Much of the discussion about Venezuela has focused on the role and policies of the Hugo Chávez government. But the emergence of the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (National Workers’ Union, UNT) may in the long-run be more important for the workers of Venezuela. Paul Hampton reports.
Since its first congress in August 2003 the UNT has grown fast, helped by support from the Chávez government. It organised a half a million strong May Day demonstration this year and claims over a million workers in affiliated unions. According to the Ministry of Labor, 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.
The development of an independent labour movement in Venezuela after decades of stagnation is enormously encouraging. However there are some crucial questions about the future of the UNT: its independence from the government, its internal democratic structures and what it can expect if it organises a serious fight to improve workers’ conditions.
The decline of the CTV
The UNT has rapidly become dominant because the old union centre, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) has been discredited.
The CTV was an integral part of the “oil democracy” from 1958 until 1998. It was tied politically and organisationally to the social democratic AD party, which together with Christian Democrat COPEI party ruled alternately during that period. In the 1990s, when successive governments introduced neoliberal policies such as privatisation that cutting jobs and slashing wages, the CTV acquiesced with few protests or strikes.
During his election campaign in 1998, Chávez accused the CTV of being a “trade union mafia”, and on coming to power set about attacking the organisation.
In 1999 the Constituent Assembly discussed judicial proceedings against corrupt union leaders, confiscating union property and the dissolution of the CTV. It re-established the old system of severance payment based on the worker’s last monthly salary, promoted a comprehensive social security system and a reduction in night work from 40 to 35 hours a week. After a debate, it decided not to cut in the working week. It also forced the CTV to hold elections, which took place in October 2001.
Factions within the CTV
The dominant faction of the CTV was headed by Carlos Ortega, an AD member and leader of the Fedepetrol oil workers’ union. In the CTV elections, Ortega stood as the candidate of the Frente Unitario de los Trabajadores (Unitary Workers’ Front, FUT).
The Chavista trade unionists were originally organised in the Frente Constituyente de Trabajadores, organically linked to Chávez’s MVR party. According to Venezuela-based academic Steve Ellner, the Chavista worker leaders were divided between “hard-line” and “moderate” approaches. Moderates wanted to work within the CTV while hard-liners wanted to break and promoted parallel unionism.
The moderate Chavistas won out, broadening their caucus. They formed the Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores (Bolivarian Workers’ Force, FBT), which lacked formal ties with the MVR and included members of other pro-government parties.
Other independent currents within the unions took positions between these two poles. The most prominent independent was Ramón Machuca, president of the steel workers’ union Sutiss. Machuca represented workers of the privatised steel company Sidor and in May 2001 led a three-week strike with the support of the FBT and FUT.
Other class struggle currents, such as Orlando Chirino, general secretary of the Carabobo Workers’ Federation, argued for trade union democracy, whilst opposing government interference in the internal affairs of the labour movement. Chirino and others did however join the FBT.
The FBT selected the pro-government (though not MVR) Aristóbulo Istúriz as its candidate for CTV president.
The CTV elections in October 2001 were characterised by fraud and over 50% abstention. The FUT received 64% of the votes and the FBT slate 19%, so Ortega was elected CTV president.
Ortega immediately used his position to ally the CTV with the Venezuelan CBI, Fedecamaras and took part in plans to oust Chávez. This included calling four “general strikes” between 2001 and 2003, backing the April 2002 coup and the December 2002-February 2003 lockout.
These events explain the evolution of the independents in the direction of the Chavista camp.
Independent union leaders such as Machuca, Rafael Rosales, president of the Fedepetrol oil union, Franklin Rondón, president of the Federation of National Public Employees (Fedeunep) and Francisco Torrealba (president of the subway workers) opposed the alliance with Fedecamaras.
During the coup in April 2002, they made plans with the FBT to call a general strike in opposition to the regime hat overthrew Chávez.
It was the lockout in 2002-2003 that finally discredited the CTV. Most unions and workplaces did not take part in the stoppage – in fact many insisted on opening, with some workers forcing managers to continue production. According to Ellner in the aftermath of the lockout these leading independents organised support for a new confederation. They insisted that the organisation maintain a distance from the state.
Formation of the UNT
The UNT was founded at a rally on April 5, 2003. Participants included the FBT, Trade Union Autonomy, the Democratic and Class Struggle Union Block from Carabobo, many democratic unions and some important union federations, like the public sector workers, the Caracas underground, the chemical workers, and others.
However the founding of the confederation was not straightforward. According to Ellner, Machuca wanted an independent as president. The FBT and others proposed a “horizontal” structure with a 21-member national committee and no president or secretary general.
The FBT made some concessions — accepting the name UNT rather than “Bolivariana”. But Machuca refused to join.
The founding congress of the UNT took place in Caracas on 1-2 August 2003, attended by more than 1300 delegates, representing over 120 unions and 25 regional union bodies.
The UNT’s programme contains demands such as: nationalisation of the banks; workers’ occupation of closed down factories under workers’ control; no payment of the foreign debt; a 36-hour working week; and the creation of new companies under workers’ management.
