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Political Fault Lines in Venezuelan Labor

The allure of the new union federation UNT, which has allowed it to present such a devastating challenge to the CTV in less than two years, is that power struggles have not overshadowed crucial ideological debates.

In May, 2003, in the wake of the crippling, though ultimately unsuccessful, oil strike/lock-out organized by the traditional Venezuelan labor central, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and the largest chamber of commerce federation Fedecamaras, a large swath of Venezuelan workers gave up on their attempts to reform the CTV from within.  At a jubilant gathering in the capital, Caracas, workers from nearly every sector of Venezuelan labor came together to form a new confederation, the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT).  They shared a common distaste for the CTV’s alliance with big-business, with their feeble opposition to the neoliberal politics that ravaged workers throughout the 1980s and 90s, and many—though not all—of them shared a common belief in the project of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

While it is not yet possible to tell exactly how representative either central is, the UNT has grown astonishingly fast in the first year-and-a-half of its existence.  One way of estimating this momentum is to count the percentage of collective agreements signed with each confederation.  According to the Ministry of Labor, 76.5% of collective agreements signed in 2003-04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT, and only 20.2% with the CTV.  This is due in large part to the UNT’s dominance of the public sector, for which official preference is certainly a factor.  However, even in the private sector, the UNT represented 50.3% of all collective agreements signed in 2003-04, compared to the CTV’s 45.2%.[i]

Nonetheless, societies are not transformed over night with the declaration of a new stage, a new government, or a new union.  Organized labor was a crucial foundation of Venezuela’s old system, the 4th Republic (1958-1999), which was inaugurated in 1958 with the defeat of dictator Marcos Peréz Jiménez.  The CTV has been allied to the social-democratic party Acción Democrática (AD) since their creation in the 1930s, and with the help of AD Presidents after 1958, the CTV became a hegemonic force in Venezuelan labor.  Though this alliance often benefitedworkers in the CTV materially, it undermined their collective power.  And it all too often resulted in the prioritization of party agendas over workers’ interests and workers’ rights, tainting the CTV and the roots of Venezuelan trade unions.

Breaking with this past, even with the support of a progressive Venezuelan government, has required a selfconscious re-education on the part of labor leaders and the rank and file.  To even get to the point where workers and shop stewards can imagine a different kind of unionism and a different kind of union is a drawn-out process; one that has required open debates, conflicts, and above all, a sense of history.  Workers have had to salvage a culture of struggle from the wreckage of CTV-lethargy, while simultaneously developing a new one from scratch.

Over the year-and-a-half of the UNT’s existence some debates have turned into conflicts.  A variety of factors end up informing union-leaders decisions, not all of them ideological.  As in the old-unionism of the CTV, power and egos often influence decisions, and as with the old Venezuelan left, vicious sectarianism represents a very real barrier to unity.  But the allure of the UNT, what has allowed it to present such a devastating challenge to the CTV in less than two years, is that these conflicts have not overshadowed crucial ideological debates.  Below, we discuss three debates that are of integral importance, not only to the UNT, but to trade unions the world over.  How can the new confederation balance cooperation with the government and union autonomy?  How should the UNT balance the desire for comprehensive democracy and the immediate need to formalize organizational and administrative structures?  How can local leaders adequately balance workers’ interests with community interests’, local and national issues?  These debates are ongoing—the UNT has by no means reached a consensus.  But the very presence of these debates represents the concrete advances of the UNT over the authoritarian past of organized labor in Venezuela.

Wresting Venezuelan labor from this “muck of ages” is not a clean process, and the UNT has suffered setbacks as well as achieved some very powerful victories.  Scratching the surface of both advances and reversals reveals the critical process of rethinking and re-imagining that is gripping the trade union movement—the debates, elections, ruptures, splits, agreements, unifications—and it is clear that these setbacks and tangents are as necessary as they are cathartic.

In Part II of this series[ii] we examine the serious rifts within the UNT at the local and national levels, the ties between them, and the destructive and constructive effects of these divisions on the labor movement as an imagined whole.  Though at times ugly and occasionally personal, the divisions discussed below shed light on the grit of the process of raising a new confederation out of the rubble of the old.  Debates on democracy, union autonomy and the reconciliation between political and ‘bread-and-butter’ issues are building an open forum for discussion—and dissention—into the basic structure of the UNT.

