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Bush versus Truth about Labour Rights in Venezuela

Bush versus Truth about Labor Rights in Venezuela

Dear Friends and Supporters of the OWC:

In just two weeks, the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association will be meeting in Geneva.

On its agenda will be the Article 26 Complaint filed by the Venezuelan employers' association, FEDECAMARAS, against the Venezuelan government and the newly formed National Union of Workers of Venezuela (UNT). This Complaint has been endorsed by bosses' associations in 23 countries, including the United States.

The aim of the Complaint is to condemn the Venezuelan government in the world community for alleged "violations of labor rights." Behind this Complaint -- not surprisingly -- is the Bush administration, which has been champing at the bit to secure a condemnation of the Venezuelan government in the ILO to advance its drive to isolate Venezuela and to prepare the overthrow of the democratically elected regime of Hugo Chavez. Behind this Complaint, as well, is the effort to characterize as "illegitimate" a new labor federation in Venezuela, the UNT, which now regroups the overwhelming majority of organized workers in that country.

The UNT leadership has prepared an "Open Letter to the ILO Workers' Group" as well as a background "Memorandum" to answer all these unfounded charges and to urge unionists around the world to speak out against the proposed condemnation of Venezuela in the ILO. These two texts are included below.

We call upon you to endorse the "Open Letter to the ILO Workers' Group" issued by the UNT leadership. We also urge you to get your unions and community organizations to endorse as organizations. While union and organizational endorsements are vital, individual endorsements from unionists and political activists in the United States and around the world are also needed urgently -- so please fill out the endorsement coupon below and return it to us as soon as possible.

We promised to send a first list of U.S. and international endorsers to the UNT in Venezuela by this coming weekend (February 26) -- so please get back to us with your endorsements as quickly as you can.

Thanks, in advance, for your endorsements and support.

In solidarity,

Alan Benjamin and Ed Rosario,
Co-coordinators,
Open World Conference Continuations Committee

PS: We have more background materials on this issue, so please contact us if you require additional texts.

PPS: We can send you, should you require it for signature-gathering among your friends and co-workers, the attached documents in PDF format with the endorsement coupons. Please let us know if you need us to send these to you.

OWC - Open World Conference in Defense of Trade Union
Independence & Democratic Rights, c/o S.F. Labor Council,
1188 Franklin St., #203, San Francisco, CA 94109.
Phone: (415) 641-8616 Fax: (415) 440-9297.

******************

Endorsement Coupon of the Open Letter to the Workers' Group of the ILO

[ ] I have read the "Open Letter to the Workers' Group of the ILO" issued by the national coordinators of the National Union of Workers of Venezuela (UNT) on February 3, 2005. Please add my name as an endorser of this Open Letter.

[ ] I will send a financial contribution of $ ___ to help defray the costs of this campaign. My check will be made payable to "OWC" and will be sent to OWC, c/o San Francisco Labor Council, 1188 Franklin St. #203, San Francisco, CA 94109.

NAME

UNION/ORG & TITLE (list if for id. only)

CITY

STATE

COUNTRY

EMAIL

(please fill out and return to . Please send copies to Julio Turra, National Executive Director, CUT Federation, Brazil to and to the UNT federation of Venezuela to

Open Letter to the ILO Workers' Group

We, the undersigned leaders of the National Union of Workers of Venezuela (UNT), issue this appeal to the trade unions around the world that are represented in the Workers' Group of the International Labor Organization (ILO), as well as to all our sisters and brothers who are championing the trade union battles in defense of workers' rights.

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

We in Venezuela have been part of the effort by the working class to create a trade union federation that is built from the bottom up by the rank and file and that is rooted in the principles of class independence, trade union democracy and full autonomy in relation to the State and all political parties. This effort -- which in April 2003 brought unionists from different sectors and trade union currents together to create the UNT -- is part and parcel of the struggle of our people in defense of their national sovereignty.

Today, the UNT represents the majority of the organized workforce in Venezuela. Its creation in 2003 has given a huge impetus to the drive to organize trade unions across our country. The rate of trade union affiliation has increased from 11% in 2001 to 23% in 2004. The UNT also has been present in the last two International Labor Conferences of the ILO in June 2003 and June 2004.

But these recent years also have seen FEDECAMARAS, the employers' association of Venezuela, join forces with the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) to present a Complaint to the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association alleging that the Venezuelan government has violated Trade Union Freedoms and the Right to Strike.

