Venezuela's workers' movement

Submitted by Matthew on 3 July, 2013 - 8:51

For Marxists, the most significant criteria for judging any regime — aside from its relation to capital and the nature of the state — is its relationship with the working class.

This is so often missing from pro-Chávez apologists, who tend to treat workers as the passive recipients of Chávez’s benevolence. It is also missing from neoliberal accounts, for whom the working class is merely raw material for exploitation.

The picture is somewhat complicated by the state of organised labour before Chávez. The historic official trade union movement, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), was founded in 1936 and was effectively tied to the Acción Democrática party, which dominated Venezuela between 1958 and 1998. As the Punto Fijo pact unravelled into neoliberalism, the CTV went into a steep decline. CTV density dropped from 40% of the workforce in the 1970s to less than 20% by the 1990s.

The CTV was heavily involved in attempts to overthrow Chávez in the early years of his rule. It organised joint action with employers’ organisations against the Chávez government, culminating in active support for the April coup in 2002. If it was widely discredited even before Chávez came to power, then following the opposition lockout in 2002-03, its role as an Acción Democrática tail was fully exposed.

However the eclipse of the CTV provided space for the emergence of the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (National Workers’ Union, UNT) as an independent trade union centre. The UNT was founded in April 2003 and held its first congress in August that year, attended by more than 1,300 delegates, representing over 120 unions and 25 regional union bodies. It organised a half a million-strong May Day demonstration in 2005 under the banner of “Co-management is revolution,” and “Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian Socialism”. It claimed over a million workers in affiliated unions.

According to Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes, writing on the Venezuelanalysis website (29 April 2008), more than three quarters (77%) of collective agreements signed in 2003-04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT. In the private sector, the UNT signed just over half of all collective agreements. Despite this growth, unionisation remained only slightly above 20% of the formal work force, while around half of workers are in the so-called informal sector, which is largely unorganised by unions.

Janicke and Fuentes defined the UNT as originally a coalition of five political currents.

These were: the FBT (the Bolivarian Workers’ Force) led by Oswaldo Vera; the Alfredo Maneiro current, whose key leaders included Ramon Machuca in the steel industry and Franklin Rondon in the public sector; the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CTR), led by Marcela Maspero; the United Revolutionary Autonomous Class Current (C-CURA), headed by Orlando Chirino and Stalin Perez Borges; and the smaller Union Autonomy, led by Orlando Castillo. (The FBT was originally organised by Nicolás Maduro, now Chávez’s successor as president).

However there were tensions within the UNT from the start, over its relationship to Chávez’s government, the absence of internal democracy and how far it was defending workers’ conditions. At the founding congress there was little debate, leaders were appointed, and there were no elections. Machuca wanted an independent as president. However the FBT and others proposed a “horizontal” structure with a 21-member national coordinating committee and no president or secretary general. Although the FBT made some concessions — accepting the name UNT rather than “Bolivariana”, Machuca refused to join.

The UNT effectively fell apart three years later. It held a conference in May 2006, where around three-quarters of the delegates supported C-CURA. The immediate cause of the dispute was the date of elections for the UNT leadership. The pro-Chávez minority wanted to put off union elections to concentrate on getting 10 million votes for Chávez in the presidential elections in December that year. The current around Chirino insisted that the leadership of the UNT must be elected as soon as possible, suggesting September as the best date. The minority walked out of the conference and held its own parallel meeting.

At the second UNT congress in August 2006, out of the 1,750 delegates, over 1,000 supported the positions of C-CURA. After that congress the government and the FBT sabotaged the UNT.

They left the congress and never returned. The FBT tried to form the Central Socialista de Trabajadores (CST, Socialist Workers’ Central), but it was stillborn. The FBT became the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Force, FSBT.

When Chávez announced the formation of the PSUV party after he won the 2006 presidential election, almost all the trade union currents agreed to join it. C-CURA split over this question, with Chirino’s supporters rejected participation (and calling for a spoiled vote in the constitutional reform referendum in December 2007), while others led by Stalin Perez Borges formed Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) and went into the PSUV.

In December 2009 and April 2010, some factions attempted to refound the UNT. The driving forces were Marea Socialista, the CTR and the Bolivarian Educators. They also involved the Communist Party of Venezuela’s (PCV) trade union fraction, the Cruz Villegas Current, which had previously stayed outside of the UNT. Chirino has formed the Labour Solidarity Movement (MSL) with some remnants of the CTV, and opposed refounding the UNT.

The Venezuelan labour movement remains fragmented and weak. Some sections are completely subordinate to the government or the opposition. The labour movement is in no sense a major protagonist, with its own independence, its own strength and its own demands. These are the fruits of a decade and a half of Chavismo.

The active interference of the Chávez government in the labour movement is one of the signs of its Bonapartist character. In April 2008 a joint press conference of the labour minister José Ramón Rivero and Oswaldo Vera, the coordinator of the FSBT announced the formation of a new national union federation and called on unions to disaffiliate from the UNT. Rivero was quoted as saying “the National Union of Workers does not represent the spirit of the Venezuelan revolutionary process”.

The conflict between labour and the state increased dramatically with the appointment of (ex-Morenoist) Rivero as labour minister. He intervened in disputes to advance the FSBT and sided with bosses, as with the case of Sanatarios Maracay, an occupied ceramics factory where he set up a parallel union and handed back the factory to the owner.

The situation intensified in 2008 with the steelworkers’ dispute at Sidor. After more than a year of struggle for a collective contract, Sidor workers found themselves in open confrontation against management and with the local Chavista governor, Francisco Rangel Gomez, and Rivero, who tried to impose a referendum on the company’s final pay offer. At one point, workers were brutally repressed with teargas and rubber bullets by the National Guard and the local police. Rivero slandered Sidor workers, claiming they were “counter-revolutionary” and falsely claiming they had supported the boss’s lockout in 2002-03, when in fact, they had seized control of the plant from management. Although Chávez eventually overrode Rivero and nationalised the plant, it was indicative of the government’s top-down approach.

Another example took place in the state-owned oil company PDVSA, where the minister responsible, Rafael Ramírez, intervened during elections for the national leadership of the United Federation of Venezuelan Oil Workers (FUTPV), which represents more than half the oil workers in the firm. In July 2009, Ramírez categorised the FUTPV as “Adecos” — meaning supporters of the opposition party Acción Democrática.

The FUTPV was formed in April 2007 in collaboration with PDVSA management and the labour ministry as an attempt to unite the four main union federations in the oil industry.

Despite the merger, elections for the united federation have never taken place — a provisional national leadership committee was appointed by the ministry under Rivero.

In June 2009 the CNE, which facilitates union and other elections, ruled that forthcoming elections should be postponed after receiving a complaint by Argenis Olivares, from the Socialist Workers’ Vanguard, (VOS), a pro-Ramírez caucus. Ironically, one of those accused of being “Adecos”, Gregorio Rodríguez, said he was a member of the PSUV and decorated with the “Order of the Liberator” for defending the oil industry during the bosses lock-out in 2002-03.

In another example, 1,800 workers at a Mitsubishi plant were involved in a struggle for over a year to put an end to illegal sackings in the plant and reinstate 170 workers (including the 11 member board of the union, Singetram). Workers took part in long strikes, occupations, and two union members were killed during protests. Many workers said they were PSUV members, but still criticised the new labour minister María Cristina Iglesias who failed to support their struggle.

Judged against actual class struggles, Chavista ministers and governors invariably act against the workers involved. The Bonapartist state wants a union movement compliant with its wishes – efforts to promote independent trade unionism are met with hostility, slander and sometimes repression.

