The Andean city of Merida has been rocked over the past week by a number of worker-led protests as sub-contracted employees from the University of the Andes (ULA) demanded that they be made permanent staff in compliance with Venezuela’s new labor law.
The protests began last week and have focused on the ULA’s conservative administration, headed by Rector Mario Bonucci, who has refused to incorporate more than 1,400 subcontracted employees into full-time positions.
“We’re in the streets demanding permanent positions and respect of the labor law. We are the ones affected and we won’t accept more ridicule from the university authorities”, said Mario Chacon, General Secretary of the workers’ union Soula.
Merida, a city of approximately 300,000 residents, is dominated both socially and economically by the public university - the second largest in Venezuela with more than 40,000 enrolled students.
The normally relaxed Andean city has been the site of numerous clashes between extremist, anti-government student movements and the local police in recent years.
In March 2006, a number of police ofﬁcers were injured as armed groups of right-wing students opened ﬁre on security personnel from the conﬁnes of the university.
The demonstrations taking place over the past week, however, mark the ﬁrst time in recent years that university workers have assumed the vanguard of protests, demanding that the ULA’s conservative administration comply with the new labor law passed by the Chavez administration at the end of April.
“With the new labor law which has come into effect, all subcontracted workers should become part of the normal, fulltime workforce”, said Guillermo Quintero, from the SOULA union.
“[The 1400 subcontracted workers] have to be made permanent. Our union hasn’t passed the law, it was the national government. We want this law to become reality so it protects us”, Quintero added.
ULA ofﬁcials, including Rector Bonucci, blame the Chavez government for not providing sufﬁcient resources for the university in order to hire the workers as full-time employees.
But the subcontracted laborers cite the example of the Central University of Venezuela’s (UCV), the nation’s largest, which recently complied with the new law, requesting greater state ﬁnancing once the workers had been incorporated into permanent positions.
“The government isn’t going to give resources to something that doesn’t exist. Here, the only person who is responsible for the problem is Mario Benucci. He’s the one who can make the workers permanent”, asserted Orestes Bastidas, a law student and supporter of the demonstrations.
Other university workers have pointed out the tremendous budget that the ULA already has, greater than the entire city of Merida, and the fact that corruption inside the university has led to the loss of millions.
“The money is given and then it’s diverted. The government gives the money and then the administration gives it to the professors who already are living well”, said Luis Marquez, subcontracted driver and messenger.
As an “autonomous” university, the ULA is not held accountable to government authorities nor security forces, despite all of the funding for public education being provided by the national government.
The subcontracted workers have expressed their willingness to remain in the streets until the university’s authorities comply with the labor law.
They have also demanded that Venezuela’s Minister for Higher Education, Yadira Cordova, intervene in the situation to bring about an end to the conﬂict.
“The situation is in her hands”, said Quintero last week.