The joint Complaint by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV is highly unusual, as trade unions are generally the ones filing ILO Complaints against the employers and seeking support from the ILO Workers' Group against all violations of trade union rights, including the right to strike. It is unprecedented, as well, on account of the convergence of interests between FEDECAMARAS and the CTV.

Such a Complaint can be understood only in the context of the unfolding political situation in Venezuela, in which FEDECAMARAS and the top leadership of the CTV participated directly in the attempted military coup of April 2002, together with the opposition political parties and with the encouragement of the U.S. Embassy. The coup -- which established a "government" headed by Pedro Carmona, then president of FEDECAMARAS -- was foiled after just two days by the mass mobilizations of the Venezuelan workers and people.

Later, in December 2002 and January 2003, FEDECAMARAS -- together with the same leaders of the CTV -- organized an employer lockout/work stoppage that was political in nature and that sought to bring down the government through the sabotage of the country's main source of income: the oil industry. In both the attempted coup and the bosses' lockout/work stoppage, the CTV leadership took actions that were repudiated by the overwhelming majority of the workers of Venezuela. At no time, in fact, were the workers consulted by the CTV leadership about the work stoppage in the oil industry. Quite the contrary, upon learning of this action by the CTV leadership, the workers mobilized massively to occupy the oil rigs and refineries to ensure the resumption of oil production.

These undeniable facts were reported in detail by 35 leaders of the UNT to the Contact Mission of the ILO that traveled to Venezuela in October 2004.

It is not new, nor is it unexpected, that employers should resort to lockouts against the workers to promote their interests. Many of you undoubtedly have witnessed such bosses' lockouts in your countries. It is less frequent for the employers to resort to military coups, but, alas, such actions are not unprecedented. But isn't it an insult to our intelligence to try to have us believe that employer lockouts and military coups can somehow be aimed at defending democracy and trade union rights? Do they think we're fools who cannot see through their hypocrisy?

In June 2004, FEDECAMARAS -- with the full support of the International Organization of Employers (IOE) and representatives from bosses' organizations in 22 countries, including the United States, all of them notorious for their anti-union activities -- invoked Article 26 of the ILO Constitution and proposed that a Commission of Inquiry be established in relation to alleged violations of Trade Union Freedoms in Venezuela.

The March 8-24, 2005 meeting of the Governing Body of the ILO is scheduled to take a vote on this request by FEDECAMARAS. It is worth noting that while this baseless Complaint against the Venezuelan government moves through the ILO system, the government of Colombia has not been subjected to any sanctions or pressures by the ILO -- even when the ILO itself registered at the beginning of 2004 that 186 trade unionists had been assassinated for their union activity in that country, a number that now surpasses the 200 mark.

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

The Venezuelan government today has wide popular support to advance its Agrarian Reform program and, with the aim of guaranteeing jobs and wages, to take over factories abandoned or bankrupted by their employers. Yet at this very moment, incidents are being staged to create a diplomatic conflict between Venezuela and Colombia. More ominous still, U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have issued public warnings against the alleged "negative" and "destabilizing" role of Venezuela in the region.

Anyone familiar with the international policies implemented by the Bush administration in the recent period can understand full well that these are not simply words; they are a direct threat to Venezuela. Bush and Rice invoke the concept of "democracy" -- but if one looks at what is going on in Iraq today, one can see what they mean by "democracy."

Is it possible not to see a link between these political developments and the stance taken by FEDECAMARAS at the ILO?

Regardless of what one's opinions may be about the Venezuelan government and its policies, it's a fact that it's a government that received the support of more than 60% of the people in the August 15, 2004 recall referendum, thereby dealing a blow to the effort by FEDECAMARAS and the top officials of the CTV to oust the Chávez government. The election results were ratified, in fact, by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center, two bodies that cannot be accused of harboring any sympathies for the Venezuelan government.

It is also an undeniable fact that the partisans of the current Venezuelan government obtained the overwhelming support of the people in the state and regional elections held in October 2004.

From our vantage point as the UNT, genuine democracy means respecting the sovereign will of people to determine their own fate. And we wish to reiterate this point: Venezuela's right to self-determination must be respected and upheld independent of whatever one may think about the current government of Venezuela. It is not up to the U.S. government to decide in the place of the Venezuelan people what is "positive" or "negative" for Venezuela.

It is totally understandable that the representatives of the employers in the ILO should form a common front with FEDECAMARAS in support of this Complaint. Likewise, it is not surprising that governments, particularly that of Bush in the United States, should follow suit. But in no way can the representatives of the workers' organizations in the ILO support this attack upon our sovereignty and our independent trade union organizations.

Is it not obvious that allowing the Commission of Inquiry to be approved -- as FEDECAMARAS demands -- would, in fact, be tantamount to trampling upon our trade union freedoms and the very sovereignty of our country? Only we, the workers of Venezuela, can and must decide what kind of trade union organizations we should build, in the framework of the principles of Trade Union Freedom.

We issue this urgent appeal to all trade union organizations the world over. We call upon one and all to reject the proposal by FEDECAMARAS and its cohorts to sanction Venezuela and to conduct an ILO Commission of Inquiry. Such an action is not called for, nor does it correspond to the real situation of trade union freedoms in Venezuela, which is a country that has ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98.

For our part, as trade union officers who are committed to the rank and file, we have nothing to hide. That is why we are appending to this Open Letter a Memorandum that responds to the specific charges contained in the Complaint filed by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV.

We invite trade unions from all around the world to come to Venezuela to see for yourselves the reality of our country, where even the CTV -- which participated directly in the attempted coup of April 2002 and the lockout/work stoppage of December 2002-January 2003, enjoys full trade union freedoms.

We also invite representatives of the international trade union movement to attend the upcoming National Congress of the UNT. This will permit you to learn firsthand from the workers about the real situation of the trade unions in Venezuela.

To conclude, we call upon all trade union organizations and officers to reject the provocation by FEDECAMARAS and its allies to establish an ILO Commission of Inquiry for Venezuela. We call upon you to add your names in support of this Open Letter to the ILO Workers' Group.

- In defense of the sovereignty of the Venezuelan people!

- In defense of true Trade Union Freedoms!

In solidarity,

signed by following National Coordinators of the UNT:

Orlando Chirino, Marcela Máspero, Stalin Pérez Borges and Rubén Linares


MEMORANDUM on the Employer Offensive Against Venezuela Within the ILO

The National Union of Workers of Venezuela (UNT) -- which was present at the 91st (2003) and 92nd (2004) sessions of the International Labor Conference of the ILO -- wishes to convey to all trade unionists around the world the main elements of the offensive waged against Venezuela by FEDECAMARAS, the employers' association of Venezuela.

This Memorandum is an addendum to the "Open Letter to the Workers’ Group of the ILO" that we issued in Caracas on February 3, 2005.

Some Necessary Background

In 1999, Hugo Chavez assumed the reins of government in Venezuela after winning the presidential election in 1998 by a substantial margin. It was from this time on that FEDECAMARAS and the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) joined forces to lodge a series of formal Complaints against the Chavez government before the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association and the ILO's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations.

It is no secret that FEDECAMARAS and the leadership of the CTV opposed from the very beginning the policies of the legitimately elected government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Nevertheless, things changed qualitatively in April 2002, when the central leaders of both organizations participated directly in the coup d’etat which, for 48 hours, established a "government" headed by Pedro Carmona (then president of FEDECAMARAS), with two government ministries consigned to leaders of the CTV.

Despite the explicit support of the U.S. government for the coup and the participation of high-level officers of the Armed Forces in its preparation and execution, the attempted coup failed because of the overwhelming mobilization of the Venezuelan people, who demanded the immediate return of Chavez as the president of the Republic.

Nine months later, between December 2002 and January 2003, the managers and directors of PDVSA (the state oil company), with the support of FEDECAMARAS and the CTV, decreed a work stoppage that was in effect a sabotage of the country’s main source of income. This work stoppage in the oil industry was decided without any workers’ assembly having voted to carry it out.

It was the workers, once again, who combated the employer lockout/work stoppage and who re-started production in the oil industry and in the other sectors affected by the lockout. It was the workers who, through their concerted actions in defense of Venezuela's sovereignty, defeated this employer lockout. As a result of the FEDECAMARAS-CTV lockout, many private companies closed their doors. An estimated 250,000 people lost their jobs, with an equal number forced to accept takebacks and concessions.

The UNT was constituted in April 2003 as a reaction by the overwhelming majority of the trade union rank and file who opposed the CTV's participation, alongside the bosses, in the attempted coup and in the lockout./work stoppage of late 2002. Many trade unions and federations that belonged to the CTV became founding members of the new workers' confederation in Venezuela: the National Union of Workers of Venezuela (UNT).

