Venezuela’s National Workers’ Union

The emergence of the new class-conscious National Workers Union (UNT) was made possible by the election of Chavez, who has reshaped the country's political institutions­. Workers seized the opportunity which presented itself and have both supported Chavez and taken advantage of freedom to organize they never had before, supported by a two-year-old prohibition against laying off low-wage workers.

The revolutionary process which started in Venezuela following the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998 has had a profound impact on the labor front. For 40 years the historically dominant Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) had an undemocratic structure and union bureaucrats collaborated with management to quash the struggles of rank-and-file workers. Democratic union activists were fired and even murdered while union bosses looked the other way. Now Venezuela has a new union federation. After the leadership of the CTV joined the business federation to support the 2002 military coup and then led a 63-day economic stoppage to force Chavez's resignation, pro-Chavez labor leaders founded the National Workers' Union (UNT) in April of 2003.

Last year the new federation was growing by leaps and bounds but the CTV still represented a lot of unions. That is no longer the case; although its first congress last month left structural issues unresolved, there was general agreement over principles and the plan of action, and the UNT is firmly established as Venezuela's principal labor federation. There are an estimated 1.2 million workers affiliated with the UNT, which is the same number the CTV counted in its ranks in 2001. The CTV now has 200,000 workers according to one source.

Two factions currently vying for office are led by Ramon Machuca, leader of the Steelworkers Union (SUTISS), and the slate headed by Orlando Chirino, a union leader from the oil industry, and Marcela Máspero, who comes from a pharmaceutical union. Máspero is the only woman on the 21-member coordinating committee. Also on the slate and the coordinating committee is Rubén Linares, vice president of a union of transportation workers.

History of the UNT

The emergence of the class-conscious UNT was made possible by the election of Chavez, who has reshaped the country's political institutions­a new constitution and 49 laws containing fundamental reforms­ to benefit the interests of the poor. Workers seized the opportunity which presented itself and have both supported Chavez and taken advantage of freedom to organize they never had before, supported by a two-year-old prohibition against laying off low-wage workers.

The CTV was historically aligned with one of the two political parties that ruled Venezuela for 40 years, Democratic Action. Presidents of the CTV were party activists and corruption and cronyism were the order of the day.

Asked about the CTV's loyalties, Linares said,

"Initially, yes, it had class consciousness, but over time they became bureaucratic and it disappeared. As a matter of fact, there is a very important fact: you won't find a strike–go to the files of the ILO, where they were very well represented … and there isn't one legal strike recorded in Venezuela during 40 years at the ILO. And we know that there were strikes. Here there were people injured, there were killings, there were confrontations with the police, with the national guard. The private sector guilds fought for their rights, for money, for pay; they fought for all those kinds of demands. But it wasn't recorded. Why? Because the CTV had to show the world that this was paradise."

The AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development, a cold war CIA front, had worked closely with the CTV in the early 1960s to purge it of communists at the same time that the Communist Party was decertified politically. This is why the CTV not only refused to support labor actions but even ordered out the police or gangs armed with iron construction rods to put down the strikes.

In 1997, after over a decade of neoliberalism had impoverished the country, the CTV made an agreement with the rightist government of Rafael Caldera whereby it accepted a "reform" of the labor code. This deregulation resulted in a sharp reduction in the value of paid days the workers earned every year and received as a lump sum when they separated from a company or retired. It also allowed labor flexibility and subcontracting; permanent jobs were lost to fixed-term contracts. In exchange businesses promised to invest the money taken from the workers to maintain full payrolls, but that never happened. UNT leaders see the CTV's acceptance of these giveaways as an historic betrayal of the working class.

Chavez elected

In 1998 Hugo Chavez ran for president as an independent candidate. During the campaign he called on the people to form "constitutional fronts" in every state, and they responded by organizing all kinds of groups under that banner. But the one that endured after the election was the Workers' Constitutional Front. By September 2001 the country had a new constitution and this group became the Bolivarian Workers' Force.

