The trade union situation in Venezuela - Recognising the UNT as the majority union

The revolutionary process that has opened in Venezuela, particularly since the election of president Chavez in 1998, has had a profound impact on the trade union movement. For nearly 40 years the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (CTV) had been dominated by Democratic Action (AD), one of the two parties which controlled the Venezuelan political system since 1961. The structures of this union were extremely undemocratic, and the leading bureaucrats openly collaborated with the employers to prevent the struggle of the workers. Amongst oil and building workers, the trade union bureaucrats would charge money in exchange for work. Democratic trade union activists would regularly be sacked from their jobs or even assassinated by hired thugs, all with the collaboration of the CTV bureaucracy. In November 2001 there were the first direct elections to the executive committee of the CTV, as a result of a law passed by the Chavez government and ratified in a popular referendum. These elections were marked by widespread fraud in which thousands of votes (the records for 9,000 polling stations) went "missing" during their transport, or in "mysterious accidents". When the results for only 48% of the polling stations had arrived, the old trade union bureaucracy, linked to AD, announced the "results" in which they declared themselves the winners. These "results" were not recognized by the president of the CTV's own Electoral Commission, Daniel Santolo, who declared that "Ortega has ‘won' because of a political agreement". To this day the results have not been recognized by the National Electoral Commission that was supervising the electoral process.

This un-elected CTV leadership participated directly in the April 11, 2002 coup together with the employers' federation Fedecamaras. On the day of the coup, it was Carlos Ortega, the un-elected general secretary of the CTV who called on the opposition demonstration to march on the presidential palace to oust Chavez by force. The day after the coup, the two main (un-elected) leaders of the CTV, Carlos Ortega and Manuel Cova appeared in a meeting with the new president and leader of Fedecamaras Pedro Carmina, thus giving legitimacy to the undemocratic government imposed by the coup. The coup was defeated in less than 48 hours by the mass demonstrations of the people.

In December 2002, there was another attempted coup by the so-called "democratic" opposition. While a group of reactionary officers declared themselves in rebellion and called for a military coup against the democratic government, the un-elected leadership of the CTV, together with Fedecamaras called for an "indefinite general strike" to overthrow the government. In fact, no significant section of workers followed this call for what in reality was a bosses lock out. In many cases the workers threatened to occupy the factories if the employers would not resume production. The main plank of this "strike" was the sabotage of production in PDVSA, the nationalized oil industry. This was carried out by the managers and directors of the company and not by the workers. Not one of the oil workers' unions supported the call for the so-called "general strike". The oil workers, together with the local communities and a section of the army, occupied the installations and resumed production under workers' control. In February 2003, after a one-million strong demonstration in favour of the democratic government and after recognising the complete failure of the bosses' lock out, the opposition gave up. The sabotage of the oil industry provoked multi-million dollar damages to the economy (GDP fell by 27% in the first quarter of 2003). An arrest warrant was issued for Carlos Ortega for his role in these events. He escaped justice and now lives in exile in Costa Rica. Recently he participated in a demonstration in Miami, in which he called for the formation of armed groups against the democratically elected government. As a result, the Costa Rican government has threatened to expel him from its territory.

Throughout this period, before and after its participation in the April 2002 coup, the CTV received financing from the US government, through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) (see http://www.venezuelafoia.info/NED/ACILS-CTV/ACILS-CTV-index.htm).

For all these reasons, on April 5, 2003, there was a rally in Caracas to launch a new trade union confederation called the National Workers Union (UNT), which was composed of the Bolivarian Workers' Front, Trade Union Autonomy, the Democratic and Class Struggle Union Block from Carabobo, many democratic unions from all over the country and some important union federations, like the public sector workers, the Caracas Underground, the chemical workers, and others. This was the preparation for the founding congress of the UNT which took place in Caracas on August 1 and 2, 2003, with the participation of more than 1500 delegates from all over the country, representing over 120 unions and 25 regional union bodies. The Congress, which took place in a mood of great enthusiasm and of democratic discussion (for instance the provisional executive saw its proposed statutes rejected by the delegates for lack of discussion, and they were to be taken to the ranks and discussed later). This reflected itself in the passing of a very radical programme which contains demands like: Nationalisation of the Banks. Workers' occupation of closed down factories under workers' control. No payment of the foreign debt. A 36-hour working week. Creation of new companies, under workers management. The statement of principles makes it very clear that the UNT is an "autonomous, democratic, internationalist, class struggle, independent and united movement with equality for men and women" and 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".

Since then the development of the democratic trade union movement in Venezuela has gone forward, leaving the old CTV practically as an empty shell and gathering the overwhelming majority of organised workers in the UNT. This was clearly shown this year on May Day, when the UNT demonstration had tens of thousands of workers from all sections (including large contingents of oil workers). In a massive trade union rally on April 17, with some 3 to 4000 trade unionists present, the UNT launched an organisation drive with the aim to take the level of trade union organisation in the country to 80% (currently stands at 15 - 20%). There have also been important steps forward regarding trade union unity, with the announced incorporation of the CUTV (a smaller trade union federation) into the UNT, and above all the unity declaration signed by all oil workers' unions with the aim of building one united union for all oil workers.

We make an appeal to the trade union and labour movement of the world to recognise the UNT as the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan workers. The illegitimate and non-elected leadership of the CTV, having participated in the military coup against the democratically elected government of president Chavez in April 2002, and having allied itself with the employers in the bosses lock out and sabotage of the oil industry in December 2002, has lost any right to represent the Venezuelan workers.

Signed by members of the national coordination of the UNT:

Orlando Chirino, Marcela Máspero, Stalin Pérez Borges, Eduardo Piñate, José Mora y Ruben Linares.

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