Report on Venezuela's Trade Union Situation

Reprinted with permission from


I travelled with my partner Barry Lipton in May 2004 to conduct an informal fact-finding survey of the current situation of trade union groups in Venezuela. Over a period of five days, we interviewed the leadership of the (ICFTU and ORIT affiliate)[1] CTV; representatives of the new labour central, UNT; a number of representatives of labour and human rights NGOs; staff and officers of the ORIT, the Vice-Minister of Labour, social and labour historians, and other government officials. Due to limitations of time and resources, our report is restricted to an analysis of the trade union situation with superficial reference to the country’s current political situation.

Brief political context

The government of President Hugo Chávez was swept to power in Venezuela, an oil-rich country in the northernmost part of South America, through democratic elections in 1999. Chávez's government identified the major problem in the country as being the fact that the country's vast oil wealth was not being used to alleviate poverty, as 80% of the country's 24 million inhabitants continued to be impoverished. The government's first major initiative was to launch an extremely broad and participatory referendum on a new constitution. This was followed by the announcement of a number of initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and empowering communities to implement programs at the local level. Four years into the government’s mandate, five comprehensive initiatives, called 'missions,' effectively created health and education programs to provide high quality, accessible services directly to the people. The new services run parallel to existing ones, rendered very ineffective after 60 years of corrupt administration.

The mission programs are apparently highly successful. There is huge support for the government throughout the country and it is likely that even in the case of a successful campaign to call a referendum, the government's mandate will be reaffirmed.

The US government supported the new Venezuelan government for the first two years, but then began to show increasing hostility. The US has a new strategy to identify Chávez with Fidel Castro in the public mind and try to isolate the Venezuelan government politically. This political campaign may be mixed with actual material support for a violent overthrow of the current government. We were told about the parallel trade union central, UNT, while in Canada. What we learned once on the ground was that parallelism exists in other realms, in particular the five 'missions' (Robinson, Sucre, Ribas, Vuelvan Caras and Barrio Adentro) created to deliver programs such as educational and health services directly to the people. In general, the government's creation of parallel structures responds to the government's concern desire to circumvent bureaucratic and highly corrupt government service delivery systems built up over the last 60 years. The old systems were anything but universal in service delivery; the new services are reported to be reaching the people. While we made no attempt to verify the accounts of corruption in delivery of services, the allegations are wide and consistent and we had no reason to doubt their truth.

Although we have not located any documentation pointing to this assertion, it appears that the formation of the UNT was a goal of the government. It is clear that the main labour leaders now heading up the UNT in its provisional phase are closely aligned with government policy. As pointed out by academic Steve Ellner, a number of leaders would like to avoid union parallelism. That is, they would prefer to see the new central replace and displace the previous front-runner, rather than seeing the two as active competitors. To this end, the UNT leaders are working toward elections for the new structure and leadership of the new central. They favour waiting until the new central appears placed to be successful to hold such elections. The UNT is currently in a phase of rapid expansion. It receives support and preferential treatment from the government. Even though it is not fully constituted, the government recognizes UNT unions and federation and is actively engaged in collective bargaining with them. Although it previously dictated the procedures for unions, it is now stepping aside and letting the UNT determine its own electoral rules. The UNT espouses social unionism and is expending significant effort to organize workers from the informal economy. A number of respected leaders of former CTV affiliated unions and federations have recently crossed over to join the UNT, with or without a formal vote by their memberships. The date for such votes is pending.

As the strength of the UNT grows, the CTV is being revealed as an organization lacking in even the most basic trade union agenda. Its top leadership has suffered a serious loss of credibility with its rank and file membership. It is almost universally seen to be dominated by a partisan political agenda, displaying single-minded determination to oppose the government. On most policy issues, CTV continues to act in conjunction with business representatives, such as the FEDECAMARAS, a key player in the failed April 2002 coup d'état. For example, the CTV and FEDECAMARAS recently opposed both the increase in minimum wage and the no-layoff policy adopted by the government.

The ORIT provides financial support to the CTV and is committed to help the CTV develop trade-union-oriented programs and policies, should the CTV request such assistance. The organization is headquartered in the CTV building and has strong ties with the central. Recently, noting that the CTV had not made any statements against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, ORIT offered to hold a seminar on free trade for the central. It must be remembered that the CTV is still the ICFTU affiliate central in the country, and until elections of the UNT, is likely to be considered the largest labour central in Venezuela.

It is noteworthy that the attacks on the CTV by the government have not abated. President Hugo Chávez has continued to make statements declaring the CTV as worthy of destruction, whether by its own hand or with help. In the first annual convention of the UNT held in April of this year, President Chávez predicted that the CTV would become like 'cosmic dust,' requiring a telescope to locate it out among the constellations. The government continues to restrict the activities of the CTV, including making public sector negotiations led by the central all but impossible and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the CTV executive.

Nonetheless, there has been some successful collective bargaining in sectors where both the CTV and UNT are parties at the table. A recent example is the teachers' agreement. A total of 9 federations were involved in negotiating a sectoral agreement. All but one of the federations is affiliated to the CTV. When it came to the end of the negotiations, the CTV- affiliated federations objected to the government proposals and stated in the declaration of settlement that they were only signing the agreement to avoid major labour unrest in the sector. The new agreement provides a 30% wage increase over 18 months and a great number of benefit improvements.

For all its centralism, the CTV is far from monolithic. Affiliated national unions and federations represent a range of programmatic approaches and styles of operation, from democratic to authoritarian. However, there are few spaces in which the lack of trust and respect between the CTV and the UNT can be bridged, and virtually no such expressions of trust between the government and the CTV. All parties believe that their opposite numbers cheat and lie.

When we asked what steps the CTV planned to take to ensure that 'historic errors' (such as intertwining with political parties and employers' associations, distance of the leadership from the base, and corruption) do not recur, the CTV executive would only say they planned to implement procedures long on the books to increase the transparency of their financial dealings. Perhaps this is all that can be expected of them.

Future prospects

For the moment, most of the attention in the country is currently focussed on the potential referendum on the leadership of President Chávez, and not on trade union or worker issues. The verification of the signatures on the petitions calling for recall will be conducted over four days ending June 2. The outcome should be known in the days following that date. If there are enough valid signatures (600,000), a referendum on the president's leadership will be called for August. Should the referendum be called, we can assume that the dominance on the political sphere over the trade union arena will not shift. Given that a referendum is probable, the UNT's hope to hold a broad consultation on rules for elections, followed by union and confederation elections for the entire new central, will likely be postponed past October.

--Daina Green is a labor union consultant and Barry Lipton is a community organizer. Both are based in Toronto, Canada. Daina Green may be reached at: ------------------------------------------------------------------------ [1] ICFTU: International Congress of Free Trade Unions; ORIT: Interamerican Regional Workers Organization (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores)

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