Caracas, March 6th 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – On Thursday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court over-ruled a decision by a lower court to jail union leader Rubén González for seven years and six months for his role in a 2009 iron miners strike.
After waiting 16 months for his trial, González was convicted last week for incitement to commit a crime, violating a government safety zone, and obstructing the freedom to work. His actions during the strike allegedly led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to equipment at the CVG Ferrominera Orinoco CA, a state-managed iron ore mining company.
Supreme Court Judge Ninoska Beatriz Queipo Briceño ordered González to be released on probation on the condition that he reports to a local courtroom every 15 days.
González spoke to the press following the ruling. “I am being given freedom with an appearance every 15 days. It is very good because I will be at home with my children and family, doing my job as a union leader; but I also disagree because they are not telling me what decision has been made with respect to the seven years and six months in jail,” he said.
Local and national labor unions unanimously condemned González’s conviction, calling it a violation of workers’ rights. Such agreement among unions is uncharacteristic of the Guayana region, which is a trove of aluminum, iron, coal, and other natural resources and is known to be rife with heated and sometimes deadly union conflicts.
However, unions diverged in their interpretations of González’s case. Affiliates of the National Union of Workers (UNETE), which strongly supports the government led by President Hugo Chávez, said the prosecution of González was the work of corrupt bureaucrats within the state mining company, CVG, who disagree with and wish to sabotage the Chavez government’s pro-labor policies.
José Meléndez is a union leader at the state-owned steel company, SIDOR. He led the 17-month fight against the multi-national private management before the company was nationalized in 2008. While he supports the Chavez government, he says the workers themselves must be the key players in their struggles.
“Thanks to the workers’ struggle, the class solidarity, and the determination of union organizations, worker councils, and prevention workers who announced a campaign for the freedom of our fellow union member Rubén and against the ‘judicialization’ of conflicts, today the comrade is free,” said Meléndez following Thursday’s ruling.
Meléndez said in a previous interview with the union current Marea Socialista that if González had not been freed, he would have been a “political prisoner.” He also said a historically corrupt judicial system is at the core of the problem. “It has been left clear for all to see that we have a Judicial Branch that is strictly on the side of the exploiters, that makes decisions behind workers’ backs, and violates our rights,” Meléndez asserted.
“Of course, we know that the Judicial Branch is a distinct thing from the Executive Branch; we are very clear about this,” Meléndez added.
In contrast, opposition unions from both the right and left wing blamed the whole national government, alleging Chavez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are against workers’ rights.
“The Chavez government has the clear purpose of intimidating the working class, unleashing police and judicial persecution against those union leaders who do not yield, who do not kneel down,” said Orlando Chirino of the ultra-left C-CURA union current.
Other critics say the Chavez government has fallen short by not passing a new labor law despite having near total control of the National Assembly for five years, and by not granting worker-controlled factories complete autonomy from the state.
President Chavez says his administration has favored workers by raising the minimum wage more than previous governments, signing generous collective contracts in nationalized companies, and promoting worker control of workplaces. Last May, Chavez attended a swearing in ceremony for workers who were elected as presidents and managers of state-run steel, aluminum, and coal companies.
According to some critics, the Chavez administration favors pro-government labor unions by frequently ceding to their demands and including them at the negotiation table, but often isolates opposition unions by refusing to negotiate with them.
Anti-Chávez unions supported the military coup that ousted Chavez for two days in 2002, and they played a major role in a general strike that had the stated intention of toppling Chávez in 2003.