Venezuela: Oil Minister Fuels Controversy in Union Elections

On 14 July Venezuela's Energy Minister and head of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez made a series of remarks in the lead up to elections for the national leadership of the United Federation of Venezuelan Oil Workers (FUTPV), that have stirred up controversy among oil workers.

On 14 July Venezuela's Energy Minister and head of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez made a series of remarks in the lead up to elections for the national leadership of the United Federation of Venezuelan Oil Workers (FUTPV), that have stirred up controversy among oil workers.

Speaking in Camimas, Zulia, at the First National Encounter of Socialist Committees of Oil Industry Workers, the oil minister said, "We'll discuss the collective contract [which expired on January 21 this year], when the revolution gains control of the FUTPV, the revolution has to win control, because I'm not going to sit down to discuss the collective agreement with any enemy of [President Hugo] Chávez, with any enemy of the Revolution."

"Not a single counter-revolutionary can remain within our company, within our industry," he added.

Ramirez then went on to categorize the FUTPV, which represents around 185 individual unions and some 50 000 of the total 80 000 oil workers employed by PDVSA, as "Adecos" – a term used to refer to members of the opposition party Democratic Action.

However, the FUTPV itself was formed in April 2007 in collaboration with PDVSA management and the Labor Ministry as an attempt to unite the four main union federations in the oil industry – Fedepetrol (previously aligned to the opposition controlled Confederation of Venezuelan Workers – CTV), Fetrahidrocarburos, Sinutrapetrol, and the Oil Workers Front of Zulia – all of which are officially aligned with the pro-revolution National Union of Workers (UNT).

Despite the merger, elections for the united oil workers federation have never taken place – a provisional national leadership committee (CDN, for its Spanish acronym), was appointed by the Labour Ministry, under then Minister of Labour, José Ramón Rivero, himself a member of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force (FSBT) union current.

Three national coordinators of the FUTPV provisional leadership were appointed, Oswaldo Caibett, Freddy Alvarado and Wills Rangel, which also included representatives from the main union federations. The provisional leadership then negotiated the 2007-2009 oil worker's collective contract, which expired on January 21 this year.

Since its formation elections for the FUTPV have been repeatedly delayed as various political factions within the union movement, vying for control, have lodged appeal after appeal disputing who is and isn't eligible to vote.

Most recently, on June 16 the National Electoral Council (CNE), which facilitates union elections, ruled that the elections set for June 29 should be postponed after receiving a complaint by Argenis Olivares, from the Socialist Workers Vanguad, (VOS – a union ticket supported by Ramirez in the upcoming elections, and praised several weeks ago by Chavez for uniting revolutionaries in the oil sector), that the electoral list had been packed with 21, 000 invalid names.

Olivares then announced a VOS campaign to collect signatures in support of electing delegates from workers assemblies to negotiate the pending negotiations for the oil-workers collective contract for 2009-2011, separate to those of the union. During his speech at the National Encounter of Socialist Committees of Oil Industry Workers, which was broadcast live on state-owned television channel VTV, Ramirez endorsed this initiative.

However, Freddy Alvarado from the provisional leadership of the FUTPV questioned the legality of this process, "There is no legal entity that can hold this election, because there is no higher body than the Federation [FUTPV], this is what the Organic Labour Law says when it stresses that the union organisation that groups the majority of workers is the entity that can name negotiators," the July 16 edition of El Tiempo reported.

At the same time the provisional leadership of the FUTPV also announced that it had appointed its own negotiating committee of 17 delegates that have the support of 30 000 signatures.

"This is a measure to counter the interference of the Oil and Energy Minister, Rafael Ramirez who is manipulating some of the movements, such as the Socialist Workers Vanguard. He is promoting the handpicking of delegates, chosen at the convenience of the boss, to sell-out our contractual benefits," Alvarado said.

However, both measures pre-empt democratic elections within the union federation.

The controversy has created fractures within the VOS itself;Wills Rangel, told El Universal on July 16 that he rejected the position of the PDVSA president and VOS as well as the pre-emptive selection of delegates by the provisional leadership of the FUTPV. Rangel has since split from VOS to join the Platform 9 ticket in the upcoming elections, which involves the incumbent leadership of the FUTPV.

"Both positions negate the role of the union movement, we cannot allow this. We have to have elections in the FUTPV," he argued.

Rangel explained that there were diverse opinions within the VOS that needed to be discussed, including the election of delegates through the workers assemblies proposed by Oliveres, "Because these delegates de-legitimise the union movement," he said.

The FUTPV should be the organisation charged with negotiating the collective contract because it represents the mass of unionised workers in PDVSA, Rangel added.

