Venezuela’s Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT or National Workers’ Union) has called on its 2 million workers to unite in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV or United Socialist Party of Venezuela), despite the bitter infighting and conflicts over tactics, strategy and politics that had threatened the union confederation’s participation in the Bolivarian revolution.
UNT organiser Stalin Pérez called on all workers to organise ‘battalions’ (local party branches) in barrios and workplaces and join the PSUV with ‘our sindicalist and socialist proposals… and our ideas about how to construct a democratic organisation.’
That this call is considered news at all is a reflection on just how antagonistic relations have been between the political factions in the UNT since the confederation was founded in 2003. As Pérez relates, workers ‘are conscious that the UNT is not passing through a good moment… political division and failure to work together affects the workers.’
The UNT has had a conflictive and often combative history since dissident workers split from Venezuela’s traditional union confederation, the CTV (Congreso de Trabajadores Venezolanos or Venezuelan Workers’ Congress), after CTV president Carlos Ortega participated in the attempted coup d’etat against President Chávez in 2002.
This clientilist, corporatist union close to the discredited elitist party Acción Democrática, has since been eclipsed by the UNT and the new union confederation’s support for Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. However, the debate between workers organised in different factions in the UNT over the extent to which the union should support the President, has created divisions that have diverted workers into political infighting.
Five political ‘currents’ are fighting for control in the UNT, and the two most important factions - CCURA (Corriente Clasista, Unitaria, Revolucionaria, Autónoma or Autonomous, Revolutionary, United Class Current) and FSBT (Fuerza Socialista Bolivariano de Trabajadores or Workers’ Socialist Bolivarian Force) - have been in an often bitter fight to make the UNT an unconditional Chávista union, as the FSBT desires, or to make it more independent, as CCURA wants.
These sincere disagreements, and a democratic debate over the union’s tactics and strategy, could have increased the UNT’s influence as a central force in Venezuelan politics and strengthened organised workers’ participation in the Bolivarian revolution, but the political descended into the personal to the point that the union, dispersed and fractured, almost split.
The last UNT Congress, in 2006, ended in fights, walkouts and the split into the five political factions, but Orlando Chirino, CCURA faction leader, believes it is wrong to describe the divisions as personal. ‘A battle has been fought between two conceptions - on the one hand those who want to tie the union to Chávez, and on the other those who are fighting for sovereignty and an autonomous and independent union movement.’
But UNT organisers in the FSBT faction, such as Jacobo Torres de León, claim the divisions have meant the union has failed to concentrate on organising workers. The FSBT points out that workers’ unionisation rate in Venezuela is still less than 20 per cent, and argues that the union should concentrate on sindicalist demands in workplaces and be close to the President politically to have influence.
Even President Chávez has criticised the UNT’s failure to organise workers in a united union, and he has even called into question ‘the idea that workers and unions are central to the revolution’, choosing instead to emphasise the PSUV’s and the barrio consejos comunales centrality to the revolution.
UNT organiser Pérez, a CCURA faction member but also an activist in the PSUV, questions Chávez’s criticisms, arguing that workers continue to be decisive - ‘workers are the true revolutionary protagonists’ - and should be central to the party and the revolution.
But Chávez’s impatience with the UNT’s infighting took him further earlier this year when he declared to a PSUV political meeting in Caracas that ‘unions should not be autonomous - one must put a stop to that.’ This prompted Orlando Chirino to respond to the President declaring that workers have the right to politicise their unions and be independent of the state.
‘Lenin wrote that unions should be independent… when Stalin took power in Russia and led the state and the party, one of the first things he eliminated was the independence of the unions, precisely against the opinion of Lenin,’ Chirino wrote, and, insisting on the unions’ right to be sovereign and autonomous, he recalled President Chávez’s statement that ‘the PSUV will not be a Stalinist political party.’
That the UNT has finally called on all workers to join the PSUV does not mean that the dispute between the union’s factions has been resolved. The FSBT believes that this call will move the UNT closer to Chávez, while the CCURA has recognised that the union cannot stand apart from the 5.7million Venezuelans that have registered an interest in participating in the party.
Pérez realises that massive worker participation in the new party is the best insurance against what he calls ‘bureaucratisation’ and the threat that a clientilist relationship between the PSUV and the union, similar to the relationship between the rightist Acción Democrática and the discredited CTV union in the Nineties, could develop.
‘CCURA will join the PSUV, we will fight for workers’ control, and we want to maintain union autonomy - not for its own sake, but because independence is a revolutionary necessity,’ Pérez says. ‘There is no contradiction between organising in the PSUV to support the revolution, and also having independent unions. Both are part of the same fight towards socialism in Venezuela.’
1. Sindicalistas revolucionarios responden al Presidente Chávez, Carta de dirigentes de CCURA, report on Aporrea.org, Caracas, 28 de marzo de 2007 2. Stalin Pérez Borges interview in MST, Buenos Aires, 15 de agosto de 2007 3. Orlando Chirino interview in ISR, Chicago, July 2007 4. Sr. Presidente: sin Marx, Lenin y la clase obrera, no hay socialismo posible, Miguel Ángel Hernández, Aporrea.org, Caracas, 31 de julio de 2007 5. La Unión Nacional de Trabajadores: ¿Central Sindical o Frente Revolucionario? Jacobo Torres de Leon, Nuestra América, 19 de marzo de 2006 6. Compromiso por la unidad, el fortalecimiento y las elecciones de la UNT, CTR/CCURA/TPP/CCUT statement on Aporrea.org, Caracas, 31 de julio de 2007 7. Corrientes sindicales CCURA/CTR se reúnen para adelantar plan para las elecciones, report on Aporrea.org, Caracas, 5 de julio de 2007 8. Vamos al PSUV con nuestras propuestas clasistas y socialistas, Stalin Pérez Borges interview, Prensa CCURA/UNT report on Aporrea.org, Caracas, 9 de mayo de 2007