Unionists on the Streets in Caracas

Hundreds of workers from all over the country marched last Thursday in Venezuela’s capital Caracas in favor of a new “revolutionary labour law.” Furthermore, they wanted to express their solidarity with the Venezuelan Mitsubishi workers in struggle.

PCV Secretary Oscar Figuera listens to SINGETRAM Secretary Felix Martinez in front of the parliament (Maxim Graubner)

It was the second mobilization for a progressive amendment of the law within the last few weeks. About a month ago, the Chavista workers movement started a campaign for the early adoption of the labour law in the National Assembly. The legislative process in the Venezuelan parliament has slowed this down for years. The unions worry that the project could be delayed again due to the campaign for the National Assembly deputies’ elections starting in the Spring. This election is scheduled for September 26, 2010.

The protest was convoked by a large alliance of Venezuelan leftist groups. The National Union of Workers (UNT), which is close to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, many radical union organizations, as well as the Marea Socialista current of the governing party PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) called for participation.

This worker’s manifestation was much smaller than the one before, maybe because the state-owned and private media mainly ignored the call this time. The call was sent out at a press conference from inside the headquarters of the relatively small Communist Party, which also could be a reason for the low participation. Nevertheless, spokespersons from many important leftist unions participated. Many of today’s grassroots activists see the PCV as an exponent of the old party system, but the PCV activists were strongly present at the march, while also many workers of SINGETRAM, the militant labour union of the workers in the Mitsubishi plant in the eastern state of Anzoátegui, participated.

The workers in the Japanese automotive factory have been struggling for a long time against the abysmal working conditions in the plant. After intense conflicts at the beginning of the year, the management initiated the closing of the plant in the Summer. This prompted an intervention by the Ministry of Labour, which set up a negotiation commission. Finally, they dictated a contract which was denied by the workers. The paper states that 156 of about 2000 workers can be fired – including 11 union activists. SINGETRAM is not willing to accept this result. Instead of the ministry’s meddling, they claim autonomy for the negotiations with the management.

At the final rally in the front of the National Assembly, the general secretary of SINGETRAM, Félix Martínez, said to amerika21.de, “The management of Mitsubishi affirms it has the state institutions on its side.” But these are only some officials from the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Labour, Martínez stated. He regards President Chavez and the majority in the parliament as allies of the workers. Chávez recently called for a “deepening of the strategic alliance” between the workers and the PSUV, of which he is the president. However, Martínez pointed out, “We always have to apply pressure to get attention for our claims.” He is one of the 11 activists who shall be laid off from the company.

On Thursday, the protesters persevered in the front of the National Assembly until the general secretary of the PCV, Oscar Figuera, came out. On behalf of the responsible commission of the parliament, he received the claims of the workers. They handed the deputy comprehensive documentation of the violations of labour contracts in different companies. Figuera assured his support for the unionists, and that their suggestions would be recognized throughout the elaboration of the law. “The National Assembly is at your side,” he stated in an intervention in front of the demonstrators.

Nevertheless, parts of the PSUV parliamentary group, which is by far the largest partisan group in the National Assembly, would like to leave the law mainly unchanged in its structure, according to local media reports. The current version of the labour law was formed shortly before president Hugo Chávez took power in 1999. Apparently, parts of the PSUV are only willing to introduce an obligation to contribute to social insurance and a shortening of the work day. The private business association FEDECAMARAS is totally against modifications of the labour law. They are afraid of higher costs due to the proposed changes.

In their statements on Thursday, different union leaders said that their intention is to reach a “revolutionary labour law.” In their opinion, such a law must include a reduction of the work day to six hours, along with a prohibition of state interventions in worker struggles. Furthermore, they said that the rights of the workers must be strengthened within the new version of the law. This would be mean that occupational safety and lay-off protection must be improved, the unionists said. They also demanded educational opportunities with full wage continuation, and asserted that it is essential to introduce comprehensive codetermination and rights of workers’ participation. The new labour law must serve as a “revolutionary instrument for the transition of Venezuelan society in direction of socialism,” stated the coordinator of the communist union CCT, Pedro Eusse.

Nevertheless, there are also some workers’ initiatives which call for a socialist economy with worker control of the factories instead of the proposed reforms of the current law. Therefore, they were not participating in this march.

Translated by the author for Venezuelanalysis.com.