Nationalise the Banks! Take over enterprises that have shutdown and run them instead by workers! Refuse to pay the external debt and use the funds to create jobs! Reduce the workweek to 36 hours! Create new enterprises under workers’ control!— These were some of the demands that emerged from the action programme workshop, which were enthusiastically endorsed by delegates to the first National Congress of the National Union of Workers (UNT) of Venezuela on August 1-2.
After years of support for neo-liberalism by the Accion Democratica-dominated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) culminated in that organisation’s involvement in the (quickly-overturned) coup of April 2002 against President Hugo Chavez and in the CTV’s subsequent support for the business federation (Fedecamaras) in the ‘general lock-out’ of last December-January, UNT (‘UNETE’) was founded in April to provide a voice and instrument for working people. This first Congress brought together more than 1300 registered participants representing over 120 unions and 25 regional federations to determine the general outlines of the new federation— its internal statutes, election mechanisms, code of ethics, basic principles and action programme.
The greatest agreement and passion was over the principles and the action plan. From the workshop on principles came the clear call for the transformation of ‘capitalist society into a self-managing society’, for a ‘new model of anti-capitalist and autonomous development that emancipates human beings from class exploitation, oppression, discrimination and exclusion’. This declaration for an autonomous, democratic, solidaristic and internationalist, classist, independent, unitary (representing the whole working class) movement with equality for men and women was cheered by all those present at the plenary session. As occurred at a number of points, the chant emerged— ‘the working class united will never be defeated’!
The meaning of many of these principles became clear in the points endorsed for the programme of action. While the participants were unequivocal in their support for many initiatives of the Chavez government (e.g. the literacy programme, the introduction of Cuban doctors into poor neighbourhoods, housing construction, the law suspending lay-offs and the rejection of FTAA), their positions on nationalising the banks, the external debt, and work hours among other aspects went far beyond the current positions of the government. Further, UNT’s independence was demonstrated by its strong positions against specific government ministries— demanding that inspectors of work who are anti-worker be removed by the Ministry of Labour and criticising the Minister of Health and calling for the declaration of a national emergency in health— and in its call for reforms within the state itself (to ‘create the revolution within the revolution’).
Where there was less agreement, however, was with respect to internal statutes and electoral procedures. For some, the Statutes were far too like those of the CTV, an organisation infamous for its lack of internal democracy and its corruption. Here, where there was much potential for division over such matters as recall procedures, term limits, asset declarations, proportional representation, distribution of dues etc, an important decision was made— go back to the base, i.e., send this back to the individual unions for full discussion of the issues. The same decision was made in relation to decisions about the 76 articles of electoral regulations (even though only 6 were questioned)— back to the base. Since these were matters critical in providing the basis for, among other things, the finance to carry out the struggle, it was decided that a National Assembly of UNT would be convened within two months to resolve these matters. The first national congress of UNT concluded with a declaration condemning the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and its Plan Colombia. ‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’, Che’s motto, could be heard here— as at other points.
The Unete congress was an important step in turning away from what the Minister of Labour Maria Cristina Iglesias has called ‘the evil axis’ of Fedecamaras and CTV. But, it was not a complete success. For one, in the days before the Congress, UNT’s temporary 21 member steering committee (or portions of it) decided that the Unitary Confederation of Workers (CUTV), an affiliate of the World Federation of Trade Unions, which had been involved in the creation of UNT from the outset, could not integrate with its regional organisations; as a result, many of its militants stayed away from this congress. Further, a conspicuous absence was that of Ramon Machuca, influential leader of the Steelworkers Union (SUDISS), who had departed from early UNT discussions, citing the need for more initial work at the base and the creation of worker constituent assemblies around the country. (Opponents from the most pro-Chavist element in UNT, the Bolivarian Forces of Workers, FBT, argued the issue was Machuca’s desire to be leader of the new federation.) But, the most conspicuous absence was that of Chavez himself. Invited to close the Congress, Chavez was expected by the organisers to crown the new organisation with his presence. Not only did he not appear, but neither the vice-president nor the Minister of Labour came to take his place.
Poor coordination? The following day’s ‘Alo Presidente’ (Chavez’s weekly radio and TV call-in program) suggests that there may have been more to Chavez’s absence. Along with calling attention to the UNT Congress, Chavez made it a point to congratulate Machuca (‘a friend’) on his re-election last week as Steelworker leader (gaining 63% of the votes against a strong rightwing challenge). It seemed a clear signal that what is necessary is ‘the working class united’ and that the UNT Congress should be seen as only a step in that process.
Far more would be necessary to unite the working class, though, than simply bringing UNT, the CUTV, the Machuca forces and locals still affiliated to the CTV (or to nothing at all) together— a process which might be best accomplished through joint action (e.g., by uniting in the support of workers who are occupying enterprises which owners are attempting to shut down). Only 12% of working class in the formal sector of Venezuela, after all, falls within these trade unions; outside them are vast numbers of poor for whom the Chavez government is the first with which they can identify. Although UNT’s commitment to the working class as a whole was underlined by its emphasis upon the creation of committees of the unemployed and the granting of tickets (food stamps) to buy food for pensioners and the unemployed, the question remains— what precisely is to be the relationship between workers in the formal sector and the roughly 50% in the informal sector, between organised trade unionists and the broad masses that are organising in local communities? Bringing these forces together would seem to be a priority if the working class is not to be defeated.
The reality of the polarised society that is modern Venezuela was quite evident at the UNT Congress. The private TV stations (at the centre of the last coup and any future ones) were nowhere to be seen; for their viewers, the Congress was a non-event. The state TV station, on the other hand, was conspicuous in its low-tech operations and its disruptive talking-head interviews at the very points that the most significant developments in the Congress were occurring. In the battle of ideas that is occurring in Venezuela, a battle which pits the traditional governing classes against the government of Hugo Chavez, overwhelming opposition domination of the media creates a virtual reality which makes uniting of the working class far more difficult than it should be.
Michael A. Lebowitz is a Professor Emeritus at the Economics Department of Simon Fraser University, Canada