The Bolivarian Government Against Union Autonomy
by Rafael Uzcategui, Tierra y Libertad
Orlando Chirino, a revolutionary Venezuelan labor leader, has recently denounced the Bolivarian government as “anti-worker and anti-union.” It would be difficult to accuse Chirino of being a “golpista” or an “ally of imperialism.” In the year 2002, he condemned the coup, mobilizing to defend the state oil industry from the work stoppage driven by management leadership. In each occasion presented him, he supported and accompanied workers’ attempts to control factories closed by their bosses. He is rooted among the workers and was made a leader in the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), the labor union promoted by his own president Hugo Chávez.
If Orlando has been part of the so-called Bolivarian movement for many years, what has happened in 2009 to get him to make these kinds of statements about the government he once defended? The main part of the answer is: because Chirino is an iron defender of the unions’ autonomy.
The attempt to control the workers’ movement from above began as soon as Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela. In 1999 a clash began with the traditional Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), a labor union created in 1947 by the influence of Acción Democrática [a center-left political party—AD], and changed, since 1959, into the main negotiator of the labor policies developed by the state. Nevertheless, in spite of Chavistas’ questions about the irregularities and vices of this organization, in the absence of their own labor movement, they participated in its internal elections in October 2001. The Bolivarian candidate, Aristóbulo Isturiz, was defeated by the AD candidate Carlos Ortega, who became the president of the CTV. A year and a half later, repeating the same history of the CTV, the government created by decree what it called “the real labor union”: the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), which quickly reproduced the corruption that it claimed to fight.
One Marxist organization that participated in its foundation, Opción Obrera, says it more clearly than us: “The UNT was born under agreements from above, and was ridden for a show for the rank and file; few authentic union leaders had power in it…” The UNT was born with governmental protection, which lifted it up. The criticized ‘perks’ of the old CTV unionism are now granted to the leaders of the UNT, who are staunch supporters of the government.” Paradoxically, faced with the limited acceptance of the new labor union among the mass of workers, and the resistance of some sectors of the union to their cooptation, the Bolivarian power promoted new organizations in order to displace the UNT, as is the case of the Frente Socialista Bolivariano de los Trabajadores (FSBT).
A second milestone, justified with the argument of weakening the CTV bureaucracy, was the promotion of the so-called “union parallelism” [paralelismo sindical] from the seat of government, creating unions artificially, from outside, in the principal industries of the country. In this way Chavismo would be able to boast that with almost 700 registered unions, the Bolivarian process has promoted the organization of workers like nothing has before. However, this rise of the unions has not meant their greater influence on labor policies. One indicator is the end of the discussion of collective contracts in the public sector, with 243 expired, paralyzed and unsigned contracts at the end of 2007, in a sector that in May 2009 employs 2,244,413 people, a quarter of those employed by the private sector.
The decisions on salaries, labor conditions, and labor law are made unilaterally by the institutions of the state, after which they are mechanically ratified by the spokespersons of the UNT. In addition to the fragmentation and loss of capacity for pressure and negotiation, union parallelism has exacerbated the disputes for control of workplaces in the areas of oil and construction—in which the union can place 70 out of 100 recruits. This has increased the cases of assassination of union leaders and workers in inter-union strife. Between June 2008 and when this text was written, there have been 59 murders, that spread with the greatest impunity.
A third element is the creation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), a partisan body that, in president’s own words, should absorb all organizations that support the Bolivarian process, including the unions. A few defended the independence of the workers’ organizations, but dissent from the official line was not tolerated. In March of 2007 Chávez affirmed in a speech: “The unions should not be autonomous… We must end with that.” This was followed by successive declarations in the same line, reaching a zenith in March of 2009, when after ridiculing the demands of the basic industries of Guayana—the biggest industrial belt of the country—Chávez threatened to use the police to crush any attempts at demonstrations or strikes there. For a revolutionary like Orlando Chirino, it was unbearable. He stated at the time that it “constituted a declaration of war against the working class.”
Various initiatives are currently being developed to increase control over the country’s workers. For one thing, laws have been passed that limit and criminalize protest, requiring people to report periodically to the courts, in addition to prohibiting them from participation in meetings and demonstrations—such as occurred this past July 13 to five union leaders of the oil refinery of El Palito, in the west of the country. [The five refinery workers received a judicial order barring them from “promoting or initiating assemblies, gatherings or meetings that place in risk the normal functioning of installations of the petroleum complex.”]
According to spokespersons of the affected communities, at least 2,200 people would be currently subject to this scheme. It must be brought out that, curiously, more than 80% are part of the movement to support the national government. This detail is significant because since 2008 there has been increasing social unrest in the face of the miseries and limitations of material life for workers on the ground. The protests for social rights have displaced the mobilizations for political rights, that set the scene during the years 2002 and 2006. The failure to meet the expectations generated by Bolivarian rhetoric, the weakening of patronage networks by declining oil revenues, and the stagnation and decline of populist social policies (known as “missions”) have catalyzed the accumulated discontent in the absence of profound transformations to significantly improve the quality of life for the majority of the country.
Another initiative underway, again by decree from above, is the replacement of unions with “workers’ councils” for discussing working conditions in companies, a proposal entered in the reform of the Organic Labor Law (LOT) that has been discussed in secret in the National Assembly, a body that is promoted around the world as a champion of “participatory democracy.”
Other laws, that seem to have no connection to the world of work, have also been restricting workers’ rights. That’s the case with the reformed Law of Land Transit, which in its article 74 prohibits the closure of streets to obstruct pedestrian and vehicle traffic—the historical practice of protest by the popular sectors, especially in demanding their labor rights.
Meanwhile, on August 15 an Organic Law of Education was passed, which has provoked protest by opposition groups for its secularism and for establishing strict regulations for private education institutions. However, what this center-right and social-democratic opposition does not question—much less Chavismo—are the limitations to the right of association, unionization, and collective bargaining, which is not guaranteed [to education workers]. One sign of the reactionary character of the order is section 5.f of the first provision, which states that teachers and professors engage in serious misconduct “by physical aggression, speech, and other forms of violence” against their superiors. To make matters worse, the fifth provision regulates the use of scabs “for reasons of proven necessity” in order to break strikes and work stoppages—a practice that has become habitual in so-called “Bolivarian Venezuela.”
In addition, the Chavista movement has unleashed an onslaught against media outlets that don’t accommodate the government, whose principal concern is the visibility of the conflicts and protests that they provide in contrast to the scarce coverage of the state and para-state media—self-declared as “alternative and community,” but without editorial and financial independence of any kind.
The role of Venezuelan anarchists in this moment of fracture of Bolivarian hegemony is to participate, accompany, and radicalize the conflicts, from below and with the people—and in this way to stimulate the recovery of the belligerent autonomy of the social movements. They must also become actively involved in the construction of a different, revolutionary alternative to the inter-bourgeois conflict for the control of the oil revenues that has engulfed the political scene in recent years, fighting the Bolivarian bourgeoisie in power with the same impetus as the potential rearticulation of those political parties it has displaced. In this way we walk, as always, without giving any concession to power and having our old values—self-management, direct action, anti-capitalism and mutual aid—as a bright horizon.
This article first appeared in the October issue of Tierra y Libertad, publication of the Iberian Anarchist Federation. Our translation is adapted from one that appears on the A-Infos anarchist news service.
“Defendiendo el derecho a la protesta social,” from Rafael Uzcátegui’s website, July 28, 2009 (on the unrest at El Palito refinery)
From our Daily Report:
Venezuela: two workers shot in plant sit-in
World War 4 Report, Feb. 3, 2009
Venezuela: three unionists murdered
World War 4 Report, Dec. 2, 2008
Venezuela: Human Rights Watch delegation expelled
World War 4 Report, Sept. 20, 2008
Venezuela: “operational emergency” in oil sector?
World War 4 Report, July 25, 2007
VENEZUELA’S CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM:
A Threat to What Was Won Through Struggle
from El Libertario, Caracas
World War 4 Report, December 2007
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution