Interview with Orlando Chirino and Stalin Pérez Borges national co-ordinators of the National Workers’ Union (UNT), and driving forces at the heart of the Class-based, Socialist and revolutionary Current, that is pushing for an immediate second congress of the UNT and democratic elections to renew the UNT national committee.
“The UNT is an historical conquest of workers born in the extraordinary triumph over imperialism and the Venezuelan Bourgeoisie” By Aporrea. Org Wednesday 15/2/06
Aporrea: After seven years of this revolutionary process what are in your view the real conditions of the working class in Venezuela?Chirino: As the political and union leaders who have fought for the construction of a Revolutionary and Socialist Party, we look positively at the plans of Chavez for this process to go to Socialism of the 21st Century, as he calls it.
Its important for us, to demand the socialism that he has put forward, however, we have to be clear, the concrete steps that are being taken in the union movement and in the capital-labour relationship, shows the complete opposite: we are not advancing effectively towards socialism. It appears to us that you can’t advance towards socialism while leaving aside the planning of co-management of the factories that, in the UNT, for example, was seen by a lot of workers and union leaders as an advance (of a transitional type), even though it was taking place in the framework of capitalism, but nevertheless, it was openly questioning the private ownership of the means of production, permitting the participation of workers in the management of companies, and that also introduced elements of double (parallel) power in the public companies as well as private, but especially in the former.
It’s important to mention the case of companies in the electricity sector, where they had advanced furthest in co-management (cogestion); today the country must know that this is completely halted, and we find president Chavez, in a recent Alo Presidente, saying that we must forget the possibility of co-management in electricity sector and in oil sector, and in general in primary industry. He uses the completely contradictory argument that these were strategic companies and important to the security of the state, forgetting that during the employer’s sabotage-strike of December 2002 and February 2003, the workers took control of our main industry for more than 60 days, a period during which we showed that workers are not only able to operate a technologically advanced industry like oil but also we are the best defence of security.
This position of the government expressed by Chavez reflects a debate that has opened within our union, where a sector influenced by the vision of representatives of the Cuban state, are worried about workers playing a leading role in the revolutionary process.
Furthermore, in the last few days the president has been pushing what are called “Social production companies”. Here you have to consider the situation in the oil sector where there are workers who entered (to help keep it open) during the sabotage, and whose contracts will end in 26 April. The proposal of the management in this case is that not to take them on proper contracts but to transfer them to the Social Production Companies, which will break the collective agreement of PDVSA, and a presidential decree that said that these workers should become permanent, as was demanded in the collective agreements.
As for participation in the oil sector, we have to say that there sill exists persecution and harassment of workers who make criticisms, without taking into account that a lot of these workers were outstanding in their struggle against the coup-plotters and imperialism during the employer’s sabotage strike.
If they don’t even tolerate criticisms and are diluting the timid establishing of co-management, then from our point of view there is no possibility of confronting the bureaucracy and corruption, a confrontation that would increase the confidence of workers to construct a different society, a socialist society.
Aporrea: And what is the situation in private companies?Chirino: One of the most worrying situations is that of the co-operatives, those which are being used to get rid of labour rights that have been won already like unions and co-ops are also being used to make work more precarious. In the private companies that were taken over by the workers we are having a debate about the issue of abolishing unions –we believe that it’s a mistake to abolish unions at the same time as making a co-operative to manage the companies. This from our point of view doesn’t have anything to do with socialism, since the immense majority of the co-ops are contractors that end up forcing more flexible and precarious working conditions.
Furthermore, in relation to private companies the government has been privileging recently its relations with Fedecameras (employers’ body). Despite the crisis and semi-paralisation that the UNT has gone through, at the centre of the union there has been a class-based sector that has pushed forward its growth and development. However, as leaders of this current, we haven’t been called to meet with the government and specifically with the president to present the problems of workers and their demands.
We also have to be clear and categorical that the co-management they are implanting in the expropriated private companies have nothing to do with socialism. They are making agreements with companies, many of whom closed illegally during the sabotage-strike, leaving workers in the street without even paying social support. What they are establishing is agreements with companies where the state invests a lot of money, while the only change achieved is that the board of directors have a minimum participation of workers, but in the framework of capitalist relations.
What is happening is that the bourgeoisie is cleverly getting money from the state, while the workers are not getting any effective advance towards socialism.
As much in the public companies as in the private, we don’t see that the correct steps are been taken towards socialism, on the contrary, we see worryingly that precariousness is spreading, while the anti-union policies of the government, ministers and directors of the autonomous institutes continue. For example in some places the Ministry of Labour is being used to stop the workers organising and this has nothing to do with socialism, on the contrary, its pure neoliberalism.
We don’t even see in the governors, mayors, ministers and civil servants the slightest interest in ensuring social control, community participation and workers participation in the management of service companies, in particular public companies.
On the other hand, we are still governed by a Law (the Ley Orgánica del Trabajo) the very rules of which are profoundly reactionary and the product of a ‘late night’ when the government of Caldera left and Chávez still hadn’t assumed office. Furthermore the Social security Law is still held up in the National Assembly, all these, measures that aren’t even socialist but simple democratic advances still remain to be fulfilled.
Aporrea: And what is the concrete situation of public employees? Chirino: There is something that we oppose and we have raised in the UNT, which is the unilateralness with which the President has been addressing the minimum wage problems, collective agreements and other problems. It’s good to address these issues but we have to raise the issue of the methodology of addressing them. The President is the main boss of the country, and on the other hand, the workers , who, with a lot of effort have been constructing their own organisation, the UNT, however, the presidential decisions are not a consequence of consultation with workers, through the UNT. In this way it’s difficult to be able to talk of participative and people-led democracy. Previously we warned that the government was privileging dialogue with Fedecamaras, while they didn’t talk or consult with the UNT when it was trying to deal with issues that effect worker’s interests. Neither have they considered a proposal we are raising which is to call a Social Economic Forum with unions at the rank and file, popular organisations, the Frente Campesino Ezequiel Zamora, the chambers of industry, the small and medium companies, to discuss salaries, the problems of employment and quality of conditions. While unemployment has been reduced, it has to be pointed out that 99% of new jobs are precarious, temporary and that jeopardise the contracts and conditions won by the working class.
We also see a great amount of public workers and sectors of the middle class, situated between level 1 and 14 of the salary scale, they hardly earn a minimum wage: even the professionals earn between 600,000 and 700.000 Bolivares (Bs) but a deputy earns between 6 or 7 million Bs! We can see a public administration worker on 26 of the salary scale, now hardly reaching one million Bs, but a judge earns between 20 and 22 million Bs and a worker 407,000, a difference of 50 times.
This shows that there is a big breach between workers. To summarise, facing this difficult situation that the Venezuelan workers currently suffer, our position is very clear, there will not be possibilities of advancing towards a socialism of the 21st century if we don’t resolve the immediate needs of workers, such as salaries, quality of employment, that workers can get a genuine and dignified job, the problems of housing, of health and education, amongst other things.
Aporrea: Faced with this situation that you describe what does the Class-based and Revolutionary Current propose in the centre of the UNT?Chirino: WE are absolutely convinced that workers not only have the challenge to construct a powerful centred union, but also have to construct a political instrument that fights consciously for a true programme of socialism in the country, for the actual participation of the base, developing social control and participating in the management of companies. We believe that like this, just as the bourgeoisie have their parties, reformism also has its parties for example, the so called parties of the Block of Change that are now rejected by the majority of the people, we believe that the workers have the legitimate right to create, without any attempt at self-proclamation, the necessity to construct our own party, that not just says what type of socialism we want to build but also what politics we need to fight imperialist aggression and in this way we are pushing that workers not only have to arms themselves autonomously through their unions and the central union, but also has to have the capacity to respond with mobilisations, with general strike, including expropriating the multinationals. These are the political issues that we address, that you could summarise in the necessity to recover the confidence of workers in their own strength and force, that is to say achieve their political independence, which in one way or another the political and union bureaucrat leaders helped lose. Furthermore there is confusion, given how the bourgeoisie and its parties used the strike to overthrow the government. Because there is a perspective within the government and a lot of the civil servants of branding us ‘scabs’ or enemies of the process for encouraging the most powerful weapon of the workers: strikes and their mobilisations.
Aporrea: What is the internal situation within the UNT?
Chirino: Our current would like to state categorically that the UNT is a historical conquest of the working class that was born in the extraordinary triumph over imperialism and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, specifically after the oil sabotage strike. In this context, there was an agreement amongst the different political and ideological currents of the union movement to create a provisional horizontal leadership. In this way, we demanded that in the UNT there would exist different currents of political and ideological thought. It’s important to emphasise that one sector of the Union, composed amongst others of Marcela Máspero, Stalin Pérez, Rubén Linares, Ismael Hernández, Vilma Vivas, Richard Gallardo, Marcos García, fulfilled the UNT’s founding congresses’ decision to create, during the first year a Class-based grouping. In this way, the UNT has the position today in the country of being a reference for the working class, this is well known internationally. But we must be clear of one thing, those who fulfilled this mandate of the workers were one sector, that which today comprises the Class based Revolutionary Current. Another sector used the UNT with a vision of “change everything so that nothing changes”. Simply they limited the change to replacing the letters CTV for UNT, and continuing acting the same or worse than the old leaders of the CTV, for this today the UNT is in a profound crisis, almost paralysed. Furthermore, there is a violation of the agreement from the founding congress. There it was established that elections to elect a new leadership would happen one year after the foundation, this hasn’t been possible, and on the 5th of April we are going to be 3 years since the founding of the UNT with two illegitimate years due to the delay in carrying out the elections as a result of the permanent sabotage by the bureaucratic sectors (currents).
In the UNT there are at least 5 distinct currents, the right wing, bureaucratic, corrupt sector that acts like a criminal, violating union democracy, that disrespects the organisations of the UNT, doesn’t go to meetings, their aim is not socialism. This sector is lead by Franklin Rondón and Francisco Torrealba, and from outside of the UNT by Ramón Machuca. They haven’t brought one union in to affiliate to the UNT. They sabotage congress, the elections, they carry on a politics of weakening the centre so they can get it under their control. This is the sector most clearly of the right wing. Then there is another sector that converted the FBT into a ‘una entelequia’. They are administrators of the government and deputies, and at the same time want to be the most important union leaders of the country. These people use gossip and slander to undermine the class based revolutionary leadership who are determined to build a new type of union. Amongst that sector are Oswaldo Vera, Rafael Chacón, Jaco Torres, José Ramón Rivero, amongst others. This is a sector that doesn’t have links with the bases and furthermore they get together with the right wing bureaucratic sector to sabotage congress, which is the most important organisation within the UNT, in which we must debate the programme of the central struggle.
This sector furthermore makes alliances with the sector of Franklin Rondón so that democracy doesn’t exist within the UNT. Then there is the Autonomist Union sector who’s co-ordinator is Orlando Castillo, now he’s a substitute deputy, but whatever manner of that, he has been slowing down the construction of the UNT. He hasn’t been participating in the discussions of the central co-ordinating leadership. However, Luis Primo has got involved in the discussions of central leadership and it seems that we are coming together with him around the necessity to organise congress and elections. Then there is the sector led by Marcela Máspero, who we know fairly well in the construction of the union but there have been differences, given that we have different visions in so far as democracy within the UNT, such as the functioning of internal organisations. On the other hand, we believe that there is a tendency for personalities and ‘caudillistas’ (strong-people) in this sector, but perhaps the most important difference with this sector is its attitude towards the government. We, different from the sector that Marcela leads, argue that the UNT must have autonomy and independence from the government and the bosses, furthermore we believe that the political autonomy of the union is the principal instrument to confront bureaucracy and corruption, so that we can construct social control, to make efficient and transparent the state companies and to guarantee the collective construction of socialism of the 21st Century.
We would like that both sectors get together to guarantee that the union functions, so that we implement democracy and the necessity of unity to defeat the sectors of the right wing who see the UNT an obstacle, with their politics, although they don’t say it, to destroy the union.
We are unconditional fighters so that the second congress of the UNT happens, we don’t want to make bureaucratic agreements, for us the workers must express themselves from the bases, transparently. We want to give an example to the world that it is possible to have democratic elections, and that the will of the workers is expressed through universal, direct, secret and respected voting. We don’t have any personal ambition, and the presidency of the UNT is not a problem either, for us the fundamental issues are that the UNT is an autonomous union, democratic, independent, that is capable of representing workers not only in their immediate necessities and demands but also in their historical interests, and place the working class as the fundamental subject in the construction of socialism. Our demand is that the decision of the workers, is respected, as shown in the assembly on October 1st, and the 14th of December last year where more than 800 workers representing the rank and file, pushed the urgency of holding a congress and elections in the UNT.
Aporrea: How is the Class-based and Revolutionary current prepared for the congress and elections?Stalin Pérez: In the most recent meeting of the co-ordination of the UNT with the new people added from the December assembly, we got an agreement to call the second congress of the UNT. The provisional date is the 30th and 31st of march and April 1st. Before that there will be area meetings, and for those the country is divided into three regions, the east, west and central region, in which they will discuss the same themes as congress. We hope that this will be done. In the Class-based and Revolutionary current, that is those for the political independence of the UNT we know that there are other currents within the leadership and union that want to delay the calling of elections. We consider that after the central congress, at end of March, 90 days after the elections should take place- so we are talking of july/august as a date for the entire elections, that will be direct, secret and democratic. We hope that this will really happen regardless of the currents that want to postpone elections to next year. They want to do this because they are aware that the forces inside the central UNT are not favourable to them. In the past two years the class-based sector has been building the UNT, to have a union that is class-based, revolutionary and independent from the bosses, the government and political parties, we are conscious that in the majority of union leaders in the country, there exists a consciousness to put in the leadership true class based leaders. Therefore , this is the fear that all the bureaucratic sectors have, those sectors who during the last three years have done nothing to build the UNT. They know that the workers will vote them out of the national co-ordinating committee. And for this, they have tried, for 2 years to defeat the provisional period of the calling of congress and boycotted the taking place of elections.
The class based and revolutionary current that we form part of in the UNT is strengthening with comrades coming from different political and union experiences, to guarantee the transparency and the participation of workers in the elections and that there is in the leadership of the UNT nationally and regionally, the best comrades, for this we are calling a national plenary of the current in the Casa Sindical de El Paraíso, in Caracas, on the 17 and 18 of February, to discuss the national situation, what sort of union movement do workers need to get to a society without exploited or exploiters, without class distinctions, without oppression, with the democratic participation of the workers in the creation of policies, society and economy of the country. In this event we are going to elaborate a programme that will be put forward as a proposal in the plenaries in the regions and the congress, making a reality of the founding programme of the UNT, which we claim is a class based and revolutionary programme, that clearly states the necessity of constructing socialism and a government of the workers and the people. We are also going to discuss the activities that will be developed in all the regions to guarantee elections where the workers will have the opportunity for the first time in the history of the working class movement of Venezuela to elect a national leadership to their union through elections that are democratic, universal, direct and secret, and we are sure that the workers will elect the most consistent and best union leaders.