Venezuelan May Day March Welcomed 30% Wage Increase

Venezuelan workers marched on International Workers Day welcoming a wage increase decree issue by Chavez, rejecting US intervention, and against the FTAA and Plan Colombia

Pro-Chavez Venezuelan workers march on International Workers Day in Caracas.

Caracas, Venezuela. May 2 ( Venezuelan workers grouped in the National Workers Union (Union Nacional de Trabajadores – UNT), marched enthusiastically in Caracas in celebration of International Workers Day. The workers remembered the Haymarket square Chicago martyrs who fought for the eight hours work day, rejected foreign intervention in Venezuela, and welcomed the government’s 30% minimum wage increase.

Against imperialism

The massive march, spanning several kilometers was adorned by an important number of the signs making reference to US intervention in Venezuela and to anti-imperialism. Recently declassified documents showing US government financing of groups seeking to oust President Chavez have prompted the President’s supporters to reject US intervention in Venezuela. The sign carried by oil workers of the Sinutrapetrol union denounced “Yankee imperialism and their desire to steal our oil”. Other signs rejected the US-financed plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

Oil workers expressed their support for President Chavez and rejected “Yankee imperialism and their desire to steal our oil”.

The workers welcomed President Hugo Chavez’s announcement of a minimum wage increase of 30% from 130 US$ to 168 US$. Given the first three months figures, inflation is projected to reach 23% this year. The government also announced the extension of a prohibition on unjustified layoffs until September 30.

The UNT, which openly supports the Chavez government, celebrated their first year in existence last month, and according to its main representatives, it already groups the majority of Venezuela’s unionized workers. Last month, the CUTV, Venezuela’s second biggest Union Federation before the creation of the UNT, agreed to merge with the UNT “to fight the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV)”, which they define as “a pro-bosses union”.

According to Franklin Rondon, a UNT national organizer, the UNT has a membership of almost two million workers grouped in more than 500 unions and 37 union federations. Among UNT affiliates are the two biggest oil worker’s unions; Fedepetrol and Sinutrapetrol, the public sector worker’s union Fentrasep, and private sector unions such as Firestone, Pirelli, Ford Motors, Polar and Bigott.

Union activist Francisco Almarza with UNT leaders Marcela Maspero, Stalin Perez, Ruben Linares and Orlando Chirino

Union membership campaign

The UNT announced an ambitious plan to increase union membership among Venezuelan workers through a plan the call “Cruz Villegas”. The plan hopes to tap into the 80% of Venezuelan workers who don’t belong to unions, including those in the informal sector, which represents four million people, according to estimates. The UNT will offer support and consulting services for the formation of new unions in places where employers try to block union organizing efforts.

“We want to affiliate all those workers excluded by the CTV,” said Orlando Chirino, a former textile worker who is now a member of the provisional steering committee of the UNT. According to Chirino, the UNT will concentrate on medium and small businesses, franchise workers, informal economy, and workers with disabilities, sectors that have been traditionally excluded by the CTV.

May Day signs said NO to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and to Plan Colombia

Orlando Chirino also said that the UNT will make several proposals of co-management of companies that present economic problems in order to keep them under operation. The co-management proposal also extends to an electric service company owned by the state and they want to increase worker’s participation in the decision-making process at the state oil company PDVSA.

The CTV has been buried

Another march by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), a key ally of the employers’ Federation of Chambers of Commerce FEDECAMARAS, was notably smaller than that of the UNT. The smaller numbers of the CTV march seems to give credibility to the UNT claims of the decline of the CTV. The CTV marchers demanded “an end to violence,” accusing the government of Human Rights violations during anti-government protests last February.

The CTV, which opposes the Chavez government, has lost credibility during the last years in part due to their participation in the coup d’ etat of April 2002, and the lock-out/strike and sabotage of the oil industry at the end of 2002.

Activists from opposition political parties made up a big chunk of the CTV march. Among the groups supporting the CTV was Unapetrol, a “union” created by upper-management employees of the oil company PDVSA shortly after the coup d’etat of 2002. Unapetrol actively participated in the lock-out and sabotage of the oil industry at the end of that year, which resulted in 14 billion dollars in losses to the state oil company.

“Let´s defend our homeland. No to US invasion. Venezuela towards Socialism” said the May Day sign from the Graphic Arts Union.

The CTV accuses the UNT of being a pro-government union. Alfredo Ramos, a CTV board of director’s member says that President Chavez’s goal is to dissolve the union movement in Venezuela. “Chavez has completely lost the support of base workers,” said Ramos during an interview with El Universal, a newspaper which opposes the government.

Manuel Cova, the president of the CTV, called the government’s wage increase decree “insufficient”. According to Cova, the salary increase only helps to cover 60% of the food requirements of a normal family. Last year the CTV opposed the government minimum wage increase and a suspension of layoffs, arguing that employers would not be able to comply and would be forced to shut down their companies.

“The CTV is kept alive only thanks to the media,” said Richard Gallardo, a national organizer of the UNT.