Report on Venezuela’s Trade Union Situation

Interviews with the leadership of the CTV and the new labour central UNT indicate that the historically-strong CTV, profoundly opposed to the Chávez government, is in trouble, and that the newly-formed union central UNT, which supports government policies, is gaining momentum.


I travelled with my partner Barry Lipton in May 2004 to conduct an informal fact-finding survey of the current situation of trade union groups in Venezuela. Over a period of five days, we interviewed the leadership of the (ICFTU and ORIT affiliate)[1] CTV; representatives of the new labour central, UNT; a number of representatives of labour and human rights NGOs; staff and officers of the ORIT, the Vice-Minister of Labour, social and labour historians, and other government officials. Due to limitations of time and resources, our report is restricted to an analysis of the trade union situation with superficial reference to the country’s current political situation.

Brief political context

The government of President Hugo Chávez was swept to power in Venezuela, an oil-rich country in the northernmost part of South America, through democratic elections in 1999. Chávez’s government identified the major problem in the country was that the country’s vast oil wealth was not being used to alleviate poverty, as 80% of the country’s 24 million inhabitants continued to be impoverished. The government’s first major initiative was to launch an extremely broad and participatory referendum on a new constitution. This was followed by the announcement of a number of initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and empowering communities to implement programs at the local level. Four years into the government’s mandate, five comprehensive initiatives, called “missions,” effectively created health and education programs to provide high quality, accessible services directly to the people. The new services run parallel to existing ones, rendered very ineffective after 60 years of corrupt administration.

The mission programs are apparently highly successful. There is huge support for the government throughout the country and it is likely that even in the case of a successful campaign to call a referendum, the government’s mandate will be reaffirmed.

The US government supported the new Venezuelan government for the first two years, but then began to show increasing hostility. The US has a new strategy to identify Chávez with Fidel Castro in the public mind and try to isolate the Venezuelan government politically. This political campaign may be mixed with actual material support for a violent overthrow of the current government.

At the same time that the US began to disassociate itself from the Chávez government, political opposition led by the country’s business and political elite began to intensify. The opposition came to a head when the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS) called for a (second) general strike in April 2002. The majority labour central CTV (Venezuelan Labour Confederation) joined the call of FEDECAMARAS and launched a three-day general strike on April 9. On April 11, segments of the armed forces, in alliance with the political opposition, and the CTV (by most reliable accounts) staged a coup d’état. Military officers kidnapped the president, imprisoned him on an island, and announced a new government, to be headed by the leader of FEDECAMARAS, Pedro Carmona. Local TV stations congratulated themselves on air for stage-managing such a successful manoeuvre.

However, the public outcry in defence of President Chávez was so overwhelming that only 48 hours after the replacement government was sworn in, Chávez was returned and reinstated in triumph. Preliminary charges laid against some of the coup-plotters were thrown out of court, and officially, the coup never took place. A number of civilians and military men involved in the coup fled to Miami. Carlos Ortega, the president of the CTV, has been out of the country since early 2003, and is currently in Costa Rica. He is currently at risk of being kicked out of that country because of his insistent calls for the overthrow of the Chávez government. Most others who planned the coup continue to function as before. The ongoing ramifications of that impunity continue to haunt the government.

In December 2002, the FEDECAMARAS and a CTV union representing managerial workers at the state-owned petroleum company, PDVSA, organized a work stoppage in the sector to shut down the oil industry. This was a clear attempt to paralyze the country’s main source of wealth. The action prevented hourly workers not involved in the labour action from continuing their work. The protesting management workers led a very aggressive attack, including sabotaging computer control systems, damaging valves and other operational equipment in the refineries, and removing hard drives containing exploration maps and reports. The shutdown (which one observer has identified as 1/3 lock-out, 1/3 strike, and 1/3 sabotage) was all but over in March. It was at this point that the government fired approximately 18,000 petroleum workers for dereliction of duty, mainly from the management echelons of PDVSA. These fired workers have also lost their company-provided housing and benefits, and are pursuing legal avenues as well as complaints to the ILO to achieve redress. There have been very few legal charges against the protesters, and the Venezuelan courts again determined in pre-trial hearings that because the demands were not related to collective bargaining, this was not a strike.

Opposition control of the media in the country has meant an unremitting attack on everything the government does, and a climate of announced near-collapse of the government at every turn. During our stay, two crises dominated the media coverage: the discovery in Caracas of over 100 Colombian mercenaries wearing uniforms of the Venezuelan armed forces; and the ongoing campaign of collection and verification of signatures required for a national referendum on the government’s right to complete its term of office. The CTV is currently heavily involved in the collection of signatures.

