Latin America,  Trade Unions,  Trots

Chavez vs. the trade unions

The Economist reports:

His government espouses “21st-century socialism” and claims to stand for the working class. Yet Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, has never been a fan of his country’s trade unions. He portrays them as corrupt vestiges of a capitalist past and of the previous political order. Ever since he was first elected, in 1998, he has sought ways to bring them to heel. Having first tried and failed to take over the main trade-union confederation, he encouraged a pro-government rival. Now he wants to bypass the unions altogether, by establishing in their place “workers’ councils” that amount to branches of the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

A bill in the government-controlled National Assembly would eliminate collective bargaining and give powers in labour matters to the new councils. “The government’s policy is the total elimination of the union movement,” says Orlando Chirino, a former chavista who is one of the architects of the Labour Solidarity Movement, a new group which embraces unions from both sides of the country’s political divide and which defends union autonomy.

The bill comes hand-in-hand with the slowdown in the economy and a government crackdown on opposition politicians. Its onslaught on the unions, and its refusal to negotiate collective contracts—or to respect them once signed—is meeting resistance. Labour disputes are increasing, from 46 in January, to 59 in February and 113 in March, according to figures compiled by Victorino Márquez, a labour specialist at the Catholic University in Caracas.

Chavez hinted at his attitude toward collective bargaining last year when he complained about overtime pay for camera operators at a state-owned TV station while speaking on the air:

Chávez: “Check it out, they get eight hours’ pay for each overtime hour worked! And if you want to change that, they raise a stink! Some of them make threats! That means, for every hour they work on a Sunday they get paid for eight! Because that’s signed into what they call the…whatchamacallit?” (sp: lo que llaman…¿cómo es?)

Voice off-camera: “Collective bargaining agreement.”

Chávez: “The collective bargaining agreement…on the government’s dime!”

Orlando Chirino, who warns about the Chavez government’s efforts to eliminate unions, is part of the movement that brings together anti-Chavez and formerly pro-Chavez trade unionists like himself to defend independent trade unionism against an increasingly hostile government.

Chirino has spoken out about a recent wave of violence against Venezuelan trade unionists.

In January, in the eastern state of Anzoátegui, governed by Tarek Saab of the PSUV, police fired upon picketing workers who were occupying a Mitsubishi assembly plant. Two workers were killed.

“Two workers dead. That is a blow I feel deep down in my heart,” President Chávez said on that occasion. “Those responsible must be sent to prison.”

[C]hirino… retorted that “it is not enough to make speeches promising thorough investigations and severe punishment for those responsible. What has happened is a systemic problem of workers being targeted in violent attacks, not just an isolated incident of excessive force by police.”

Chirino, a Trotskyist, was national coordinator of the pro-Chavez union federation UNT, founded in opposition to the anti-Chavez federation CTV in 2003. As such he was feted by the pro-Chavez London-based Hands Off Venezuela! in 2005.

By 2007 Chirino was heading a “left” faction within the UNT and speaking critically of Chavez’s increasing hostility to trade union independence from the ruling PSUV party.

This was too much for the Unrepentant Marxist himself, Louis Proyect, who accused Chirino of being an ultraleft counter-revolutionary.

“Being a worker does not excuse you from standing up to the judgement of history,” Proyect scolded.

Chirino was fired from his job at the state-owned oil company PDVSA at the beginning of 2008, but reinstated last November.

Chirino and his UNT faction refused to participate in either pro- or anti-Chavez May Day demonstrations this year.

Now that he is unequivocally denouncing Chavez’s efforts at union-busting to bourgeois media like The Economist, it will be interesting to see how Chirino is treated by the pro-Chavez Left.

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