Two seminal events define modern Venezuelan history: the April 2002 military coup, which lasted 48 hours, and the December 2002-January 2003 economic sabotage, also known as the oil coup. Led by its president, Carlos Ortega, the CTV was a key protagonist of both actions, but rank-and-file workers were never consulted by the union leadership. In any event the rate of unionization in Venezuela has historically been very low: 14 percent of the formal sector comprising companies with five or more employees. So when the coup was reversed by uprisings in the military barracks but also the presence of masses of people in the streets around the presidential palace, workers were among those in the streets demanding the return of Chavez, though not as unions. In fact Linares says the only union that responded as such to restore Chavez to the presidency was his fledgling Passenger Transportation Workers Guild.

After the coup members of the Bolivarian Workers' Force saw the need to organize in opposition to the CTV leadership and they held a meeting of 1,500 delegates in September 2002. But they were divided on whether to try to take over the CTV or form a rival federation, so they agreed to meet again.

In that lapse the CTV, again allied with the ruling class, plunged the country into the devastating oil stoppage which cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more than $10 billion in economic losses, as oil production was cut from 3.1 million barrels a day to 25,000 barrels. Of the state oil company's (PdVSA) 35,000 permanent employees, 18,000 walked off the job.

Rank-and-file workers from other sectors joined non-striking PdVSA workers to fight sabotage and restore production. For example, saboteurs poured sand into the pipes and technicians locked out the computers by withholding passwords. Workers went to the houses of strikers but the latter refused to go to work, whereupon thousands of retired and foreign engineers and technicians were called in to replace them. There were other problems besides petroleum production; owners of trucking companies locked out drivers and paralyzed national transportation, and companies dumped food into the ocean. Saboteurs also cut domestic fuel distribution with the result that transportation workers had to wait long hours in line for a few liters of gasoline.

After the oil stoppage was defeated, everyone in the Bolivarian Workers' Force was convinced the time had come for a new federation, and on April 5, 2003, they formed the UNT.

This year's May Day parades provided a graphic picture of the decline of the CTV. There were around half a million supporters at the UNT march while not even 1,000 marched with the CTV.

"Effectively in Venezuela there is a revolution in unionism going on"

In an interview in his Caracas apartment, Orlando Chirino explained where the UNT is now and the direction he would like it to take within the context of the Bolivarian revolution. He began by stressing that the UNT is grounded in solidarity­not just within Venezuela but internationally.

The UNT has declared its independence from employers, the government and political parties, which is the reason they refuse to ask for help from the government. Chirino says the workers have to get used to paying the union's expenses and in turn the union leaders have to justify the way the money was spent to the workers, promoting accountability and transparency. The UNT still doesn't have a headquarters even though he thinks the government would give them one if they asked.

Finally, the UNT is fighting for workers' control over the means of production through nationalization and co-management. There have been a few nationalizations; ­notably a valve factory and a paper plant­ in the wake of the oil stoppage, which left over 6,000 companies closed. There are also two state-owned electric companies and an aluminum plant and, of course, the state oil company, PdVSA. Chirino wants to see more of the companies reopened and co-management is part of the restructuring; this seems to be beginning with the recent announcement of the formation of a state-owned steel and iron processing company and the expropriation of an idle corn processing plant. But there is sharp disagreement between labor leaders and state oil managers over the extent of co-management, with the former calling for more worker participation in choosing managers and making decisions at all levels, and the latter promoting European-style steering committees, something Chirino dismissively calls "capitalism with a human face."

He has good reason to think that the workers can run their companies:

"Four to five thousand managers who ran the petroleum industry told the country that if they didn't come back, it wouldn't get started again. There was worker control in that lapse. With the community and the patriotic armed forces we got the industry running, we reactivated it, a demonstration that we could. And now in our application we say, 'if we did it there we can do it now in the companies that are shut down that may be reopened."

