Correspondence on the oil workers' struggles in Venezuela

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We are publishing our response to a letter sent by a reader from Brazil (T), who asks our opinion about an article he received, from which we are publishing some extracts, and which covers the struggles and mobilizations of the oil workers against the state oil company "Petroleos de Venezuela" (PDVSA) last September, demanding better wages and contractual benefits. The comrade also asks for our commentary about the reduction in the working day, which is proposed by President Chavez in the constitutional reforms that will be voted upon on December 2.

Letter from Comrade T

Hello comrades,

I'm forwarding an article I received from a comrade in Venezuela, so that you can send me your thoughts. I'm also asking you for details on Chavez' proposed reduction of the working day, because that has sparked a lot of discussion over here.

Venezuelan Oil Workers Clash with Police Over Collective Contract

September 30th 2007, by Kiraz Janicke -

Caracas, September 29, 2007, ( - Venezuela's Energy Minister and president of the state owned oil company PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez, assured that the collective contract for oil workers, which has been under negotiation since April, would be finalised in the next two weeks after clashes between oil workers and police in Anzoátegui state on Thursday left several people injured.

Some 150 workers from the oil refinery of Puerto La Cruz, together with workers from the Jose Industrial Complex were marching to the offices of the Venezuelan Oil Corporation (CVP) in Urbaneja municipality to present a document to Ramirez, who was meeting with a negotiating commission of the United Oil Workers Federation of Venezuela (FUTPV), when they were intercepted by Immediate Response Group - Police Force of Anzoátegui.

In the resulting clashes, which lasted three hours, 40 workers were arrested and three were injured, including Richard Querecuto, who was shot in the left shoulder...With news of the police repression 4,000 workers from Petroanzoátegui, Petrocedeño, and the project San Cristóbal immediately stopped work. a statement in solidarity with the oil workers of Anzoátegui, repudiating the police violence, the Federation of Workers UNT-Zulia said, "We consider that this situation has been generated by the intransigence of the state company PDVSA that has drawn out the discussion over the contract for months, offered conditions below the aspirations of the workers and arbitrarily imposed a junta [the FUTPV negotiating commission] to discuss the contract without having been elected by the workers."

C-CURA is calling for a change in the negotiating commission and for immediate elections within FUTPV, otherwise they say they will "radicalize" their actions. However, similar calls by C-CURA and Fedepetrol for radical actions and a general stoppage to "paralyze" the oil industry at "zero hour" on August 6 mobilized less than 1,500 workers throughout the country.

After widespread coverage and promotion of "zero hour" in the opposition private media, the dispute took on a political dimension, with other sectors of oil workers and urban poor subsequently rallying in "defense" of PDVSA.

The statement by the Federation of Workers UNT-Zulia said yesterday, "We think that some of these situations [in the oil industry] are a result of a manouvre by sectors of the rightwing within Chavismo [Chavez supporters], aimed at generating situations of conflict in the country to propagate destabilisation of the process of constitutional reform."

However, the workers in Anzoátegui rejected this claim with a banner which read,
"We are not violent protesters [guarimberos], we are oil workers." (A guarimba is an orchestrated protest aimed at provoking violence to achieve political aims.)

The oil workers in Anzoátegui have announced that they will continue their protests in the streets and remain in a state of alert, despite the promises from Ramirez for the finalization of an improved collective contract within the next two weeks.

Our Reply

Dear comrade T,

We greet the arrival of your letter, to which we are responding briefly and we will try to speak with you about the situation of the class struggle in Venezuela.

About the struggle of the oil workers

The article that you were sent describes part of what took place in a struggle which, between last September and October, was carried out by the workers of the state oil company PDVSA, the most important in the country, who laid off several injured workers (one of whom was pregnant) along with some arrested workers. The struggle owed to a delay of more than 8 months in the discussion over the collective contract that regulates the wages and benefits of the workers. The workers struck and demonstrated in the facilities of PDVSA in the state of Anzoategui, in eastern Venezuela, and Zulia, south of Lake Maracaibo in the west. The company, in a shady deal with the unions, which were mostly controlled by pro Chavez tendencies, delayed the discussion of the wage clauses. The workers struggle put pressure on several union bosses, such as those of C-CURA (the Unitary Autonomous Revolutionary Classist Current) of the UNT (Unitary Union of Workers), or those of FEDEPETROL (Federation of oil, chemical, and related workers of Venezuela), who were forced to "radicalize" against PDVSA and the government, so as not to be unmasked in front of the workers.