Las Matanzas

At the entrance to the twin industrial cities of San Felix and Puerto Ordaz in South-Eastern Venezuela, visitor and resident alike are greeted by a sign that proclaims “World Class Business.”  Matanzas, as the region around the twin-cities is known, is the heart of the mining state of Bolívar, a vast area bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Amazon jungle to the South and West.  Alongside the gold, iron, aluminum, and bauxite mines, stretch miles of processing plants.

Over the last two decades the sign has acquired a second meaning as both public and private companies—to differing degrees—have subscribed to the logic of neoliberal globalization.  The mines and processing plants that have made the twin-cities one of the most important industrial centers in the continent have become part of a global class indeed.  The result for the region’s workers—many of whom have emigrated from Venezuela’s central plains region—is a familiar series of humiliating reforms: outsourcing unionized jobs to un-unionized sub-contractors, the collapse of health and safety, privatization and, above all, lay-offs.

The region was once home to Venezuela’s most radical syndicalist movement, the Matanceros, who were a brief though very real threat to the dominance of the traditional corrupt unionism.[iii]  But the ravages of neoliberalism during the 1980s and 90s forced even the region’s most obstinate unions to accept concessions.

Yet in Matanzas the labor movement has recently been rejuvenated.  Last April steel workers at the giant Sidor steel plant (historically the epicenter of radical unionism in Matanzas) went on strike demanding, among other things, the nationalization of the plant.  The strike ended disappointingly: shares in the company were won exclusively from the state corporation that owns 40.5% of the company, and not from the Argentinian, Mexican, and Brazilian consortium that owns the other 59.5%, as the workers had initially demanded.  Nonetheless, the character of the strike revealed a recent re-politicization of workers’ struggles at Sidor, and the struggles of other workers elsewhere in the country suggest that the steel-workers are not alone (see Venezuela Expropriates Venepal Paper Co., and Refounding Venezuelan Labor, Part I).

Contested Leaders

Forging a new union confederation has been something of a double-edged sword.  It has provided an opening for personal ambition, and has occasionally lent itself to the base tactics of character assassination.  Yet it has also created a historically unprecedented forum for the often fierce debate of strategy within the labor movement.  At first glance, the leadership challenges in two Matanzas unions, discussed below, appear to be internal struggles of little relevance to the broader conflicts and debates swirling around the embryonic UNT.  Yet these struggles also have a national character, and in many ways are characteristic of the ideological growing pains bubbling below the surface of the new confederation.

On October 15th, 2004, union leaders from the aluminum processing plant Alcasa had their two-year term cut in half.  A controversial election—accompanied by all the rumors and violence that shadow Venezuelan political processes—temporarily succeeded in recalling Sitralcasa (the Alcasa union) Secretary-General Trino Silva and the rest of the leadership in a referendum bound to ricochet forcefully in the national ambit.

Only two months before, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had convincingly defeated a bid to recall him from office.  Besides being a local dispute, the referendum at Sitralcasa differed from the August 15 nation-wide referendum against Chávez in that both sides identified themselves as Chavistas.

After the first year of Trino Silva’s term at the head of the union, former secretary-general from 1999-2003 and acting Secretary of Organization José Gil reacted to what he described as widespread disaffection with Silva’s leadership.  Gil and his supporters called a referendum on Silva’s rule and submitted the issue to an election in a process that was facilitated by the local labor inspector.  Silva condemned the election as illegal and declined to participate.  According to his supporters, Gil won the election easily. A battle for the leadership ensued, with the Alcasa management initially favoring Gil by revoking Silva’s union credentials.  However, the Supreme Court ruled on 24 November, 2004 that the election had been illegal because it violated the internal statutes of the union constitution.  Silva’s credentials were returned and he resumed leadership of the union.

One month prior to the conflict at Alcasa, a similar internal battle had broken out in the steel workers union Sutiss.  Sutiss President Ramon Machuca (an ally of Trino Silva) faced a temporarily successful campaign against the collective agreement he and his executive had negotiated with the company when José Meléndez, leader of a rival faction in Sutiss, convinced enough workers to vote against Machuca’s proposal.

