Published: Thursday, October 13, 2005
Venezuelan labor gains: Unions and workers push forward class struggle
Socialism and Liberation's Nathalie Hrizi writes: The workers of Venezuela are making great strides in their struggles against capitalist profit motive and exploitation, but significant tasks lie ahead. The future of workers' power was a constant theme of the massive May Day rally in Caracas.
Addressing the crowd, President Hugo Chavez declared, "It is only the beginning of the process, we are just beginning to construct a new state, institutions and a new society… We are just taking the first few steps in the new economy, in production, in property relations, and so we must not have any illusions and we must not yet chant that we have won. … The capitalist system does not allow us to implement our constitution or the political, economic or social project that we want." (Venezuelasolidarity.org, May 4)
Chavez concluded, "We need to break all the chains of the past that have held us back."
While the revolutionary process in Venezuela is shifting dramatically to the left as it deepens its working class base, the process is far from finished. The confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution is manifesting as a struggle for the leadership of the labor movement.
On May 1, International Workers Day, hundreds of thousands of workers affiliated with the National Workers' Union (UNT) marched in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, in support of the "Bolivarian Revolution" led by President Hugo Chavez. A smaller demonstration led by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) marched to oppose Chavez' revolutionary process.
For decades, the CTV has undermined the interests of the working class in Venezuela. It played a role in the struggle that overthrew the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. But it soon became closely allied to the government and industry bosses, especially the Democratic Action Party (AD), one of the two traditional ruling class parties that dominated Venezuelan politics until Chavez' election.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Venezuelan government unleashed a wave of privatizations and neo-liberal reforms that devastated the working class and the poor. Severe austerity measures cut the living standards of the people and sparked a spontaneous rebellion in 1989 known as the Caracazo.
During this period, the CTV joined with the Federation of Chambers of Commerce -- the bosses' and employers' organization -- and the government to form the "tripartite movement," directly betraying the people of Venezuela.
This alliance was the basis for the CTV's participation in the April 2002 coup that overthrew Chavez -- for 48 hours. He was returned to power, dramatically, by the people of Venezuela and by lower-ranking members of the military. The main faces of the coup were Pedro Carmona of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and CTV head Carlos Ortega.
A radical challenge
The pro-Chavez labor federation, the UNT, which organized the other, more massive May Day demonstrations, is a radical challenge to the CTV that grew out of the struggle against the CTV's reactionary policies from within the unions. Many of the leaders of the UNT were members of the Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores (FBT), Bolivarian Labor Forces, a radical current that existed in the CTV and fought against its reactionary policies. When it became clear that reforming the CTV was not possible, the FBT forces moved to create a new labor federation that would fight for the workers' real interests.
The UNT was officially formed in April of 2003 after the bosses and CTV bureaucrats locked workers out of industry and business in yet another attempt to destroy the Bolivarian revolutionary process. The lockout lasted from December 2002 until February 2003.
In November 2004, UNT leader Marcela Maspero spoke to a group of Canadian workers. "This time, our federation acted from a class perspective and from a worker's perspective," she said. "We went right to the plant gates and stood at the gates and we said. 'Open these gates; these workers want to work!'"
This is the hallmark of the young national union. It is rooted in the struggle to defend the Bolivarian revolution that has provided literacy, work programs, health care and other services to the 80% of Venezuelans living in poverty.
The UNT has participated in organizing and forming new unions in the industries and workplaces where the CTV has lost the confidence of the workers. During the May 1 demonstration, the UNT National Coordinator Francisco Torrealba said, "We welcome the genuine expressions of the working class, every day continuing to occupy further the spaces left vacant by the CTV."
Although the UNT is still in the process of developing its internal structure, its momentum within the working class of Venezuela is ever-increasing.
In 2004, workers in different industries voted in eight referenda to replace the CTV union with a new union and membership in the UNT.
In 2003 to 2004, 76.5% of collective bargaining agreements signed were with unions affiliated with the UNT while only 20.2% were with unions affiliated with the CTV, according to the Ministry of Labor. The disparity between these two figures is the result of the UNT's dominance in the public sector. But even in the private sector, where the CTV has greater strength, 50.3% of agreements were signed with the UNT while 45.2% were with the CTV. In Carabobo, an industrial state, there have been 27 referenda on collective agreements -- the UNT has won 22 of them.
