Venezuela: Union movement rebuilds, industrial disputes grow

September 7, 2008

Addressing an assembly of petroleum workers in Zulia on September 5, Venezuelan labour minister Roberto Hernandez explained that the "only way to guarantee the advance of the revolution is with the unity of the working class".

Hernandez emphasised that "to defeat imperialism and the internal counter-revolution, we need to have a united working class at the national level".

This same message was delivered by Hernandez, former union activist, labour lawyer, and long term Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) leader who has since left to join the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), during his swearing in as minister in April — only weeks after the nationalisation of the Sidor steel works.


The move to nationalise one of the largest steel factories in Latin America was the culmination of the most important industrial struggle in Venezuela since the December 2002-February 2003 bosses' lock-out.

During the conflict, Sidor workers, as well as important sections of the union movement, accused the then-labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero of siding with Sidor's transnational owners against the workers.

Rivero was also accused of using his position to to help build his own union current, the Bolivarian Socialist Force of Workers (FSBT), while undermining other struggles.

Only days before being sacked as labour minister, Jose Ramon Rivero and other FSBT leaders announced their intentions of creating a new union federation, making official their split with the National Union of Workers (UNT) — the biggest national union federation created to unite pro-revolution union forces.

Together with the small Alfredo Maniero current, they officially launched the new workers central in July.

With the momentum gained by the victory of the Sidor workers — whose demands were largely met following nationalisation — and changes in the labour ministry, signs of a potential reinvigoration of the union movement have begun to appear.

Given the near-absence, due to its weakness, of the organised working class in the revolutionary process, such signs are of great importance. Increasing labour conflicts, scheduled union elections and moves towards greater unity between currents at the national level could all help to begin to turn this around.

After four years of delays, and with the collaboration of the labour ministry, Venezuela's public sector union federation, which unites over one million workers, will hold elections on October 1. Competition will be fierce between the slate aligned with the Alfredo Maneiro current and various forces aligned to the National Union of Workers (UNT), the largest national federation that was formed to unite pro-revolution unions.

In the newly created federation of petroleum worker unions, tickets aligned to the FSBT, anti-Chavez forces and the Classist, Unitary, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (part of the UNT) will go head to head in elections on November 5.

However, the most immediate elections are in the United Steel Industry Workers' Union (SUTISS).

The current SUTISS president, who has taken an ambiguous position towards the government and has been heavily criticised by sections of workers for attempting to sell out the struggle, in not standing in the September 9-11 elections. His supporters, however, make up one of the strongest of the seven slates in the election.

The two other main contenders are the Union Alliance ticket, which involved militants from the Marea Socialista current within the UNT, and an anti-Chavez ticket.

While a victory for the latter would represent a grave headache for the government — forced to contend with a union run by forces linked to the counter-revolutionary opposition in a phase of transition towards a new state-owned Sidor — a victory for Union Alliance, whose campaign is focused on the issue of workers' control of Sidor, would have ramifications well beyond the factory gates.

If one of the largest unions in the country — historically, and even more so given recent events, a reference point for union militancy — fell into the hands of the Chavista forces in Union Alliance, it would not only shake up the union movement in the country's most important industrial belt, it would put winds in the sails of the UNT, which is currently relaunching itself.

Relaunching the UNT

The results of these elections will have an important impact on the fragmented national pro-revolution union movement, which only recently suffered an important split.

The five remaining currents in the UNT, together with the PCV-aligned union confederation, are seeking to relaunch the UNT following years divisions and infighting since it was first launched in 2003.

Despite organisational hurdles, these currents are aiming to organise a national congress and hold the first internal elections for UNT leadership positions.

Forced to postpone the congress, originally planned for September, it is now set for October 17-19.

Union currents aligned with the PSUV — the mass party headed by Chavez that unites much of the mass base that support the revolution — have been meeting with party leaders to discuss issues, such as labour conflicts, unity and the role of the working class.

While most of the UNT currents within the PSUV, along with the Alfredo Maneiro current, have been regularly participating, the FSBT has kept its distance.

As a result of these meetings, the PSUV-aligned union currents are planning a national event with 400 union leaders on September 19-21 to kick off the discussion on a PSUV program for the working class in the transition to socialism.

All the currents have also been regularly attending meetings with the labour ministry, whose open-door policy towards the various currents has enabled the establishment of a permanent labour conflict resolution working group to deal with the increasing labour disputes.

Disputes are being fuelled by rising inflation eating into workers' salaries and by employers conspiring to cause economic chaos to undermine the continued emergence of new militant unions backed by pro-worker laws.

The clearest example of this complex landscape is in the automotive industry, currently a key focal point for labour disputes.

While a number of the factory-based unions, who after two years have almost completed the formation of an industry-wide federation, are engaged in fierce struggles over collective contracts, employers are shutting down factories and locking out workers in order to pressure the government to receive more benefits.

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