Labour & Trade Union News

At the end of June 2005, Ruben Linares was in Britain. Jorge Martin interviewed him for Hands Off Venezuela.

Jorge Martin: Can you tell us who you are and why you came to Britain?

I am Ruben Dario Linares Silva, member of the National Coordination of the UNT [National Workers Union] and vice-president of the United Transport Federation in Venezuela. I am in England thanks to an invitation from the RMT to attend their congress and so that I can have personal contact with trade unionists and explain the revolutionary process in Venezuela: what is the situation of the workers, what do we want, what do we hope for.

You should know that the workers of Venezuela and the people as a whole are participating in a process of change, we have been deeply affected by capitalism which is the cause of all the evils inflicted on our peoples, and now we are on the way towards socialism. US imperialism with Bush and the State Department will not be able to impose their will on us. We will defend ourselves as we have done so far, with all the legal weapons in our hands, like the constitution, looking for support from world public opinion, but if they at any time invade us we will respond in the same way, a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye. They should not think that if they try to invade Venezuela they will be able to leave unharmed, the answer would be much worse than the one Iraq is giving to the Empire right now.

JM What can you tell us about the experiences of workers' participation in the management of publicly owned companies and of the nationalisation under workers' control of companies that went bankrupt?

RL We are refounding the whole of the trade union movement, building it anew. What we are raising is co-management both in the state owned and in the private sector. In the private sector, let's be clear, when a company owner tries to close it down we say: "any factory that is closed should be taken over" and we discuss the possibility of reopening it with the help of the state in order to guarantee jobs and also production so that the country goes forward. We are also raising the issue of co-management in the private sector. If a private company receives a loan from the state, we raise the need for co-management, so that we can guarantee jobs and better production. And in the state owned sector we are clearly saying that all state owned basic industries should be under co-management. Co-management from the point of view of the workers is something very simple: we want power and participation in the management of the companies, in order to create new jobs, guarantee that the wealth reaches the people and that corruption is rooted out.

We must say it clearly, during the stoppage and sabotage of December 2002 and January 2003, there was workers' control in the two most important state owned companies. In the [oil company] PDVSA there was workers' control. It was us, the workers, who restarted production in the company after the managers had left, and we did so without managers. In the case of [electricity generator and supplier] CADAFE the workers guaranteed the supply of electricity throughout the stoppage/sabotage. It was the workers who did it; there was real workers' control. This is what we want with co-management. We have all the rights, to elect the managers, look into the accounts, to make proposals; the workers have all the rights. This is what we are demanding in an audacious way and we think this is the way forward.

JM Hugo Chavez has said that within the limits of capitalism the problems of misery suffered by the Venezuelan people cannot be solved and that we must go towards socialism, how to you see this from the point of view of the UNT?

RL The way is socialism. This is the way that we must discuss all the different opinions on socialism, and how in Venezuela we are going to implement it according to our reality. We are in complete agreement with what the president said. Through debates and discussions we will reach a definition of what we need in order to implement socialism in Venezuela.

JM What are the main threats facing the Bolivarian Revolution right now?

RL The Empire has many problems. We have told the US that we have a trade relationship with them: we sell them oil and they buy it at whatever price is fixed by the market. But the US government has always believed that Latin America is their backyard where they can do whatever they want and as they please: install governments, remove presidents, grab all of our natural resources and take them to their country, add value to them and then sell them back to us at 50 or 100 times their original price, to exploit us ... With very few exceptions, the natural wealth of our countries belong to the country as long as they are underground, but from the moment they come to the surface they become US owned, because of capitalist aggression.

JM I also wanted to ask you, what do you think of the Hands Off Venezuela Campaign and other solidarity campaigns that have been organised internationally to defend the Bolivarian revolution? What would you say to these activists?

RL Please continue your work. We cannot deal with the mass media on our own. The main news agencies in the world are in the private sector. They do not like what is happening in Venezuela and therefore they do not tell the truth. The only chance we have of getting the truth out is through the alternative media, and also through the Hands Off Venezuela campaign and other bodies that are organising support and telling people in Europe what is really happening in Venezuela.

JM What would be your message to British workers?

RL The main thing is that the struggle against privatisation here in England must be conducted in a radical way. The people must be made to understand and feel the problem. Only with the support of the people can we stop privatisation. English people should be aware that these famous policies of privatisation, that carry the trade mark of Thatcher, are being defeated in Latin America. In Venezuela there are no more privatisations and the other countries are also resisting them. In Peru we stopped the privatisation of electricity. In the case of Bolivia, the Aymara, Quechua and Guarani Indigenous people, which represent 82% of the population, are fighting for the renationalisation of industries against the private sector. In Argentina it has been proven that the capitalist system and its highest expression, this aberration called privatisation, are starving the people. And this is the case in the whole of Latin America. In Mexico we have the example of the electricity workers who are confronting [president] Fox, almost in a violent way one could say, to prevent privatisation.

JM Is there anything else you would like to add?

RL Yes, I would like to make a personal comment. Those of us who have always been left-wing in Latin America and in Venezuela, we recognise the role of Hugo Chavez. Cuba resisted for 40 years on her own, and with Hugo Chavez the revolution has become a Latin American revolution. It is still in its infancy, but it will bear fruit. Many of us who are over 50 years of age, we always dreamt of being able to confront the Empire in a successful way, and we thought we would never see it. Now, for many, the very fact that we are confronting it with success means that we must continue fighting on, in order to achieve the best for our peoples in Latin America. Paraphrasing Che Guevara I would say: "let those who are born know and let those who are yet to be born know, that the workers of the world are on struggle, and we struggle to win, not to be defeated". This is what I think lies in the future: we will work hard to achieve these aims.

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Published below is the appeal issued by the unionists of the UNT who were present at the 93rd Annual Session of the International Labor Conference of the ILO. In it they call on trade unionists throughout the world to sign the appeal and support this campaign.
We, leaders of the National Workers Union of Venezuela (UNT), address, once again, the unions and workers throughout the world. First of all, we want to thank the 500 or more trade union leaders in 24 countries of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia who signed the "Open Letter to the Workers' Group of the ILO" that we initiated in February of this year. This Open Letter helped to re-establish the truth about the situation of the Venezuelan labor movement and about the struggle of the workers and people of Venezuela. The results of the discussion on Venezuela at the 93rd Annual Session of the ILO that just took place in Geneva make it necessary that we continue our campaign, particularly in light of the fact the Administrative Council of the ILO will be meeting this November.
Brothers and Sisters:
As we explained in the "Open Letter to the Workers' Group of the ILO," the bosses' organization in Venezuela, FEDECAMARAS, and the Federation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV), have filed complaints with the Commission on Trade Union Freedoms of the ILO accusing our country of violating trade union rights. In reality, these complaints are seeking to cover up the fact that these two organizations have taken part in actions that have nothing to do with ILO Convention 87, such as the coup d'etat against the government elected by the sovereign Venezuelan people as well as the sabotage of the oil industry (December 2002 - January 2003).
The meeting of the Administrative Council of the ILO that took place last March referred the decision concerning FEDECAMARAS' proposal to create a Commission of Inquiry on the Situation of Trade Union Rights in Venezuela to the meeting scheduled for November 2005, after the annual conference which renewed its composition.
Stop the Bosses' Offensive
Nonetheless, the attacks against Venezuela and the UNT continue. Particularly, the Commission on Norms of the ILO's annual conference, discussed the specific case of Venezuela in relation to ILO Convention 87. This offensive was led by Mr. Edward E. Potter, the delegate of the United States, spokesman for the Employers Group (bosses), and director of labor relations for Coca-Cola! Yes, this is the director of the very same Coca-Cola company that has persecuted unionists in Colombia, India, and other countries and that has been accused of assassinating union organizers. This is the man who, in the name of the bosses, had the nerve to call for the condemnation of the Venezuela for violating trade union rights! It is understandable that the bosses' representatives to the ILO deliberately try to equate the participation of leaders of the FEDECAMARAS and the CTV in a coup d'etat with normal "union activities." Their intent is not to defend democracy but to protect their class privileges!
The fact that the only person to defend the perspective of the General Secretary of the CTV in the Commission on Norms was the spokesperson of the bosses, Mr. Potter, shows the degree of degeneration that has taken place in the leadership of this organization which claims to represent the Venezuelan workers! Unfortunately, in the resolution adopted by the Commission on Norms and submitted to the General Assembly - which, we, representatives of the UNT, observed - the following unacceptable paragraph was introduced at the behest of the Employers Group: "The Commission invites the [Venezuelan] Government to cease the restrictions on the freedom to travel imposed on the leaders of FEDECAMARAS, particularly Mr. Fernández and Mrs. Muñoz."
Albis Muñoz is the current president of FEDECAMARAS, and Carlos Fernandez was the former one. Both their cases are being reviewed by the Venezuelan legal system for actions that have nothing to do with trade union rights, but rather with the actions taken against the sovereignly adopted Constitution; namely, the coup d'etat in April 2002.
Of course, any citizen has the right to their own opinion concerning the judicial process against these two individuals. But in what capacity is the ILO qualified to "invite" the government of a sovereign nation state to "cease the restrictions on the freedom to travel" of these people?
Isn't asking the government to not follow the national laws of Venezuela an impossible demand to comply with, a demand that interferes with the sovereignty of the Venezuelan people and state? In any case, we think this proposal contained in the resolution of the Commission on Norms is in contradiction with the ILO's mission of guarding democracy. We think it is in contradiction with the ILO's traditions of objective discussion concerning the application of the norms and conventions pertinent to trade union and labor rights. The ILO cannot be the place for political manipulations that transform coup d'etats and lockouts into the "free exercise of trade union rights." Who will this serve?
To be sure, it will not benefit the workers and their organizations, who are the principal proponents of democracy. Democracy means the recognition of the existence of trade unions that are independent from the bosses and governments, so that we can defend our conquests and rights against the destructive offensive of capitalist globalization.
To accomplish this, we are again addressing ourselves to our class brothers and sisters throughout the world: It is necessary to reaffirm and deepen the rejection of the proposal by FEDECAMARAS and the International Organization of Employers (IOE) to apply against Venezuela a Commission of Inquiry concerning the situation of trade union freedoms in our country.
As the 93rd Annual Session of the ILO has demonstrated, the bosses are continuing to pursue this objective at the meeting of the Administrative Council that will take place this November. At the same time, we are renewing our invitation to unions throughout the world to attend the Congress of the UNT on July 28-30. At this congress, the workers will be able to directly find out the truth about the trade union situation in Venezuela! Class and trade union greetings,
In Defense of the Sovereignty of the Venezuelan People! In Defense of Genuine Trade Union Rights! Geneva, June 16, 2005

Leaders of the UNT present at the 93rd Annual Session of the ILO: Marcela Máspero, Orlando Chirino, Marco Tulio Diaz, Servando Carbone, Hugo Peña, Victor Mora, Angel Marcano, Marco Garcia y Anastasio Rodríguez.

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Venezuela received a favorable ruling at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland this week, when the group rejected a request to investigate Venezuela for allegedly violating workers’ rights.  The accusation against the Venezuelan government was made by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV)—Venezuela’s traditional labor federation—along with the country’s largest employer’s federation, Fedecamaras.

