Interview with Orlando Chirino, National Coordinator
of the National Union of Workers (UNT) in Venezuela
Last September Orlando Chirino, national coordinator of the UNT, paid a visit to Britain. The international campaign, Hands off Venezuela (HoV,) interviewed him about how the UNT was formed and how it functions, the debate on Socialism in the 21st century, the experiences of workers’ control, and how solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution is organized.
Can you tell us who you are and who you represent?
My name is Orlando Chirino and I am part of the National Coordinating Committee of the National Union of Workers (UNT), the new trade union organization that has emerged in the heat of the revolutionary process that is taking place in Venezuela. I am here in Britain at the invitation of the Hands off Venezuela Campaign (HoV) and am using the opportunity to participate in the conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The main aim of my work is to participate in events so that people know what is happening in Venezuela.
Could you tell us something about how the UNT came into being?
The UNT arose after a successful revolution in the country. During the oil lockout we had lengthy discussions and came to the conclusion that if the old management of the state owned PDVSA (Venezuela Oil Company) and the oligarchy in the country were to win the lockout then the government would fall—there is no doubt about this.
As you know we won one of the most important victories up to that time and from that struggle the new trade union organization arose because the old one, the CTV, had played a leading role in promoting an alliance with the imperialists and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie who were organizing the lockout.
Firstly, they had tried the coup of April 2002 and then they were doing this. Therefore we as workers took a very important great leap forward in terms of our political consciousness which led us to the conclusion that the CTV had stopped being a workers’ organization and had become an instrument of the bourgeoisie, of the oligarchy. That was the main reason why all trade union currents of all political persuasions in the country formed the UNT and why they decided that the new organization would have a horizontal leadership of 21 coordinators with 10 substitutes.
This was a fundamentally progressive move to the extent that we understood that the workers no longer wanted anything to do with the CTV and that therefore it was necessary to form a new instrument of the workers. At that moment we said that the UNT was born out of a political necessity that was above political demands and in the midst of a situation of class confrontation. Here we have the proof of our way of seeing things.
What role has the working class played in the Bolivarian Revolution and what role should it play?
In the first place it has to be recognized that in this revolution, which has involved all sections of society, the working class has played a secondary role. The birth of the UNT demonstrated that it is an instrument of the revolution in opposition to the CTV, which was an instrument of the counter-revolution. We now ought to fight with the UNT to turn it into the backbone of the process in order to deepen the Venezuelan revolution.
I think that the role of the working class is fundamental in order to change the capitalist nature of the country and as we say there will not be any way of making advances if we don’t go forward to socialism. This is a direct challenge to the role of private property and also raises the demand for the workers to run companies in both the public and private sectors. In addition the profits of the companies should not be used for the benefit of one person or group of workers, but rather should be used to solve the problems of the country and to make advances in the areas of health, education, housing and jobs.
You have spoken of co-management and the participation of the workers in the economy. Can you give us some examples of how this has been working, examples of how it has improved the productivity of labor and the problems that have arisen in relation to co-management?
Yes, this is a subject that has raised a lot of important questions and for that reason we have decided to raise the issue of co-management as the result of the victory we achieved in the oil lockout. We say that revolutionary co-management has nothing in common with the class collaboration model of co-management that exists in other countries. Here the issue has been raised not because there is a crisis in the country and the bosses and the government are taking advantage of a weakness in the trade union movement or crises in different companies. Here there is a situation of economic growth and there is a new trade union organization which is being built in the heat of the struggle that is taking place.
Our view is that although we recognize that co-management is developing within the framework of the capitalist system, it is for us a very important progressive development. Even if it isn’t the same as socialism, it raises very important issues for us. One of them is the issue of dual power in both the public and private sector of the economy—the fact that we are sharing power with the techno-bureaucrats of the state and/or the owners of the company.
First, the fact that they are forced to share management with us because of the power of the revolution is a very important progressive step and in the long run either they win or we win. In the long run we will show that there is no need to have an owner in the factory or have a state techno-bureaucrat saying what has to be done in the state companies.
Secondly, this is a period of apprenticeship where workers learn by doing. For 63 days we had workers’ control in the oil company PDVSA and we showed that we were able to run it—to the surprise of our enemies who said that the workers could not run it. And from this we drew the conclusion that if we were able to run an oil company that needs 5,000 or 6,000 technicians, how much easier it is to run a company that only has one owner, one person. I therefore think that this is another very important element on this matter.
And thirdly, it is also important to see how far the government—and in this case the government ministers, directors and presidents of the companies—are prepared to go.
