Venezuela’s Labor Movement at the Crossroads

The recent replacement of the labor minister and the nationalization of Sidor have once again brought to the fore the question of the role of workers in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, whose participation as an organized class has been sporadic at best, in this process aimed at constructing ‘Socialism of the 21st Century.’

First came the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on April 9 to re-nationalize the Sidor steel plant—privatised by a pre-Chavez government in 1997—after a long worker’s struggle.

This was followed shortly by the call from Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force’s (FSBT), a faction with in the pro-Chavez National Union of Workers (UNT), to split away to form a new national federation.

Two days later, labor minister Jose Ramon Rivero, a member of the FSBT, who was accused by Sidor workers of opposing their struggle, was replaced by National Assembly Vice-President and former Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) member Roberto Hernandez, now a United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) member.

These events have once again brought to the fore the question of the role of workers in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, whose participation as an organized class has been sporadic at best, in this process aimed at constructing ‘Socialism of the 21st Century.’

Neoliberal unions

Prior to Chavez’s election in 1998, Venezuela’s political system had been dominated for 40 years by two traditional parties: the Christian democratic COPEI and Democratic Action (AD), a social democratic party. The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the main trade union federation, although having emerged out of workers struggle, had quickly become subordinated to AD, and by the eighties and nineties became a bastion of support for the policies of consecutive neoliberal governments.

In the context of an emerging wave of privatizations, increased casualization, spiraling unemployment, and 80% poverty, Chavez was elected president on an anti-neoliberal platform in 1998. His election not only put a stop to further planned privatizations (which included the petroleum and electricity sector) but ushered in a new era of state policies directed at empowering the poor and exploited, causing a profound impact on the workers movement.

Speaking to unionists from the industrial town of Valencia during a visit to Venezuela in 2005, they recounted to us what the Chavez presidency had meant for workers. “If you do a survey of all the companies, in all of them are new groups of [unionists] that have sprouted, because they have won referendums, because the new laws [introduced by President Hugo Chavez’s government] protect them” explained Luis Flugo, one of the new layer of union activists, whose union at the time was involved in a 9 month struggle against the Aseven (KR) soft-drink company.

“That is what has helped take the blindfold off and see that [workers] can win their rights.” The new laws enabled workers to hold referendums in their workplace to decide who would oversee their collective contract and opened the space for a new layer of militants to rise up from the ranks.

Whilst the new laws and government policy provided tools for workers’ struggle, it was struggle from below that profoundly shook up the labor movement. In the context of the open collaboration of the CTV with the business federation, Fedecamaras, in a wave of rightwing anti-government protests from the end of 2001, and its participation in the failed coup attempt against Chavez in April 2002, a national gathering of pro-revolution unionists in September that year, voted against breaking with the CTV to form a new labor federation, and to continue to fight from within to win leadership of the CTV.

New Federation

It would take the experience of the bosses’ lockout (once again with the open collaboration of the CTV), initiated December 2002, for workers, organized as a class, to enter into the arena of the revolution. In response to the wave of factory shutdowns, in particular the management shutdown and sabotage of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, workers moved in and began to take control of their factories, including restarting the oil and electrical sectors, which were crucial to breaking the bosses’ lockout.

This situation led to a definitive break with the CTV and the attempt by militant unionists to form a new revolutionary labor federation. The National Union of Workers was born on April 5, 2003. Diana Barahona, writing for CounterPunch on October 24, 2005, noted that whilst the UNT’s first congress “left structural issues [essential for democratic unionism] unresolved…there was general agreement over principles and the plan of action.”

Spurred on by a government discourse – backed by the constitution – of support for worker participation and co-management in industry and a government moratorium on lay-offs of lowest paid workers, UNT affiliation grew dramatically, representing 76.5% of all collective agreements signed in 2003-2004, rapidly overtaking the CTV as Venezuela’s principal labor federation.

Despite this growth, unionisation remains only slightly above 20% of the formal work force, while 47% of workers are in the so-called informal sector, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics.

