VENEZUELA: Pro-Chavez union movement fractures


Steve Mather

With punches being thrown and the odd chair flying through the air, it was clear there was a good old-fashioned union debate taking place on May 27. The different factions or currents within the National Union of Workers (UNT, the confederation of labour unions that support the socialist president Hugo Chavez) had fallen out over priorities.

Should there be a leadership election now or should that wait until after the December presidential election in order to devote all energy to Chavez's re-election? While that is an accurate portrayal of the dispute at the second congress there was much more to it than that. Under the surface, a more dangerous quarrel is simmering away that could have consequences for the government and its revolutionary credentials. What is up for grabs is the meaning of 21st century socialism and the UNT's role within it.

On the surface, Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution is sound: the flagship social missions, participatory democracy at the local level and occupied factories under partial workers' control are empowering Venezuelans and are examples of which the government is proud. People come from all over the world to offer support, solidarity and to learn from the experience of Venezuela.

But regarding the co-operative factories in particular, there are disagreements within the MVR (the governing party), the state bureaucracy, and within the UNT. There is a divergence of views over the form they should take, the extent of workers' control and how predominant they should be across different sectors of the economy. This was all at play at the congress.

The UNT was formed after the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) sided with management during the bosses' lockout of the state-owned oil company PDVSA in December 2002 taht attempted to force Chavez to resign. The UNT claims to have more than 600,000 members, but it is said that many more unions claim to belong to the UNT, despite not having formally affiliated themselves. It is divided into five currents: The Class Unity Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (C-CURA) led by Orlando Chirino; the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT), led by Osvaldo Vera; the Autonomous Union, the faction of Franklin Rondon; and the collective led by Marcela Maspero.

Like most organisations, the UNT is a broad ideological church, spanning social democracy at the right of the political spectrum to Marxism-Leninism on the left. It was, as Chirino puts it, "forged during the heat of struggle": the leaders of different unions agreed to a national coordinating committee, hence the entire organisation was formed from the top down with little discussion or debate at the grassroots level. While this may have been understandable at the time, three years on the UNT still lacks direction, purpose and legitimacy. The second congress was supposed to put an end to these deficiencies.

But the congress was a disaster if not a total farce. The entire first day of a three-day conference was taken up with accreditation, and a lot of the accommodation for those travelling from outside Caracas was actually located outside of Caracas, nowhere near the congress. This already had delegates' tempers raised, so when the key issue of elections came to be debated, violence broke out and all but C-CURA left the hall to reconvene in another location, and the congress was split in two.

Both sides have pointed the finger, blaming each other for attempting to sabotage the event. Maspero's collective was responsible for the organisation of the accreditation and hotels. While she blames C-CURA for deliberately kicking up a fuss over the hotels in an attempt at sabotage, Chirino claims that Maspero's collective deliberately caused the accreditations fiasco so as to wreck the congress. Needless to say, both sides blame the other for starting the violence that resulted in the split and both are calling each other "CTVistas", the ultimate insult.

Without taking sides on the issue, it is important to note that C-CURA is the only current that wants the elections this year, but it is actually bigger than the other four combined. They could have been expected to win the vote in the congress for elections if it hadn't been disrupted. And for the same reason it is conceivable that if and when elections for the national coordinators do take place, it will be those of the other four currents that will most likely lose their positions and the prestige and privilege that goes with them.

Whoever was to blame, it is clear that it is the grassroots and the movement for more workers' control in the workplace that suffered most. The congress mainly highlighted and accentuated the divisions and served as a stage where the "disorganised" working class was on show, to the inevitable delight of those opposed to its active involvement in the revolutionary process.

Ideological battle lines

One thing all five currents do agree on is that they want Hugo Chavez to win the December presidential elections and they support the campaign for 10 million votes. But even there tensions arise. For the four minority currents, the support for the government must be uncritical, while Chirino's current wants an autonomous confederation that is first and foremost a workers' movement. If the government acts against the interests of workers, they want the right to criticise it.

Chirino is a Marxist. For him and his current, Chavez has played a key role in encouraging and radicalising workers through his rhetoric and his support for factory occupations and co-management, and also for bringing the word socialism into the public discourse. But for C-CURA, co-management is just a transitional phase towards complete workers' control of industry, taking Venezuela towards 21st century socialism. It is a period of "apprenticeship", where workers learn new skills and grow in confidence.

Those in C-CURA have criticised the fact that the government has allowed workers to profit from co-managed factories such as the valve-making company Inveval. They think society as a whole should profit and argue that government policy is turning workers into capitalists. They also want workers to control the oil industry, which the state has emphatically refused to consider, designating it a "strategic" industry. For this reason, Chirino and his associates are forming their own revolutionary party outside of the MVR.

Conversely, the other four currents are all closely linked to the government and the state. Maspero is close to the labour ministry, while Vera is an MVR deputy in the National Assembly. The Autonomous Union is linked to Patria Para Todos (PPT), which is in coalition with the MVR. And they have supported the right of workers to "own" their cooperatives. They have opposed Chirino's plan to form a new party. While they insist that their motivation is no more than to avoid dividing the pro-Chavez coalition, could their opposition to elections that they might lose have something to do with a loss of control of the UNT by MVR, especially given the C-CURA's radical tendencies?

Although the state likes to show off Invepal and Inveval (jointly managed companies where the state owns 51% and the workers 49%), most of the co-managed factories are actually businesses that have run into financial difficulty and the state provides funds to the companies under the guarantee that the workers are kept on and that they are given a limited role in management. It is difficult to attach the label of socialism to these enterprises.

On the other hand, just over a year ago Chavez announced in a speech, "factory closed, factory occupied", and last November the then-labour minister for Chavez, Maria Cristina Iglesias, said, "the occupation of businesses isn't a problem but a solution to a problem", adding that it was the responsibility of workers and the UNT to carry out the occupations. But nothing has been done. The internal divisions among the currents and the personal animosities among leaders have prevented any serious plan for occupations being put forward. The UNT seems to be failing the Bolivarian revolution and the workers. The right and left of the organisation both bear responsibility for this.

The way forward

It is essential for the UNT to hold leadership elections so that the movement is legitimate, not only in the eyes of the grassroots, but also the media and anyone else who may wish to attack it. There is no reason why this shouldn't happen before the presidential elections.

And the fact that so many unions aren't affiliated is something the UNT must resolve. It should seek out unions and encourage them to officially join, to strengthen the confederation and give it a greater voice.

It is important, too, that it remains autonomous from the government. For an autonomous internationalist union confederation a class-based identity should be developed. One need only look at the AFL-CIO in the US to see what nationally focused, top-down trade unions can lead to: a coalition with the state and business against workers from other countries.

That doesn't always mean opposing the government, but keeping a safe distance so as to remain independent. Union leaders such as Vera, who are also members of the government, will find this difficult.

But what is more important is that the UNT has a strategy to drive forward the factory occupations so as to pressure the government and the bureaucracy; what Chavez calls "the revolution inside the revolution." And for this a united and organised UNT is vital. Without it the state and business owners will set the limits of what socialism of the 21st century means.

[Reprinted from <>.]