Caracas October 07, 2005—During a protest rally last Thursday, Orlando Chirinos, the leader of the National Union of Workers (UNT), said he is pushing for trade union elections to take place quickly and criticized how slow the progress for workers in Venezuela has been. Also, Ramon Machuca, a leading trade unionist and head of a steelworkers union, has alleged that the Governor of Bolivar State, Rangel Gomez, is corrupt. As a result, both men are criticizing President Hugo Chavez and his party, the MVR, due to their connection with these issues.
The increasing criticism from Chirinos and Machuca is significant because both occupy significant leadership roles in the pro-Chavez union movement. Two years ago, unions sympathetic to Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution split from the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV) and formed a new national union federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT). Ever since its formation, factions within it have been debating how close the new federation should be to the Chavez government and who should lead it. Chrinos and Machuca are seen as leading opposing factions in this debate.
On Wednesday, Orlando Chirinos put pressure on the National Electoral Commission (CNE) to set a date for elections in his trade union federation. He has done this by saying publicly that the National Electoral Commission will reply to his request for an election date by October 10. Chirinos, speaking in Plaza O’Leary in Caracas said, “We want a clean and transparent election. We want one without intimidation. I have spoken with the CNE to make sure that this happens.” UNT elections were originally to take place in early 2005, but have been announced and postponed for most of the year now.
Chirinos also expressed concern about the workers situation in Venezuela. “We have a public sector that pretends its workers are happy when they aren’t. We need conditions that suit the needs of the workers. For the defense of the country it’s sovereignty and independence against Imperialism.”
In an interview this week with the newspaper El Mundo, Chirinos as quoted making several critical comments about government labor policy. He said that President Chavez, “has to cease making unilateral declarations on the minimum wage. We have demanded this for two years and accomplished it, but there is a problem… workers are not receiving the minimum wage country-wide.”
Chirinos also criticized some of the labor laws that the government passed at the beginning of Chavez’s presidency, saying that they left too much power in the hands of bosses. He said, “The employers can unilaterally dismiss their workers when they like.” He said that part of the problem was the lack of internal debate in the unions, just as there is in political parties at this time.
Chirinos’ critical comments do not appear to have hurt his relations with the government. Yesterday afternoon he met with the Minister of Labor María Cristina Iglesias to discuss the details of the benefits for his union members. It is expected that his union’s terms will be agreed to. He is also expected to meet with the Vice President, José Vicente Rangel, on Monday to discuss UNT elections.
Similarly, another pro-Chavez union leader, Ramon Machuca, who is the leader of SUTISS, the steelworkers union of the SIDOR steel production plant in eastern Venezuela, has been attacking one of his political rivals. In an interview on Thursday with the weekly paper Quinto Dia, Machuca alleged that Rangel Gomez, the pro-Chavez Governor of Bolivar State, was involved in defrauding Machuca’s members of millions of dollars when he was the head of the Venezuelan Corporation of Guyana, the CVG. The CVG is a state holding company that has a 40% share in the SIDOR steel plant. According to a collective agreement the workers in the plant are supposed to receive 30% of the profits. Machuca said, “I have the numbers of deposits and receipts that SIDOR made at the CVG and the amount is in the millions of dollars.” However, the private consortium that owns the other 60% has apparently paid them none of this for several years.
There have been many protests about this recently, but this is the first time that Machuca has alleged wrongdoing on the part of Governor Rangel Gomez and the CVG. He said, “I don’t have a concrete explanation what happened with this money or with the workers’ part of the money. Undoubtedly something shady has occurred.” He also said, “As a Trade Union we are not permitted to find out precisely what has happened with the surpluses in the bank and we cannot get a reply from Rangel Gomez.”
Machuca has said that he will take this matter to Hugo Chavez, “He is a friend of mine, he respects my revolutionary position and I respect his leadership.” He added, “I have much information to give to the President on the topic of effectiveness and the quality of the revolution in government.” He also said that Chavez was becoming distant from the common people and didn’t always understand what was happening. “The situation down here is not what the President is hearing. Down here it is very worrying. There are many problems with the situation of the workers and of the people. The President knows a lot about what is happening at the higher levels of society but less about what is going on at this level.”
Some say that Machuca’s attack on Rangel Gomez is because of his personal rivalry and is politically motivated. On last Sunday’s Alo Presidente, Hugo Chavez called Machuca a friend and urged him to accept that he had lost the election to Rangel Gomez and not to “make trouble in Bolivar.” Rangel Gomez is not Machuca’s only rival. In Plaza O’Leary, on Thursday, Orlando Chirinos said, “It’s no secret that Ramon Machuca is a very ambitious person and that he wanted to be the president of the UNT.” He also said, “We don’t agree on things… he has a caudillo-like vision, an individualist vision and an individualist movement is not a trade union movement.