In the end, the unions and PDVSA obtained approval of a miserable wage increase of 12,000 bolivars per day, which had been rejected by the workers, who had demanded an increase of 30,000. Because of this, the monthly salary of an oil worker rose to approximately 1,320,000 Bolivars (equivalent to $610, according to the official exchange rate, and as low as $300, if we use the unofficial exchange rate, which is calculated by defining the real price of various products and services).

To give you a reference point, this salary is equivalent to a bit more than the cost of a basket of basic goods for a family of 5 (as of Oct 2007), which comes to 1 million Bolivars. Even adding the 'bonos' [unclear - either treasury bonds, or vouchers] which oil workers receive, they don't make enough to lead a dignified life; to the low salaries, we must factor in both the continual increase of the price of goods (around 25% annually)[1] and the shortages, which according to the Central Bank of Venezuela are 30% with respect to basic products. And the oil workers are some of the best paid in the country!!

Without a doubt, we think this struggle has had a political and moral victory for the oil workers and the Venezuelan proletariat as a whole:

  • In the first place, the oil workers have brought the struggle back up onto their own class terrain; after having been one of the sectors hit hardest by the bourgeoisie, to being the center of the polarization between Chavistas and the opposition, who permitted the state to lay off 20,000 PDVSA employees in 2003 (at least half of whom were low-ranked workers or employees), without any sort of compensation. This struggle has a major significance at times when the Chavistas and opposition are trying to reinforce political polarization, through the campaigns for or against the constitutional reform proposed by Chavez. The workers, at least during these mobilizations, have placed themselves in the terrain of their own demands, despite the weight of the bourgeoisie's efforts to force any workers' or social struggle onto the terrain of the polarization.
  • The struggle has made obvious the bourgeois, anti-worker character of the Chavez government: just as with all of the preceding governments (to which Chavismo assigns all of the social ills), the Chavez government also responds with repression, tear-gas bombs, lead, and jail against the workers who "dare" to fight for a dignified life. An important fact: the oil workers of Puerto La Cruz, in the east of the country, some of whom were sympathizers of Chavismo, have denounced the high wages of the "socialist" bosses of PDVSA who earn more than 50 times the basic monthly salary (much higher than the wages of the industry bosses during preceding governments), while they deny raises to the workers which would allow them to cover at least the basic basket of goods (the exploitation of their labor power being the primary source of the salaries and kickbacks of the upper state bureaucrats and of the profits of various sectors of the national bourgeoisie; we factor this in).
  • These struggles, which were preceded by others last May in which the oil workers mobilized to obtain the reinstatement of more than 1000 workers of the recently nationalized oil companies whom the "socialist" government of Chavez had tried to throw to the street, are genuine and important expression of workers' solidarity, in which the families of the affected workers also participated.
  • As we've said, the workers found themselves unsatisfied with this agreement. There is a feeling of discontent, which could awaken at any moment.

It is important to add that the reaction of the oil workers is beginning to develop with a certain force in other sectors. The doctors, teachers, and some other sectors of public service workers have started mobilizations for wage demands; they have created assemblies where, apart from demanding wage increases, they have denounced the high level of deterioration of public services. In a recent assembly of doctors in Caracas, who were part of the Health Ministry, they identified themselves as "medical proletarians".

Its important to say that those who are for and against the government have tried to divide and polarize the movement, succeeding in many cases. Moreover the government mobilizes its organizations (bolivarian circles, communal councils, the social ombudsman, and armed groups when necessary) to intimidate and even physically assault the workers.

Another aspect which is no less important, is that the impoverished masses (many of whom are sympathizers of the government) express their indignation almost daily, protesting the housing shortage, the crime, the lack of services, etc., and ultimately the shortage of products such as milk, sugar, cooking oil, etc. In some cases, they have been repressed. This situation is in contrast to the high officials of the regime (called the "boliburguesia", or bolivarian bourgeoisie), who are strutting their opulence[2] with the most open frankness; they have made massive investments in armaments, which will be unleashed against the proletarians and the impoverished masses sooner rather than later; and they've invested major resources from the oil rent into developing the Venezuelan state's imperialist policy in the region.

This is the real face of "21st century socialism" promoted by Chavez and lauded by the Left, leftists, and "altermundialistas" [other-world-ists, supporters of the WSF], who seem to "drool" during their discussions on TeleSur, and who are sustained by the exploitation of the working masses, as is the entire bourgeois regime. The one difference is the "revolutionary" drivel, in the hope of confusing the proletarians inside and outside of Venezuela.

About the "reduction" of the working day

The "reduction" of the working day from 8 to 6 hours per day is considered in the constitutional reforms proposed by Chavez, along with other work-related "benefits", such as social security for the workers of the informal economy (which as in the rest of Latin America covers more than 50% of the labor force). These proposals, rather than seeking a real increase in the workers' quality of life, are the "cock-and-bull story", the big lie, with the hope of obtaining the support of the workers for the official proposal to reform the constitution.

The establishment has not said how this reduction in the working day will be realized; but many speculate that the un-worked hours will be utilized for political "formation" (indoctrination) or in so-called "socialist emulation" which the Fidelista cuban bourgeoisie invented so that the state could exploit the workers, with no pay. Furthermore, one of the objectives of the bourgeoisie (whether Chavista or not) is to discover how to charge taxes on the informal workers; by offering them the benefits of social security (which don't offer any real protection to the workers), the state will have greater control over them and will be able to impose taxes on them.

The principal objective of the constitutional reform (saturated with a big dose of hypocrisy, like every constitution in the world), is to strengthen the legal framework for greater state control over society, for more militarization, to legally justify the repression of the social movements, and to permit unlimited reelection of Chavez as president of the republic, among other things.

We can not lose sight of the fact that the Chavez government is a bourgeois government, in which the necessities and priorities of Capital prevail; in this sense, we can not be gullible (which we do not believe is your case), with respect to the Chavez government's search for the "greatest amount of social happiness", as the reformed text of the constitution puts it. It is precisely this deceitful propaganda that the Chavista movement pushes through their PR campaigns on the internal and international level, so that the workers of Venezuela and other countries will think that in Venezuela there is a real improvement in the living conditions of the workers and the population; this is the big lie sustained at the base by Chavista propaganda.

The capitalist crisis inexorably obligates every bourgeoisie, whether of the Right, the Center, or the Left, to attack the living conditions of the working class. In all of the countries where they have reduced the working day (France, Germany, etc.; including Venezuela, where at the beginning of the '90s they reduced the work day from 44 to 40 hours per week), this measure has not resulted in an improvement of the living conditions of the working class; completely to the contrary, the wages and social benefits have worsened, and precarious work has increased.

The intensification of the capitalist crisis will force the working class of Venezuela to fight against the state, as the oil, health, and education workers have done. In this way, positioned on its class terrain, the proletariat will be able to leave the trap of the political polarization which has kept its hands tied, and take part in the struggle of the world proletariat for the construction of real socialism.

Hoping we've responded to your questions.

The ICC, 19-11-07.

[1] Venezuela has the highest inflation in the region, with an annual average of 20% during the last three years.

[2] During a recent episode of "Alo, Presidente!", a Sunday program which stars Chavez, he saw that it was necessary to criticize those "revolutionaries" who live only for Hummers (which cost hundreds of millions of Bolivars) and 18-year-aged Whiskey. What Chavez did not say is that he has given use of the high oil profits to himself, his family, and his close friends. The "Bolivarian Revolution", which arose under the flag of fighting corruption, bathes in the waters of corruption.

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