Encouraging Steps Forward for Venezuela’s Union Movement

A series of recent events has opened up a new phase in Venezuela's labor movement. One of the most significant was the government’s decision to re-nationalise the Sidor steel works, one of the most important in Latin America, after an 18-month struggle by its work force.

“As a product of four weeks of meetings
between the different currents in the National Union of Workers (UNT),
together with important union federations, we have democratically
decided, in consultation with the grassroots, that [on September 19-21]
we will hold a national congress.

“By no later than February next year, we will go towards a transparent, democratic process of internal elections.”

This important announcement was made by Stalin Perez Borges, a UNT
national coordinator and leader of the Marea Socialista (Socialist
Tide) current, at a press conference convened by the promoter’s
commission for the congress on July 15. It comes after crippling
divisions have severely weakened Venezuela’s union movement — at a time
when President Hugo Chavez has called for the working class to be at
the forefront of the push to construct a “socialism of the 21st

Present at the press conference were UNT national coordinators,
leaders of the majority of union currents, representatives from
numerous national and regional federations as well as from 12 regional
union centrals from across Venezuela.

These announcements mark an important step forward in forging
working class unity and come at a time of an upturn in struggle as well
as further steps towards union democratisation.

Formed out of the struggle by the workers to defeat the bosses’
lockout in December 2002-January 2003, which aimed to overthrow the
Chavez government, the UNT brought together the pro-revolution unions
and federation. It quickly became the dominant central in the country,
surpassing the corrupt pro-capitalist Confederation of Venezuelan
Workers (CTV) that had backed the lock-out.

However, internal divisions led to its second national congress,
held in 2006, splitting in two and the UNT ceasing to function at a
national level.

Divisions further deepened with the appointment of Jose Ramon
Rivero as labour minister in early 2007, who used his position to
favour the current from which he came, the Bolivarian Socialist Force
of Workers (FSBT), and attack the others.

However, a series of recent events has opened up a new phase.

One of the most significant was the government’s decision to
re-nationalise the Sidor steel works, one of the most important in
Latin America, after an 18-month struggle by its work force.

Perez Borges explained to Green Left Weekly that “the
historic victory of the Sidor workers, who demonstrated in practice the
results of unity” had been fundamental to opening up new space.

Not long after, Rivero was replaced as labour minister by Roberto
Hernandez. Rivero sided with Sidor’s multinational owners, and, just
before his sacking, had also publicly backed plans by the FSBT to split
the UNT to form a new federation.

Since then, plans have been underway for a number of important
elections within union federations. The lack of democratic elections
for union leaderships has been a key source of tensions between the
different currents and discontent among the rank-and-file.

In the teachers’ union, the slate of the Bolivarian Educators
(which supports relaunching the UNT), won national elections by a wide
margin against the slate of the FSBT.

Moreover, in the important public sector federation, with elections
four years overdue, nearly all the currents together with the labour
ministry have been able to agree to hold elections on October 1. At the
same time, they have reopened discussions on their collective contract,
which expired over a decade ago.

Only the FSBT has refused to be a part of this process.

Important elections are also set to be held shortly in the United
Steel Industry Workers’ Union (SUTISS), the union of Sidor workers, and
a newly formed federation of petroleum workers that unites the four
main unions in that sector.

On July 29, the FSBT is set to organise a workers’ mobilisation to
accompany it in legalising its new central, announced without any
discussion with the other union currents, and which initially had the
support of the presidents of 12 major union federations.

“These events are not coincidental” explained Orlando Perez from
Bolivarian Educators, whose victory has cost the FSBT one of its allies
in its project for a new central, at the press conference.

“Since the re-election of President Chavez [in December 2006],
within the revolutionary movement an internal struggle has broken out.
The different positions are due to this ideological struggle, which
cannot just be defined as between the government and the opposition. It
has to do with what type of socialism we support.”

“We are at a crossroads, and it is incumbent on us to push for
unity, despite our differences, we have to apply a criterion of unity
in diversity, in order to build instruments of the workers: unions,
federations and a central.”

Angel Navas, recently re-elected president of the Federation of
Electrical Workers, Fetralec — another federation that the FSBT had
initially counted on to support its project — stated that the recent
announcements marked “an important step forward in effort to find

Navas argued that everyone should first put their efforts into
building the central, within which differences could be debated. This
could help realise “the dream of workers for a powerful central that
supports this process and supports the workers in releasing their
social creativity and who want to transform themselves and their

Ramon Piedra, from the Cruz Villegas current that is aligned with
the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), announced that they had decided
to move towards dissolving their separate central, the United
Confederation of Venezuela Workers (CUTV), in order to push for the
maximum unity of the workers’ movement.

“If there is something that this revolution needs”, argued Orlando
Chirinos, a UNT national coordinater and leader of the CCURA current,
“it is a central that can win the hearts and minds of … millions of

Felix Martinez, representative of the soon to be legalised united
federation of automobile industry workers added: “What we need is
unity, within a central there can be differences, but we need unity in
order to raise the consciousness of the workers. Division does nothing
to help raise the consciousness, organisation and mobilisation of the
working class.”

Replying to the statements made by the president of the Venezuela
Confederation of Industries, Eduard Gomez Sigala, that one of the major
causes of insufficient production was labour conflicts that are
“increasing in number”, and caused by unions “trying to impose their
revolution”, Marcela Maspero, UNT coordinator and head of the Workers
in Revolution Collective, said that the real cause was the exploitation
of workers by the capitalists.

“We are clear that what unites us is that we agree with the
socialist project. The path is socialism and the working class … has to
be the spearhead of this process.”

All those present called on all the other national coordinators of
the UNT, as well as unions and federations, to come to the discussion
table and be part of the new unity process.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #759 23 July 2008.

Source: Green Left Weekly