The second national congress of the National Union of Workers (UNT), the main progressive union federation in Venezuela, was suspended on May 27 after factional divisions led to a walkout by groups representing a minority of the delegates present. Tensions that had been simmering for some time boiled over that morning when a fight broke out. Chairs were thrown and several unionists were injured. Unarmed troops had to separate the opposing groups.
The immediate issue that provoked the conflict was whether elections for leading national positions, including national coordinators, would be held this year or delayed until early next year. When the UNT was set up as a progressive alternative to the far right-wing Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) in 2003, national coordinators were appointed, and no elections for leading positions have been held, despite commitments to do so.
Tensions had grown from the first day of the congress, May 25, when the entire day was taken up with credentialing around 3000 delegates from UNT-affiliated unions and federations from around the country. Disagreement over credentials kept the process going until midnight.
At the first plenary, on the morning of May 26, the congress started in apparent good spirits, with greetings being delivered on behalf of Britain’s National Union of Journalists and union organisations in Italy, France, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Greetings were also given on behalf of progressive unionists in Australia.
However, when key leaders of the UNT started speaking the internal differences became evident. There were boos and calls of “elections, elections” during the address of UNT national coordinator Marcela Maspero. Maspero leads the largest minority group within the UNT, and favours postponing the union elections until the first quarter of 2007, mainly on the grounds of giving priority to the campaign to re-elect President Hugo Chavez in December this year.
Maspero was followed by Orlando Chirino, leader of the Current for Revolutionary Class Unity and Autonomy (C-CURA), whose reception by the audience indicated he had strong support from the majority of delegates present. Chirino called for calm, but the lines had been drawn for the coming division of the congress.
Following an afternoon in which the different currents caucused separately to discuss their plans, the session ended for the day. It was reported that UNT leaders met till 5am to try to thrash out a compromise solution to the stalemate on the elections question — apparently without success. The next morning, the dispute boiled over into open conflict and a division of the congress.
The majority of delegates stayed in the main hall with Chirino and his colleagues, including Stalin Perez and Ruben Linares. The four other minority factions went upstairs and outside to hold separate meetings, ending the congress with the major issues unresolved.
In a statement issued on May 28, Chirino argued: “For C-CURA there was no doubt that the democratic will of the workers and trade union leaders from the grassroots was that the UNT should have a new, legitimate direction, that there be an end to all the fights and conflicts, and that in December the re-election of President Chavez be achieved as a form of defending the social and democratic conquests. The majority of workers supported the position that there should be elections this year, that a UNT leadership would then be legitimate, it would be strengthened, and in a better position to fight for 10 million votes for President Chavez.”
The statement continued: “The support for the revolutionary process and the re-election of President Chavez is not a sufficient excuse to delay the internal elections of the UNT. The national coordinators were appointed three years ago with the promise that within three months there would be elections to legitimise the leadership.
“The manoeuvres of Marcela Maspero’s current began several weeks beforehand, with the aim of controlling the congress, the removal of credentials and delivery of these credentials to her followers, the delivery of accreditation to people who had nothing to do with the trade union movement”.
Maspero sent “her delegates to good hotels. Meanwhile, the representatives of other currents were sent outside Caracas to accommodation where there was no water. Meanwhile, the transport that should have brought them to the capital was notable by its absence. All this generated a great deal of bad feeling among hundreds of honest delegates who came to the congress from the regions to participate democratically.”
Marcela Maspero, for her part, declared, according the May 30 daily Ultimas Noticias, that the “majority of delegates agreed to have elections in the first trimester of 2007 in order to give priority to the 10 million votes [campaign] for the presidential elections”. The three other currents supporting her were the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT), the Autonomous Union, and followers of Franklin Rondon, who was roundly booed at the congress as a former supporter of the April 2002 coup against Chavez.
It is clear that the Chirino group had the backing of a significant majority of the UNT delegates at the congress. It also appears that the most militant forces among the union membership generally support the Chirino leadership
In his speech to the section of delegates remaining in the hall after the walkout, Chirino said that every effort had been made during the all-night meeting the previous evening to find a compromise, involving a transitional election to be held soon with a commission being set up to hold permanent elections at a later date. The interim election would involve a system of special consideration for minority representation.
The divisions in the UNT are a serious setback for revolutionary unionism in Venezuela. They come at a bad time, with the presidential elections due on December 3. The apparent cold split in the UNT is a life raft for the reactionary CTV, which has been reduced to a bureaucratic rump in recent years, and a boost for the US and its supporters in the right-wing Venezuelan opposition.
From Green Left Weekly, June 7, 2006.