Maracaibo, January 11, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Hundreds of Venezuelan teachers took to the streets to demand higher wages and the restoration of collective bargaining rights, including social and medical insurance.
The nationwide protests began on Monday organized by the United Federation of Teaching (Fetramagisterio) alongside unions from around 18 states. Teachers were joined by workers, administrative personnel, and retirees from the public education sector with demonstrations taking place near education-related government buildings and public squares in city centers.
In Caracas, teachers gathered outside the Ministry of Education to demand immediate answers to their months-long struggle for decent salaries, the full payment of stipulated bonuses as well as the reactivation of the Hospitalization, Surgery, and Maternity (HCM) services and the Institute of Social Welfare and Assistance for the Ministry of Education Staff (Ipasme).
The leader of the Venezuelan Teachers’ Association (Fenaprodo-CPV), Raquel Figueroa, ruled out a national strike but said members will remain in the streets until they secure a new collective contract that respects labor rights and sets a salary increase. The negotiation between unions and the government was paralyzed in November after a year-long discussion.
“Today [Monday] is the beginning of a string of protests. We are calling for [popular] organization [because] this is a big fight,” said Figueroa.
Furthermore, the president of the Training of Union Leaders (Fordisi), Gricelda Sánchez, explained that “an active level 4 teacher was earning between US $90-$100 a month last year, which today is less than $30,” following the monetary devaluation that began in the second half of 2022.
“We understand that we are not a country that prints dollars, but the economy is managed under this currency,” for which teachers demand a salary scale calculation in accordance with this reality, Sánchez stated.
Under harsh US economic sanctions, Venezuela has gone through de-facto dollarization as the government looked to jumpstart the economy to overcome a years-long recession. The measure alongside other liberal policies has somewhat slowed down inflation and reactivated industrial and commercial activities, with the country’s GDP growing 17.73 percent in the first nine months of 2022.
However, public sector workers’ salaries have remained stagnated with the last minimum wage increase settled at around 130 bolívares in March (US $30 at the time), which now is less than $10 with recent devaluation. In comparison, the basic food basket is estimated at over $492. Teachers have been forced to pick up second jobs, leave the public sector or emigrate.
In the western Lara state, a large protest also took place with people gathering in front of the Educational Zone building. The president of the Teachers’ Association Luis Arroyo said it was “a mockery” to continue working with an expired collective contract.
“We have no social salary, our benefits have disappeared and school institutions are in a deplorable situation. The common goal is to have quality of life, a good salary, and educational quality,” Arroyo told the local press.
Teachers from Zulia state, the country’s most populated region, took to the streets as well on Monday to demand a decent salary to afford electricity costs. Local authorities stopped charging for electricity years ago due to constant blackouts but plan to restore fees around March following a modest stabilization.
On Tuesday, the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers (FVM) Édgar Machado said unions will meet with the Minister of Education Yelitze Santaella to reach an agreement but no statement has been issued. Santaella has not made any declaration since the protests broke out. On Wednesday, demonstrators, including university professors and workers, held more rallies with trade union assemblies set up across the country.
In response to the nationwide protests, National Assembly (AN) deputy and president of the National Union Teachers Unitary Force (Sinafum) Orlando Pérez clarified that the new collective bargaining agreement was meant to be signed on November 15, but the inflation hike halted the process.
The union leader agreed that a salary increase was necessary and will not produce more inflation as some opposition analysts had speculated on social media. He added that discussions will resume this week.
“We understand that there is willingness from the government, in spite of [US] sanctions and [monetary] speculation, to attend to the needs of the education sector”, emphasized Pérez in an interview on national television.
Venezuelan teachers have picked up from last year’s large rallies. In July, hundreds staged protests across the country to demand the withdrawal of a directive issued by the National Budget Office (ONAPRE) that overrode a number of collective bargaining rights, including 50 percent cuts to wage bonuses for experience or education level, while flattening salary scales.
In August, public sector pensioners, nurses, teachers and university workers collected a first victory with their vacation bonuses being paid in one full installment and based on the $30 minimum wage. The previous plan established a fractioned payment based on the 2021 US $2 rate with ONAPRE arguing that a new labor agreement had not been signed.
The wide-reaching ONAPRE directive is still in place and teachers, as well as other public sector unions, continue demanding its abolition. The measure has been likened to 2018 Memorandum 2792, which established wage and benefit cutbacks.
Although not directly addressing the teachers’ protests, on Monday President Nicolás Maduro recalled that despite recent economic growth, the country is still facing a “severe and adverse situation” under US sanctions and the blockade against the oil industry.
“Our people need to know. We are permanently squeezing resources. No one can be fooled and no one can sing victory here. What we have to sing is struggle, battle, resistance, effort,” said Maduro in a televised address.