At its high point in 2005 some one million workers participated in a UNT-organized May Day march in Caracas under the banner of “Co-management is revolution,” and “Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian Socialism.”

“Factory closed, factory occupied and run by the workers” became the catch cry of both Chavez and the union movement, with a list of 800 factories that had been shut down across the country earmarked to be taken over.

Divisions and setbacks

However, three years later only a handful have been recuperated, and in a number of important cases, worker’s co-management has been rolled back or defeated altogether.

Today, many unionists agree that the labor movement is more dispersed and fragmented than it has ever been in the last 9 years of Chavez government. A number of factors have contributed to this situation including bitter divisions within the union movement itself, conflicting views over the experience of co-management, and issues such as union autonomy and democracy.

Since its inception, internal debates and conflict have wracked the UNT. Lack of internal structures and horizontalism, perhaps necessary at the start but never redressed, lead to the UNT have 21 national coordinators. Elections were continually postponed due to factional wrangling, and with political differences and personal rivalries increasingly dominating the federation it reached a point where each current began to act independently of each other, though all in the name of the UNT.

This lack of structure led to the Communist Party of Venezuela-aligned United Confederation of Venezuelan Workers deciding to remain outside the UNT.

By the time of its second congress in 2006, five major political currents had emerged: the FSBT (initially the Bolivarian Worker’s Force, which predates the UNT as a current within the CTV) led by Oswaldo Vera; the Alfredo Maneiro current, whose key leaders included Ramon Machuca in the steel industry and Franklin Rondon in the public sector; the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CTR), lead by Marcela Maspero; the United Revolutionary Autonomous Class Current (C-CURA), headed by Orlando Chirinos and Stalin Perez Borges; and the smaller Union Autonomy, lead by Orlando Castillo.

While the FSBT and the Alfredo Manerio current involved leaders of some of the largest union federations, predominantly in the public service and state-owned industry where they worked to maintain control, the CTR and C-CURA focused on promoting the discussion of co-mangement and on winning the new emerging unions, generally in the private sector.

The situation came to a head in an acrimonious dispute at the 2006 congress, ostensibly over the timing of elections, but in reality masking personal and ideological differences including over how to relate to the Chavez government.

CCURA, which appeared to have a majority at the congress, called for immediate elections while the other factions argued they should be postponed until after the 2006 presidential elections so as not to distract from Chavez’s presidential campaign. The congress ended in disarray and since then, the UNT has effectively ceased functioning as a national federation despite a number of strong regional sections.

In addition to these divisions, another feature of the union movement, particularly striking in the context of the radical social changes occurring in Venezuela, is the lack of any political strategy aimed at deepening the Bolivarian process towards the construction of a socialism and genuine worker’s control.

This is reflected in the overwhelmingly economist nature of their demands. As Canadian Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz puts it, “Their whole orientation towards higher wages and their tendency to act like a labor aristocracy in a society where so many people are poor.”

The UNT, like the CTV before it has largely avoided any attempt to organize workers in the informal sector, focusing overwhelmingly on the demands of the most privileged layer of Venezuelan workers. This has lead to a disjuncture between the organized trade union movement and the masses of poor Venezuelans who form the backbone of the Bolivarian revolution.

New political developments

New political developments in 2007 such as the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) (which unites many pro-Chavez groups and hundreds of thousands of Chavistas), Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms aimed at “opening the path to socialism,” and the appointment of FSBT leader Jose Ramon Rivero to the position of Labor Minister lead to further debates within the union movement.

While almost all the currents agreed with the necessity to join the PSUV, the CCURA current split over this question. Pointing to comments by Chavez against “union autonomy,” a wing of CCURA lead by Chirinos rejected participation in the PSUV as it moved towards a more hostile position in relation to the government, including calling for a spoiled vote in the constitutional reform referendum of December 2, 2007.

The majority of CCURA, however, voted to go into the PSUV, forming the Socialist Tide current, led by Stalin Perez Borges.

Growing conflicts between labor and the state have also impacted on the debate over how the labor movement should relate to the government. As momentum built for greater worker participation, sections of the state bureaucracy seeking to protect their own interests began to actively undermine the process.

One example occurred in the state-owned CADAFE electricity company. After a long struggle, winning the right to workers participation in their collective contract, and establishing workers committees to make it a reality, management moved to crush any real participation, limiting it to decisions over what Christmas decorations would fill the halls of administration offices.

This pattern has been repeated in many different spheres of Venezuelan society – a push by the ranks, in alliance with Chavez, for popular power has encountered the resistance of sectors of the state bureaucracy who do not want to cede control. These vested interests intersect with the right wing of the Chavista camp, which has strong institutional weight and seeks to slow down the revolutionary process.

This conflict has led to a debate over what role workers should have in running the economy, with some supporting a more passive role while others demand more active worker participation and control.

In response, the Revolutionary Front of Workers in Co-managed Factories (FRETECO) was formed, grouping together many of the workers in the handful of worker-run factories that exist.

The conflict between labor and the state increased dramatically with the appointment of Rivero as Labor Minister. He intervened into disputes to advance his own current, the FSBT, or even sided with the bosses, as with the case of Sanatarios Maracay, an occupied ceramics factory where workers say he intervened to set up a parallel union and hand back the factory to the boss.

The situation intensified in January this year with the Sidor dispute. After more than a year of struggle for a collective contract the Sidor workers found themselves in a situation of open confrontation not only against management but also with the policies of the local “Chavista” governor, Fransisco Rangel Gomez, and the labor minister, who tried to impose a referendum on the company’s final pay offer. At one point the workers were brutally repressed with teargas and rubber bullets by the National Guard and the local police.

The labor minister also slandered the SIDOR workers, claiming they were “counter-revolutionary” and falsely alleged they had supported the boss’s lockout of Dec 2002, when in fact, they had heroically seized control of the plant to help break it.

Chavez eventually overrode Rivero and sent in Vice-President Ramon Carrizalez to settle the dispute and announced on April 9 the government's decision to nationalize the plant.

“This is a government that protects workers and will never take the side of a transnational company,” Carrizalez said.

Reinvigorated union movement

This act, long demanded by the SIDOR workers, has reinvigorated the labor movement, as Marcos García, a coordinator of public sector union FENTRASEP explained, “The workers movement, with the triumph of the SIDOR workers and the people of Guayana, who achieved the nationalization of the principal steel producer in Latin America, has produced a change throughout the country.”

In this context, Rivero launched a public attack on the UNT, telling the April 11 edition of Venezuelan regional daily Notitarde “the National Union of Workers does not represent the spirit of the Venezuelan revolutionary process.”

Then on April 13, Rivero and National Assembly Deputy and coordinator of the FSBT Osvaldo Vera announced the formation of a new national union federation calling on unions to disaffiliate from the UNT, claiming to have the backing of 17 of the most important sectoral federations.

However Chavez, while addressing 300,000 supporters on the sixth anniversary of the 2002 coup on the same day, praised the SIDOR workers and called on the working class to assume a "protagonistic role" in the revolution. “The working class is fundamental to any socialist revolution,” he insisted.

In what appears to be a clear repudiation of the rightwing role of Rivero in the SIDOR dispute and his public support for splitting the UNT he was sacked two days later and replaced by former Communist Party member and National Assembly vice-president Roberto Hernandez. The new minister has called for unity and proposed a union constituent assembly to re-found the labor movement, which has the backing of Socialist Tide, C-CURA and the CTR.

One important question will be what happens in Sidor: will the creative spirit of the Sidor workers in struggle be unleashed through active participation in the running of the company, or will they be relegated back to simply fighting for a better collective contract, like the electricity workers before them?

However, broader questions for the union movement center on whether it will be able to overcome its serious divisions, which could potentially deepen with the call for a new alternative federation to the UNT.

Undoubtedly the UNT, at the very least, needs to be refounded, but this requires a dialogue between the different currents, and more importantly, a democratic process involving rank and file workers in order to create a genuine revolutionary trade union movement that can advance the Bolivarian revolution towards socialism.