

Prior to Chavez's election in 1998, Venezuela's political system had been dominated for 40 years by two major parties: the social Christian COPEI, and the social democratic Democratic Action (AD).

The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the main trade union federation was subordinated to AD and became a bastion of support for anti-worker neoliberal policies in the 1980s and '90s.

With governments in the '90s overseeing a wave of privatisations, increased casualisation and spiralling unemployment — with the majority living in poverty — Chavez won the 1998 presidential election on an anti-neoliberal platform.

His election not only stopped planned privatisations (including of the oil and electricity industries), it led to policies aimed at empowering the poor and exploited, causing a profound impact on the workers movement.

In 2005, we spoke to unionists from the industrial town of Valencia, who explained to us what the Chavez presidency had meant for workers. Luis Flugo, one of the new layer of union activists, told us it "has helped take the blindfold off and see that [workers] can win their rights".

Laws introduced by the Chavez government enable workers to hold referendums in their workplace to decide who would oversee their collective contract, opening space for a new layer of rank-and-file militants.

While government policy provided tools for workers' struggle, it was the struggle of workers themselves that shook up the labour movement.

After the CTV collaborated with the main business federation, Federcarmaras, in the campaign to overthrow Chavez that culminated in the failed coup of April 2002, a national gathering of pro-revolution unionists in September that year nonetheless voted to continue the struggle to reform the CTV from within.

New federation

It would take the experience of the bosses' lock out of December 2002-February 2003 — that devastated the economy and sought to bring down Chavez — to cause a change in strategy.

During the lock out, the industrial workers entered the revolutionary struggle decisively as an organised force for the first time.

In response to the wave of factory shutdowns, in particular the management shutdown and sabotage of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA, workers occupied and took control of their factories — including the restarting the oil and electrical sectors, which was crucial to breaking the lockout.

On April 2003, militant unionists came together to form a new federation — the UNT.

Spurred on by government discourse, backed by the new constitution adopted in 1999, in support for worker' participation and co-management in industry — as well as a government moratorium on lay offs of lowest paid workers — UNT-affiliated unions represented 76.5% of all collective agreements signed in 2003-2004, rapidly overtaking the CTV as the main national federation.

Despite this growth, unionisation remains only slightly above 20% of the formal work force, while 47% of workers are in the so-called informal sector.

At its high point in 2005, one million workers participated in a UNT-organised May Day march in Caracas under the banner of "Co-management is revolution" and "Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian Socialism".

"Factory closed, factory occupied and run by the workers" was the catch cry of both Chavez and the union movement, with Chavez and the UNT presenting a list of 800 factories closed down by their owners that workers' were encouraged to take over.

Divisions and setbacks

However, three years later only a small number have been recuperated, and in a number of important cases where experiments in worker's co-management had begun, it has since rolled back.

Today, many unionists agree, the labour movement is more dispersed and fragmented than at any time during Chavez's presidency. The bitter internal divisions, conflicting views over co-management experiences and differences over questions of union autonomy and democracy have all contributed to this situation.

This lack of structure led to the PCV-aligned United Confederation of Venezuelan Workers deciding to remain outside the UNT.

Internal debates and conflict have wracked the UNT since its inception. Lack of internal structures have never been addressed, leading to the UNT having 21 national coordinators.

Elections have been continually postponed due to factional wrangling, and with political differences and personal rivalries growing, each current began to act independently of each other, though all in the name of the UNT.

By the time of the 2006 congress, five major political currents had emerged: the FSBT (initially the Bolivarian Workers' Force, which predates the UNT as a current within the CTV) led by Oswaldo Vera; the Alfredo Maneiro current, whose key leaders included Ramon Machuca in the steel industry and Franklin Rondon in the public sector; a current lead by Marcela Maspero that became the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CTR); the United Revolutionary Autonomous Class Current (CCURA), headed by Orlando Chirinos and Stalin Perez Borges; and the smaller Union Autonomy, lead by Orlando Castillo.

While the FSBT and the Alfredo Manerio current involved leaders of some of the largest union federations, predominantly in the public service and state-owned industry (where they worked to maintain control), the CTR and CCURA focused on promoting the discussion of co-management and on winning the new emerging unions, generally in the private sector.

The dispute at the 2006 congress was ostensibly over the time of elections, however this masked ideological differences including over how to relate to the Chavez government.

CCURA, which appeared to have a majority at the congress, called for immediate elections while the other factions argued they should be postponed until after the 2006 presidential elections. The congress ended in disarray and the UNT has largely ceased functioning as a national federation.