Microcosms and Platforms: Alcasa and Sidor

José Gil justified his attacks on Trino Silva’s leadership by accusing Silva of neglecting bread and butter issues, preferring instead to fight political battles that resulted in little benefit to workers.  Workers at Alcasa corroborated Gil’s argument to a certain extent, including many who supported Silva.  José Meléndez made similar claims against Ramón Machuca, adding the charge that Machuca was undemocratic, and Meléndez’ initial success in convincing steel-workers to reject the Collective Agreement suggests that his concerns reflected wider dissatisfaction among steel-workers.

Once the conflicting discourses are deciphered, it becomes clear that each of these leaders is missing one aspect or another of the struggles in their respective plants, but none of them is completely disconnected from workers.  Both supporters and opponents of Trino Silva at Alcasa accuse him of neglecting his duties to defend their rights in the factory.  Yet Silva has made great strides in attempting to widen the provision of health care to workers at Alcasa to the community at large, where public hospitals are in dire disrepair.  Thinking outside of the factory has already proven crucial in previous struggles in Venezuela; but the need to carefully blend class-based politics with factory-based agitation is acute.  José Gil, for his part, has championed bread-and-butter issues at the expense of broader class considerations.

At Sidor, Ramón Machuca temporarily lost his workers’ confidence because he was too focused on national politics.  Though Sutiss is currently not a member of the UNT, Machuca has led one of the key debates within progressive labor (including, but not limited to, the UNT) on autonomy and democracy.  José Meléndez, like José Gil, has focused on local issues at Sidor at the expense of national political considerations that merit Sidor workers’ attention.

More than merely internal power struggles, the fights within Sitralcasa and Sutiss highlighted divisions and debates within the UNT at the national level.  José Gil and José Meléndez both belong to the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT), a powerful faction within the UNT led by Orlando Chirinos.  Trino Silva is an ally of Ramón Machuca, who is himself the main challenge to Chirinos’ bid for the UNT presidency.  In this respect, the power struggles in Sitralcasa and Sutiss were also local manifestations of national struggles between the FBT and Machuca supporters fought out in Matanzas by proxy.

As a result of the infighting in Matanzas, these divisions burst onto the public stage.  And as the year-and-a-half old UNT prepared for general elections tentatively scheduled for early 2005, the crystallizing debate between two political perspectives, and two trade union leaders, could no longer be contained.

Chavista Unionism vs Autonomy

One debate in particular has characterized divisions within the UNT since its inception: how to balance support for Chávez with the autonomy from government that has historically eluded Venezuelan unions?  And this debate has been intertwined with another, surrounding different visions of the UNT’s democratic structures.  In the context of the onslaught of illegal and legal attacks by the opposition against President Chávez, these debates have taken on added emotional intensity.  While there are many streams within and outside of the UNT, the most visible debates have generally been reduced to dichotomies personified by the two most prominent candidates for the UNT Presidency: Ramón Machuca and Orlando Chirinos.

The ‘Chavista unionism’ current is represented by the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT), a pre-UNT federation of pro-Chávez unions.  It is nearly impossible to even estimate the FBT’s membership, for no one (least of all the FBT) is currently compiling such statistics.  However, of the seven most visible coordinators of the UNT (of a total of twenty), four come from the FBT.

The ‘autonomous unionism’ group is led by Ramon Machuca.  The remaining 3 of the 7 UNT coordinators mentioned above are perceived to be sympathetic to Machuca.  While its membership is only around four thousand, Sutiss is one of the country’s most well-known unions, due to a tradition of radical unionism going back to the 1970s.

What has complicated this debate is that both sides ostensibly support union autonomy.  Yet the FBT is widely reported (including by FBT sources) to have close relations to the Ministry of Labor.  The regional labor inspector’s apparent preference for José Gil during the Sitralcasa leadership battle has been cited by the FBT’s critics as one example.  The Machuca wing, on the other hand, has been accused of having its own links to government through Franklin Rondón, president of one of the largest public-sector unions.  It is here that the debate seeps into a broader, less easily definable one on democracy.  Given the current correlation of forces, goes one argument, we must firmly establish a new confederation to replace the CTV, even if that slightly curtails the new body’s democratic nature.  The opposing position argues that for the new confederation to succeed in making a comprehensive break with the old unionism, the emphasis must be entirely on building democratic foundations.

