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Venezuela: a union perspective

By John Millington

What we are demonstrating is that we are doing something different – that another world is possible.” –  Jacobo Torres de Leon

Venezuelan trade union activist Jacobo Torres de Leon

Much of the media coverage about Venezuela surrounds the fate of its leader Hugo Chavez.

Right wing media outlets hostile to President Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution are all eager to signal the end of the political project there which has been a thorn for US interests in the region for the last 13 years.

With illiteracy wiped out in Venezuela, living standards raised and a mass programme of public ownership to give ordinary people increased economic democracy, the world is wondering what will happen if Chavez goes early?

Key trade union activists Jacobo Torres de Leon and Carlos Lopez say that you cannot understand the Bolivarian revolution without understanding the special place and role of trade unions within the country.

Both are clear that the trade union movement will with or without Chavez as President take the country on to a “socialist” conclusion.

Carlos Lopez, president of the Federation of University Workers

Carlos, who is the president of the Federation of University Workers and general co-ordinator of the Bolivarian Workers Trade Union Organisation, chaired the commission that drew up the country’s new labour law in May this year.

And he points out that it bucks the trend of attacks on workers’ rights throughout Europe and the US.

“Up to 1999 [when Chavez was first elected] we had neo-liberal polices which affected workers,” he says.

“We are breaking down neo-liberalism and unemployment is going down and the economy is growing.”

“Specific policies include: the fundamental right to work, women workers now have protection and pensions rise every year along with the minimum wage.”

The new labour law also shortens the working week to 40 hours, gives workers the right to take two days consecutive rest and increased security for women workers who have new-born children.

But Lopez explains that trade unions’ role in the Bolivarian revolution is about transforming the “political economy” by redistributing wealth to those who produce it.

“Private enterprise whether national or transnational, a minimum amount of profits are distributed to workers, at least 15 percent and workers’ rights are respected.”

Problems however remain not least the infrastructure that was inherited by the current government 13 years ago.

Jacobo Torres de Leon who is international co-ordinator of the Venezuelan trade union congress and a leading member of the Federation of Public Sector Workers admits that they have been “unable to get rid of consumerist culture – and this is part of why the socialist bloc fell apart in the past.”

But with a subtle smile he explains:  “We will only become free as workers by changing the system – and that is what Chavez expresses.”

“As Karl Marx said – ‘the history of humanity is the history of class struggle.’”

But could this “class struggle” in favour of workers’ rights be stalled if Chavez is forced to stand down or worst still dies?

Although both men don’t pretend to hide their admiration for Chavez, Carlos tells me: “Chavez was the engine to start it up but he gave the power to the people and that is enough to mean that without Chavez we can continue.”

Jacobo agrees.

“We are a “protagonist democracy,” he explains.

“It is not about just going out to vote but that workers take active part in all the decisions that are made.”

It is certainly compelling for trade unionists in other countries to behold these achievements, not only that trades unionists are asked their opinion about laws and social policies but that they play an active part in the putting them into practice whilst at the same time challenging the austerity orthodoxy.

And although Carlos and Jacobo are both hesitant to tell workers in Europe how to successfully fight austerity, they are keen to offer a few pointers.

“The first thing is to look at Latin America – especially Venezuela,” says Jacobo.

“What we are demonstrating is that we are doing something different – that another world is possible.”

And Carlos adds: “To workers in Britain and Europe; don’t just fight for economic rights but fight to change the system.

“Without changing the political system you can’t change the political economy and your place within it.”

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