This reveals both the loss of confidence in the CTV among the organized workers and the growing momentum of the UNT. The appeal of the UNT to workers is reflected in the increase in trade union participation. The rate of overall trade union affiliation in the country has increased from 11% in 2001 to 14% in 2004.
The UNT's new energy has been directed at both defending the gains of the Bolivarian revolutionary process and fighting for the needs of the workers of Venezuela.
'The year of labor'
According to the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, 2005 "will be the year of the labor sector." Already, the Chavez administration has increased the minimum wage by 26% for urban workers and 40% for rural workers. The minimum wage has been raised every year on May Day since the new constitution was adopted. But, for the first time, the minimum wage for rural workers is equal to that of urban workers.
The Chavez administration has also increased job security and expanded the social security program for the elderly. This is all in addition to the Mission programs that have provided access to education, healthcare, jobs and food for poor and working people.
The Chavez government has led a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie by encouraging the empowerment of the masses. The reforms and the defense of those gains have been carried out by the working and poor people themselves.
On January 18, Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias announced that Venezuela has created a state-owned paper company, Invepal, replacing the bankrupt private paper company Venepal. This was done in response to a long struggle of the Venepal workers and surrounding community for control of the paper mill.
On April 28, the Venezuelan government published a decree for the expropriation of the Venezuelan valve producer Constructora Nacional de Valvulas, which will be renamed the National Endogenous Industry of Valves (Inveval). The Venezuelan state will own 51 percent of the company while the remaining 49% will be owned by a co-operative of workers. The factory had been occupied by workers who demanded control of production. These workers had not been paid for their work for almost two years.
In the celebration that followed the announcement of the expropriation, one worker said, "Now begins the true struggle to move forward this new model and demonstrate what works against the sabotage of the big capitalists and the bureaucracy."
This system of co-management has also been introduced into state-run industries as in the state-owned Alcasa aluminum processing plant in the industrial state of Bolivar. Alcasa had been threatened by privatization. The workforce had been reduced and, despite the potential for profit, the company had been "in the red" for 16 years because of corrupt management.
In January 2005, the workers demanded that management be re-organized and a system of co-management was introduced. Now the plant is managed by a worker-manager and two workers' representatives who are serving three-month terms, until the formal elections.
The Secretary General of Alcasa's union, Trino Silva, spoke about some of the proposals the union was discussing in an interview with journalist Marta Harnecker on March 28.
The proposals included a fourteen-person board with representatives from the workers, the government and the community. Also, they propose that the manager should not receive any wage increase, and that there should be no privilege associated with the position.
Revealing the revived labor movement's perspective toward the Bolivarian revolutionary process, Silva said, "In 2003, Alcasa spent 18 billion bolivares in payments to private clinics for care to workers and their relatives; last year 24 billion were spent. What do we say to that?
If so much money is being spent on health care and the union owns land in Citralcasa Curagua, why not hand over that land to the State to build a public clinic that will attend to not only the Alcasa workers but to the entire community?
"We want Cuban doctors working in these clinics caring for human life as an end onto itself … we also want like-minded Venezuelan doctors."
Co-management is not socialism ... it is a radical reform in a step towards workers' control within the workplace.
It is a step forward for workers in Venezuela. Socialism would as a first step expropriate the factories and other means of production that are currently privately owned by the capitalist class.
The issue of co-management -- its benefits and its limitations -- is being thoroughly discussed and analyzed by the most progressive forces in Venezuela's labor movement.
On April 4, Orlando Chirino, one of seven national coordinators of the UNT, spoke about co-management in an interview with aporrea.org ..."in this moment, we are passing through this phase. But we must question the capitalist relations of production and advance toward socialism.
There are concrete facts, for example the nationalization of Venepal and tomorrow the nationalization of CNV.
There are elements of workers' control, as we see clearly in ALCASA, where the process had gone much farther."
Nathalie Hrizi firstname.lastname@example.org