Building Labor's Revolutionary Voice in Venezuela: The UNT's second national Congress

Another analysis of the recent congress of Venezuela's National Union of Workers and the debates in its recent national congress.

Rival factions clashed at the second national Congress of Venezuela's National Workers Union (UNT), held in Caracas, May 25-27. Over 2000 voting delegates and 1000 supporting union members attended the Congress, which ended in disarray when a group of dissident delegates split off from the main group and held a smaller, parallel gathering. The two groups failed to agree on a date for Federation-wide elections.

UNT: A New Voice for Labor

The UNT has not held elections since it was founded in August 2003 by workers opposed to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers' (CTV) support of the 2002 oil field lockouts. Workers overwhelmingly opposed the lockout and the CTV stance. Prior to this, CTV also opposed the 1989 Caracazo protests and failed to challenge the wave of privatization of public services in the 1990's. CTV affiliated unions typically have unelected leadership who act unchallenged in their authority for years.

In three short years, the UNT Federation has grown exponentially and now represents nearly all public sector workers. In 2004, UNT-affiliated unions won about 50% of private-sector collective contracts, compared to 45% for the CTV. Though the numbers of represented workers are hard to gauge, simply put, the UNT is the best available route to galvanize a powerful, democratic voice for working people in pro-Bolivarian Venezuela. UNT-affiliated unions must elect their leadership and their delegates to the UNT structure.

Still, the young movement has yet to resolve in-house and international demands for internal democratic elections, which are considered a key factor in defining the "revolutionary" voice for labor in Venezuela.

What should "Bolivarian" unionism look like?

Another hot topic is the level of autonomy the organized labor movement should enjoy in relation to the Bolivarian/Chavez government. All currents within the UNT support Chavez and have committed to winning the President 10 million votes in the upcoming Fall election. Most currents also agree that labor should enjoy some level of autonomy from the government. However, some claim that organized labor should challenge the government wherever necessary. Others want a labor movement more in concert with Chavez' goals, such as developing worker-run factories. The big factor here is the union representation at state-run facilities.

Jonah Gindin, writing in the June 2005 Monthly Review, described the autonomy debate facing the UNT, "How can the new federation balance cooperation with the government and union autonomy? How can they achieve worker control that is rooted in the agency of workers, rather than in the benevolence of the state?"

The Second National Congress

On Friday May 26, 2006 the delegates at the Congress separated into five work groups to resolve the following questions: Declaration of Principles and Type of Federation that we want 2) the Reform of Federation Statutes 3) Plan and Program of Struggle 4) the working class organizing plan for President Chavez's Re-election and 5) The UNT Electoral Process.

Supporters of the Unified, Classist*, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (C-CURA en Español), led by Orlando Chirino (click here for an April 2006 English language w/ Chirino) and Stalín Perez Borges, loaded the electoral table and pressed for September elections. The Bolivarian Workers Front (FBT), with its ties to the Chavez-government and ex-FBT leader of Marcela Máspero and Franklin Rondón--a public sector union leader--supported a proposal to hold elections before April 2007. Ostensibly, their efforts are bureaucratic moves to delay what is perceived to be a likely electoral victory for Orlando Chirino.

On May 27th when the working groups re-convened, C-CURA members moved that the Election Group forward the September 15th elections proposal to the General Assembly for full ratification. Members of other factions resisted and tried to shout down the stage proceedings by chanting, "10 million votes and Chavez first!" Others chanted, "Elections NOW!" The working group ended in chaos, but C-CURA members opined that a majority of delegates in the Working Group supported the proposal and it was considered "approved."

After the working session "ended," smaller factions unified, walked out of the Congress and held a gathering of 300 or so workers on a nearby hillside. According to a statement by FBT-leader Rafael Chacón delegates went outside to, "unanimously approve each of the proposals from the distinct working groups, agreeing on UNT elections for the first trimester of 2007."

According to a C-CURA press release and accompanying photos, 700 delegates remained in the gathered General Assembly, which approved the Sept. 15 proposal. It remains unclear how this two-election scenario will play out. Over 1000 delegates abandoned the Congress altogether and did not partake in either process.

Accusations flew from all sides that "CTV thuggery and bureaucratic tactics" were being employed. Other accusations flew that some UNT currents weren't showing sufficient allegiance to Chavez.

A statement by the smaller Revolutionary Marxist Current (CMR), which did not participate in the walkout, criticized both sides saying, "Marcela, Orlando and the FBT leadership have disgracefully focused themselves on the elections debate and haven't tackled the main job: to put the Venezuelan working class at the front of this revolution to bring us to socialism." The statement suggests that the national leadership name a coordinating body, proportionally based on the support within the existing currents, to resolve the election date question.

The CMR statement later warned, "Workers should be aware that there are two groups inside the UNT that are trying to deepen the division between Orlando Chirino, Marcela Máspero and the FBT, confusing the struggle and throwing more wood on the fire...these sectors are the reformists and the ultra-leftists. The reformists are pressuring so that the UNT link itself to the reformist parts of the Government, the state apparatus.

"The ultra-leftists," the statement continued, "are trying to cut out the UNT from the Bolivarian movement, as they consider President Chavez an obstacle to the advancement of socialism y superimpose the particular interests of their sectarians groups on the interests of the working class as a whole."

(*Clasista, in Spanish, refers to an overt support for the working class.)