Labor Dispute Continues in Venezuela’s State-Owned Oil Industry

The ongoing industrial dispute in Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA continued yesterday as a work stoppage called by some unions over a week ago, called “Zero Hour,” approached with various small industrial actions taking place around the country.

Caracas, August 7, 2007 (— The ongoing industrial dispute in Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA continued yesterday as a work stoppage called by some unions over a week ago, called “Zero Hour,” approached with various small industrial actions taking place around the country. However, despite calls from some unionists to “paralyze” the industry, José Luis Parada, the general manager of PDVSA Occidente, assured that, “all the oil drills, ports, and oil installations are functioning without interruptions.”

The conflict is centered on two main issues. The first is the collective contract for oil workers for 2007-2009, which has been under negotiation since April. The second issue is over the incorporation of oil workers into PDVSA from a number of private oil rigs in the Orinoco Belt that were nationalized in May.

Approximately 40 oil workers from local sections affilitated with the oil unions federations Fedepetrol, Fetrahidrocarburos, Sinutrapetrol, and the Oil Workers Front of Zulia protested at the administrative office of PDSVA Occidente in Maracaibo, demanding the incorporation of 500 oil rig operators into PDVSA. During the protest the National Guard used tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested four unionists, Cahuao (FUTPV), Jairo Ollarves (Sinutrapetrol), Aulio Soto, and Francisco Villalobos, both from Fetrahidrocarburos, for “acts of violence.”

The protesting workers also demanded the removal of José Luis Parada, the general manager of PDVSA Occidente, who they claim has treated workers with disrespect. Parada has been negotiating with the unions in Tía Juana, Cabimas, and Lagunillas, the area around Lake Maracaibo, over the incorporation of oil rig operators into PDVSA. Augusto Villalobos, secretary general of the Federation of Hydrocarbon Workers (Fetrahidrocarburos), said that they don’t have faith in the “’negotiating tables,” “because there is no presence of the Minister of Labor, or the Comptroller General of the state; they are lead by the same manager José Luis Parada.”

Villalobos, who claimed that Parada was a signatory against Hugo Chavez during the recall referendum, said the workers were asking for a special commission in place of the “negotionaing tables,” to deal with the incorporation of the employees from the oil rigs. He said that Rafael Ramírez, Minister of Energy and PDVSA President, had promised to incorporate all of the workers. However, Villalobos argued, “Only 40% of the workers have been incorporated. There are 500 workers that are waiting for the contract.”

He added that they would continue protesting indefinitely if Parada is not removed and unless a guarantee of permanency is signed.

Jorge Hurtado, a member of Sindicato Petrolero de Hidrocarburo, reiterated the claim that not all of the workers had been incorporated, and said, “We have been mocked by the upper management of PDVSA and we don’t have permanency, which is the right of workers.”

However, Parada claimed, “We have incorporated 1,112 of the 1,356 specialized workers that are necessary to work all of the oil rigs in Zulia. The rest of the personnel [a total of 244 more] will be incorporated in the next few days.”

The manager of PDVSA Occidente admitted, though, that within the process of incorporation, they had failed to incorporate personnel from the oil rig ¨Corpoven 34,” saying, “There are nearly 45 workers that work for a private company that has not completed its contract. Once that drilling work terminates, that team will pass over onto the payroll of PDVSA.”

Other groups of workers rejected the actions, saying there was no reason to protest. Eudis Girot, from the newly founded United Oil Workers Federation of Venezuela (FUTPV), reiterated the claim that 1,112 workers had been incorporated into PDVSA and said that the oil workers did not call for any “Zero Hour” on Monday “or any other day.” He described “zero hour” as a “maneuver by a sector,” and added that “the conflict declared in the west of the country has been 97% resolved with the negotiating tables acting quickly to deal with pending claims.”

Part of the dispute has also centered on the claim that oil workers who signed the petition for a recall referendum against President Chavez in 2004 are being discriminated against by not being incorporated into PDVSA. However, Girot denied this and emphasized that 207 of the workers incorporated so far were signatories for the recall referendum against Chavez in 2004. “Their political views have been respected,” he added. Representatives from Sintrapetrol also appeared on state owned TV channel VTV yesterday, condemning the actions.

Carlos González, from FUTPV also rejected the “supposed oil stoppage “in the West of the country we know that less than 10% of the workers followed the call for ‘zero hour.’ The old union leadership called for 1,200 workers to come out, but none obeyed the orders of Fedepetrol [previously aligned with the opposition-oriented union federation CTV]. This stoppage was a failure.”

Parada claimed that the protesting unionists were representatives of opposition political parties that previously sold jobs in the oil industry. “It is the same people of the opposition parties that have maintained alive a supposed labor conflict in Zulia, when really it doesn’t exist, because we have negotiating tables open to view and discuss all of the demands of the workers.”

According to Parada, these actions by some sectors of the unions “form part of a media show. They intend to damage the discussion around the collective contract, to damage what has been achieved so far.”

He maintained, “These demonstrators want to interfere with the normal operations of the industry, through conflict. However, all the workers in the industry categorically reject this stoppage that they called.”

The Minister of Labor, José Ramón Rivero, during a recent visit to Maracaibo, described the plans by some unionists to “paralyze” the oil industry as “clearly political, not a labor conflict.”

However, despite the claims that the industrial dispute is politically motivated by rightwing opposition sectors, unionists from the far left have also criticized PDVSA management. José Bodas, a member of Corriente Clasista, Unitaria, Revolucionaria y Autónoma (C-CURA) and secretary of Fedepetrol Anzoategui said, “Never in the history of contractual negotiations for oil workers, even under the fourth republic, have negotiations taken so much time.”

“What has become clear in the last few days is that the union bureaucracy of the [pre-Chavez] Fourth and [1999 constitution] Fifth Republic have been rejected by the bases. People are not satisfied with the usurpation by the bureaucrats of the negotiation of the collective contract.”

“They [the bureaucrats] are fighting for positions in FUTPV. That is what is happening with Eudis Girot, who previously was a spokesman for the workers and now his bureaucratic alliances have removed his ‘legitimacy’,” Bodas continued.

“We reject the intention of representatives of PDVSA, the Minister of Labor and some union leadership to stigmatize as counter revolutionaries, the workers who struggle for their rights,” he added. “It’s not like the Vice-Minister of Labor says, that everything is normal. The truth is nothing is normal in PDVSA”

Bodas also condemned the arrest of the four oil workers in Maracaibo and demanded their immediate release. In conclusion, Bodas made a call "to prepare and to carry out for the coming week, an action in the streets of Caracas,” involving the participation of oil workers from around the country.

Whilst opposition media has tended to exaggerate the seriousness of the dispute, and government officials and PDVSA management have tended to downplay the dispute, Venezuela’s oil workers remain divided.