The Real Union Problem in Venezuela

Caracas: A highlight of our visit was going to be our meeting with a number of the board members of the UNT — the National Workers Union.  We arrived promptly for our appointment in their offices in the Labor Ministry building.  We could hear the loud talk of a meeting in progress when we got there, but we were quickly given a red covered pamphlet in English to read.  Reading quickly through the tract, we got the message — they were used to visitors from the United States and elsewhere asking them a lot of questions about the dispute between the CVT, which had been the central federation for Venezuelan unions, and the new, upstart UNT, which was closer to the Chavez government and was replacing its strength.

      This is not a trivial dispute, though it did not happen to interest me in these meetings.  There were ILO sanctions and real questions about whether or not the unions were free and independent of the state.  There were charges and counter-charges about union democracy and required elections for maintaining union certifications in the early days of the Chavez government.  The head of the “chamber of commerce” had been the leader in the attempted coup or putsch on Chavez, and had taken the CVT out with him on his side of the political mess and earlier on the takeover of the oil company.  These matters are points of heated dispute (see

      My interest was rooted in how small unions, both individually and collectively, were in Venezuela.  Though it was difficult to get exact figures and language is always a struggle, it appeared that between both federations union membership density is only about 20% of the workforce (compared to the close to 13% of the USA and the 35% of Canada for example).  There was some disagreement among our brothers in fact about whether or not this represented 20% of the formal sector or 20% of all workers, and they believed it was the smaller number.  We hoped not, but feared this was the case.  The informal sector is 54% of the total workforce, and it remains virtually unorganized in any way. 

      Some of the UNT unions were doing some interesting work in trying to organize the informal sector particularly within the service industries.  Several organizing drives had targeted fast food workers, especially McDonald’s.  They were having huge problems with ACCOR — the North American conglomerate which manages Manpower — which has been exempt from organizing efforts here.  The transport sector had been overrun by the informal workers supplanting busses and taxis particularly.

      But those were the highlights.  Unfortunately they shared too many of the weaknesses and troubles of US unions.  The dues percentage was only 1% — and they could not raise it because they were in such a competitive position —  it turned out that all of the people we were meeting, including the director (a woman!) and deputy director of organizing for UNT were detailed from affiliate unions, and in most cases were full-time workers in their industries and not full time workers.  The constitution allowed dues checkoff, but for the most part it was all “open shop” (voluntary membership without any payments from non-members for representations services).  Furthermore for all the brouhaha about the dispute between the UNT and the CVT, both co-existed in many industries, each bargaining for their members only in plants like Ford, GM, and elsewhere.  So, yes, the UNT was growing faster and had outpaced the CVT, but both were relatively small and weak.  Our compadres knowingly shook their heads at the problems of facing huge organizing tasks with meager resources.

      We asked them whether or not their support of the government gave them any leverage in organizing non-union firms that they could convert into membership or contracts.  Were they able to win “labor peace” agreements allowing them to balance the playing field with new operations?  No, they answered, though they had asked the government repeatedly for some kind of assistance, but they complained the government was too many letting out concessions and licenses to anyone and everywhere to be willing to give them any organizing leverage.  This is the kind of quid pro nada that has been the standard operating procedure for most USA unions for decades when we have failed to convert political friendships to organizational success and membership growth.

      I asked for their support around any expansion of Wal-Mart into their country, just as I had of the central federation in El Salvador a year ago.  They were very interested, but just as in El Salvador, none of the folks around the table had the faintest idea of the company or had ever heard of it.

      This was a weak and struggling federation fighting tough battles with uneven odds, just like our own unions.  The UNT may have used its support for Hugo Chavez as part of its founding call, but clearly was independent of the government and not getting too many special favors.

      They rented space in the Labor Ministry.  Was this at least a small sign of some favoritism or special treatment?  No, it turned out that there were a score of other unions of all persuasions in both the UNT and CVT, who were also tenants there.  Can’t a union get a break even when it supports the President in a coup, a recall, and throughout the entire process?  I’m sure somewhere that must be the case, perhaps in the halls of Congress or among poor and working Venezuelans, but for the most part, this is just another weak federation that can not seem to get a break in organizing and is hard pressed to survive and grow.  And, that is the real problem for unions and their members in Venezuela — the rest is just politics.

Leadership of the UNT including the top organizers along with me.

High-Rises and High Ground in the Caracas Barrios

Caracas: Key for us in getting some sense of the real level of community participation in the “process” as they called it was getting our feet on the ground and visiting with some folks who were in the middle of the day-to-day work.  We had excellent guides, including Efrian Valenzuela, a well known community leader in one of the largest of the barrios, Caricuao. 

      We all piled into a 4-wheel drive Isuzu, called a Caribe, in the local market and headed to the far western edge of the city.  Caricuao was the last stop on the spur metro line before the zoo!  In much of the area Efrian showed us the various stages of development of the high rise apartment complexes including his own of about 30 years.  He was on the 3rd floor in the walkup, but the stairwell was refreshingly sweet smelling this damp day compared to what we would find in the USA.  One thing that was the same was the broken elevator, which would have made the 15th floor a daily workout.

      We moved from the high rises to the alley ways that crisscrossed the hillsides of Caricuao.  Many of these homes were caught in a cycle of struggle trying to get title and establish credit to rehab these structures, some of which dated back 45 or more years according to Efrian, when building materials were sent by Cuba and its new leader then, Fidel Castro.  We spent a long time ducking rain drops crowded in the living room of one of the homes trying to understand the way credit would be established.  Essentially, if we got it, there are individual accounts that are established by employers — or may be created by the unemployed as well — and held by them from what we could tell — and run about $4-5 USD per month.  Once a twelve month period successfully passes the individual is credit worthy.  As good as this program sounded, the chaos of recent years and much else, seemed to have left this largely a promise still unimplemented.  We shared the work of ACORN’s Housing Corporation counselors and the similar work they often did, and offered to help.

     From Caricuao we drove back towards the center of town to La Vega, a somewhat smaller area, but a barrio build on rising and turning hillsides, story after story, reminding me of a Rio favela.  At the very top we stopped and visited Mision Robinson on the 2nd floor of a family home where on an open breezeway we found a couple of dozen desks, whiteboards, computers and the paraphernalia of education.  The Mision though was not for the young, but for adults trying to become literate, get their GED’s, and catch up with the world and work.  The new constitution was part of the reading curriculum.  The operation was volunteer run and managed.  This seemed to be popular education at its best.  A short 50 yards away from this home complex was a “mercatel” — the controversial food outlet established by the government to deliver better commodities at cheaper prices to the barrio.  Folks said sometimes it did, and sometimes it did not — though they appreciated the effort.   We talked as the rain came down harder, then softer, then harder again.

     Finally, it seemed time to leave La Vega.  Traveling down the hillside, we were surprised that the water was surging through the drainage cuts along small curbs within inches of the doors of houses and small informal businesses.  Farther down the water began to become rivulets, then rivers of browning water crossing, then covering the roads.  The going became slower in the harder rain.  Other cards and busses were stalling out, men on their carnival holiday were working in the water to unplug drains and build small dikes to reroute water away from their door.

     By the time we made it through the flooding streets to the main expressway, we could tell we were in a flashflood of sorts and worried that mudslides could be moving in the brown water behind us.  When we had left earlier in the morning, a smallish stream was running in the middle of the expressway marking the valley that forms the axis of Caracas but now there was a swollen river rising on its banks to the bottom of bridge crossings and the top of the street line.    The newspaper called it all — “Lluvia Letal” — Death Rain as the worst flooding since Hurricane Hugo drenched the city.

     Chucko Garcia, who we visited the day before asked Jeff Ordower and I to be on his national radio show.  For an hour we interspersed descriptions of ACORN and its work and what we were learning with rushed announcements of emergency numbers and interviews with civil defense and the fire chief.  Real time!  Real worries.  Live all the way!

     We had seen a lot this day in the precarious tilt of houses and families almost washed down the valley and out to the sea. 

Cariacao high rise.
The view from the houses on the hillside of Cariacao at their neighbors across the holler.
The classroom of Mision Robinson in La Vega.
La Vega on the hillsides.
The National Radio Station symbols.
On the air with Chucko and Efrian — and the back of Jeff’s head.