The Most Recent Complaints (No. 2249 and No. 2254)

After the failed coup d’etat in April 2002 and the year-end sabotage/work stoppage, the CTV in February 2003 issued ILO Complaint No. 2249 with the following allegations: murder of a trade unionist; preventing the legal registration of a trade union; hostile declarations by the authorities against the CTV; order of arrest against the president of the CTV; promotion of a new labor confederation by the authorities; obstacles in collective bargaining in the public sector; orders of arrest and penal procedures against trade union leaders; firing of over 18,000 workers for their trade union activities; non-compliance with collective-bargaining agreements; interference by the authorities and Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) and other anti-trade union acts; tardiness in procedures for violation of trade union rights; negotiation with minority organizations of public service employees, setting aside the more representative unions; and actions by the authorities to divide trade union organizations.

One month later, in March 2003, FEDECAMARAS and the International Organization of Employers (IOE) lodged Complaint No. 2254, in which they alleged the following: the exclusion of employers' organizations from the country's decision-making process; interference of the government aimed at promoting a new employer organization in the agricultural sector; the detention of Carlos Fernández on February 19, 2003 in retaliation for his actions as president of FEDECAMARAS; actions by violent paramilitary groups with government support; actions against the installations of an employer's organization and against protest actions by FEDECAMARAS; the creation of a hostile environment for employers, by allowing the workers to take over and occupy farms in full production; application of a decidedly unilateral foreign exchange system by the authorities, thereby discriminating against affiliates of FEDECAMARAS in relation for the participation of FEDECAMARAS in the national ‘civic work stoppages’."

We refer all trade unionists to the full text of these Complaints on the ILO website so that you can draw your own conclusions.

- Concerning the discussions in the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association, please visit the following pages on the ILO website: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/gb/docs/gb289/pdf/gb-9.pdf.

- Concerning the discussions in the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations, please go to: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/ilc/ilc91/pdf/pr-24p2.pdf.

We also invite you to read the Report we prepared for the ILO's International Labor Conference in June 2004 titled "The Truth About Trade Union Freedoms in Venezuela." [See below.]

We would like in this short space to make a few observations regarding the latest Complaints presented by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV.

The first comment is that, putting aside their complementary nature, both complaints by the CTV and FEDECAMARAS have carefully avoided mentioning the fact that both organizations participated, along with sectors of the oppositionist political parties and military brass, in an attempted coup d’etat and later, an operation aimed at bringing the national economy to its knees.

Hence, the allegations that the arrest orders for Carlos Ortega (president of the CTV) and Carlos Fernandez (president of FEDECAMARAS) are a violation of trade union freedoms are completely false, since participation in a coup d’etat and later in a sabotage operation against the oil industry has nothing to do with the labor rights enshrined in ILO Conventions 87 and 98.

It is also completely false to suggest that the work stoppage-sabotage of the oil industry of December 2002-January 2003 can be equated with a strike. No worker assembly at any time voted to conduct this job action, nor was any prior strike notice given, as established under the law. Those who were fired from their managerial and security positions were fired simply because they abandoned their jobs and responsibilities.

It is worth reprinting a communiqué of the oil workers’ trade union organizations -- FEDEPETROL, FETRAHIDROCARBUROS and SINUTRAPETROL -- regarding these events. It states, in part:

"We, the workers on the payroll, did not join or otherwise support the lockout/work stoppage. We kept the plants operating and supplying oil and gas to its customers -- which was a difficult task. We had to take over the jobs held by management when they walked off their jobs, without any legal or contractual obligation to act as we did.

" We, the workers on the payroll, had just signed a collective-bargaining agreement with management in which we obtained some important gains. In the face of the irresponsibility of our supervisors, who walked off their jobs, the 30,000 wage-earners in the oil industry took upon ourselves the patriotic duty to ensure that our principal industry not succumb and that our people not be engulfed in desperation and chaos, with unpredictable results we would still be regretting today had we not succeeded in keeping our industry up and running."

The so-called UNAPTEROL "trade union" -- one of the ILO Claimants, along with the CTV and FEDECAMARAS -- was formed by managers and heads of PDVSA to "represent the workers" in the collective bargaining process in the industry, in the place of the three aforementioned trade union organizations. UNAPETROL has not been recognized by the government for a very simple reason: Its composition (predominantly company managers and supervisors) runs counter to the principle of "purety of representation" and counter to ILO Convention 87 itself, which prohibits joint organizations of workers' and bosses' representatives. That is why the authorities responsible for registering trade unions in Venezuela did not recognize it.