A prime example is the controversy over who will be permitted to vote in the UNT’s upcoming elections (tentatively scheduled for early 2005).  Machuca and several UNT coordinators argue that all workers inside of or outside of the UNT should be allowed to vote, since the UNT’s first election will likely influence all workers.  Chirinos and his allies argue that while they agree with the sentiment of this strategy, it opens the door for sabotage since it would mean that members of the CTV could vote in the UNT elections.  CTV leaders could, in theory, mobilize their members to support a candidate that more closely reflects the CTV’s interests than s/he does those of workers.  Neither of these arguments address the participation of informal workers in the UNT elections, despite the fact that 50% of Venezuelan workers are self-employed or employed in the informal sector.[iv]

Unity in Unété?

The animosities piqued locally and nationally by the internal battles within Sitralcasa and Sutiss have by no means disappeared.  Yet, they appear to have faded sufficiently for both sides to sit down with one another in the interests of encouraging unity within the confederation.

The UNT was born in May, 2003 among euphoric chants of “the working class united will never be defeated.”  Yet unity has been conspicuously lacking within the UNT for much of its short existence.  Many trade-union members believe that repeated displays of sectarianism between rival currents will only benefit the traditional confederation (the CTV) that these members have worked so hard to defeat.

In mid-November, while in Brazil for the twelfth congress of the Latin American Workers’ Central (CLAT), Ramon Machuca and Marcela Maspero (UNT coordinator and member of the FBT) met in private, taking an important step in the conciliation between the rival UNT factions.  Both Maspero and Machuca referred to the ad-hoc meeting in Brazil as groundbreaking.  “Both sides were able to reflect on past mistakes, on the atmosphere that we are all equally responsible for creating [within the UNT],” said Maspero.  Machuca added that the strategy of character assassination, previously employed by both sides, was rejected, and that the meeting fostered the kind of constructive ideological debates the UNT needs.  In Brazil the decision was made to call UNT coordinators to Caracas for a meeting held in early December to “build on the greatly improved relations [between the two sides].”[v]

Such cooperation is absolutely necessary if the upcoming elections are to win over the large swath of Venezuelan unions that currently have a foot in each of the rival centrals.  This as yet undecided sector is well aware of the potential of the new central, but all too conscious of the powerful sectarian roots that have ravaged Venezuelan labor in the past.  Beyond that self-defeating sectarianism, what separates these two leaders are the specific labor traditions each comes out of, which color their respective organization strategies.  And it is primarily in this respect where the divisions between both sides have opened the possibility for an as yet unconsummated imaginative cooperation.  While political disagreements will certainly persist, if Machuca and Chirinos—or, more importantly, their supporters—can unite, as they appear to be doing, the UNT will be a dynamic and diverse pillar of progressive politics in Venezuela.  Their timing could not be better, for the rival CTV will also be holding elections in the coming months, bringing the two centrals to perhaps their most important face-off.


[i] This measure is an estimate since many collective agreements are only negotiated every four years.  Figures obtained from Ministry of Labor.

[ii] Part II of the series “Refounding Venezuelan Labor” was initially intended to cover the theme of worker-state co-management, taking two case studies: Venepal, a paper factory recently expropriated by the state; and Cadafe, an electric company that has been running under an imperfect system of co-management since 2002.  The article on co-management will appear as Part III of the series.

[iii] The Matanceros took their name from the region of Matanzas.  In the 1970s and 80s they gained national prominence, and many people believe that their political party the Radical Cause won the Presidential elections of 1993, but for sabotage by traditional elites.  In any case, the Radical Cause party was widely perceived to have been co-opted by the CTV by that time, and the party joined the opposition shortly after Chávez’ election in 1998.  The Matancero movement continues to be an influential syndicalist movement in Matanzas.

[iv] Interview with Ricardo Dorado, Vice-Minister of Labor conducted by author, October 9, 2004.

[v] Interviews conducted by author, December 15, 2004.