In this year’s ILO general assembly meeting the CTV was not invited as a member of the group’s administrative council.  This means that, “for the first time in many years … the administrative council will be able to act with increased objectivity when it comes to cases related to Venezuela,” said ILO delegate Marcela Maspero. 

Maspero is a leader of the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT), which is a new Venezuelan union federation that was formed in May 2003, in the wake of the two-month 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, when disaffected union leaders unhappy with the CTV’s prioritization of anti-Chávez politics over workers’ interests broke away.

“The CTV will no longer be able to use this space as a springboard to launch political attacks against the revolutionary government of Venezuela,” she added, reported Venezuela’s state news agency ABN.

For the last two years, the CTV has been forced to lobby ILO delegates from outside of the meetings, using Fedecamaras to submit proposals on their behalf.  This year, however, Fedecamaras/CTV requests to sanction the Venezuelan government fell on deaf ears.  Fedecamaras’ only delegate to the meeting, Bingen De Arbeloa, left early in protest.

“I did not receive a report from workers, nor from governments participating in the conference, in our attempts to hold sanctions against the Government of Venezuela,” said De Arbeloa.

In the view of the ILO general assembly, the Venezuelan government has demonstrated considerable progress in terms of trade union freedoms, according to Venezuela’s Vice-Minister of Labor Ricardo Dorado who is in Geneva.

Dorado noted that over the past 8 months Venezuela has made significant advances in labor policy, including the extension of a freeze on lay-offs, increases in the minimum wage, and a reform of the labor law.  Furthermore, the ILO recognized that Venezuela has consolidated a democratic dialogue with various groups representing workers in Venezuelan society, said Dorado.

Referring to the decades-long monopoly on labor issues held by Fedecamaras and the CTV, Dorado argued that Venezuela has “advanced in the idea that social dialogue is not exclusive or excluding.  On the contrary, we are promoting a dialogue in which all social actors can participate, in which the Government is the interlocutor of the interests of a pluralistic society.”  “As a consequence, we cannot endorse a mono-political position like what we have seen here in the past,” said the Vice-Minister.

Fedecamaras and the CTV have developed close links since the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998, who signaled a shift away from the neoliberal policies pursued by previous governments with the approval and complicity of both Fedecamaras and the CTV.  In April 2002 a general strike called by both employers and CTV union leaders resulted in a short-lived coup against Chávez in which Fedecamaras President Pedro Carmona was named “Transitional President.”  Carmona’s first act was to abolish the Constitution, and dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court, and to order the Metropolitan Police to conduct a series of violent raids against Chávez-supporters in the shanty-towns around the capital, Caracas.

Since its inception in 2003, the UNT has competed with the CTV for affiliates, sometimes fighting pitched electoral battles in divided factories, thanks to a formerly little-used provision in Venezuela’s labor law allowing workers to call a referendum if two parallel unions are competing to represent a given factory.  The UNT has won nearly every such referendum, gaining considerable momentum for a national syndicalist project that prioritizes resistance to neoliberalism and support for workers’ control of factories.

Both the UNT and the CTV claim to represent the majority of Venezuelan workers.  Last year Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that the CTV was no longer the most representative labor federation in Venezuela.  Yet since the ruling did not say that the UNT was the most representative federation, the question remains open for debate. 

Another key to answering this question has been representation at the ILO.  Since its formation in 2003 the UNT has sent a delegation to the United Nations labor body, though until last year, the CTV did too.

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Last month, the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT) turned two. Since its inception in May 2003, the UNT has been at the center of debates surrounding the advances of Venezuela’s revolution in the labor arena. At root, these debates turn on issues of worker control: over their factories and over their unions. Democracy is at the heart of the attempt by Venezuelan workers to reinvent a labor movement long characterized by corruption and class collaboration.

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 federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), was one of his most avid critics, and Chávez in turn lashed out regularly against the CTV. But the image of “Chávez versus labor,” repeated incessantly by the mainstream media, is precisely intended to mislead. The truth is that the CTV has not adequately represented Venezuelan workers since the 1970s, if not before. The reality of Chávez versus 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 accelerating globalization, fed by the trailblazing violence of American empire, Chávez’s loud rejection of the neoliberal model is particularly resonant. And this rejection has proven to be more than mere rhetoric. After surviving both the coup and the business-led oil industry shutdown in 2002–03, and consolidating his legitimacy through the dramatic referendum victory and the near-sweep in the regional elections, Chávez’s movement has, as the Economist recently put it, “beg[u]n turning words into deeds.” In direct contradiction to the neoliberal playbook, Venezuela has begun experimenting with an alternative model of development based on an unapologetic prioritization of social welfare.

At root, the Venezuelan revolution is about democracy, but not the “thin democracy” that so often limits the imagination in the North. In Venezuela the term has incorporated social and economic dimensions, as well as political and even geographic. Popular participation means the difficult development of local planning councils that debate community budgets, but it also means a shift in some areas from production for the world market to production for the Venezuelan people. Thus, a trend that has had Venezuela importing 70 percent of its food is slowly being reversed in the interest of “food sovereignty.” Food sovereignty, in turn, requires the democratization of land, reversing the distribution of land in rural Venezuela where the top 5 percent of landowners control 75 percent of private agricultural land, while the bottom 75 percent hold only 6 percent.1

Bolívar is a revered figure all over the region, and Chávez has taken advantage of this to encourage solidarity between and among South American countries. His rhetoric of regional—and indeed “South-South”—unity is based on Bolívar’s life’s project to unify Latin America. Far from merely a useful rhetorical flourish, Chávez has taken up that call, promoting a regional union that will have the strength to oppose the violence of global capital.