This part is important despite the fact that it is taking place within the framework of capitalism. Because today our views have led to some confrontations with some sections of the government. For example the minister for energy and oil has openly said in different areas of the media that he doesn’t agree with companies being run under co-management in strategic companies that are related to the security of the state, such as the oil industry, electricity and basic industries such as aluminum.
On this issue there is a very difficult struggle even though the internal trade union revolution that is developing in the country has not managed to bring about changes in the management of the oil industry. This is one of the issues that we are confronting the minister with. It is not like that in the electricity industry which is run by some revolutionary comrades who have even managed to make some important gains in the collective agreement, such as getting a clause in the declaration of principles which says that the electricity industry cannot be privatized and secondly that not only the workers in the industry but also the consumers, the users, should have the right to be involved in co-management—and that is a step forward.
But the places where we have advanced most is in Alcasa (the state-owned aluminum company) where the president, Carlos Lanz, is a revolutionary leader who comes from the left and who has allowed workers’ methods of selecting managers. For example, the workers’ assemblies chose the managers of each department, who are in turn open to recall, so the workers have the right to elect and deselect. That is very important. Moreover, this was a company that made losses for the state over a period of many years.
Efficiency is now on the rise in the company and there is an atmosphere of confidence among the workers who are discussing how to get raw materials, what is going to be produced and even what is going to be negotiated. I think that this is a challenge for the labor movement and that in order to go forward, this experience will have to be successful, and in this sense the UNT, or the majority of the leadership of the UNT where I am, are supporting this experience.
In the private sector two companies have been taken over. One of them is involved in paper production, Invepal, which is working fully at a very high level of efficiency and we can say that it is under full self-management, despite the fact that the government has 51 percent of the shares. It is important to say that the workers got this company going again and workers’ management has been responsible for making contacts to get raw materials from outside and have traveled in order to get them. This is a very important step forward and an example of what workers are capable of doing.
The valve factory, Constructora Nacional de Valvulas (Inveval), is also about to restart production after it was expropriated by being declared a “public interest” company by the National Assembly, which then allowed the president to expropriate it. At this moment in time the workers are about to get it going again.
There is also a third sector which is where companies have been closed down and are in a bad way. The government has come with money for credit, the owners with their shares and the workers with their labor in order to get the companies moving again. There are several which are working normally.
We believe, however, that sooner or later there will be a sharpening of the contradictions within the company between the owner and the workers. We hope that the workers in the company will be able to use this period of co-management as an apprenticeship in order to get ready to manage the company in the near future. I think that we are in a co-management process which has economic implications in the Misiones (Missions—government social reform programs) including a relationship of dependency of the bosses on the workers. But at the end of the day the thing that we most want is the right of workers to participate in the debate as well.
We are not reopening companies and expropriating them in order to give them to individual groups of workers who in turn become the new bosses. This is a debate that is going on within the UNT and sections such as that of Francisco Rondon, Manchuca etc.—because this has already been done in Sidor (a steel company). In these companies, at the end of the economic activity that has taken place, the profits are distributed among the workers because at the same time they are also shareholders.
This is an insult to the rest of the workers in the country. We believe that companies must be made efficient and that corruption must be stopped. But we also believe that these companies must be brought into production so that they can make an enormous contribution to the development of plans in the fields of education, health, housing and employment [for all workers].
In April, when there was a workshop in Valencia about workers’ participation, some questions were raised about the plans of the workers’ leaders in Invepal where they had raised the issue that as the company was now under self-management the trade unions were no longer needed and they had closed down their trade union.
This is a very good question because we already knew that they had closed down the trade union. We immediately let it be known that we are totally opposed to this and that we are defenders of trade unions as they are weapons to fight for the demands of workers. (I don’t think that the comrades did it for political reasons or out of bad intentions.)
Now we have found ourselves once again discussing the role of the trade unions. As we go through these experiences we will find solutions to these problems. The way that the government has chosen is that the workers set themselves up as a cooperative so that the shares can be handed to them, but we believe that in no way does this mean that the trade unions will be done away with.
As I said to you this is a debate that is in full swing and I think that the workers have a very good understanding of all of this. There hasn’t been any opposition but as you will understand there will be workers who not only want to get a wage but also a part of the company. This is a political battle that is taking place in the middle of the process of the Venezuelan revolution which is now fully underway. Our wish is to win over many, many workers in order to build a relationship that is not one of dependency, of boss and worker, but in the last analysis of collective action.
