Report on Venezuelan Labour (8 August 2003)

From: michael a. lebowitz (mlebowit@SFU.CA)
Date: Fri Aug 08 2003 - 11:47:47 EDT

Dear Friends,
         I hope you find the following note of interest and will forward it
to relevant lists and individuals.
                 in solidarity,
Report on Venezuelan Labour: the Process Continues
Michael A. Lebowitz
8 August 2003

         Nationalise the Banks! Take over enterprises that have shutdown
and run them instead by workers! Refuse to pay the external debt and use
the funds to create jobs! Reduce the workweek to 36 hours! Create new
enterprises under workers' control!--- These were some of the demands that
emerged from the action programme workshop, which were enthusiastically
endorsed by delegates to the first National Congress of the National Union
of Workers (UNT) of Venezuela on August 1-2.
         After years of support for neo-liberalism by the Accion
Democratica-dominated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) culminated
in that organisation's involvement in the (quickly-overturned) coup of
April 2002 against President Hugo Chavez and in the CTV's subsequent
support for the business federation (Fedecamaras) in the 'general lock-out'
of last December-January, UNT ('UNETE') was founded in April to provide a
voice and instrument for working people. This first Congress brought
together more than 1300 registered participants representing over 120
unions and 25 regional federations to determine the general outlines of the
new federation--- its internal statutes, election mechanisms, code of
ethics, basic principles and action programme.
         The greatest agreement and passion was over the principles and the
action plan. From the workshop on principles came the clear call for the
transformation of 'capitalist society into a self-managing society', for a
'new model of anti-capitalist and autonomous development that emancipates
human beings from class exploitation, oppression, discrimination and
exclusion'. This declaration for an autonomous, democratic, solidaristic
and internationalist, classist, independent, unitary (representing the
whole working class) movement with equality for men and women was cheered
by all those present at the plenary session. As occurred at a number of
points, the chant emerged--- 'the working class united will never be defeated'!
         The meaning of many of these principles became clear in the points
endorsed for the programme of action. While the participants were
unequivocal in their support for many initiatives of the Chavez government
(e.g. the literacy programme, the introduction of Cuban doctors into poor
neighbourhoods, housing construction, the law suspending lay-offs and the
rejection of FTAA), their positions on nationalising the banks, the
external debt, and work hours among other aspects went far beyond the
current positions of the government. Further, UNT's independence was
demonstrated by its strong positions against specific government
ministries--- demanding that inspectors of work who are anti-worker be
removed by the Ministry of Labour and criticising the Minister of Health
and calling for the declaration of a national emergency in health--- and in
its call for reforms within the state itself (to 'create the revolution
within the revolution').
         Where there was less agreement, however, was with respect to
internal statutes and electoral procedures. For some, the Statutes were far
too like those of the CTV, an organisation infamous for its lack of
internal democracy and its corruption. Here, where there was much potential
for division over such matters as recall procedures, term limits, asset
declarations, proportional representation, distribution of dues etc, an
important decision was made--- go back to the base, i.e., send this back to
the individual unions for full discussion of the issues. The same decision
was made in relation to decisions about the 76 articles of electoral
regulations (even though only 6 were questioned)--- back to the base. Since
these were matters critical in providing the basis for, among other things,
the finance to carry out the struggle, it was decided that a National
Assembly of UNT would be convened within two months to resolve these
matters. The first national congress of UNT concluded with a declaration
condemning the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and its Plan Colombia.
'Hasta la Victoria Siempre', Che's motto, could be heard here--- as at
other points.
         The Unete congress was an important step in turning away from what
the Minister of Labour Maria Cristina Iglesias has called 'the evil axis'
of Fedecamaras and CTV. But, it was not a complete success. For one, in the
days before the Congress, UNT's temporary 21 member steering committee (or
portions of it) decided that the Unitary Confederation of Workers (CUTV),
an affiliate of the World Federation of Trade Unions, which had been
involved in the creation of UNT from the outset, could not integrate with
its regional organisations; as a result, many of its militants stayed away
from this congress. Further, a conspicuous absence was that of Ramon
Machuca, influential leader of the Steelworkers Union (SUDISS), who had
departed from early UNT discussions, citing the need for more initial work
at the base and the creation of worker constituent assemblies around the
country. (Opponents from the most pro-Chavist element in UNT, the
Bolivarian Forces of Workers, FBT, argued the issue was Machuca's desire to
be leader of the new federation.) But, the most conspicuous absence was
that of Chavez himself. Invited to close the Congress, Chavez was expected
by the organisers to crown the new organisation with his presence. Not only
did he not appear, but neither the vice-president nor the Minister of
Labour came to take his place.
         Poor coordination? The following day's 'Alo Presidente' (Chavez's
weekly radio and tv call-in programme) suggests that there may have been
more to Chavez's absence. Along with calling attention to the UNT Congress,
Chavez made it a point to congratulate Machuca ('a friend') on his
re-election last week as Steelworker leader (gaining 63% of the votes
against a strong rightwing challenge). It seemed a clear signal that what
is necessary is 'the working class united' and that the UNT Congress should
be seen as only a step in that process.
         Far more would be necessary to unite the working class, though,
than simply bringing UNT, the CUTV, the Machuca forces and locals still
affiliated to the CTV (or to nothing at all) together--- a process which
might be best accomplished through joint action (e.g., by uniting in the
support of workers who are occupying enterprises which owners are
attempting to shut down). Only 12% of working class in the formal sector of
Venezuela, after all, falls within these trade unions; outside them are
vast numbers of poor for whom the Chavez government is the first with which
they can identify. Although UNT's commitment to the working class as a
whole was underlined by its emphasis upon the creation of committees of the
unemployed and the granting of tickets (food stamps) to buy food for
pensioners and the unemployed, the question remains--- what precisely is to
be the relationship between workers in the formal sector and the roughly
50% in the informal sector, between organised trade unionists and the broad
masses that are organising in local communities? Bringing these forces
together would seem to be a priority if the working class is not to be
         The reality of the polarised society that is modern Venezuela was
quite evident at the UNT Congress. The private TV stations (at the centre
of the last coup and any future ones) were nowhere to be seen; for their
viewers, the Congress was a non-event. The state TV station, on the other
hand, was conspicuous in its low-tech operations and its disruptive
talking-head interviews at the very points that the most significant
developments in the Congress were occurring. In the battle of ideas that is
occurring in Venezuela, a battle which pits the traditional governing
classes against the government of Hugo Chavez, overwhelming opposition
domination of the media creates a virtual reality which makes uniting of
the working class far more difficult than it should be.

Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
Office: Phone (604) 291-4669
          Fax   (604) 291-5944
Home:   Phone (604) 689-9510

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