Background information and key players

The Venezuelan labour affiliate of the ICFTU is the CTV. Founded in 1936, the organization has a history of struggle for the rights of organized workers as well as on behalf of the working class in general. It survived several periods of dictatorship, the last of which ended in 1958. At that time, the CTV formed a “strategic alliance” with the business association, FEDECAMARAS to move the country in a more democratic direction. This was not the last of such alliances with this powerful employer group. Through the 90s the CTV accepted privatization and made no sustained efforts to resist neo-liberal or free trade policies. The organization’s executive committee is composed of individuals who were elected at large by delegates, and are not selected with regard for sector or elected office. Obviously, this reduces the accountability of individual members of the executive to any particular rank and file base. The executive has historically been dominated by the Acción Democrática, in theory a social democratic party currently aligned with the country’s right wing forces, and a major component of the Coordinadora Democrática coalition working for Chávez’ ouster.

A number of academics, as well as consultants from labour NGOs who work intensively with the CTV, expressed the concern that the executive committee had abandoned its concern for basic trade union functions and was focussing all its attention to political opposition.

The Chávez government has made and continues to make statements condemning the “old trade union” style of the CTV and wishing the organization’s demise. It has actively pursued a policy of developing a parallel union structure. Executive members and representatives of at least one CTV affiliate (SUNEP-SAS) claim that for the last two years (essentially, since the coup), the government has followed a policy of non-negotiation with the CTV. They state there are a large number of expired collective agreements that the government is not actively engaged in re-negotiating.

A referendum was held in 2000 in which all Venezuelan voters were entitled to participate to determine whether the existing unions should undergo a re-legitimation process. While the participation rate in this referendum was very low (23%), a clear majority voted to require unions to hold democratic elections. The National Election Council (CNE) determined the unprecedented rules for all votes: they were to be secret, universal, and direct: one member, one vote, both at the local and top confederation executive levels. All votes were supervised by the CNE, an authority established in the new constitution.

Balloting took place over a very protracted five-month period in 2001, and complaints of voting irregularities were rampant. There were 980,000 union members eligible to vote. At the level of local unions, 70% of the membership voted, although many fewer cast ballots for the CTV executive. While all unions, including the CTV and its affiliates, agreed to participate in the votes, this unprecedented interference in the internal operation of the country’s trade unions was later the subject of a complaint to the ILO. Sources in the government indicate that the offending article in the constitution will be removed.

During the so-called re-legitimation votes, the government actually proposed candidates to run on at least one of the seven slates. Very few government candidates were successful, and although the election results have never been officially accepted by all parties, the CTV won in most. A number of unsuccessful government candidates were given high offices. One such candidate, Aristóbulo Isturis, is the current Minister of Education.

In 2002, as a result of CTV complaints, the ILO mandated a Direct Contact Mission to reprove the Venezuelan government for interference in trade union freedoms. This type of mission requires the consent of the host government, which was granted. However, when the results were published, the government ignored the recommendations. In March of this year, the ILO’s Trade Union Freedom Committee published its recommendations regarding the dismissal of the 18,000 petroleum workers, deploring the government’s tough stand and urging a review of their cases and an end to evictions from their government-provided housing. President Chávez was unimpressed. The ILO “can go fry monkeys,” he is famously reported to have responded to the call for reinstatement of the strikers. In 2003, the ILO again requested permission to send another Direct Contact Mission. The government has not offered any dates for such a mission.

In May 2003, the government approved Orlando Chirino, a leader of the very new UNT, to represent Venezuela at the ILO’s annual convention. In order to be appointed, the government must certify that the appointee is from the country’s most representative union formation. Communication from the ILO on Venezuela’s designation of the UNT representative used sharp words, and concluded with the wish that such a manipulation not recur. The government holds that the CTV placed itself ‘out of the running’ for nomination as it did not send a representative to the 2003 meeting at which all the labour centrals met to choose their delegate. The CTV sent a lawyer with no decision-making authority. This year the CTV sent a full-fledged member of the executive committee to the meeting, held on May 13 and then extended to May 17. The decision was pending as of this writing, but it seems likely that the government would take the position that the UNT is now the most representative labour body in the country, despite the lack of elections to establish this claim.

The government is aware that by not responding to the ILO’s request to send a Direct Contact Mission, it risks receiving a Commission of Enquiry (Comisión de Encuesta), which does not require the host government’s permission and which has the authority to impose sanctions. In 2003, The ILO singled out China, Colombia, Belarus and Venezuela as countries with the most serious violations of trade union freedoms. Noting systematic physical harm to trade unionists in the first three countries, in the case of Venezuela, the allegations were more procedural: delays in registrations, suspension of trade union dues, obstruction of collective bargaining, dismissals, and extensive interference in trade union activities.

