Report on Venezuelan Labour: the Process Continues (Mike Lebowitz)

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Fri Aug 8 11:18:57 MDT 2003

Dear Friends, I hope you find the following note of interest and will
forward it to relevant lists and individuals. in solidarity, michael
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
(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 defeated.

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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