Its statement of principles says the UNT is an “autonomous, democratic, internationalist, class struggle, independent and united movement with equality for men and women” and that it struggles to “transform capitalist society into a self managed society”, and for a “an anti-capitalist model of development which will emancipate all human beings from class exploitation, oppression, discrimination and exclusion”.
The UNT leadership includes Orlando Chirino, Marcela Máspero (president of the pharmaceutical workers federation), Stalin Pérez Borges, and Ruben Linares (vice-president of the United Transport Federation).
Other union leaders supporting the UNT are Franklin Rondón; Rafael Rosales; Nelson Nuñez, president of the national oil trade union (Sinutrapetrol); José Gil, general secretary of the aluminium workers’ union; Andres Mercado, general secretary of the Ford workers’ union; and Joaquin Osorios of the energy workers.
Differences with the government
The UNT has some differences with the government. For example it wants automatic salary indexation, the reestablishment of the old system of severance pay and the prompt implementation of the 2002 social security law.
It also advocates workers’ control, as opposed to token “co-management” proposed by the government. At the UNT’s founding congress, workers chanted “¡empresa cerrada es empresa tomada!” (A closed company is a company taken over). The confederation has encouraged workers to occupy factories (see box).
Another sign of differences is the involvement of leading figures in the UNT with the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS), founded in July this year (see box).
According to PRS leader Stalin Pérez Borges, there are four tendencies within the UNT. He points to a bureaucratic reformist current, the FBT and a “classist current”, many of whose cadres have been involved in the formation of the PRS. He says that the bureaucratic current contains “many corrupt and incompetent leaders” and that the FBT is “close to the government and is also a reformist current”.
Reports of criticism of the government from different sections of the unions have also appeared on the Venezuelanalysis website.
In October Orlando Chirino publicly agitated for the National Electoral Commission (CNE) to set a date for elections in the UNT. Chirino also expressed concern about workers’ conditions in Venezuela. “We have a public sector that pretends its workers are happy when they aren’t. We need conditions that suit the needs of the workers.”
Chirino also said that Chávez “has to cease making unilateral declarations on the minimum wage. We have demanded this for two years and accomplished it, but there is a problem… workers are not receiving the minimum wage countrywide”.
He also criticised some of the laws passed at the beginning of Chávez’s presidency, saying that they left too much power in the hands of bosses. Chirino said, “The employers can unilaterally dismiss their workers when they like” and that part of the problem was the lack of internal debate in the unions, just as there is in political parties.
Ramón Machuca has also regained national prominence, alleging that the pro-Chávez governor of Bolivar state was involved in defrauding Sutiss members of millions of dollars. According to a collective agreement negotiated after the privatisation of Sidor workers in the plant are supposed to receive 30% of the profits.
Machuca has said that he will take this matter to Chávez, “He is a friend of mine, he respects my revolutionary position and I respect his leadership.” He also said that Chávez was becoming distant from the common people and didn’t always understand what was happening.
There is an element of manoeuvring in this.
Machuca has been challenged from within Sutiss by pro-Chávez supporters for not calling union elections. Recently Chávez called Machuca a friend but urged him not to “make trouble in Bolivar”.
Orlando Chirino is also critical. He said: “It’s no secret that Ramon Machuca is a very ambitious person and that he wanted to be the president of the UNT. We don’t agree on things… he has a caudillo-like vision, an individualist vision and an individualist movement is not a trade union movement.”
Where is the UNT going?
In October, Chávez hailed the formation of the UNT and said the confederation “is not and should never be an appendix of the government, it must be autonomous and free”.
The relationship between the UNT and the government is not fixed. At present the confederation is independent, combative and has some internal life.
There is a real risk of creating a new mechanism of political dependence, reproducing a new government-union nexus. But the UNT has not been co-opted into Chávez’s political machine, nor has it become a prop of the regime.
Trade union democracy is crucial. Many elements of the old union bureaucracy have coalesced around the UNT. Chavista trade unionists are obviously close to the government. The UNT was set to hold a congress this year but no preparations have been made. Without democratic structures, it will lack legitimacy with workers.
The confederation also faces the government’s “Made in Venezuela” policy. For some time Chávez has promoted an “endogenous development” programme designed to support industrial expansion and to diversify the economy away from oil dependency.
Such a strategy will inevitably bring into conflict for workers. When employers don’t make a profit, or want to introduce new technology, or to change working practices, there will be clashes between bosses and workers, whether firms are state or privately owned.
If the government can’t get its way, it will turn on workers and their organisations. Outright repression cannot be ruled out — the army and police are firmly under the control of the government and have been used against indigenous and environmental protesters.
The laws that were used to attack the CTV could be used against the UNT. Recently the national assembly discussed reforms of the penal code that would have limited the right to strike in the public sector. Although the proposals were knocked back, they are a warning.
International socialists should build solidarity with the UNT and direct links with workers organisations in Venezuela. We should also puncture any illusions in Chávez, both within Venezuela and in the world labour movement.