Refounding Venezuelan Labor: One Union at a Time

Venezuelan workers are currently in the midst of a period of rapid changes, affecting the working environment from union to community, from factory to the state. In part I of this series we examine the phenomena of union referenda that seek to democratize historically authoritarian—and often corrupt—local unions.

By Jonah Gindin – Venezuelanalysis.com
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Venezuelan workers are currently in the midst of a period of rapid changes, affecting the working environment from union to community, from factory to the state.  At root for the workers involved are issues of control: over their unions, and over their factories.  In part I of this series we examine the phenomena of union referenda that seek to democratize historically authoritarian—and often corrupt—local unions; part II addresses an embryonic ‘factory recovery’ movement at a crucial stage in its development.  Later we hope to address the implications of the creation of the new labor central the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT) from a historical perspective; and finally, to assess whether the UNT in fact represents a ‘new unionism’, and how it hopes to avoid the powerful structural and historical forces that eventually co-opted previous movements to refound organized labor in Venezuela.

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The Legacy of Neglect

Particularly since the mid-1990s Venezuelan workers have been hit hard by privatizations, the increased mobility of companies eternally in search of lower costs, and the myriad concessions forced on workers everywhere when they have been backed into a corner by the logic of neoliberalism.  Reflecting what has recently become a global trend, the ratio of unionized to un-unionized workers in Venezuela is steadily shrinking as jobs are outsourced and sub-contracted out.  And increasing unemployment has swelled the informal economy to the point that it now outweighs the formal sector.  Given that at most 50% of Venezuelan workers are employed in the formal sector, and of these roughly 14% are organized in unions, the real number of unionized workers is actually quite small.  Moreover, their steadily shrinking numbers and local organization has made them weak in the face of concentrated attacks by corporations (transnational and national alike) seeking ever greater flexibility from workers, and ever higher profit margins.  Nevertheless, they still represent many of the most important industries including the state-owned oil industry, and are strategically located to play a potentially important role in change.

Three factors in particular have generally limited Venezuelan workers’ fight against neoliberalism.  First, the organization of unions on a factory basis, resulting in a universal lack of national unions, which has left them fragmented and without the necessary resources to weather long strikes.  Second, a long, rooted tradition of corporate unionism, where union leaders rely on striking deals with political parties and employers’ federations, which has led to corruption. Third, the existence of a bureaucratic union leadership that has alienated much of the base.

The combination of neoliberalism’s concerted attacks and the utter failure of the traditional union leadership to stem the tide of concessions has left rank and file workers with little alternative but to start from scratch.  Forming parallel unions, they are forced to fight a two-front war: against the company and against the old union, which are both threatened by their militancy.  In this context workers were forced to radicalize their struggle in order to defend themselves.  What started as a response to bread and butter issues, has in the end required a political solution.  Workers are not satisfied with merely replacing the old leaders with new ones, who promise to give them a better collective agreement next time around.  Their historical experience has taught them that the only guarantee they have to achieve their material goals is to enshrine their own participation in the new union structure.  Thus, new unions are holding regular popular assemblies with the rank and file—a first for most workers.  But more than that, the act of the referendum has shown workers that they hold the ultimate wild card over the leadership’s head: represent us well, or follow your predecessors out the door.

A New Venezuela

Democracy has long been illusory in Venezuela.  For the forty years prior to Hugo Chávez’ election in 1998, two traditional parties shared power, and competed for control over the country’s most important institutions.  Inheriting an oil-economy from dictator Perez Jiménez in 1958, the social democratic Acción Democratica and the social-Christian Copei kept oil wealth circulating in elite circles, while feeding the country a powerful nationalist rhetoric of “sowing the oil”.

Though it began as a progressive organization heavily engaged in the fight against the Jiménez dictatorship, the country’s main labor federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), was quickly subordinated to party interests.  With the advent of neoliberal government in the 1980s this cost the workers dearly.  Although the CTV initially opposed the even more aggressive neoliberal legislation in 1989, this melted away by the mid-90’s.  They cut a deal with then-President Rafael Caldera, unleashing a barrage of reforms and privatizations that proved devastating to working people, and led the CTV further along the path towards their own destruction.