Secretary-general of Fedepetrol-Anzoátegui, Jose Bodas, a member of the C-CURA and candidate for Platform 1 in the upcoming elections, insisted on democratic elections in the FUTPV as a prerequisite for selecting a negotiating team.

Raúl Párica, secretary general of Sinutrapetrol and also a VOS candidate saidthat the workers themselves should decide the method of selecting candidates; whether that is delegates selected by the FUTPV, delegates selected by the minister and VOS, or whether they are selected by the FUTPV after the elections.

Unionists also rejected as offensive Ramirez's claim that they were "Adecos." Gregorio Rodríguez, a representative of Fedepetrol-Anzoátegui and a candidate for Platform 9, in the upcoming elections, told Union Radio on July 17 that although he is a member of the PSUV and a supporter of President Hugo Chavez's policies, he does not agree with the comments made by Ramirez.

"I want to remind minister Ramirez so that he understands, that we went out in defense of the oil industry, and I was decorated with the Order of the Liberator [for defending the oil industry during the bosses lock-out in 2002-2003]…under no circumstances are we going to accept this blackmail, which aims to impede our major demands and benefits, not because we want to be privileged…we don't want this, we want all Venezuelans to receive equal treatment."

Rodríguez said that the oil workers had not had problems negotiating collective contracts in the past with the previous Chavista oil minister Ali Rodríguez Araque and that in his judgement, "there is no consensus between the leadership of PDVSA and the Executive [Chavez]" on this issue.

In an interview on July 15, Stalin Pérez Borges, a member of the national committee of the PSUV's Socialist Workers Front (FST) and a national co-ordinator of the UNT and a leader of the Marea Socialista union current, also argued that Ramirez's position contradicts that of Chavez, "Ramirez goes against everyone: against the workers, against their autonomy to organize, against their democratic right to elect the spokespeople that they want, and in my point opinion, he is also against Chavez, who on April 30 once again called for union autonomy and on May 21 affirmed that he is on the side of the working class in Guyana…and that the workers have to take the control of companies into their own hands."

However, by July 17 Ramirez appeared to have backed away from his previous stance of bypassing the unions claiming he had been misrepresented in the media, "I'm not refusing to recognise the union organisations," he said, "We are waiting until the elections of the United Federation of Venezuelan Oil Workers are held in order to carry out the collective contract," El Nacional reported.

The elections have now been set for August 27 and of the 21 000 names on the electoral list challenged as invalid by Olivares, 11 300 were struck off, as they are no longer employed in the industry. The president of the FUTPV electoral commission, José Sánchez said that a total of 40 260 union members would participate in the elections.

"True revolutionaries" would win the elections, Ramirez insisted, "Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and its workers are with the Bolivarian revolution…rather its other workers that are trying to manipulate them."

Ramirez said that a process of choosing delegates had been planned, but asserted this would only be in coordination with the new leadership of the FUTPV.

However, union leader Caibett said he was surprised by Ramirez's comments, because, he alleged, up to a day earlier, PDVSA management had been collecting signatures to choose delegates and begin discussions of the collective contract behind the back of the union.

Despite Ramirez's latest comments, Olivares stated that VOS would continue its campaign to collect signatures and elect delegates from workers' assemblies.

The dispute in PDVSA is also emblematic of a much broader debate occurring in Venezuela over how state-owned industries should be run in the struggle for 21st Century Socialism. On the one hand, a wing of the Bolivarian movement, is putting forward the idea that social property should be administered by the state, with little or no workers participation, in essence a form of state capitalism. On the other hand, others are struggling for full workers control of industry.

In a meeting with 400 workers on May 21, president Chavez argued that there must be workers' control along "the entire productive chain."

Pérez Borges insisted that despite Ramirez's ‘rojo rojito' discourse he has no intention of advancing in the transition towards socialism. "He is constructing a clear model of state capitalism, hierarchical, managerial and without any participation in the control or management by the workers."

Pérez Borges argued that the reason behind Ramirez's actions is that the global capitalist crisis is hitting Venezuela hard, "above all it is hitting the energy sector, independent of the fact that PDVSA appears to be well ranked among the leading companies of the continent and the world. Managers such as Ramírez need to have docile, dependent and /or co-opted organisations, so that they can set their own criteria as to what should be the percentage given to labor costs."

In a videoconference in March Ramirez said social benefits would be increased, but that there could be no salary increases or bonuses of any type in PDVSA due to the economic crisis, Ultimas Noticias reported on April 26.

Chavez has repeatedly insisted that the rich should pay for the capitalist crisis, however, as the crisis begins to bite, workers struggles in Venezuela are increasing to ensure this is carried out.