As for the "murder of a trade union leader" -- an accusation that appears in Complaint No. 2249 -- the death was the result of a private fight. Numar Ricardo Herrera, member of the Federation of Construction Workers, was unfortunately murdered at the end of the May 1 celebrations of the CTV a big distance from the place where the demonstrators had gathered. Manuel Arias, after an argument with Herrera, fired his gun and killed him. The killer was apprehended by police authorities and is being tried for homicide. This was an isolated event without any political connotations or violation of trade union freedoms. The facts are there for all to see and examine.

The FEDECAMARAS Complaint includes the charge "of exclusion of employer association from the decision-making process." This accusation is completely bogus. In Venezuela, the legitimately elected president was again ratified in office by the August 15, 2004 referendum. It is a government that is perfectly competent to make decisions on its own.

Measures taken in defense of the poorest sectors of the population, such as the recent Law on Land Use (January 10, 2005), constitute for FEDECAMARAS and its junion partners the "creation of a hostile environment for employers." The arrogance of the bosses reached its height when they complained that "the application of foreign exchange controls was decided unilaterally by the authorities." Venezuela is a sovereign country and can take whatever measures its elected officials deem fit to promote the wellbeing of the people. If a government of a sovereign nation does not have this right, who then has such a right?

It is obvious that the Complaints filed by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV are part of a continuing policy aimed at making the ILO the stage to gain advantages in the political disputes inside Venezuela and not, as it should be, to defend trade union rights when these are threatened.

The Proposal of an ILO Commission of Inquiry

Venezuela has received several Direct Contact visits from officers of the ILO. A Direct Contact Mission of the ILO visited the country on October 13-15, 2004. The delegation interviewed leaders of the UNT, at which time we provided complete information and the truth about the situation of Trade Union Freedoms in Venezuela. We rejected point by point the joint accusations by the bosses and the leaders of the CTV -- leaders who, it should be noted, hold office illegitimately as they were "elected" in fraudulent trade union elections in October 2001.

The UNT learned during that visit that the Executive Director in charge of Principles and Fundamental Rights in the ILO, Mr. Kari Tapiola, had informed the government of Venezuela that several employer delegates had filed a Complaint against the government of Venezuela based on Article 26 of the ILO Constitution. If approved, this Article 26 Complaint would call for sending a full Commission of Inquiry to Venezuela to investigate the status of trade union freedoms and the right to create a trade union (ILO Convention 87) and the right of trade unions to collective bargaining (ILO Convention 98), both conventions ratified by Venezuela.

It should be noted that the employers' delegates, both full and alternates, who supported the Article 26 Complaint by FEDECAMARAS were the delegates from the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Venezuela, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Great Britain and the United States -- for a total of 23 employers.

The next Governing Body of the ILO on March 8-24, 2005, must decide by majority vote if Article 26 of the ILO Constitution applies or not in the case of Venezuela.

The Complaint lodged by the employers notes that "since 1999 the employers' association of Venezuela, as well as the workers' organizations, have been victims of intimidation. Moreover, the government’s policies have led to the closure of 100,000 companies and the loss of employment for thousands of workers. ... Yet despite the different recommendations formulated by the governing bodies of the ILO, the Venezuelan government continues to make physical, economic and moral attacks against independent Venezuelan employers, sidelining the majority of employer organizations and excluding them from the processes of social dialogue and tripartite consultation." These are among the many arguments contained in the ILO Complaint.

It also should be noted that since March 2003, the employers' group of the ILO has been threatening to push for the Commission of Inquiry procedure in relation to Venezuela. Thus, before the end of the 92nd meeting of the International Labor Conference, the spokesperson for the employers, during the Conference plenary session devoted to the report from the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, said the following: "Unfortunately this year we have not been able to impose a special paragraph for Venezuela, a country where there are undisputed violations of trade union freedoms. This situation has not improved especially in relation to previous years, during which we introduced special paragraphs. For this reason, the employers will present in conformity with Article 26 of the ILO Constitution, a more stringent Claim, one that no doubt has already reached the International Labor Bureau."

The UNT considers that the convening of an ILO Commission of Inquiry, as proposed by the employers of Venezuela and their counterparts in other countries, is aimed at imposing a "sanction" against the government of a sovereign country. Such a Commission of Inquiry would also be an affront against all Venezuelan trade unionists who are truly committed to the defense of the workers and their rights, to the defense of national sovereignty and democracy.

That is why we urge all our trade union brothers and sisters around the world to endorse and support the "Open Letter to the Workers’ Group of the ILO" which accompanies this Memorandum.

Caracas, February 2005

National Union of Workers of Venezuela (UNT)


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