The nation-wide demand for change that swept Chávez to power in 1998 did not pass over the labor movement quietly.  Existing criticisms multiplied and new ones were articulated by workers who were increasingly disenchanted with the lazy corruption of their supposed ‘leaders’.  The larger commitment to profound social change aimed at raising the standard of living of the 80% of Venezuela’s population living below the poverty line inspired workers to join the process, putting labor reform on the agenda too.[1]  And the Bolívarian revolution’s foundation of participatory democracy, aimed at including previously marginalized sectors in the political processes of the country, has left a powerful impression that continues to develop.

The net result has been a dramatic split within the labor movement, with a large portion of unions and federations affiliated to the CTV now gone for good.  In 2003 these unions formed the National Union of Venezuela Workers (UNT) and set up an interim leadership, which has become the national voice of a proposed new unionism.  The UNT is still embryonic, and until their formal elections, tentatively scheduled for early 2005, they will continue to lack the internal structures essential for trade unionism.  Furthermore, with their own democratic structure as yet undefined, they risk appearing hypocritical in their promotion of democratization at the level of local unions.  But the broader transformations in Venezuelan society over the past 6 years have inspired workers to go far with relatively little, and their close ties to the government have ensured that a nascent UNT has nonetheless become a national player.  While their position is complex, and raises questions of autonomy[2], the UNT has given key support to some important changes at the factory-level.

Workers’ Rights, Human Rights: Coca-Cola Femsa

One of those changes is in the role workers play in their local unions.  Venezuelan unions have historically been organized by factory, rather than by industry.  Even within the same company, each plant has its own union.  Thus, for each of Coca-Cola Femsa’s eight bottling plants in Venezuela, there is a different union.  Actually, in at least one case there are two.  Fed up with the ineffectiveness of the old CTV-affiliated union, several activists at the Valencia-branch formed a parallel union, steadily gaining support until they challenged the established union.

"Don’t drink Coca-Cola, they rob their workers,” says a sign in a poor barrio nearby one of eight Coca-Cola plants in Venezuela. Last May, workers voted to replace their old union with a new one dedicated to representing their interests over those of the multi-national.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

Coca-Cola Femsa bottles, distributes, and sells Coca-Cola products (including beer, water, and other beverages) in Latin America with operations in Mexico, Central and South America.  While Venezuela only represents 7.1% of total revenues (Mexico accounts for 66.7%), it is slightly more than Colombia’s 6.5%.  According to the international ‘Campaign to Stop Killer Coke’ (http://www.killercoke.org/), in Colombia that’s enough for the company to be collaborating with paramilitaries responsible for the intimidation, torture and murder of trade-union activists.

“In Venezuela, they are not killing union leaders like in Colombia,” notes José Cardenal, Secretary General of the new union at the company’s Valencia, Venezuela branch.  “But they have argued legally and judicially to drown those union leaders who are really fighting for workers’ rights.  They find a way to legally intimidate, threaten, pressure workers when they try to organize, or when they try to claim their legal rights.”

Last May, after months of tireless organizing, Cardenal and other activists launched a parallel union that challenged the existing one in a factory-wide referendum.  Administered by the Valencia office of the Labour Inspector, with representatives from both unions and the company in attendance, the new union won 301 votes to 234.  Worker participation was over 80%.

“The workers at Coca-Cola Femsa Femsa have never had a dignified salary,” explains Freddy Contreras, Secretary of Culture in the new union.  “There are workers who work 8 hours at the factory, and at the end of their shift they go straight to work driving taxis, or in construction because the salary they get isn’t dignified, it’s not enough to live on.”

According to Contreras, Coca-Cola Femsa workers could not count on the old union to advance their rights.  “Before, any worker fighting for his rights quickly found himself on the street,” he says angrily.  “The old union leadership was corporate, they were allied to the company, they were bought by the company.  Workers never felt they could open their mouths against the union, because they knew the union could have them fired.  The company paid these union leaders’ salaries, they gave them an office in the factory, they kept them in their pocket, away from the workers.”