Beginning around the time of the general strike and resulting coup, a number of labour leaders sought to distance themselves from the CTV and began to discuss disaffiliation from that central labour body and the formation of new central. Currently, many labour leaders in the strategic petroleum, public, auto and rubber sectors (likely a majority in these sectors) have signed on to the UNT. The major union in the steelmaking sector, SUTISS, is seen as being close to the UNT. Within the UNT, some leaders maintain a union independence stance, while others are firmly identified with the current government and see defence of the government as a major axis of their formation. The next phase for that emerging centre is to hold elections for its leadership at all levels, and to confirm formally the will of the members to affiliate to the new central. Members of the national coordinating body stated their hope that such elections would be held in October. However, with the potential for a referendum on the country’s leadership on the horizon for August, a delay is likely.

Highlights of interviews and key findings

Phase I: Alice through the looking glass

From the first of our interviews, it was clear that many facts about events and positions of the various parties were in dispute. In our first meeting with representatives of the CTV health care affiliate, SUNEP-SAS, we were told that the hotel we were staying in was “Chavista” territory and that our union contacts were concerned about harassment from members of the Bolivarian Circles, described as violent thugs, paid by the government, who might be prowling the area. Although one of the members of the group was checking prices at our hotel for an upcoming PSI training session, she said it was unlikely the union would hold any event there due to fear of reprisals (the hotel is near the government palace, Miraflores). No human rights sources were able to confirm any systematic acts of aggression by members of the Bolivarian Circles, and all asserted that such organizations were loose affiliations of individuals on a purely voluntary basis.

At the same time, SUNEP-SAS leaders vigorously denied any participation in the coup by the CTV. However, this participation is alleged to be a fully substantiated “fact” by human rights and labour NGOs close to the CTV, including PROVEA and the Ebert Foundation, as well as the government and UNT sources.

Similarly, UNT representatives denied direct links with the government, even though the office where we visited them was a Ministry of Labour building.

The Vice-Minister of Labour, Ricardo Dorado, in a two-hour meeting, explained to us that the reason the government did not recognize the executive of the CTV was that the labour body had never submitted the results of the state-sponsored elections. When we raised this issue with the CTV, they presented us with an original copy of the letter from the central’s election commission to the Ministry, along with results certified by the National Election Commission (CNE) and also stamped as received by the Ministry of Labour. When we later queried the Vice-Minister’s assertion, he countered that the letter announcing the results was sent by someone the government did not recognize as the president of the central’s election commission. When pressed as to why he did not seek confirmation of the veracity of the signatory, he said it was the CTV’s responsibility to provide him with official notice of the status of the signer, and not his to request. This response indicates to us a lack of willingness on the part of the government to recognize the CTV at all.

The CTV had also asserted in one meeting that the government was retaining all its dues collected through automatic check-off in government agencies. The Vice-Minister told us this was totally untrue. After asking the CTV to confirm the assertion, we again approached the Vice-Minister. He then said he thought that situation had been resolved two years previously but committed to review the situation. It appears that the dues retention is occurring.

Despite widespread evidence of corruption in most institutions of Venezuelan society, and a general consensus that the CTV has often adopted positions that favour the interests of big business over those of their membership, CTV executive members categorically denied to us that there had ever been any systemic corruption within their organization. Incredibly, they stated that any corruption that had occurred could only be considered on a case-by-case, individual basis, and would be subject to sanctions by the CTV if discovered.

There appears to be substantial evidence that members of the current CTV executive participated in the plot to overthrow the government by “extra-legal” means. However, no union leader has ever been charged with any violation of law in the coup. Due to the fact that the initial charges were subject to pre-trial hearings at which no merit to the charges was established, all charges were thrown out. Video documentation aside, in the eyes of the country’s judiciary, the coup “never happened.”

Phase II: When in Macondo, put aside your economics and political theory texts: read Gabriel García Márquez

On the second day of our interviews, we met with Rolando Díaz, a program coordinator with the Friedrich Ebert foundation’s ILDSA. He tried to explain the political and labour context of the current face-off between the CTV and UNT. He has worked extensively with the CTV and tangentially with components of the new central. At the end of our meeting, he said to us, “If you want to understand the situation in Venezuela, you should take your classical economics texts and your political theory books and put them aside. I recommend you read [Gabriel] García Marquez.”

In the Colombian Nobel literature prize winner’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez sets his story in the fictional town of Macondo, where nothing is as it seems, and reality is a relative term. The novel, emblematic of the “magic realism” genre in Latin America, seems particularly appropriate to the Venezuelan scene, where all parties assert that any official document can be produced or altered to order, to be passed off as authentic. This means that no documentary evidence, transcript of a speech, official document, or election ballot can be definitively verified.

