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Jonah Gindin, "A Brief Recent History of Venezuela's Labor Movement"

"A Brief Recent History of Venezuela's Labor Movement"

Jonah Gindin, Venezuelanalysis.com

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was elected in
1998, inaugurating a process of radical political and
social changes, it looked as though labor might be left
behind. The main labor central, the Confederation of
Venezuelan Workers (CTV) was one of his most avid
critics, and Chávez in turn lashed out verbally against
the CTV on a regular basis.

But the image of Chávez vs
Labor, repeatedly thrown at the unsuspecting casual
observer by the mainstream media, is precisely intended
to mislead. The unpleasant truth is that the CTV has
not adequately represented Venezuelan workers since the
1970s, if not before. The reality of Chávez vs the
CTV, then, does not exclude the active and enthusiastic
participation of a large proportion of Venezuelan
workers in his Bolívarian revolution (named after Latin
American Independence leader Simón Bolívar).In an era of accelerated globalization all over the
world, fed by the trail-blazing violence of American
empire, Chávez' loud rejection of the neoliberal model
is particularly resonant. And this rejection has
proven to be more than mere rhetoric. In direct
contradiction to the neoliberal play-book, Venezuela
has begun experimenting with an alternative model of
development based on an unapologetic prioritization of
social welfare.

Fundamentally this process is about democracy, but not
the way we in the North are used to thinking about it —
in Venezuela the term has incorporated social and
economic dimensions, as well as political. Popular
participation means local planning councils that debate
community budgets, but it also means a shift from
production for the world market, to production for the
Venezuelan people. Thus, a trend that has had
Venezuela importing 70% of its food is slowly being
reversed in the interest of "food sovereignty".

The phenomenon of participatory democracy has its
manifestation in the labor movement as well.
Progressive currents within organized labor have
articulated their opposition to globalization and their
alternative strategy of co-management and self-
management of factories by workers. But while the
identification of co-, and self-management as a part of
an alternative to neoliberalism is an important first
step, the democratization of the economy will
eventually require a more detailed strategy that
addresses control over production at a national level.

As vice minister of Labor Ricardo Dorado noted
recently, this does not imply that anyone in Venezuela
has ceased to respect property rights, but rather the
assertion that they are not untouchable. According to
Dorado, human rights should take precedence over
property rights. Such logic is an important step
towards the creation of what Dorado refers to as a
"solidarity economy" — an economy oriented towards
social investment, rather than exclusively towards
profit. This requires the participation of the 50% of
Venezuela's workforce based in the informal sector, and
of the 14% without work at all — both groups
historically unaddressed by organized labor.

Labor in the Chávez Era

Three main factors caused the CTV to lose credibility
with the rank & file throughout the nineties. The CTV
was long perceived to be subordinated to the interests
of the two traditional parties: the social-democratic
Acción Democratica (AD) and the social-Christian Copei.
The CTV's complicity in the implementation of a
neoliberal program in the 1990s was a product of this
subordination of workers' rights to clientelist
politics. Finally, the CTV's alliance with big business beginning in 2001 and extending to the present
was the last straw for many workers.

Giving voice to rising discontent among grassroots
labor activists, the government forced the CTV to hold
leadership elections by the base in 2001. This was the
first such election in the federation's history. But
the elections backfired — abstention rates were between
50-70%, and there were so many reported irregularities
and accusations of corruption, that the supreme court
refused to recognize the results. Nonetheless, the
alleged winner Carlos Ortega assumed the Presidency and
began a determined campaign to overthrow Chávez,
brining the CTV into close alliance with some of
Venezuela's most reactionary sectors.

Rank & file workers and local progressive leaders
sympathetic to Chávez' movement, or simply fed-up with
the CTV, called for the establishment of an alternative
confederation, resulting in the 2003 formation of the
National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT). Support
for the break was due more than any other single factor
to the intensified cooperation between the CTV and big-
business. Between 2001 and 2003 the CTV and the
country's largest chamber of commerce federation
Fedecamaras cooperated in four general strikes,
including one in April 2002 which led to a military
coup against Chávez with the active cooperation of both
the CTV and Fedecamaras. The coup was overturned by
massive popular mobilization 48-hours later. But
perhaps the most effective of these general strikes was
one held from December, 2002 to January, 2003 and
widely reported to be an employers' lock-out — yet
strangely, one led by the CTV.