“We could see from the existing collective agreements that the union leadership had struck a deal with the bosses.  Never for a moment did they fight for the ideal of a happy, content worker because his family can enjoy the benefits from his labor.  No, they simply said ‘the important thing is to bring something home to your family. It doesn’t have to be much, just so long as you can bring something home to them every day.’  We thought this way of thinking was inhuman.  It was the perspective of the bosses, a perspective that strengthened the company and weakened the new workers movement.”

In the few months since the new union’s referendum victory in May, 2004 they have not yet been able to achieve many of the improvements in working conditions sought by workers.  However, assembly-line worker Julio Llepes has noticed some small, but important changes.  “Before the company owed us Cesta tickets [food stamps] and we weren’t receiving them, but since the new union came in we have been.”  Llepes also noted an increased openness in the new union, and felt confident that if he had any concerns with their leadership in future he could raise them without fear of repercussions.

Luis Ferrero has been working at Coca-Cola Femsa for seven years, since he was twenty years old.  He notes that the new union took a tough position regarding food stamps owed to mechanics at the factory, not only forcing the company to begin paying them, but to pay them retroactively.  Even more important, according to Ferrero, the new union has secured retroactive pay, covering the last four years for workers who have been forced to eat their lunch on the line.

In an important political victory, the new union has also successfully pressured the company to pay wages lost during the two months that Coca-Cola Femsa shut its doors during the December 2002-February 2003 general strike aimed at ousting Chávez.  Workers were told they would be paid during the shutdown, but had not received those wages until now.

Political Solutions to Bread and Butter Issues: Voting Against Neoliberalism

Coca-Cola Femsa is just one of a growing number of factories where workers have begun fighting to retake their unions from corrupt leaders on excessively friendly terms with the employers.  In 2000, Ford set the precedent, becoming the first factory in the region to have a union referendum.  The new union won easily, fueling a growing movement to democratize local unions that has exploded in 2004.  Over the past nine months, Venezuela’s twin cities of Valencia and Maracay, where a large portion of the country’s non-oil industry is concentrated, have witnessed eight union referenda, all with new unions coming out on top.

The exponential increase in union referenda and in the organization of parallel unions in 2004 owes a great deal to the role of the state.  While the Ministry of Labor appears to have avoided taking sides in these disputes, a remarkable moratorium on lay-offs for lower-paid workers declared in April 2003 appears to have made all the difference.  “The company could not fire the workers organizing new unions, and organizing the workers to start fighting for their rights because there is currently a moratorium on lay-offs,” notes regional director of the UNT for Carabobo José Juaquin Barreto.  “Thanks to the government, these workers had the breathing room they needed to organize the new union, hold the referendum, and now have some of the tools necessary to take the fight to the bargaining table and make some concrete gains.”

The moratorium, which was recently extended by the Ministry of Labor for a another six months, is a radical reversal for the transnational corporations that have multiplied their investments in Venezuela of late.  Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, the Venezuelan government moved away from its history of state-run enterprises, privatizing the country’s steel and telecommunications sectors, the national airline, and all the country’s port facilities, among others.  Changes for workers in these factories went far beyond a change in management.  The cult of efficiency and productivity saw the ratio of employees to contract workers shrink rapidly, to the point where un-unionized contract workers now outnumber unionized employees in many cases.

Such tactics are not, of course, unique to recently privatized companies, but are rather part of a general neoliberal trend.  In one particularly stark example, Colombian transnational Interamericana del Cable sought to cut labor costs in a Colombian market that has cable workers earning some of the highest industrial wages in the country.  After buying recently bankrupt Cable from its previous owners in 2001, the new Colombian owners have increased productivity considerably, but predictably, they have done so at the expense of the factories employees.

“The new company, not surprisingly, came with the politics of erasing all the gains, all the benefits the workers had from before it changed hands,” notes the UNT’s Barreto.  “As there was a marriage in this country between the CTV and ‘company-unions’, they had a professional union here that struck a deal with the new owners.  Some workers were laid off, but many workers did not have to leave.  They simply lost whatever seniority they had under the old owners and started fresh with the new company.  The slate was wiped totally clean.  So now some workers have 2 or 3 years seniority, but in reality they have been working 20 or 25 years at the same factory, producing the same product.”

Unorganized contract workers now outnumber organized employees at InterAmericana del Cable more than 2 to 1.  In response, and protected by the moratorium on lay-offs, workers began organizing a new union committed to restoring workers rights.  In early September, a new union successfully displaced the old CTV-affiliated union in referendum.  Now the challenge is to deliver on their commitment to their members.  “With the change of ownership, our working conditions changed as well.  Today we have less than a quarter of the benefits we used to have under the previous owners,” says Secretary General of the new union Jesus Manuel Roa.  “Higher productivity is fine with us,” adds his new Secretary of Culture and Propaganda Ramon Alvarado, “higher productivity is great, all we’re saying is that the benefits should be shared with the workers too.”

Democratic Unions, Accountable Unions

The UNT has played an important role in supporting local union referenda.  Legal advice, and the knowledge gained from experiences in other local referenda passed on by UNT organizers have given isolated local activists a national context, and a national forum.  The UNT has placed itself on the cutting edge of labor activism, which has gained them the support of some of Venezuelan labor’s most militant sectors.  There is a history in Venezuela of leadership drifting from their members, but this democratization of local unions that the UNT has supported has now become a benchmark for the national organization as well.

Workers are conscious of the deep roots of the old-style unionism, and memories of the cooptation of previous movements to refound Venezuelan unions remain fresh.  While the UNT has taken important positions defending the rights of working people over the past year-and-a-half, it is no secret that many of these positions also benefited the confederation.  Further, the confederation’s close ties to the government ensure that the question of union autonomy will be hotly debated at the upcoming national congress, now tentatively scheduled for December.  Representatives will certainly be looking for the national leadership to hold themselves to the same standards to which they have been holding local leadership.  And they will likely seek to establish as many possible safeguards against a return to the old corporate unionism as possible.  At any rate, the logic that is behind increasing participation at the local level can just as easily be applied at the national.  And there is a strong parallel between workers’ perceptions of old and new local unions, and the CTV and UNT.

Interviews with rank and file workers in the state of Carabobo revealed a common pattern: they were primarily concerned with improvements in their salaries, basic working conditions, and benefits such as health care and vacation-pay.  While many workers were certainly conscious of the political implications of the action in which they had participated, the democratization of their union as such was primarily important in that it improved their degree of influence within the union.

Increased participation, regular assemblies in which workers feel free to speak publicly and even to criticize the union are important, not so much in terms of an abstract increase in the level of participation as they are in making the union leadership accountable to the base.  This is as true for the national confederation as it is for local unions.  As Freddy Salazar, a mechanic at Owens Illinois notes, “the new union has only been around for a few weeks, so it’s a bit premature to be evaluating their achievements.  What I can say is that the referendum was important because it showed us that we can also remove leaders that no longer represent us, not only add new ones…If the new union doesn’t represent our interests, we know—and they know—that we can just have another referendum and replace them like we did the old union.”

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In the broader struggle to democratize Venezuelan society, to institutionalize economic and social equality, workers’ control over factories is essential.  Getting control over their unions is a necessary first-step.  What role, if any, will these new unions play in promoting worker-control?  Will it be limited to securing workers a cushy spot on managerial committees?  Or will it go so far as to promote factory takeovers?  What position will the government take?  What will be the ideology behind this movement?  In part two of this series we will address these questions with respect to an existing example of co-management in the state-run electric company Cadafe, and Venepal a private paper company recently occupied by workers.


[1] It is worth noting that while many organized workers may not be among this 80%, they likely have extended family members who are unemployed, or precariously self-employed in the informal economy.  Furthermore, whole communities, where the majority of the population live below the poverty line, often depend on the filter effect of having some good jobs in their community.  Finally, while very little documentation actually exists, the informal economy is widely perceived to be dominated by women.  This interrelationship between formal and informal workers has sometimes resulted in a powerful solidarity that transcends the factory.  We return to this concept in our discussion of the Venepal factory take-over in Part II.

[2] The debate inside, and outside, of the UNT on what the nature of its relationship with government will be addressed later in the series.