Although the oil industry only provides one percent of the nation's jobs, according to Chirino, how those jobs are given out is important. This summer the government started implementing the System of Democratization of Employment to put "objectivity, transparency and equality of opportunity" into the contracting of temporary oil workers, which has always been plagued by patronage. Mobile teams are registering some of the 30,000 "unemployed" workers to work on the 856 projects scheduled before the end of the year. The practice of contracting is controversial; undoubtedly many "unemployed" workers want permanent employment and they still lack union representation.

The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and the CTV

AIFLD was forced to change its name because its anti-communist activities overseas had earned the AFL-CIO the nickname AFL-CIA. It became the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), but its collaboration with the government doesn't appear to have changed.

Since the 2002 coup, lawyer Eva Golinger has filed hundreds of FOIA requests and received evidence of the U.S. government's involvement in it. The Southern Command and the CIA had advance knowledge of the plot and the State Department was front and center, funding opposition groups to the tune of about $3.3 million during the six months preceding the coup. These funds were channeled through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. (Golinger, The Chavez Code, Havana: Editorial Jose Marti, 2005)

On the labor front, Golinger documented more than $776,000 in different grants that the Solidarity Center received from the NED specifically to support the CTV between February 2001 and March 2002. The ACILS got another CTV support grant for $116,000 in September 2002, five months after the coup and three months before the oil stoppage. In his history of AIFLD (www.laboreducator.org/darkpast.htm) labor activist Harry Kelber says the grants continued in the same amount every three months until at least March 2004. According to Golinger, the ACILS continues to receive grants in excess of $100,000 annually for its work with the CTV. (http://www.venezuelafoia.info/acils.html)

Experts on U.S. destabilization Philip Agee, William Robinson, and Hernando Calvo Ospina concur that President Reagan founded the NED in 1983 to continue the work formerly done by the CIA, which had been exposed and discredited by hearings conducted by Senator Frank Church in 1973-1975. The NED has four core grantees: The ACILS, the Center for International Private Enterprise (U.S. Chamber of Commerce), the International Republican Institute (Republican Party) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (Democratic Party). The NED claims it gives grants to these groups "for programs that promote pluralism and free and fair elections (IRI and NDI), free markets and economic reforms (CIPE), and independent trade unions (ACILS)." Harry Kelber says the ACILS receives 75% of its funding from the departments of State and Labor, and Golinger says ACILS is the largest single grant recipient of USAID.

The Solidarity Center Stands by its Venezuela Program

Stanley Gacek, AFL-CIO Director for the Americas, defends the CTV's Carlos Ortega, now in prison, saying he refused to sign the coup decree. He also says that Ortega is not being prosecuted for participation in the coup but for the oil industry shutdown, which is true, although Ortega's actions facilitated the execution of the plot. The CTV called for a general strike starting April 9, which was supported by FEDECAMARAS, the national business federation headed by coup leader Pedro Carmona. Ortega was also a speaker at the enormous opposition rally on April 11, which leaders illegally diverted to march on the presidential palace. The subsequent murders of demonstrators from both camps by opposition sharpshooters provided the excuse for the military to move in.

Gacek also claims the coup was "exclusively a military action" which "took place unbeknownst to the civil society organizations planning entirely legal and legitimate opposition actions." But 395 of these supposedly hoodwinked civil society leaders crowded into the presidential palace on April 12 to wildly cheer Carmona as he abrogated the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the office of the Attorney General. They were especially happy when he revoked the hated 49 reform laws.

Regarding the oil coup at the end of 2002, the ACILS did not fund the shutdown, although Gacek defends it as a legal collective action. He also points to the fact that 20,000 (actually less than 19,000) of a total 35,000 employees were terminated to imply that the action affected the rank-and-file and was anti-labor, and the CTV has taken the issue to the UN International Labor Organization. But PdVSA relies heavily on contract workers­, there will be 30,000 temporary positions this year on top of jobs held by employees. Without defending the practice of contracting, the fact is that permanent jobs are reserved for the elite­, mostly managers, administrators and skilled technicians­, and these are the people who walked off the job and crippled operations. The position of the government, which is supported by the rank-and-file, is that those fired abandoned their employment for 63 consecutive days, allowing PdVSA to apply section 102 of the Labor Code and terminate them. At any rate, strikes in any part of the world may only be called over labor grievances, and Ortega's CTV was demanding the president's resignation. It was not a legal labor action but an illegal political action.

