Dow Jones International News
March 28, 2007
CARACAS - President Hugo Chavez is pressing the nation's labor unions to join together under a single, pro-government organization amid a continuing campaign to centralize political control.
Earlier this year, Chavez announced the formation of a new Socialist party to group together his diverse political followers. Critics say the move is meant to erase any factional infighting and sniff out potential sources of dissent from Chavez's own camp.
Chavez already controls the country's key institutions, including the unicameral legislature and the nation's high court, not to mention allies in 20 of 23 governorships. Now he wants to put organized labor under the control of his new party.
"This party needs an industrial arm," said Chavez at a Socialist party meeting over the weekend. "New labor unions have been born in these years, but almost all of them are poisoned with the same venom of union autonomy."
Chavez went on to say any unions that resist forming a unified group tied to the ruling party will be sidelined from a negotiating role with the government.
"We'll go directly to the workers at the factories, to speak to them about unity."
Chavez has been pushing to unify labor for years, but is now making it more of a priority as he fuses the various pro-government groups into the Venezuelan Socialist Party, a process he hopes to complete by the end of this year.
Fifteen members of the pro-Chavez National Workers Union sent the president a letter of complaint on Tuesday, warning against the "Stalinization" of the nation's unions into a single organization that serves the ruling party.
Oil Unions In the Spotlight
Far from backing off, Chavez and his ministers are starting to play tough with unions. The labor ministry is demanding that the country's three largest oil unions fuse together as a requirement to launch salary negotiations. The previous contract expired three months ago.
The move could leave the country's 40,000-plus oil workers in a weaker position to confront the government later on, especially if Chavez winds up appointing the new leaders himself.
"We can have a new federation, but not one that is submissive to the government," said Omar Mindiola, a representative of Sinutrapetrol, one of the top three oil unions. He insists on internal elections for new labor leaders.
The Fedepetrol oil union, which turned pro-government in 2003 after Chavez purged the industry of opposition employees, favors a single labor group.
"It will do away with the suitcase unions," said Fedepetrol President Oswaldo Caibett, referring to a growing number of new unions still seeking legal registration.
Caibett says these upstarts have no authority to represent the workers in contract talks with management.
Smaller unions, including four at the country's extra-heavy oil operations in the Orinoco , are wary of relinquishing the leadership role they have taken on amid Fedepetrol's decline.
Fedepetrol's recent history underscores Chavez's growing institutional control of Venezuela.
When Chavez entered office in 1999, the oil union was home to one of the country's most famous opposition leaders, Carlos Ortega.
Ortega led several successful oil strikes that won higher wages for Fedepetrol members, and then moved on to head the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, or CTV, which groups public sector workers and has traditionally been the country's biggest labor organization.
In 2002, Ortega formed an unlikely alliance of labor and business groups to challenge the president's policies, which he labeled "totalitarian."
The ensuing nationwide general strike also shuttered the dominant oil industry from late 2002 through early 2003, crippling the economy and causing an estimated $10 billion in lost revenue.
Oil workers at state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. who teamed up with their old boss during the strike were fired and booted from company housing.
The government then turned Fedepetrol into a politically friendly outfit run by the workers who remained loyal during the strike.
Analysts say Chavez is much more comfortable with weakened organized labor.
"Nationalist leaders like Chavez are not keen on unions, they challenge your authority," said Roger Tissot, an analyst at PFC Energy, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy