Chavez Comments Spark Discontent Among Venezuelan Electrical Workers

Comments by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday that implied that Venezuela’s Federation of Electrical Sector Workers (FETRAELEC) was acting to sabotage the electricity sector have sparked indignation among electrical workers.

By Kiraz Janicke - Venezuelanalysis.com

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FETRALEC president Angel Navas talking to the press on Friday (Federico Fuentes)
FETRALEC president Angel Navas talking to the press on Friday (Federico Fuentes)
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Caracas, October 27, 2009 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Comments by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday that implied that Venezuela’s Federation of Electrical Sector Workers (FETRAELEC) was acting to sabotage the electricity sector have sparked indignation among electrical workers.

FETRAELEC has been in negotiations for a single industry-wide collective contract with the management of the state-owned electricity company CORPOELEC for over a year.

CORPOELEC was formed in 2007 after the sector was nationalised and fourteen regional electricity companies, some of them privately owned and some of them already state owned, were merged into a single company.

Although a law was passed after the sector was nationalised, mandating significant changes in the company, including the unification of the management structure and provisions for a single industry wide contract, this has not been implemented.

Workers say that the management of the regional companies are opposed to the process of nationalisation and unification of the company, and are acting to impede a single collective contract.

The dispute also occurs in the context of a growing crisis in the electricity sector including several major power outages and electricity rationing in much of the interior of the country.

The crisis came to a head last week when Chavez intervened into the sector and announced the formation of a new Ministry of Electricity and named National Assembly Legislator Angel Rodriguez as the new minister and president of CORPOELEC.

A US$4.3 billion project to expand the Manuel Piar Hydroelectric Project in Tacoma, Bolivar state, was also announced.

Chavez also called for participation of the workers in the running of the company, which was the first clause of the collective contract. However, three of the most controversial clauses are still under dispute.

During a press conference last Friday, Angel Navas, president of FETRALEC explained, that the first has to do with the equalization of the salaries of the employees of the 14 companies.

The second calls for a wage increase of Bs.F. 1600 (US$744) per month for those “workers whose situation would not be improved with the equalization of salaries,” said Navas.

And the third clause has to do with the compensation of Bs.F. 1,250 (US$581), per employee, for each of the 14 months that collective contract has been expired.

The workers demands are “not negotiable” and if they have not received a response by the end of the month, FETRALEC will declare itself to be in “conflict” with the state-owned company, Navas stated.

Amidst media reports that the electrical workers were threatening to strike Chavez said on Sunday, “We want the electrical workers to participate in solving the faults, but now I read a statement from the president saying that FETRALEC has declared itself in conflict…Workers have never had what they now have in Venezuela. Now, at this time, Comrade Navas, are you going to threaten with a conflict? Now?”

The demands of the union to equalise salaries and for compensation “with I don’t know how many billions of Bolivars,” appears to be rather thoughtless, “unless they want to sabotage the revitalisation plan,” Chavez said.

“Are we co-responsible or not? I assume my responsibility. Assume yours Navas, with the workers,” he continued.

Responding to Chavez’s comments Navas told Marea Socialista Press on Monday, “Not only do we assume our responsibility; we want to make clear that since this process began, this federation has assumed its responsibility in the electrical sector.”

“Despite all the attacks we've had from the bureaucracy, from the enemies that have entrenched themselves in the industry, to do business, to generate patronage, despite all these confrontations, we have been part of the revolutionary process, working for a real transformation of the electricity sector.”

“They want to label the Electrical Workers Federation as a money-grubbing, economist federation, and not as a federation that for many years has been accompanying the revolutionary process, unleashing a fight against bureaucracy, against the opposition that at various times in the process were trying to sabotage the electricity sector.”

“But this has a lot to do with the misinformation from the opposition media who want to create a situation of confrontation. Lamentably, when we called a press conference the state media refused to come and report the truth of what we are saying as a federation.”

He explained that declaring a state of “conflict” with the state company, did not mean that FETRALEC was planning a strike as had been reported in the opposition media.

Rather, “We are changing our demands from a conciliatory to a confrontational character, which is a mechanism established by law,” he said, confirming that electrical workers would guarantee the electricity service throughout the country.

Chavez’s comments were also rejected by the pro-revolution National Union of Workers (UNT). In a joint statement UNT leaders Stalin Pérez Borges, Marcela Máspero, Orlando Pérez, and Pedro Eusse called on Chavez to “speak directly with the legitimate representatives of the electrical sector workers” before making comments based on media reports.

“Far from sabotaging the electricity sector, the workers, along with their Federation (FETRAELEC) have been the most consistent in finding solutions to the serious crisis in this sector,” they said.

“What is the alternative to the single collective contract the workers are proposing? What are those proposals of those who report to the President? To maintain inequality within the sector? Go back to having fourteen collective agreements within the same supposedly unified corporation? To maintain the fourteen boards that are crippling the company and wasting money on executive salaries?” the UNT leaders asked.

“So what's the real truth? The reality is that this bureaucracy has increased since the decree to unify the industry and it lies to everyone. With those words uttered in Hello President, President Chavez, whether he intends to or not, is supporting the plan of the same bureaucrats who are sabotaging unification and destroying the company,” the statement continued.

Angel Rodriguez, the new electricity minister has convoked a meeting with FETRALEC tonight in order to try and resolve the dispute.