For the past year the UNT and CTV have fought head-to-
head over the country's unions, each claiming they are
the representative federation, and no-one really
knowing the truth. Part of the difficulty stems from
the lack of any independently confirmed registry for
either federation. There is a lot at stake in proving
themselves to be representative, not the least of which
is the coveted right to represent Venezuelan labor at
International Labor Organization (ILO) meetings. But
more than merely a question of competition, the UNT
represents a genuine threat to the CTV, advancing
strategies in the interests of working people, in
direct conflict with the CTV?s history of corporate

Building Organic Unions

Democratic unionism has been a contagious concept for
Venezuelan workers, and the UNT has played an important
role in promoting it. Over the past year and a half
two main strategies have developed that are designed to
initiate profound changes, both within labor
organizations and factories. To increase their
participation in unions, workers have begun pushing for
regular, transparent elections. To increase their
participation in factories, workers have been promoting
the idea of co-, and self-management.

Many local unions have never held elections since their
formation, and of those that have, their transparency
is often extremely questionable. In many instances,
these unions have had the same leadership for the last
30 or even 40 years. Many workers reveal that while
their unions did hold occasional assemblies to discuss
policies or to hold elections, the worker that openly
criticized, or spoke out against the leadership often
arrived at work the following day to find that he had
been fired.

As a result, many workers are beginning to exercise
their constitutional right to form parallel unions in a
bid to replace the old union. Once the parallel unions
have garnered sufficient support amongst the workers,
the choice between the two unions is submitted to a
referendum. The victorious union is the only one
legally allowed to represent the workers in collective
bargaining. Such referendums have begun occurring more
frequently, with at least 9 union referenda already in
2004 — all with the new unions winning, and almost
always by astonishingly high margins.

These new unions have excited workers about their
prospects for advancing much-needed improvements in
working conditions, wages, health care, and vacations.
Increased rank and file participation has given workers
more say over what is placed on the bargaining table in
the first place, instead of being limited to ratifying
or rejecting a platform designed exclusively by the
leadership. And both the new-union leadership and the
rank and file are acutely aware of the precedent that
the referenda have set: if the new unions fail to
deliver, or return to the corporatist tactics of old,
they can always be replaced in a new referendum.

Democratizing the factory is also on the agenda,
largely as a result of bankruptcies caused by the CTV
and Fedecamaras' general strikes and lock-outs.
Supported by the UNT, which has adopted the slogan "No
to globalization, Yes to worker-management," workers
have occupied some of these factories, seeking to
restart production under worker-management. An
important example currently developing is the
occupation of paper factory Venepal, after the company
stopped production last September. If Venepal workers
maintain control over the factory and restart
production, it will set an important example for
workers in similar situations elsewhere in the country.
A successful example of existing co-management in
Venezuela would be an important step in the development
of an alternative economic and industrial strategy —
with worker participation at its core.


The formation of the UNT and of the myriad new local
unions replacing the CTV and their local partners
represents a dynamic shift among Venezuelan workers
from passive criticism of the old class-
collaborationist policies to a truly new unionism that
prioritizes democracy, and class-based politics.

The political discourse of these new unions and of the
UNT is decidedly radical. They go far beyond bread and
butter issues, including demands for pronounced
political changes from the local grassroots level to
the national, and the international. They argue that
in the struggle against the neoliberal policies that
have ravaged Venezuelan workers it is not enough to
bargain for higher wages, or better benefits. Rather,
a more profound struggle against neoliberal practices
themselves are necessary, and this requires workers to
take the fight to capitalism directly. Not merely
inflamed rhetoric in a country whose President has
publicly and consistently criticized the distorted
logic of capitalism, the new unionism has spawned
serious debates on possible alternatives.

[Jonah Gindin is a Canadian journalist living and
working in Caracas, Venezuela. He writes regularly for
. He can be reached at: