Breaking the Unions (updated)

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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.

1 COMMENT

  1. I don’t have much to add concerning the situation in Venezuela. The contradiction of a sociliast government trying to break the Unions is relatively par for the course. Interesting take on US Unions, I can’t be sure but I heard a lot of talk that the Unions went overboard on Ford and their salaries and benefits entailed a model of pensions that escalated and contributed (though not the main factor) in that company’s financial difficulties. I’m not sure how much of that has truth in it or how much of that is fantasy.

    I shake my head when chavistas find themselves in jail for demanding basic rights. The worse part is the guy STILL styles himself chavista. Man that Kool-aid is powerful stuff. Keep supporting your revolution bud!

    • Hi Fox, I don’t know the details about Ford, but an union can defnitely do that too if for any reason they don’t work together with managemente and hinder productivity. Venezuelan’s unions have been guilty of that too.
      I agree with you, the kool aid is strong! But things like this make people realize it is not only the “bad” guys the ones who end up in jail, a “good” loyal supporter is also at risk if he bothers the big boss too much. Even the most radical chavistas find that difficult to justify.

  2. Great Article, Moraima.

    I don’t recall reading posts by you in the past (apart from comments) and I would only advise more careful editing before posting. Though I found the post logic and well argued it was also clear in some parts that you were translating from Spanish. Nothing that practice won’t fix and I look forward to your future writings.

    • Thanks P. We’ll do our best. Writting in a second languaje is never easy at first and it will take a little bit to get use to editing for a blog, Quico and JC are helping a lot, but some times things will not sound 100% right to a native. I am glad you still liked it. I will be writting mainly in spanish, but some issues I believe the audience in english will find more interesting.

      • Moraima ,

        Your written English is good enough so have confidence in yourself.

        The problem non native speakers have that is hard to correct sometimes is in understanding what a native speaker says.To understand a native speaker you have to know the culture extremely well not just the structure of the language.But for writing purposes non natives usually makes their points clear.

      • Any good writer knows that there will always be plenty of room for improvement. Having said that, Moraima’s writing feels fluid and elegant ,like someone that has been doing this for years.

        I guess the allegories are different from what we’re used to reading in online magazines and news papers from the US or the UK, but isn’t that the point? Our own “Latin American” expressions and style derive from our culture which is certainly different compared to those previously mentioned countries.

        So congratulations to you Moraima, I’ll be looking forward to read more from you.

  3. I don’t understand Chavez’ calculus here.

    Labor definitely was instrumental in getting him elected, and he theoretically espouses political views that would favor the worker, yet time and again he treats them like the enemy.

    I sincerely hope this continues, the more it does the weaker Chavez will be.

    • Hi Roberto, for him everything is personal, anyone who dares protest must be his enemy, period. You are only allowed to be with him if you obey completely and wholeheartedly. He has managed to achieve that with the National Assembly because the deputies depend on him to get elected. But union members are elected by the workers and, even with all the kool aid, workers recognize who has their back, so the unions are not only ruled by ideology, you have to do the job too and the job is first and foremost to defend the interests of the workers, no matter who the owner of the company is. So, since Chavez can’t control them via their paycheck, jail is his second tool of choice to put them on notice.
      The same happened with the Judiciary, Alfiuni is the best example of that.

      • Well said Moraima. Unions are the perfect example of socialism, whereas our government, quite ironically, is a twisted version of fascism, which is the exact opposite of what our government claims to be. Twisted in the sense that our right-wing government caters to the left-wing masses. This twisted system is better described as… chavismo, as it is unique in its class.

        Our president, also, is a military leader who suffers from megalomania. Therefore, the way in which he “manages” people is quite logical; you’re either his friend, or his enemy. Any attack on his system is a direct attack on him, and any critic from within becomes a mutiny which needs to be crushed quickly and decisively in order to keep the battle line in formation.

        Fear is one of the greatest motivators in times of war, if not the greatest. It’s not freedom, it’s not courage… but FEAR. This is what keeps troops moving forward. Fear of losing one’s country, fear of losing one’s liberty, fear of being captured, fear of becoming a slave. These are the great motivators of the armies in history despite the heroic tales that history books write for children. Perhaps more recently, we have the fine example of Stalin’s Russia, where turning back or speaking up was grounds for execution. The result? A vast army that only marched forward, and blindfolded, regardless of the perils ahead. Why? Because the fear of their OWN leader was greater than the fear of their enemy.

        Nothing keeps your ranks more in check than to execute your own officers at the slightest sign of rebellion. Alexander, Hilter and Napoleon didn’t conquer half the world playing nice.

        The good news is that this method can’t last forever, as you’ll eventually run out of capable officers. Such acts of fear are a quick jolt for the troops in the heat of battle but loses strength significantly over long campaigns such as ours. The trick lies in executing the “right” amount of officers. Not too many, not too few. Overdo it, and you’re done.

        The mastery of any military leader lies in his skill at keeping these numbers balanced.

        Our revolutionary leader, unfortunately, has shown to be quite good at that. We shall see his officers run out, though. And once the morale of his troops dies, it will be them, and not the opposition, who will decide our fate as a nation.

        … and just like Alexander, Hitler and Napoleon, our leader will reign for a while. But in the end, he too will eventually fall.