Finally Gacek says the ACILS' State Department funding doesn't dictate how its programs are run. If this is true, it suggests the ACILS has internalized the policy objectives of the U.S. government, at least with regards to Venezuela. One month before the coup, on March 5, there was a national gathering of the CTV, FEDECAMARAS and the Catholic Church, the purpose of which was to draft "ten principles on which to guide a transitional government," according to an embassy cable. The ACILS report about the meeting said, "The joint action further established the CTV and FEDECAMARAS as the flagship organizations leading the growing opposition to the Chavez government." The embassy cable had the same celebratory tone:

"The existence of this accord was announced last week and has since drawn much speculation about whether it was intended as the basis for a post-Chavez government. In his combative centerpiece address, CTV President Carlos Ortega dispelled any remaining doubts; this accord is a 'pact for us,' he emphasized, to guide us through the transition and to establish a 'government of democratic unity.'"

Two of the points of unity cited by the embassy included: "promoting cooperation between labor and capital …" and "promoting 'public austerity' to prevent the squandering of resources." (The Chavez Code, p. 203) There is also evidence that AFL-CIO officials arranged a meeting in Washington between Ortega and Otto Reich in the State Department.

The international front

FEDECAMARAS and the CTV filed complaints with the ILO this year alleging violations of trade union rights by the Chavez government. According to UNT delegates, the individual speaking for FEDECAMARAS and the CTV at the session was Edward E. Potter, the U.S. delegate to the ILO and director of labor relations for Coca Cola. This is the same Coca Cola which has allowed union activists to be murdered in Colombia and which refuses to pay benefits to 840 Venezuelan workers laid off in 2002. The UNT responded in a June 16 statement that these complaints seek to "cover up the fact that these two organizations have taken part in actions that have nothing to do with ILO Convention 87, such as the coup d'etat against the government elected by the sovereign Venezuelan people as well as the sabotage of the oil industry." In June the complaint was withdrawn and the CTV was voted off the ILO Governing Body.


The AFL-CIO's attacks on the Chavez government through the misnamed Solidarity Center have made relations between Venezuelan and U.S. workers problematic. In a response to an article by Lee Sustar in the September issue of New Labor Forum, Gacek denounced what he called Chavez's "systematic and reprehensible violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights."

When I read this statement to Ruben Linares he was incensed, and he directed his answer to Gacek:

"In Quebec when they were talking about the FTAA, our president said there that he had to consult with the people, as opposed to all of the presidents including yours; because I would like to know if you are able to take yours to Bush so he can ask the people if they agree with the Iraq war or not, and if the people agree at this time with the Central American free trade agreements he is signing. Ours is required by a constitutional text to ask the people if we are going to join the FTAA or not. For us there is no democracy in your country."

Unencumbered by financing from the Foreign Ministry or ties to MI6, the British Trade Union Congress unanimously voted on September 14 to support Venezuela and the UNT. For that to happen in the states there would have to be a coordinated effort by U.S. labor unions to join in solidarity with their newly formed Venezuelan counterparts.

The AFL-CIO could also use lessons in humility. The ACILS prides itself on setting up conferences for foreign labor organizers to teach them about U.S.-style unionism; a better idea might be to send North American labor leaders to Venezuela. They could drop in on co-management training sessions like those held in August for workers and managers at CVG Carbonorca, which included classes on endogenous development, worker co-management and control, ethics, democracy in the streets and building popular power.

Diana Barahona is a writer living in Southern California. She can be reached at [email protected].

Source: CounterPunch