Venezuelan Auto Workers Decry Possible Firings of Union Leaders as Mitsubishi Plant Reopens

 

The Mitsubishi plant in Anzoategui, Venezuela reopened on Monday following a month of government-mediated negotiations to solve a conflict over labor conditions. Now, workers say regional Labor Ministry functionaries and company management are colluding to depose more than 150 workers, among them key union leaders.

By James Suggett - Venezuelanalysis.com

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An automobile assembly plant in Venezuela (YVKE)
An automobile assembly plant in Venezuela (YVKE)
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Mérida, September 24th 2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com) - The Mitsubishi plant in Anzoategui, Venezuela reopened on Monday following a month of government-mediated negotiations to solve a conflict over labor conditions. Now, workers say regional Labor Ministry functionaries and company management are colluding to depose more than 150 workers, among them key union leaders.

The management of the Japanese multi-national firm, which employs more than 1,800 workers directly and 7,000 indirectly in Venezuela, closed the plant at the end of August, citing low productivity and the worker unrest. The workers were striking for healthier working conditions, citing rates of worker injury and sickness as high as 40%.

Over the past month, a state commission led by Minister for Science, Technology, and Intermediate Industry Jesse Chacon and Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias negotiated an accord in which the workers agreed to produce at approximately 60% of the plant's capacity, or 60 vehicles per day, and the company agreed to form a joint commission to monitor worker health and safety. 

But when the plant reopened on Monday, the company denied entry to nearly a dozen leaders of the New Generation Mitsubishi Workers Union (Singetram), including its general secretary, Felix Martinez.

Allegedly, the regional Labor Inspectorate, an entity of the Labor Ministry, granted an administrative order to deny the workers entry after the company filed for certification to fire more than 150 workers for their participation in strikes and a worker occupation of the plant in February and March of this year during which state security forces killed two workers.  

Among the 150 targeted workers are "the most classist union leaders who were leading the struggle for healthy labor conditions," Martinez told Venezuelanalysis.com in a phone interview.

Martinez said the firings were proposed by the company early on in the negotiations, but were not part of the final agreement, and he expressed dismay that the government and the company seem to be proceeding without consulting with the union.

"This is a visible attack by the managerial class against the working class in the automobile sector," said Martinez. "It's like a typical action of a government institution of the Fourth Republic," he said, referring to the neo-liberal governments of Venezuela which preceded the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998.

The events have left the workers "in a situation of uncertainty, the victims of aggression and mockery," Martinez added.

Singetram now plans to convoke a national meeting of automobile industry union leaders to continue the struggle for workers rights in Mitsubishi and in the sector as a whole. The workers plan to demand that the company respect the agreed upon labor contracts in accordance with Venezuelan law, but they do not plan to demand the nationalization of the plant, Martinez affirmed.

When asked if the union aspires to establish worker control of the plant, Martinez responded, "if the company decides to leave the country, violating the workers' right to life, the workers will take action to defend our right to work."

Meanwhile, union leaders from Toyota, Ford, Chrysler, and other companies nation-wide pledged their solidarity with the Mitsubishi workers.

"The problems that the Mitsubishi workers face are the same problems that all the revolutionary workers in the automobile sector face," declared Christian Pereira, a Chrysler worker union leader in Carabobo state, also in a phone interview with Venezuelanalysis.com.

"The negotiations [with Mitsubishi] have turned out to be in favor of the transnational, rather than the workers who are with the [Bolivarian revolution] process, who are in the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela]," said Pereira, who is aligned with the pro-revolution union current Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide). "Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias should reflect and reconsider the measure [of firing the workers]."

Revitalizing the manufacturing sector

The Mitsubishi conflict comes amidst an 8.5% decline in Venezuela's manufacturing sector this year, and a decline of 50% in the automobile sector. The general unemployment rate dropped by half a percent to 8% in August, marking a one percent increase in unemployment over the past year.

Minister Chacon, who was recently named Vice President for Production as part of a cabinet restructuring by President Hugo Chavez, announced on Tuesday that the government plans to revitalize the manufacturing sector by boosting small and medium-sized industry and strengthening the "friendship between the government and Venezuelan producers."

After meeting with the Federation of Chambers and Associations of Artisans, Small and Medium Industries (Fedeindustria) on Tuesday, Chacon told the press, "We are working toward economic re-activation, for which the Vice Presidency will discuss with the business leaders about the financing of sectors such as manufacturing and food, those which require governmental assistance, as well as the strategic associations of the state with the national private sector."

Both Martinez and Pereira called Chacon's statements "strategic," but emphasized that the workers must not be left out of the state's alliance with the private sector.

"It is necessary for the working class to participate in order to guarantee that the necessary investments are made to improve labor conditions and other worker rights," said Martinez.

"The state has to make a diagnosis, it is obligated to make a decision about its attitude toward the working class," Pereira expounded. He called this week's firings a "dangerous sign" in this respect, and said, "If we propose socialism, we cannot be making decisions in a unilateral manner without the workers."

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