Low Participation in Venezuelan Opposition’s Education Strike

Very few teachers went on strike today, in response to some teachers’ federations call for one, over demands for pay increases and more job security. The Venezuelan government called the strike illegal, as it is currently in negotiations with teachers’ unions.
A Bolivarian primary school in Venezuela (MinCI)

Mérida, March 25, 2009 (venezuelanalysis.com)– Very few teachers went on strike today, in response to some teachers’ federations call for one, over demands for pay increases and more job security. The Venezuelan government called the strike illegal, as it is currently in negotiations with teachers’ unions.

The Venezuelan Teachers College federation and the United Federation of Teaching (Fetramagisterio) called the “24 hour” strike, along with five other unions, demanding a wage increase of 120%.

The federations called full strikes in nine states, while in others,
Nelson Gonzalez, president of Fetramagisterio, said they would organize meetings with parents and the communal councils, “because it’s a union action of warning, not to deepen the conflict.”

According to newspaper El Tiempo, the president of the College of Education Graduates, Carmen Aguirreche, said teachers in Caracas, and Vargas and Miranda states would work, while the leadership of the federation would occupy the Ministry of Education. Another union said it would strike just between 7am and 12am.

Strike outcome

The Minister for Education, Hector Navarro said only 168 educational institutions had gone on strike out a total of 28,400 in the country, a percentage of 0.59%.

In opposition controlled Zulia state, 2.4% of schools went on strike, the highest turnout according to Navarro.

However the president of the College of Teachers of Venezuela told opposition TV station Globalvision that 90% of teachers were participating in the strike.

Opposition paper El Nacional reported that 60% of schools in Anzoategui state had gone on strike and blamed “the fear and the threat to the teachers [by the government, of penalties]” for the incomplete strike. Strikers are also claiming 70% in Portuguesa state, 80% in Aragua, and 90% in the universities of Nueva Esparta.

The paper also quotes Juan Munoz from the Union of Teaching Workers as saying 40% of the schools who didn’t strike didn’t because of fear that they would lose their jobs like the workers at PDVSA had, and that students from the government run higher education mission, Mission Sucre, would be put in their place.

Navarro responded, “If the strike was attended by 90% of affiliates to these organizations, it’s because evidently they have very few members and they have no impact on the schools.”

Current teacher-government negotiations

Teachers’ unions started discussions with the government for a new collective contract on November 5 last year. But Navarro, speaking on Venezuelan Television (VTV) this morning, said none of the seven unions who had called the strike were present at the rounds of discussions as they were not legitimate unions because their leaders had not been democratically elected by the workers.

Orlando Perez, the president of the National Union of United Teaching Force (Sinafum) said that until now they had agreed on 30 clauses in the discussion and those of an economic nature would be agreed upon next week. He said the discussion was also about improving the education of both students and teachers.

Until now in the discussion, Perez said they were looking at awarding high school teachers a wage of 3.5 times the minimum wage, and university professionals 4.25 times. The minimum wage is currently 800 BsF ($US 372).

He said the unions participating in the discussion were the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers (FVM), the Federation of Educators of Venezuela (FEV), and Sinafum, and said that “these associations group together the large majority of affiliated teachers.”

Of the 380,000 teachers, he said 50,000 are members of Sinafum, 12,000 are in FVM and 7,000 in FEV. He said the Venezuelan Teachers College federation groups 27 federations, and Fetramagisterio has 7,000 members (although it claims it has 50,000).

An “illegal” strike

Navarro said the strike was illegal and illegitimate because the right to strike is only guaranteed once dialogue has been exhausted, and the collective agreement was being discussed presently. In the cases of striking teachers, he said penalties could be applied.

The education ministry has also argued through the press that education strikes are different to other sectors, in that education is guaranteed in the constitution and is a fundamental human right.

“We are here to preserve these rights and there are formal and legal channels that aren’t exhausted and are in full development,” Navarro said.

The minister called for everyone to participate actively in their schools, despite those who are trying to topple the government through destabilization.

According to Navarro, three out of five times teachers’ collective contracts that have been discussed in the last 120 years were during the Chavez government, the current discussion included.

Responding to the demands of the strikers, Navarro said it was a “big lie” that there had been no wage increases, citing the most recent one of 40% in November 2007.

He argued that teachers’ wages are 5.5 times what they were in 1998, having gone from BsF 347 per month ($US 161) to BsF 1,929 ($US 897). However, such figures don’t take inflation into consideration. Perez commented though, even taking inflation into account, teachers salaries had significantly increased since 2000 when the government started to invest seriously in education.

Regarding the payment of pensions to retired teachers, Navarro said that when the Chavez government arrived, they were 15 years behind in the payment of benefits. “It was thought that this debt was unpayable, but the government paid it. There is still a lag in the payment of primary school teachers, of 3 to 4 years, that is being gradually paid off.”

A “political strike”

Navarro argued, “The purpose of the …strike is merely political. Let’s remember that they were calling two strikes for today. The anti-[financial] crisis measures that the president was going to announce were coming and they were expecting a neoliberal style package and to create a situation of popular insurrection, and they already had the teachers’ strike planned, and one for the doctors [as well] for today… but the president didn’t announce the measures they were expecting…there isn’t such a popular insurrection because one of the first measures the president took, and in contrast to measures that any capitalist system could have taken, he increased wages.

He said that those federations calling the strike were the same ones who participated in the 2002 coup and the petroleum strike.

Edgar Bazan, president of the Venezuelan Teachers College federation, said the action wasn’t political but was against the government’s “liquidation …of the teaching career, and we’re demanding the revision of the teachers’ salaries.” He also said the government wasn’t guaranteeing working stability to the over 100.000 intern teachers.