In a late January edition of his weekly Sunday television address, Aló Presidente, President Chávez announced a new direction for economic development, centered on the slogan “made in Venezuela.” Chávez made the announcement from an enormous paper factory (Invepal), recently expropriated by the government after a hard-fought battle by 350 paper workers. The announcement reflects the battle cry of the two-year-old UNT: “Without co-management, there is no revolution!” Yet wary of the pitfalls of previous experiences with co-management in Venezuela and elsewhere, the current Venezuelan experiment demands genuine worker control and rejects the creation of workers as property owners, or of a technocratic worker-manager class.

This process of social and political changes has come a long way since 1998, but it has much further still to go. Land reform is plagued by a lack of organization among campesinos; the informal sector remains largely unorganized and impoverished; and the shift toward worker management and a new unionism has been slow and fraught with difficulties and setbacks. It is necessary to look at Venezuela with a clear mind and an accurate picture of the forces (within Chavismo and without) aligned against the revolution. It is, of course, equally necessary to appreciate how far the revolution has come, against all odds. The following is a brief discussion of the state of Venezuelan labor, its advances and setbacks, and above all, its possibilities.

A New Venezuela

For the forty years prior to Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998, two traditional parties shared power and competed for control over the country’s most important institutions. Inheriting an oil economy from dictator Perez Jiménez in 1958, the social-democratic Acción Democratica and the social-Christian Copei kept oil wealth circulating in elite circles, while feeding the country a powerful nationalist rhetoric of “sowing the oil.”

Though it began as a progressive organization heavily engaged in the fight against the Jiménez dictatorship, the CTV was quickly subordinated to party interests. Furthermore, the CTV was long a collaborator with U.S.-directed anticommunist activity in the region, receiving considerable funding from the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD).2 With the advent of neoliberal government in the 1980s, this cost workers dearly. During this period they laid the groundwork for the current promotion of worker management, when the CTV joined tripartite “co-management” commissions along with members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Labor. By the mid-1990s, CTV leaders had cut a deal with President Rafael Caldera, unleashing a barrage of reforms and privatizations that proved devastating to working people and further delegitimized the CTV. With a recent example of co-management as co-optation behind them, Venezuelan workers are now militating for the creation of real worker-participation in management.

The nationwide demand for change that swept Chávez to power in 1998 did not pass quietly over the labor movement. Existing criticisms multiplied and new ones were articulated by workers who were increasingly disenchanted with the lazy corruption of their supposed “leaders.” The larger commitment to profound social change aimed at raising the standard of living of the 80 percent of Venezuela’s population living below the poverty line inspired workers to join the process, putting labor reform on the agenda too.3

The net result has been a dramatic split within the labor movement, with a large portion of unions and federations affiliated to the CTV now gone for good. In 2003, these unions formed the National Union of Venezuela Workers (UNT) and set up an interim leadership, which has become the national voice of a proposed new unionism. The UNT is still embryonic, and until formal elections—tentatively scheduled for fall 2005—it will continue to lack the internal structures essential for trade unionism. Furthermore, with its own democratic structure as yet undefined, it risks appearing hypocritical in their promotion of democratization at the level of local unions and in their critiques of the authoritarian CTV. But the broader transformations in Venezuelan society over the past six years have inspired workers to go far with relatively little, and the UNT’s close ties to the government have ensured that it has become a national player.

While it is not yet possible to tell exactly how representative either organization is, the UNT has grown astonishingly fast in the first two years of its existence. One way of estimating this momentum is to count the percentage of collective agreements signed with each confederation. According to the Ministry of Labor, 76.5 percent of collective agreements signed in 2003–04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT, and only 20.2 percent with the CTV. This is due in large part to the UNT’s hegemony in the public sector, for which official preference is certainly a factor. However, even in the private sector, the UNT represented 50.3 percent of all collective agreements signed in 2003–04, compared to the CTV’s 45.2 percent.4

Nonetheless, societies are not transformed overnight with the declaration of a new stage, a new government, or a new union. Organized labor was a crucial foundation of Venezuela’s old system, the Fourth Republic (1958–99), and replacing it requires the articulation of a concrete and wide-ranging economic as well as social and political strategy, of which the emphasis on democracy is only a beginning.

Workers’ Rights, Human Rights: Coca-Cola Femsa

Venezuelan unions have historically been organized by factory rather than by industry. Even within the same company, each plant has its own union. Thus, for each of Coca-Cola Femsa’s eight bottling plants in Venezuela, there is a different union. In at least one case there are two. Fed up with the ineffectiveness of the old CTV-affiliated union, several activists at the Valencia-branch formed a parallel union, steadily gaining support until they challenged the established union.

Coca-Cola Femsa bottles, distributes, and sells Coca-Cola products (including beer, water, and other beverages) in Latin America, with operations in Mexico, Central, and South America. While Venezuela only represents 7.1 percent of total revenues (Mexico accounts for 66.7 percent), it is slightly more than Colombia’s 6.5 percent. According to the international Campaign to Stop Killer Coke (http://www.killercoke.org/), in Colombia that’s enough for the company to be collaborating with paramilitaries responsible for the intimidation, torture, and murder of trade union activists.

“In Venezuela, they are not killing union leaders like in Colombia,” notes José Cardenal, secretary general of the new union at the company’s Valencia, Venezuela branch. “But they have argued legally and judicially to drown those union leaders who are really fighting for workers’ rights. They find a way to legally intimidate, threaten, pressure workers when they try to organize, or when they try to claim their legal rights.”