Phase III: The parallel universe

We were told about the parallel trade union central, UNT, while in Canada. What we learned once on the ground was that parallelism exists in other realms, in particular the five “missions” (Robinson, Sucre, Ribas, Vuelvan Caras and Barrio Adentro) created to deliver programs such as educational and health services directly to the people. In general, the government’s creation of parallel structures responds to the government’s concern desire to circumvent bureaucratic and highly corrupt government service delivery systems built up over the last 60 years. The old systems were anything but universal in service delivery; the new services are reported to be reaching the people. While we made no attempt to verify the accounts of corruption in delivery of services, the allegations are wide and consistent and we had no reason to doubt their truth.

Although we have not located any documentation pointing to this assertion, it appears that the formation of the UNT was a goal of the government. It is clear that the main labour leaders now heading up the UNT in its provisional phase are closely aligned with government policy. As pointed out by academic Steve Ellner, a number of leaders would like to avoid union parallelism. That is, they would prefer to see the new central replace and displace the previous front-runner, rather than seeing the two as active competitors. To this end, the UNT leaders are working toward elections for the new structure and leadership of the new central. They favour waiting until the new central appears placed to be successful to hold such elections. The UNT is currently in a phase of rapid expansion. It receives support and preferential treatment from the government. Even though it is not fully constituted, the government recognizes UNT unions and federation and is actively engaged in collective bargaining with them. Although it previously dictated the procedures for unions, it is now stepping aside and letting the UNT determine its own electoral rules. The UNT espouses social unionism and is expending significant effort to organize workers from the informal economy. A number of respected leaders of former CTV affiliated unions and federations have recently crossed over to join the UNT, with or without a formal vote by their memberships. The date for such votes is pending.

As the strength of the UNT grows, the CTV is being revealed as an organization lacking in even the most basic trade union agenda. Its top leadership has suffered a serious loss of credibility with its rank and file membership. It is almost universally seen to be dominated by a partisan political agenda, displaying single-minded determination to oppose the government. On most policy issues, CTV continues to act in conjunction with business representatives, such as the FEDECAMARAS, a key player in the failed April 2002 coup d’état. For example, the CTV and FEDECAMARAS recently opposed both the increase in minimum wage and the no-layoff policy adopted by the government.

The ORIT provides financial support to the CTV and is committed to help the CTV develop trade-union-oriented programs and policies, should the CTV request such assistance. The organization is headquartered in the CTV building and has strong ties with the central. Recently, noting that the CTV had not made any statements against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, ORIT offered to hold a seminar on free trade for the central. It must be remembered that the CTV is still the ICFTU affiliate central in the country, and until elections of the UNT, is likely to be considered the largest labour central in Venezuela.

It is noteworthy that the attacks on the CTV by the government have not abated. President Hugo Chávez has continued to make statements declaring the CTV as worthy of destruction, whether by its own hand or with help. In the first annual convention of the UNT held in April of this year, President Chávez predicted that the CTV would become like “cosmic dust,” requiring a telescope to locate it out among the constellations. The government continues to restrict the activities of the CTV, including making public sector negotiations led by the central all but impossible and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the CTV executive.

Nonetheless, there has been some successful collective bargaining in sectors where both the CTV and UNT are parties at the table. A recent example is the teachers’ agreement. A total of 9 federations were involved in negotiating a sectoral agreement. All but one of the federations is affiliated to the CTV. When it came to the end of the negotiations, the CTV- affiliated federations objected to the government proposals and stated in the declaration of settlement that they were only signing the agreement to avoid major labour unrest in the sector. The new agreement provides a 30% wage increase over 18 months and a great number of benefit improvements.

For all its centralism, the CTV is far from monolithic. Affiliated national unions and federations represent a range of programmatic approaches and styles of operation, from democratic to authoritarian. However, there are few spaces in which the lack of trust and respect between the CTV and the UNT can be bridged, and virtually no such expressions of trust between the government and the CTV. All parties believe that their opposite numbers cheat and lie.

When we asked what steps the CTV planned to take to ensure that “historic errors” (such as intertwining with political parties and employers’ associations, distance of the leadership from the base, and corruption) do not recur, the CTV executive would only say they planned to implement procedures long on the books to increase the transparency of their financial dealings. Perhaps this is all that can be expected of them.

Future prospects

For the moment, most of the attention in the country is currently focussed on the potential referendum on the leadership of President Chávez, and not on trade union or worker issues. The verification of the signatures on the petitions calling for recall will be conducted over four days ending June 2. The outcome should be known in the days following that date. If there are enough valid signatures (600,000), a referendum on the president’s leadership will be called for August. Should the referendum be called, we can assume that the dominance on the political sphere over the trade union arena will not shift. Given that a referendum is probable, the UNT’s hope to hold a broad consultation on rules for elections, followed by union and confederation elections for the entire new central, will likely be postponed past October.

Daina Green is a labor union consultant and Barry Lipton is a community organizer. Both are based in Toronto, Canada. Daina Green may be reached at: [email protected] 

[1] ICFTU: International Congress of Free Trade Unions; ORIT: Interamerican Regional Workers Organization (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores)