Breaking the Unions (updated)

by Moraima García

Yesterday, a Venezuelan judge sentenced union leader Rubén González to seven years in prison. His crime? Helping to organize a strike to demand unpaid back wages.

Once again, the case shines a spotlight on the twisted inner workings of the so-called revolution. Because in this case both the employer and the ones who consider organizing a workers’ strike worthy of jail are one and the same: the socialist government of Venezuela.

Our country is ruled by a self-described champion of the poor and the exploited, but if you are a blue-collar state worker, your wages no longer matter. You have no right to demand a fair share of the product of your labor, and if you do, well … that right there is your cell.

I see it as part of a strategy devised by Chávez and his cronies after the 2002 oil strike, to ensure unions lose the power they once had in Venezuela. The difference is that this strike was not organized by “the right” trying to overthrow Chávez. Instead, it was organized by a long-time Chávez supporter who *still* calls himself a revolutionary and who just wanted to get the government to pay them the wages they had already agreed on. The traditional view that says “the right” opposes organized labor and “the left” supports it has been turned on its head.

The strategy of the Venezuelan government seems to be to scare unions to the point of making the cost of striking just too high. We see it in the case of Mr. González, and we’ve seen them do it before as well – remember when a group of nurses was carted off to jail for demanding improved conditions?

Nobody sane questions the right to strike. I know from members of my family that some sweatshop-style practices were eliminated in Venezuela in part thanks to labor unions, and they can provide workers with an effective way of making their voice heard. In fact, some studies indicate that the growing inequality in the US can be traced back to the decline of the power of Unions more than all the other factors involved.

But what convinced me that they can be a useful tool and benefit both employers and employees is the example of a private company that actually promoted the creation of unions and made them an important part of the decision-making process. They incorporated workers not only to compensation negotiations, but for issues like training, cafeterias, day care, life/work balance, and machinery implementation.

And no, that company is not in France, it is actually in Venezuela: Empresas Polar, one of Hugo Chávez’s lynchpins.

Polar’s unions have been, without a doubt, key elements that have deterred Chávez from expropriating the company. But just as he’s now trying to break the spine of what is left of the union movement in state-owned companies, at some point he will try to break Polar’s labor unions too.

Unions are a hard nut to crack, one of the few parts of Venezuelan society Chávez has not been able to bring to heel. At first, he wanted to create a chavista union federation but the initiative has been slow off the mark and, so far, he has not been able to achieve total control of the movement. I hope he also fails in scaring them into submission with this outrageous act.

By throwing Rubén González in jail, Chávez has earned himself condemnation from workers’ movements around the world. The move could galvanize the movement internally opening yet another front in Chávez’s war on Venezuelan society.

Update: In typical chavista fashion, two steps forward, one step back: today, Mr. González was paroled. He already spent 17 months in jail, though – and being out on parole neuters him politically, since they can throw him back in jail any time they want. What’s more, his sentence remains in place.

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