        • I just have one comment/question regarding your post, which is absolutely spot on, BTW. You said, “Our president, also, is a military leader who suffers from megalomania.” You also said, later on, “The mastery of any military leader lies in his skill at keeping these numbers balanced.”

          How is it that someone who only achieved the lowly rank of lieutenant colonel be called a military leader? And he’s a nobody compared with Alexander, Hitler, and Napoleon. I’m certainly not defending Hitler, but at least he and the rest of those men had an education, however misguided it turned out. Huguito is certainly not an educated person.

          • Good question. I’m not defending the guy, either, but opposition people love to call him stupid, uneducated, and they also never fail to diminish his military rank and abilities as a leader.

            Was he formed in a university as a scholar? Not.
            Was he formed in politics as a politician? Not.

            Where was he formed? In the military. And Lt. Colonel is not as meagre a rank as the opposition likes to make it. Objectively speaking, Chavez is indeed a Military Leader.

            Is he uneducated simply because he didn’t go to a university full of snobs who believe they’re the cream of society? If so, then how come one of our “many” intellectuals has not been able to crack the Chavez code and beat him at his own game? Because Chavez took the game, changed the rules, and made it his own. How many of our “educated” intellectuals can match Chavez’s record in the power scale?

            And if we do concede that he is “uneducated” by whatever standard, then even worse, because that would make him GIFTED. A person who, without education, achieved what the educated couldn’t. Let me make this clear, this is not a show of “admiration” toward the guy. I’m just pointing out that considering Chavez “dumb” is the underlining reason the opposition has failed to topple him. He knows how to use propaganda, he knows how to bend the law, he knows how to rally the masses, he knows how to control the military, he knows how to make snobs like us, the intellectuals, look like fools over and over, and he knows how to stay in power. It takes more than a “dumb” person without any “military” or “leading” skills to achieve such a feat.

            He is obviously not as big as the figures I mentioned in the previous post, but he outlasted Perez Jimenez; a man that ANY Venezuelan would regard as a military leader. Better so, Chavez took power “legally” whereas Perez Jimenez did so “illegally”.

            How did Hitler come to power? He staged a coup, failed, and went to prison for it. He did this at the right time when the people of Germany were crying for a change and he came of prison as a hero. Then, despite the fact that he had no political aspirations to begin with, he went into politics and with his impressive speeches, he catered to the masses while the educated elite continued to cater to the elite. The bourgeois was crushed and Hitler won by a landslide and united the masses behind him.

            Does that remind you of someone? Do you still believe Chavez’s masterful ascension to power was a number of improbably coincidences or was this THE RECIPE used over and over, AND over again by leaders all around the world since ancient times? But of course, Chavez probably learned this from the back of a Corn Flakes box, because, you know, he’s uneducated.

            Chavez was even smarter than Hitler. He accomplished his deeds legally. When the law didn’t serve his purpose, he changed it. When the judges wouldn’t agree, he changed the judges. To protect himself from a coup, he shuffles the leaders of the military regularly. He changes vice presidents every couple of years and never lets anyone get too close. And his old allies like Baduel? All taken care of.

            Chavez kept his ambitions at a national level and did not attempt to expand the country geographically (like all the others), but rather, he expanded his “vision” across South America… serving his purpose to an even greater degree and without giving any foreign power the right to call him an “aggressor” or any excuse to take military action against him. In the meantime, his will be done, completely unchallenged.

            He has outlasted every Venezuelan president (cheated, whatever, but if who can prove it?). He modified the constitution to suit his will, won an impossible battle against the media, has destroyed the opposition leadership on several occasions forcing us to start again from scratch… And my favorite, he survived a coup (or whatever you want to call it), came back even stronger than when he left, and the mass demonstrations against his government stopped since. Did he go on a killing rampage like Gadafi? No. Everything was subtle, deniable, improbable.

            Yeah, the poor Huguito doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s just lucky.

            For a “stupid” guy who has no “leadership” or “military” skills, who ruthlessly and effectively dealt with the most impressive economic boycott in our country’s history, who put the previously indomitable economical powers of our nation on their knees, who subdued the military and turned the guerilla into his “backup” army, who keep the USA at bay, and who has ruled AS HE PLEASES for what, 13 years and counting? He is definitely a strategic mastermind.

            Hitler’s years in power? 12
            Chavez’s years in power? 13

            And the fool wins again.

            Therefore, the “Chavez is a stupid dumbass who just happens to have a lot of luck” argument is quite “stupid” in its own right.

            In the history of rulers, he has certainly left his foot print and Venezuela will be forever marked by his existence. If it’ll be for good or for evil is irrelevant when it comes to his skill to stay in power and rule as he pleases.

            Again, his rule won’t be eternal. Nobody’s is. But he has already outlasted all of our best and most of our worst. Cipriano Castro is next in his list of “records” to break. Let’s see what happens next year.

            If in exchange for my “education” I could gain ownership of a rich country to do with is as I please without having to worry about an invasion from a foreign superpower, then SIGN ME UP!

            If our uneducated leader could achieve his every objective in life (and what objectives!) without an education, then I would gladly give mine up just to have a taste of his ability to cash out on pure luck.

            The bottom line of this argument is that you can call Hugo Chavez anything you want, but he’s certainly not stupid.

  4. Chavez should know that it was the unions that brought down the South African Apartheid Government. To be exact, it was the Longshoreman’s Union who refused to unload South African shipments that struck the final blow.

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