New developments

New political developments in 2007 — such as the formation of the PSUV (which unites many pro-Chavez groups and hundreds of thousands of Chavistas), Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms aimed at "opening the path to socialism", and the appointment of FSBT leader Jose Ramon Rivero as Labour Minister — lead to further debates.

While almost all the currents agreed with the necessity to join the PSUV, the CCURA current split over this question.

Pointing to comments by Chavez against "union autonomy", a wing of CCURA lead by Chirinos, rejected participation in the PSUV and moved towards a more hostile position towards the government — including calling for a spoiled ballot in the constitutional reform referendum of December 2, 2007.

The majority of CCURA, however, voted to join the PSUV, forming the Socialist Tide current led by Stalin Perez Borges.

There have also been increasing conflicts between workers and the state that have impacted on the debate about how the union movement should relate to the government.

As momentum built for workers' participation in running state-owned companies, sections of the state bureaucracy, seeking to protect their interests, began to actively undermine the process.

One example occurred in the state-owned electricity company. After a long struggle, the right of workers to participate in running the company was included in the collective contract. Workers' committees were established to implement this, but management moved to stop real participation — succeeding in limiting it to decisions over Christmas decorations for the administration offices.

This pattern is repeated in many different spheres of Venezuelan society — a push by the ranks, in alliance with Chavez, for popular power encounters the resistance of the pro-capitalist state bureaucracy unwilling to give up control. These vested interests intersect with the right-wing of the Chavista camp, which has strong institutional weight and seeks to slow down the revolutionary process.

This conflict has led to a debate over what role workers should have in running the economy, with some supporting a more passive role while others demand more active worker participation and control.

In response, the Revolutionary Front of Workers in Co-managed Factories (FRETECO) was formed, grouping together many of the workers in the handful of worker-run factories that exist.

The conflict between labour and the state increased dramatically with the appointment of Rivero as labour minister. He intervened into disputes to advance his own current, the FSBT, or even sided with the bosses — as with the case of Sanatarios Maracay, an occupied ceramics factory where workers say he intervened to set up a parallel union and hand back the factory to the boss.

The situation intensified this year with the Sidor dispute. After more than a year of struggle with the management over a collective contract, the Sidor workers found themselves in open conflict with the local "Chavista" governor, Fransisco Rangel Gomez, and Rivero. who tried to impose a referendum on the company's final pay offer.

On March 14, the workers were assaulted with teargas and rubber bullets by the National Guard and the local police.

Rivero slandered the Sidor workers as "counter-revolutionaries", lying that they had supported the bosses lockout in 2002. In fact, they had heroically seized control of the plant to help break it.

Chavez eventually overrode Rivero and sent in Vice-President Ramon Carrizalez to settle the dispute. Folowing a phone call from Chavez, he announced on April 9 the government's decision to nationalise the plant.

Reinvigorated union movement

This act, long demanded by the Sidor workers, has reinvigorated the labour movement, as Marcos Garcia, a coordinator of public sector union Fentrasep, explained in an April 16 Aporrea.org article: "The workers movement, with the triumph of the Sidor workers and the people of Guayana, who achieved the nationalization of the principal steel producer in Latin America, has produced a change throughout the country."

Rivero counter-attacked with an attack on the UNT, which he claimed on April 11 "does not represent the spirit of the Venezuelan revolutionary process".

On April 13 Rivero and FSBT coordinator and National Assembly deputy Osvaldo Vera announced the formation of a new national union federation, calling on unions to disaffiliate from the UNT. They claimed to have significant support from different union sectors.

That same day, Chavez, while addressing 300,000 supporters on the sixth anniversary of the 2002 coup, praised the Sidor workers' struggle and called on the working class to assume a "protagonistic role" in the revolution. "The working class is fundamental to any socialist revolution", Chavez insisted.

Two days later, in what appears to be a repudiation of Rivero's right-wing role, Chavez sacked him and replaced him with Hernandez.

Hernandez has called has for unity and proposed a union constituent assembly to re-found the labour movement — a call supported by Socialist Tide, CCURA and the CTR.

One important question will be what happens in Sidor — will the creative energy shown by the Sidor workers in struggle be unleashed through active participation in the running of the company, or will they be relegated back to simply fighting for a better collective contract, like the electricity workers before them?

Broader questions for the union movement centre on whether it can overcome internal divisions, potentially deepened by the FSBT's call for a new federation.

The UNT needs to be re-founded — which requires dialogue between the different currents and, most importantly, active involvement of rank-and-file workers in a genuinely democratic process — as part of creating a revolutionary trade union movement.

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