Pro-Chávez apologists claim that his government gradually radicalised. In particular, the proclamation of 21st century socialism led to the widespread expropriation of large and medium-sized companies in steel, electricity and telecommunications since 2007. However even sympathetic academic Steve Ellner acknowledges that the wave of expropriations did not obey a preconceived ideological scheme, but were the outcome of a series of battles between the state and the hostile private sector, which had strong links to the opposition and the old elites.

The expropriations have primarily been designed to counter shortages, although some fulfilled other objectives. The state control of basic industry had been a goal of nationalist movements dating back to the 1930s and had been incorporated in the 1961 constitution.

Some firms such as the CANTV phone company, Sidor steel firm and the national airline had been state-owned, and were then privatised before Chávez came to power. Other expropriations, such as those of contractor firms working for PDVSA or the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana, involved nationalisations to strengthen the central state’s hold over supply chains. Others still were taken over as a result of their owners abandoning them after opposition efforts to oust Chávez had failed. In some cases, pressure from workers contributed to these takeovers.

It is legitimate to ask how far these expropriated firms have become the collective property of the Venezuelan people. There have been a series of transfers of private capitals, at full market-value, into the hands of the bourgeois state.

In most cases the state has paid compensation to the owners using oil rents. Once in control, state functionaries have generally maintained hierarchical and profit-driven management. For good reason several UNT unions have taken up the motto of supporting “neither capitalists nor bureaucrats”. The expropriations have not paved the way for socialist planning. Only 30% of the economy is owned by the state, while the bourgeoisie still controls 80% of the national banking sector, 90% of trade, and the transnational companies.

It is therefore wrong to argue, as Michael Lebowitz and others do, that the commanding heights of the economy are actually in the hands of the state, without asking which class’s interests this state protects. Similarly, George Ciccariello-Maher argues that Venezuela is in a period of “long dual power”, where the bourgeoisie has successively lost its grip on the state apparatus and that Chávez represents a sort of infiltration of the bourgeois state by an agent of the oppressed classes. These conceptions stretched to their limit imply the Chávez government was some sort of a workers’ government, even if contained within the shell of a bourgeois state.

Such a thesis is unsustainable. The strength of the Bonapartism thesis is that it allows for the political expropriation of bourgeois parties and the incorporation of other actors, while the state remains a bourgeois state, the bourgeois continue to rule socially and economically and the working class remains exploited and excluded from power. It recognises that the Chávez government does not follow the “normal”, neoliberal rules of the game, but nevertheless remains critical of its relationship vis-à-vis the working class.

A lesser argument often heard on the left is that at least the Chávez government has promoted workers’ control in some of the expropriated factories. In 2010, at a meeting of the Socialist Guyana plan dealing with the future of the industry, Chávez said he would introduce workers’ control and said “I stake my future with the working class”. Worker-directors, selected by the workers, were appointed to head many of the CVG companies, including Carlos d’Olivera in Sidor and Elio Sayago at aluminium smelter Alcasa.

Co-management and related ideas have been discussed since at least 2005 and they remain slippery. Having a worker-director, even one elected by the workers, does not guarantee workers’ control. In fact genuine workers’ control is very much a bottom-up initiative of workers rather than decreed from above. Powerful interests within the Bolivarian movement oppose workers’ control in the basic industries in Guayana. Bureaucratic Chavista trade union leaders from the FSBT have sabotaged efforts, targeting for example Elio Sayago. The FSBT organised a blockade of the Alcasa factory gates in June 2011 which lasted for 34 days, including violent clashes in which a member of the FSBT threatened other workers with a pistol. When Sayago, backed by those workers who support workers’ control, attempted to access the installations he was brutally beaten up. The day after, Sayago was accused by two women workers, members of the FSBT, of assaulting them, even though there is video evidence of the attack having been against him, not the other way round.

Since Chávez’s turn to “socialism”, all sorts of firms such as Alcasa, Venepal, Inveval, Cadafe and countless others have been hailed as blazing a trail for workers’ control, only for management to continue largely in the old way.

This is not workers’ control as in Russia in 1917, or Spain in 1936, or other more recent efforts such as Argentina in 2002.