Venezuelan workers say the tide is turning

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – The principal actors in work stoppages in Venezuela are the bosses – particularly in the oil industry – who do not represent the workers, a group of Venezuelan labor leaders told the World.

“They played their last card in stopping oil production, but they did not succeed,” said Jacobo Torres, general coordinator of the Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores (Bolivarian Workers’ Force – FBT), a new national labor federation. The workers took control and have been keeping the oil industry operating since December, he said. “Now we are producing 1 to 1.8 million barrels. We are building new technology to replace what was destroyed by the bosses. In two months, I believe we will double our oil production to 3 million barrels, equaling the production levels of last November.”

Torres said other industries are “fully functioning. Workers are working normally in Venezuela.”

The labor leaders, who were here for a Jan. 21-22 meeting of Latin American left and communist labor activists and to participate in the World Social Forum Jan. 23-28, included, in addition to Torres, Germanico Moyano, general secretary of SUPROBAUX, the bauxite industry professional workers union, Marisel Benavides, SUPROBAUX financial secretary, Carlos Rojas, labor director of the Venalum aluminum workers union, and Andres Rengel and Miguel Rodriguez, also from the Venalum union.

There is no “strike” in Venezuela, only sabotage, they said. In the oil industry, of the 35,000 employees, including 18,000 professionals and specialists, only 3,000 directors and managers went on “strike,” Moyano, Rojas and others explained. Before walking out, the bosses sabotaged the highly automated computer technology that controls not only production but also distribution and export, paralyzing the industry and creating chaos, Rojas said. Most workers could not work as a result.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, in a speech here Jan. 26, described how oil industry managers sabotaged computer controls. In the refineries, for example, they adjusted computerized temperature controls up to as high as 1000 degrees (centigrade), so things exploded. “We had a war of hackers versus hackers,” he said. The resulting disruption of electricity, gas and oil created a humanitarian crisis as people could not cook or get health care.

When oil workers reopened the plants, they had to go back to manual operation, “like we had 20 years ago,” said Rojas. But they are restoring the controls, and he expressed confidence that in four months production will be back to normal.

“Now we are in a new phase,” Torres said. “The opposition couldn’t bring down the republic, the country’s economy or its international ties. So they are resorting to terrorism. They put bombs in the oil pipes, and shoot holes in the pipes. Two weeks ago, they broke oil pipes to stop the flow of oil. Now, workers, the army and professionals are on guard to prevent more sabotage and keep the oil production going. People watch and when they see something suspicious they alert the army to prevent sabotage and protect the pipelines.”

The army is supporting Chavez, said Torres, because the generals come from ordinary people. The army chief appointed by Chavez, Gen. Garcia Carneiro, comes from the working class. This is a change from the old generation of military leaders who cooperated with Bush. Torres believes funding for the opposition is coming from Bush. Without the U.S. government, he said, “we would not be in this situation.”

The FBT was formed two years ago, Moyano said, to substitute an honest, democratic labor federation in place of the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) headed by Carlos Ortega, an anti-Chavez leader tied to corporate interests. A majority of workers are leaving the CTV, which now represents only around 20 percent of the workforce, Moyano said, while more than 50 percent of Venezuela’s workers are now part of the FBT. The FBT is composed of 1,500 leaders of unions in basic industries, including transport, public services, iron and steel, aluminum and bauxite, electrical generation and distribution. SINUTRAPETROL, one of the oil industry unions, is a member of FBT, and the federation is also allied with the Christian Socialist-led FedePetrol union.

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org