Unity in Unété? Venezuelan Rival Labor Leaders Meet

Ramon Machuca and Orlando Chirino, rival leaders who are vying for the presidency of the new union federation UNT met in Caracas to see if they could overcome their differences. Greater unity in the new federation is a key step in assuring that the UNT can replace the CTV

Caracas, December 15, 2004—Trade union leaders affiliated to the recently created National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT—pronounced Un-é-té) met in Caracas on Wednesday to discuss upcoming general elections, expected to be held in early 2005. Leaders representing various political currents from unions across the country discussed possible electoral structures, national benefits, and potential dates for a pre-election congress, to be held as early as January of next year.

The confederation, which is now Venezuela’s largest, was inaugurated in May, 2003 among euphoric chants of “the working class united will never be defeated.” Yet unity has been conspicuously lacking within the UNT almost since its inception. Rival currents have engaged in increasingly virulent attacks against one another in a display of sectarianism that many unionists believe will only benefit the traditional confederation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV).

Disenchantment with the CTV—one of the pillars of Venezuela’s opposition to current President Hugo Chávez Frías—was one of the main reasons the UNT was initially formed. CTV leaders coordinated a series of general strikes with the country’s largest chamber of commerce confederation Fedecamaras between 2001 and 2003, and were involved in a coup that briefly toppled the Chávez government in April, 2002.  The coup was overturned 48 hours later by massive popular mobilization in support of Chávez and loyal elements of the military.

Last month the CTV held a meeting of the executive to set a date for their own general elections, currently scheduled for March 17, 2005. CTV Secretary-General Manuel Cova noted, “We are aiming for the unification of the labor movement to convert it into a tool that will defend worker’s rights.”

According to UNT activists, the CTV has never represented such a tool, and their new-found progressive rhetoric is a product of pressure from the alternative confederation. UNT leaders argue that the CTV’s subordination of worker’s issues to their political attempts to topple Chávez has been a main factor in many unions’ decision to leave the traditional central.  The CTV’s close cooperation with business, their historic ties to the two traditional political parties—Democratic Action (AD) and Copei—a sordid history of anti-democratic leadership and corruption, and their complicity in the implementation of neoliberal reforms detrimental to Venezuelan workers in the 1980s and 90s also gave impetus to the creation of the UNT.

Both centrals are racing to hold their elections first. In a statement last month, Cova noted the “urgency” in holding the upcoming elections as quickly as possible.  At stake for the rival confederations is the upcoming International Labor Organization meetings scheduled for the first week of June, 2005. The UNT represented Venezuelan labor in 2003 and 2004, despite the CTV’s claims that they remain the most representative central.  The Venezuelan government has refused to recognize the CTV leadership since their 2001 elections were invalidated by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the basis fraud charges.

However, many inside the UNT worry that if they do not have an elected leadership by the time of the ILO meetings, their credibility as representatives of Venezuelan labor will be severely undermined.

Two Sides Meet

Ramon Machuca, President of the steel-workers union Sutiss in the South-Eastern state of Bolívar, and one of two prominent candidates for the presidency of the UNT, was in Caracas for the UNT meeting. Though not a member of the UNT’s temporary coordinating committee of 21 leaders, Machuca is widely seen as an influential figure, supported by several UNT coordinators.

“The general elections represent a commitment to break with the old tradition of undemocratic and corrupt unionism of the 4th Republic,” said Machuca in an interview before the meeting.  “Until those elections are held,” he continued, “there is still a debt owed [by the UNT] to Venezuelan workers.”

Machuca and his supporters have reportedly had their differences with followers of rival UNT presidential candidate, Orlando Chirino.  Machuca and Chirino are from different industrial regions of the country, Bolívar and Carabobo, respectively.  They have clashed ideologically in the past, but are apparently ready to sit down and work together towards unity in the labor movement.  “We’re looking to establish at least a minimum of coinciding ideas,” said Machuca before the Wednesday meeting, “just to agree on the general electoral structures, the dates for the general congress.”

Chirino represents the Bolivarian Workers Force (Frente Bolivariano de Trabajadores – FBT) faction in the UNT, along with fellow coordinators Marcela Maspero and Eduardo Piñate, among others. The FBT was formed as an alternative federation within the CTV in 2000. The 5th Republic Movement (MVR), one of the official Chavista parties, initially exerted significant influence over the new federation, causing consternation in labor activists attempting to a tradition of dependent unionism. Though the MVR holds less influence in labor today, the FBT is still seen by some critics within the UNT as being too close to the Ministry of Labor. Chirino however works now with his own political party, Option for a Revolutionary Left (Opcion de Izquierda Revolucionaria – OIR), a grouping of trotskyites and other marxists which hopes to strengthen the working class’ role in the deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Since the formation of the UNT, relations between the FBT and Machuca supporters have been shaky at best. Mutual accusations have escalated over the past few months, with both sides seemingly preparing for the upcoming campaign by trying to knock the other out of the race before it starts.

Tentative Steps

Just two weeks ago, while in Brazil for the twelfth congress of the Latin American Workers’ Central (CLAT), Machuca and Maspero met in private, representing an important step in the conciliation between the rival UNT factions.  Both Maspero and Machuca referred to the ad-hoc meeting in Brazil as groundbreaking.  “Both sides were able to reflect on past mistakes, on the atmosphere that we are all equally responsible for creating [within the UN],” said Maspero.  Machuca added that the strategy of character assassination, previously employed by both sides, was rejected, and that the meeting fostered the kind of constructive ideological debates the UNT needs.  At the Brazil meeting the decision was made to call UNT coordinators to Caracas for Wednesday’s meeting to “build on the greatly improved relations [between the two sides].”

Positive steps taken in Brazil were, in the end, built upon Wednesday, in what UNT coordinator Eduaro Piñate referred to as a generally positive atmosphere.  “For the most part both sides were able to discuss the key issues in a climate of mutual respect,” said Piñate.  All parties felt confident that electoral and leadership structures could be agreed upon in the upcoming general congress (tentatively scheduled for late January), and that election results would be respected.