In May 2004, after months of tireless organizing, Cardenal and other activists launched a parallel union that challenged the existing one in a factory-wide referendum. Administered by the Valencia office of the labor inspector, with representatives from both unions and the company in attendance, the new union won 301 votes to 234. Worker participation was over 80 percent.

“The workers at Coca-Cola Femsa have never had a dignified salary,” explains Freddy Contreras, secretary of culture in the new union. According to Contreras, Coca-Cola Femsa workers could not count on the old union to advance their rights. “Before, any worker fighting for his rights quickly found himself on the street,” he said angrily. “The old union leadership was corporate, they were allied to the company, they were bought-off by the company. Workers never felt they could open their mouths against the union, because they knew the union could have them fired. The company paid these union leaders’ salaries, they gave them an office in the factory, they kept them in their pocket, away from the workers.”

In the year since the new union’s referendum victory in May 2004, they have made some small but important advances. “Before the company owed us Cesta tickets [food stamps] and we weren’t receiving them,” notes assembly-line bottler Julio Llepes, “but since the new union came in we have been.” Llepes also noted an increased openness in the new union and felt confident that if he had any concerns with their leadership in future he could raise them without fear of persecution.

Luis Ferrero, who has worked at the plant for seven years, notes that the new union has secured retroactive pay, covering the last four years for workers who have been forced to eat their lunch on the line. And in an important political victory, the new union has also successfully pressured the company to pay wages lost during the two months that Coca-Cola Femsa shut its doors during the December 2002–February 2003 general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. Workers were told they would be paid during the shutdown, but had not received those wages until now.

Coca-Cola Femsa is just one of a growing number of factories where workers have begun fighting to retake their unions from corrupt leaders on excessively friendly terms with the employers. In 2000, Ford set the precedent, becoming the first factory in the region to have a union referendum. The new union won easily, fueling a growing movement to democratize local unions that has exploded in 2004. Over the past year, Venezuela’s twin cities of Valencia and Maracay, the country’s manufacturing base, have witnessed eight union referenda, all with new unions coming out on top.

The exponential increase in union referenda and in the organization of parallel unions in 2004 owes a great deal to the role of the state. While the Ministry of Labor appears to have avoided taking sides in these disputes, a remarkable moratorium on lay-offs for lower-paid workers declared in April 2003 appears to have made all the difference. “The company could not fire the workers organizing new unions and organizing the workers to start fighting for their rights, because there is currently a moratorium on lay-offs,” notes regional director of the UNT for Carabobo, José Joaquín Barreto. “Thanks to the government, these workers had the breathing room they needed to organize the new union, hold the referendum, and now have some of the tools necessary to take the fight to the bargaining table and make some concrete gains.”

The moratorium, since extended by the Ministry of Labor twice, is a radical reversal for the transnational corporations that have multiplied their investments in Venezuela of late. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Venezuelan government moved away from its history of state-run enterprises, privatizing the country’s steel and telecommunications sectors, the national airline, and all the country’s port facilities, among others. Changes for workers in these factories went far beyond a new management. The cult of efficiency and productivity saw the ratio of employees to contract workers shrink rapidly, to the point where non-union contract workers now outnumber unionized employees in most cases.

Such tactics are not, of course, unique to recently privatized companies, but are rather part of a general neoliberal trend.

Three Tales of Co-management in Venezuela

At the level of local-union democracy, the UNT has played a key role organizing workers, providing new unions with legal and strategic advice, and acting as a liaison with the state. But its leaders are also promoting democracy in the workplace, centered on the promotion of worker control over production. Venezuela’s embryonic new unionism is fundamentally based on a somewhat ragtag collection of theoretical streams, much like the Bolívarian revolution itself, but foremost among them is worker-state co-management. Still in its most preliminary stages both as an official government policy (a very recent development) and in the factories currently run by, struggling for, or experimenting with co-management, three distinct models have emerged, each with its pros and cons, its lessons, and examples.


“What is co-management?” thunders Joaquín Osorio to the assembled workers at the Olympic Villa in Valencia, Carabobo. Osorio is the president of the Disciplinary Tribunal of the electrical workers union Fetraelec, and one of the union’s primary ideologues. He is addressing a workshop on co-management, part of the Third International Encounter in Solidarity with the Bolívarian Revolution, which includes workers and delegates from around the country, as well as a small group of international guests including a delegation from Canada’s Vancouver District Labor Council and a Babson College (United States) economics professor, among others. “For us, co-management is power in the hands of workers,” continues Osorio. “It’s the right and the need for workers to participate in the administration of the company. It’s a system of management and administration that includes the state, workers, and (in our case) the users, in equal conditions. Co-management is the alternative to the old failed vertical, corrupt, and bureaucratic system that brought state-run enterprises to the crisis in which they now find themselves.”

Workers at Cadafe, the state electric company that provides 60 percent of the electricity in Venezuela, began a push for co-management soon after Chávez was elected in 1998. In 2002, shortly after the April coup, Cadafe officially began the transition to co-management. But three years later, workers’ role in the decision-making process is still limited to two positions on a five-member coordinating committee—a group that can make recommendations to the president of the company, but he has no obligation to heed. After giving the state management a chance to implement real co-management, Cadafe workers, led by the union federation Fetraelec, have staged a series of protests articulating their impatience. It’s a tricky strategy, because the majority of these workers are staunch supporters of President Chávez, but their protests are necessarily directed against the Ministry of Energy—the state entity in charge of Cadafe.

“We understand that in the past three years there was a whole series of strikes, lockouts, coups, guarimbas5, that necessitated a state with a strong character that would prevent these types of actions—coups etc.—from taking power away from the government,” says Angel Navas, president of Fetraelec, the federation linking Cadafe unions. “But that phase is now passed, and now is the moment to begin democratizing the state, because workers and the people are demanding a larger role in the decision-making process.”6

“There is a degree of resistance to the consolidation and application of the revolutionary process,” notes Navas. “When we began pushing for the concrete elaboration of co-management in Cadafe, we provoked the rejection of supposed representatives of the state who refused to share power with the workers.”

The one exception is Cadela—the Andean arm of Cadafe—which has been a trailblazer in the implementation of co-management; their example of effective symbiosis between workers and management is being held up by the rest of the federation as a model for the future. Cadafe represents Venezuela’s most well-organized and longest push for co-management from below.


Speaking to a local newspaper in the manufacturing state of Carabobo, where the paper factory Venepal (now state-owned Invepal) is located, ex-president of Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s main Chamber of Commerce federation, Carlos Fernández Pérez, warned, “If both sides don’t come to a satisfactory agreement, if they do not do justice, we will see within a short period of time installations destroyed without the workers having any income and as a consequence of this we will see how they are going to destroy the productive fabric of the country until there’s nothing left.” It is fair to assume that Fernández was representing the views of the owners of Venepal, and of Venezuela’s property-owning class in general, in his diatribe against worker-control.

The struggle at Venepal has been in the hearts of workers all over the country since the company went bankrupt, laying off 900 workers and provoking them to occupy the factory and demand its nationalization. After a long battle with the company’s owners, including legal action, the government paid market value for the bankrupt firm and handed half of it over to workers to be run in conjunction with the state.

But the business of worker-management is complex, and as a Venezuelan trailblazer, the pressure on Invepal to feed the hopes of workers at factories throughout the country is high. While it remains unclear exactly what is going on at Invepal, recent developments suggest a deviation from workers’ earlier goals.

According to President Chávez, the renamed company, Invepal, will produce paper notebooks made of Venezuelan primary material. Wood produced in the Venezuelan states of Monagas and Anzoátegui, southeast of the capital Caracas, will be made into pulp at a new factory to be purchased by the state. The pulp will then provide Invepal with its own entirely domestic raw material. According to Invepal union leader Edgar Peña, Invepal currently must import pulp from Chile, with a shipment of 600 tons now over a month late.

A workers’ assembly, representing the maximum authority of the company, will eliminate bureaucracy and merge production and administration, said Chávez. “This structure will be put to the test, and we’ll adjust it as necessary, because here we are inventing our own model,” he added.

On the first day of the co-management workshop in Valencia, that is exactly what happened. Alexix Ornevo, former member of the executive of Venepal’s now defunct union and current member of the directorate of Invepal, noted that since they no longer had any bosses, they no longer needed a union, as workers were now grouped into a cooperative (Covimpa) to run the company. And as a cooperative, Ornevo was quick to point out, they got several benefits including constitutional relief from paying taxes. Also, thanks to the 1999 Bolívarian Constitution, Covimpa—which now owns a 49 percent share in Invepal—is legally entitled to increase that share up to 95 percent.

Ornevo’s presentation caused serious concern among his audience, who worried that the model of co-management and worker agency in the country was setting the stage to become a model of a capitalist cooperative. “As we saw in yesterday’s presentation on Invepal,” said Navas in private, “they are having some serious problems, they seem to be thinking as managers. According to what we heard yesterday, they want to own all of the company’s shares. Eight-hundred workers will be owners of a company. And if it becomes profitable, are these workers going to get rich? This is a company that is supposed to belong to the entire country; my company can’t only belong to the workers, if we make profits they belong to the entire population. This is a responsibility that we all have—workers in the oil industry, those who make the most: how do we spread this to the rest of the country? These profits are not for me. It doesn’t make sense that just because I work in the oil industry, for example, I can make 90 million bolivares [us$42,000] when the minimum wage is [4 million bolivares or us$1,900].”

Whether or not Invepal does indeed focus on the well-being of a small group of workers, or return to earlier goals of running the company in the interest of the community and the whole country, remains to be seen. Either way, their experience continues to inspire crucial debates within the UNT on the pitfalls of a strategy of co-management without a concurrent wider economic strategy.

“I think that [the co-management workshop] is something that we should repeat, to increase discussion...within the labor movement,” said Navas. “It requires us to speak of wages, productivity, and efficiency; of what is the administrative mechanism of a company, and of the socialization of the means of production. There were workers here yesterday who began asking, after hearing the presentation by Invepal, What is co-management? The elimination of unions? We don’t agree with that, so we’ll continue to debate these issues.”


The state-owned aluminum processing plant Alcasa is a third example of Venezuela’s experience with co-management. Along with Chávez’s announcement last January that co-management will form a key part of Venezuela’s emerging strategy of “endogenous development” came the appointment of a special task force charged with devising a strategy for the implementation of co-management in all state-run industries. Acting out of the newly established Ministry of Basic Industry headed by Victor Alvarez, a strong supporter of co-management, this new task force has chosen Alcasa as its guinea pig. In an article originally published on http://www.venezuelanalysis.com, and reproduced in these pages last month, Marta Harnecker described some of the key features of Alcasa’s development of co-management.

Carlos Lanz, newly appointed president of the company, has begun implementing a series of democratizing measures bringing workers into the factory’s decision-making process. Trino Silva, secretary-general of the Alcasa union, has long denounced the inefficiency and corruption that has prevented Alcasa from realizing its profitable potential.

“What we need first is a factory that is productive,” said Silva in an interview last November at Alcasa. “Today the company is becoming productive, but it must not only be productive, but also profitable. And if we’re not profitable and we are bankrupt, why is the same management still here?” That management has since been replaced by workers, elected by workers, which both Lanz and Silva believe will likely increase productivity and reduce corruption, while also laying the foundation for a nation-wide government strategy of co-management.

Chavista Unionism versus Autonomy

One debate in particular has characterized divisions within the UNT since its inception: how to balance support for Chávez with the autonomy from government that has historically eluded Venezuelan unions? And this debate has been intertwined with another, regarding different visions of the UNT’s democratic structures. In the context of the onslaught of illegal and legal attacks by the opposition against President Chávez, these debates have taken on added emotional intensity. While there are many streams within and outside the UNT, the most visible debates have generally been reduced to dichotomies personified by the two most prominent likely candidates for the UNT presidency: Ramón Machuca and Orlando Chirinos.

The “Chavista unionism” current is represented by the Bolívarian Workers Force (FBT), a pre-UNT federation of pro-Chávez unions. It is nearly impossible to estimate the FBT’s membership, for no one (least of all the FBT) is currently compiling such statistics. However, of the seven most visible coordinators of the UNT (of a total of twenty), four come from the FBT, including Orlando Chirinos.

The “autonomous unionism” group is led by Ramón Machuca who has the support of the remaining three of the seven UNT coordinators mentioned above. With a membership of nearly four thousand, Machuca’s steelworkers’ union Sutiss is one of the country’s biggest and most well-known unions, due in particular to a tradition of radical unionism going back to the 1970s.

What has complicated this debate is that both sides ostensibly support union autonomy. Yet the FBT is widely reported (including by FBT sources) to have close relations to the Ministry of Labor. The Machuca wing, on the other hand, has been accused of having its own links to government through Franklin Rondón, president of one of the largest public-sector unions. It is here that the debate seeps into a broader, less easily definable one on democracy. Given the current correlation of forces, goes one argument, a new federation must be firmly established to replace the CTV, even if this slightly curtails the new body’s democratic nature. The opposing position argues that for the new confederation to succeed in making a comprehensive break with the old unionism, the emphasis must be entirely on building democratic foundations.

A prime example is the controversy over who will be permitted to vote in the UNT’s upcoming elections. Machuca and several UNT coordinators argue that all workers inside or outside the UNT should be allowed to vote, since the UNT’s first election will likely influence all workers. Chirinos and his allies argue that while they agree with the sentiment of this strategy, it opens the door for sabotage since it would mean that members of the CTV could vote in the UNT elections. CTV leaders could, in theory, mobilize their members to support a candidate that more closely reflects the CTV’s interests than those of workers. Neither of these arguments address the participation of informal workers in the UNT elections, despite the fact that 50 percent of Venezuelan workers are self-employed or employed in the informal sector.7

Unity in UNT?

The animosities piqued locally and nationally by the internal battles within local unions and the UNT have by no means disappeared. Yet, as time drags on, both sides are increasingly aware of the rank and file’s impatience with their lack of unity.

In mid-November, while in Brazil for the twelfth congress of the Latin American Workers’ Central (CLAT), Ramón Machuca and Marcela Maspero (UNT coordinator and member of the FBT) met in private, taking an important step in the conciliation between the rival UNT factions. Both Maspero and Machuca referred to the ad hoc meeting in Brazil as groundbreaking. “Both sides were able to reflect on past mistakes, on the atmosphere that we are all equally responsible for creating [within the UNT],” said Maspero. Machuca added that the strategy of character assassination, previously employed by both sides, was rejected, and that the meeting fostered the kind of constructive ideological debates the UNT needs. In Brazil, the decision was made to call UNT coordinators to Caracas for a meeting held in early December to “build on the greatly improved relations [between the two sides].”8

Such cooperation is absolutely necessary if the upcoming elections are to win over the large swath of Venezuelan unions that currently have a foot in each of the rival labor federations. This as yet undecided sector is well aware of the potential of the new federation, but all too conscious of the powerful sectarian roots that have ravaged Venezuelan labor in the past. While political disagreements will certainly persist, if Machuca and Chirinos—or, more importantly, their supporters—can unite, as they appear to be doing, the UNT will be a dynamic and diverse pillar of progressive politics in Venezuela. Their timing could not be better, for the rival CTV will also be holding elections in the coming months, bringing the two labor federations to perhaps their most important face-off.


Breaking with Venezuelan labor’s collaborationist past, even with the support of a progressive Venezuelan government, has required a self-conscious re-education on the part of labor leaders and the rank and file. To even get to the point where workers and shop stewards can imagine a different kind of unionism and a different kind of union is a drawn-out process; one that has required open debates, conflicts, and above all, a sense of history. Workers have had to salvage a culture of struggle from the wreckage of CTV lethargy, while simultaneously developing a new one from scratch.

Over the two years of the UNT’s existence, some debates have turned into conflicts. A variety of factors end up informing the decisions of union leaders, not all of them ideological. As in the old-unionism of the CTV, power and egos often influence decisions, and as with the old Venezuelan left, vicious sectarianism represents a very real barrier to unity. But the allure of the UNT, what has allowed it to present such a devastating challenge to the CTV in just two years, is that these conflicts have not overshadowed crucial ideological debates. 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? How can local leaders adequately balance workers’ interests with community interests as well as with local and national issues? These debates are ongoing—the UNT has by no means reached a consensus. But the very presence of these debates represents the concrete advances of the UNT over the authoritarian past of organized labor in Venezuela.

Wresting Venezuelan labor from this “muck of ages” is not a clean process, and the UNT has suffered setbacks as well as achieved some very powerful victories. Scratching the surface of both advances and reversals reveals the critical process of rethinking and reimagining that is gripping the trade union movement, and it is clear that these setbacks and tangents are as necessary as they are cathartic. The serious rifts within the UNT at the local and national levels, the ties between them, and the destructive and constructive effects of these divisions on the labor movement as an imagined whole shed light on the grit of the process of raising a new confederation out of the rubble of the old. Debates on politics and policy are building an open forum for discussion—and dissension—into the basic structure of the UNT.


The co-management workshop closed on Saturday, April 16, 2005, with a series of clear resolutions, aimed at leaving no question as to the role of workers in the continuous development of Venezuela’s revolution. I have translated and included some of them here.

  • The direct and democratic participation of workers in the management or co-management of productive and distributive processes is the only mechanism to guarantee and consolidate the Bolívarian Revolution.
  • The experiences that we have had up to now tell us that it is only possible to develop worker participation in state-owned companies. We reject any idea of converting workers into small property owners in co-managed or self-managed enterprises.
  • The participation of the community is fundamental to the entire process of co-management and self-management in order to break with social exclusion in the development of an alternative model of production. Co- and self-management are political acts that concretize the alliance between the people who should be in control of the state and the working classes. It is not a corporatist economic pact between state, factory-owner, and a privileged caste of worker-functionaries.
  • The participants unanimously express their absolute solidarity with the Cuban people and the Cuban Revolution...and extend their solidarity to all the peoples who suffer aggression in the anti-imperialist struggle, in particular to the heroic peoples of Iraq and Haiti, confronting the U.S. invasion of their territory.


  1. Gregory Wilpert, “Collision in Venezuela,” New Left Review, May–June 2003.
  2. The Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores (Regional InterAmerican Organization of Workers—ORIT) head offices are located in the CTV building in downtown Caracas. See Steve Ellner, Organized Labor in Venezuela 1958–1991: Behaviour and Concerns in a Democratic Setting (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1993). For details of the CIA’s use of the CTV and ORIT in operations against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the late 1980s, see William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992).
  3. It is worth noting that while many organized workers may not be among this 80 percent, they are likely to have extended family members who are unemployed, or precariously self-employed in the informal economy. Furthermore, whole communities, where the majority of the population lives below the poverty line, often depend on the trickle-down effect of having some good jobs in their community. Finally, while very little documentation actually exists, the informal economy is widely perceived to be dominated by women. This interrelationship between formal and informal workers has sometimes resulted in a powerful solidarity that transcends the factory.
  4. http://www.mintra.gov.ve
  5. The guarimbas were violent street protests in late February–early March 2004 featuring barricades, Molotov-cocktail and stone throwing encapuchados (hooded-ones), as part of deliberately provoked confrontations with the police and the National Guard (GN). The guarimbas began as street demonstrations egged-on by the grossly irresponsible leadership of the opposition to Chávez to protest the expected ruling of the National Electoral Council on the signature petition for a referendum to recall President Chávez. Many of the encapuchados were directly paid by members of the opposition to throw Molotov-cocktails at the GN in order to provoke them into repressing the demonstrations.
  6. Interviewed in Valencia, April 13, 2005.
  7. Interview with Ricardo Dorado, vice-minister of labor, Caracas, October 9, 2004.
  8. Interviews in Caracas, December 15, 2004.

Original source / relevant link:
Monthly Review

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One of the international guests at the Annual General Meeting of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union, was Ruben Dario Linares Silva, national coordinator of the Venezuelan National Workers' Union (UNT) and vice-president of the United Transport Federation in Venezuela. The RMT congress took place in Exeter in South West England from June 26 to Friday July 1.

Ruben Linares

The RMT has been very supportive of the Venezuelan revolution for a number of years and is also affiliated to the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. A delegation from the RMT, including general secretary Bob Crow and president Tony Donaghey, was present at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre earlier this year when Chavez made the speech in which he said that the Bolivarian revolution had to go towards socialism. A whole number of RMT branches have also affiliated to the campaign and the union's president spoke at the recent public meeting in London with UNT representative Anastacio Rodriguez.

Speaking to the RMT conference on Monday, June 27, Ruben Linares thanked the RMT for having invited him to attend their conference and explained the basic aims of the Venezuelan Revolution and how they have improved the conditions of working people and trade unionists. He explained how the new Bolivarian constitution had become a weapon of struggle: "Our revolution is armed, it is armed with this constitution," he said, showing the delegates one of the pocket size editions everybody in Venezuela carries. Ruben also described how the policies of Thatcherism, "which started in your country 25 years ago, also hurt our peoples, the policies of privatisation and neoliberalism". The Bolivarian Revolution "has put an end to privatisations, no more privatisations," he emphasised, describing this move as part of a continent-wide rejection of Thatcherism in Latin America, including the uprising in Arequipa, Peru, "which defeated the privatisation of electricity".

Ruben Linares, a very powerful speaker, described how Chavez has said that the only way forward is socialism "and socialism is what we are building in Venezuela, taking into account the local conditions". The mood in the conference was electric as delegates identified with the revolutionary spirit he was bringing from Venezuela. Ruben Linares ended his speech paraphrasing Che Guevara: "Let those who are born know, let those who are yet to be born know, the workers are on struggle, and we were born to be victorious, we were not born to be defeated"! The whole conference exploded in a heartfelt standing ovation.

Three quarters of all delegates signed the Hands Off Venezuela petition, and many took information and leaflets from the campaign and were generally very enthusiastic to get involved. By the end of the day, most delegates were wearing the distinctive Hands Off Venezuela stickers and pledged to take the message back to their branches and regions.

The visit by Ruben Linares, a national coordinator of the UNT, who also met with the TUC International Department, is an important step forward in the struggle to get the UNT recognised by the international trade union movement.

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