Venezuela: Workers’ occupy Ministry of Labour offices

Armed threats ends action

On Wednesday 15 August 40 workers leaders together with workers occupied the offices of the Ministry of Labour. They arrived at the offices of the Ministry of Labour to demand a discussion with the Minister about the collective contract negotiations for public sector workers. Once they arrived, the workers were told the contracts were going to be signed in an office on the fifth floor of the ministry building. After two hours of waiting, and with no information from the civil servants, a commission amongst the trade union leaders and workers was elected to find out what was going on. The commission finally got word that the civil servant responsible to receive the contracts was the National Inspector of labour and Contractual Matters, who was not present in the building since she was having a meeting with the Minister of Labour. Faced with this situation, the trade union leaders decided to occupy the office as a means of mounting pressure and to make sure the collective agreements would be received. This was decided by the 40 to 50 workers. Later, 30 people taking part in the occupation spent the night in the building. On Thursday morning some of the workers had to leave the occupation. Eventually, the 17 people who stayed were surrounded by the security staff from the Ministry of Labour. These closed the fifth floor off and the workers representatives were locked in the building and not allowed to have any contact with the outside world.

The actions taken by these security staff, on the orders of the Minister, testify to repressive measures that are used by the state apparatus against workers. As a reaction to this incident, a group of between 20 and 30 people, mostly family members and other leading trade unionists, mobilised to picket the entry of the Ministry of Labour and show solidarity with the workers locked in upstairs. This was a show of solidarity had as its main objective the physical safety of the imprisoned upstairs. The response from the functionaries in the Ministry was to shut the entrance to the ministry and to block people’s movements. They blocked those who tried to bring food to the locked-in workers. At this point, the situation was already disturbing. The national leaders of the UNT [a trade union federation] arrived, like Orlando Chirino, and Marcella Maspero, to show support for the occupation. However, they did not organise a mass protest or call on people to join the picket line. With desperation mounting, women on the picket line tried to batter down the doors to the ministry and get some food up to the 5th floor for the imprisoned trade union members and leaders. The reaction of the functionaries of the Ministry of Labour was to put chains around the entrance gates.

Desperate situation

Different journalists from newspapers and TV stations came to see what was going on but only the privately-owned media channels reported on the situation. The government-controlled media kept silent about what was happening.

On Friday, we went to look for a public prosecutor to draw up an official record of what was happening. Two public prosecutors showed up but not one of them was allowed access to the offices in the ministry where the workers were locked in.

On Saturday, the only people still outside the Ministry of Labour supporting the people who were still being held on the fifth floor were their family members. On Sunday, the same situation continued and desperation prevailed.

On Monday, an idea to petition the Supreme Court and serve a habeas corpus was discussed (in common law, a habeas corpus is the name of a legal action through which a person can seek relief from unlawful detention. The court can decide that a prisoner is brought before a court so it can determine whether that person is serving a lawful sentence). A press conference was organised and the television outlets, Globovision, Televen and Venezolana de Televisión, attended. This press conference was manipulated by the media, as TV pictures showed Orlando Chirono making a declaration. In reality, he never made a statement at the press conference.

We received messages of support for this action from Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland and other countries. In Argentina, a picket was held at the Venezuelan Embassy. The people present demanded an end to hostile actions against trade union members. They also demanded that national trade union leaders, like Orlando Chirino and Marcelo Maspero, mobilise workers, and the population, in general, and campaign against the detention of the trade unionists in the Ministry of Labour.

A protest demonstration did take place but the mobilisation and turnout for it was disappointing. It was a sign that the trade union movement is divided and that some of the trade union leaders cannot count on much support.

On Tuesday, when the trade unionists had already spent 6 days in illegal custody in the Ministry of Labour, the situation did not look much better. We were expecting more repression from the Minister, and the trade union leaders who support him, like Franklin Rondon. The Minster sent unarmed officers of the national police to have so-called ‘negotiations’ with those held on the fifth floor. At the same time, a group of armed thugs, with the support of the tupamaros (an armed group from the ‘23 September neighbourhood’, in Caracas), gathered in front of the building. They entered the ministry shouting “fuera los escuálidos” (‘out with the squalid ones’ – ‘squalid’ is widely used in Venezuela to refer to supporters of the pro-imperialist opposition and the national oligarchy). They made their way through the building, smashing things up and destroying furniture. Once they got to the fifth floor, they drew their weapons and threatened to kill the trade union leaders held captive.

One of the trade unionists recognised two of these thugs and started negotiations to prevent a bloodbath. The two said they were instructed to end the occupation. We know from other sources that the Minister of Labour, and his underlings, paid these thugs.

The occupation ended to prevent the shedding of blood. The National Guard officers who were still present on the fifth floor of the Ministry did not intervene at all, not even when lives were threatened.

When the occupation ended, and the workers got out of the Ministry of Labour, they told about the brutal actions of the armed thugs, and how they had to negotiate for their lives.

This whole episode is also a comment on the complications facing the trade union movement in Venezuela. For some in the trade union movement the reaction of the minister of labour has been a shock. After all this is the person who openly declares himself a Trotskyist. On the other hand the occupation of the ministry might not have been understood by other workers not immediately involved as the best tactic to employ. In any case, the inexperience or wrong tactics of the trade unionists involved is no excuse for the use of paid thugs and the intimidation of the trade union movement by a government that claims to build ‘socialism in the 21st century. This experience shows the contradictory nature of the regime and the Venezuelan process and how they can use shock troops to contain any independent class demonstration of Venezuelan workers.

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September 2007