Caracas, July 10, 2018 (venezuelanalysis.com) – On strike since June 25, Venezuela’s nurses continue to attend only emergency cases in an extensive collective action that incorporates a significant part of the workforce. These health workers have taken to the streets demanding better salaries and improved labor conditions, including more medicines and other supplies in their hospitals.
The Venezuelan nurses’ struggle, which has incorporated protestors from most of the Caribbean nation’s 23 states and Caracas district into an ongoing work stoppage, has as its focus a request for a “dignified salary” for public healthcare workers, as stipulated in the nation’s constitution.
Article 91 of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Constitution says that a worker’s salary should allow him or her to lead a “dignified life” and cover the basic needs of a family.
According to calculations from Venezuela’s Central University research center CENDES, for May this year, a nurse’s salary, at about three million Bolivars a month, amounts to approximately a hundredth of a family’s basic needs.
To illustrate their point about unfair wages in the health system, the protesting nurses often compare their salaries to those of military officers, the lowest of which is 25 million Bolivars monthly.
Despite frequent wage hikes, government sources often explain the difference between wages and Venezuela’s increasingly expensive consumer prices by making reference to an “economic war” and international sanctions.
Ana Rosario Contreras, president of the Caracas Nurses School, said to Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, “If the economic war doesn’t impede assigning such salaries to the military sector, that same economic war can’t prevent [the government] giving dignified salaries to nurses.”
The nurses’ protest cuts across political lines, incorporating both opposition and Chavista supporters. Some of the right-wing groupings have also attempted to convert the strike into an anti-government action. They square off, on the other hand, with some government supporters who reject the strike as political “destabilization.”
A more balanced attitude, however, can be found among other leftists and workers’ leaders.
Angel Castillo, a worker in the Barrio Adentro public medical system and a member the Chavista June 2 collective, recognizes that the workplace situation in the health sector is “critical” and workers’ salaries are too low. Yet, he thinks the situation demands a more holistic approach including fighting corruption and smuggling while implementing effective price controls.
Castillo’s collective also rejects the tactic of using work stoppages in a critical sector such as healthcare, and at the same time they call for the forming of a national health workers’ front to shape government policy. Currently, health workers unions are often limited to workers in a specific shop floor or municipality. In the end, “ everybody is experiencing a similar situation at a national level,” Castillo told Venezuelanalysis.
Likewise, Pedro Eusse, trade union secretary for the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), thinks the solution needs to be an integral one, not just for nurses but all workers.
“Neither bonuses nor [wage] raises will solve the country’s problems,” he said. According to Eusse, who is the party’s liaison to a broad workers’ front, the crisis of the Venezuelan working class is mainly due to shortages of goods and inflation and has its real roots in a dependent economy.
What sparked the nurses’ protest is a botched collective contract.
Octavio Solorzano of the FENISITRA health workers union began negotiating with the state without substantial worker participation and a middling agreement began to take shape in June. Surprisingly, however, in July he accepted a deal which was very unfavorable to workers.
The July contract, which gave workers a ten percent wage increase but kept salaries under four million Bolivars, is what sent people to the streets.
According to Margot Monastarios, a union leader in Caracas’ Central University Hospital, the nurses’ demands go beyond wages and include access to medical supplies and calls for better sanitary conditions in their workspaces.
“There is no water, no electricity, we don't have equipment, [so] we’ll continue in the struggle until they provide those services, which also belong to the people,” she said.