Within the UNT what kind of response has there been to the debate [over President Hugo Chavez’s slogan], Socialism in the 21st century? What position has the UNT adopted?
At this moment in the UNT there has been an enormous confrontation with the result that one section no longer goes to the meetings. This is a very big obstacle to a proper development of the debate. But we, the revolutionary sections that base themselves on the working class, have discussed the issue even with the parties that make up the government.
This discussion began recently and reformists do not agree with the idea of raising the issue of socialism in the 21st century and this has to be brought out into the open. They have got a very limited view of what this means. They have a Stalinist view and for this reason they are violently against this debate and against co-management. I think that this is going to be a first rate debate. I think that we have to yet again applaud the courage of the president of the republic who has brought into public debate the idea that if we do not transcend capitalism, there will be no way that we can get rid of poverty, no way of solving the historic problems of the Venezuelan people.
We have to use this favorable moment to patiently develop the discussion as widely as possible because I am convinced that there are many comrades who were deceived, who were confused, who went home and stayed there because of the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet state, but who are now fully involved. This debate has brought many people back into activity and I am firmly convinced that there are great possibilities that we can win the debate, possibilities that we can build a revolutionary organization in Venezuela.
We have already raised the issues but at the end of the day there are no magic formulas. We are where we are. We have defended the position that we want socialism with workers’ democracy and we have said that the society that we want to build should guarantee a democracy that goes much further than bourgeois democracy guarantees.
We believe that the working class still continues to be the main social force in this revolution independently of whether there are alliances with the participation of other sectors. We are convinced that it is necessary to reclaim the ideas of Marxism and Leninism and all the contributions of Leon Trotsky. We believe that the president has been taking great steps forward but we also believe that at times he says things that are incorrect: We believe that it is incorrect to think that bosses and workers can co-exist under socialism. This, however, should not make us lose heart or turn against the president. We should trust the rich experiences of the Venezuelan working class, the extraordinary participation of its leaders and the work of our team—the Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC).
I told you last night that it is very important to take part openly in the debate about the building of a revolutionary organization in the country because this debate is taking place because of the absence of a revolutionary party. Neither the MVR, nor Podemos, nor PPT are revolutionary parties. These are parties that have embodied the same traditions, methods and even the same corruption as the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie, such as AD and COPEI.
We have already said that in the mayoral and governor elections there was firstly a deep disquiet about the methods of electing the candidates and secondly, disquiet over the lack of any specific programmatic commitment to the voters. We have already seen this in relation to the city councilors and the parish councils.
There is a debate going on about the election of the candidates to be the members of the National Assembly (NA) and in this process we can see how small the revolutionary willpower of these parties is. Most of them have got nothing to do with the workers. They are not genuine representatives and I think that this is a conscious attempt to prevent workers’ leaders and revolutionaries from getting into the NA.
We have taken great care, but also great precision, to mention these factors in order to clarify the nature of the confrontation that is taking place in relation to the building of socialism in the 21st century.
As you know I have been here for a week and I have just found out who the candidates are for the NA and I think it is a disgrace that Marcela (Maspero) has been put in 6th place in the list of candidates. As they use the method of the morocha (double-barrelled shot gun), there is no way that anything can be gained from this political machinery. They have rewarded right wing bureaucrats like Francisco Torrealba and Jose Ramon Ribero who openly capitulated to the governor of the federal state of Bolivar. And it is obvious that neither I, nor Stalin Perez, a leader of the UNT, will get to the top of the list.
However, I have no intention of being a candidate at this moment in time because the tasks of a committed revolutionary are that of actively participating in the building of the UNT and in the organizing of a political weapon of the working class, but this does not mean that we have closed off access to this possibility of being candidates.
What is the UNT doing to organize women, peasants and those who work in the informal sector of the economy?
The program and the aims of the UNT, which were approved in the Congress, are absolutely clear. The trade union organization that we are building must reflect or mirror the process that we are living through. In the assemblies it was decided that we organize a mission called Cruz Villegas, which has as its objective the organization of the workers in the informal sector which is 51 percent of the working population in the country. The work amongst the peasants has been developing in parallel with this and I think that with the conference in Caracas of the National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora, there is no reason why we should not be working together to build the UNT.
Women have played a very important predominant role in the country. We have to find ways of ensuring that they are part of the UNT. We are also in favor of creating a department for the disabled which were never organized by the CTV.
In relation to the unemployed we have raised the issue of creating a department for them in the union but at the same time this has to exist at all levels of the union, from the rank and file upwards, so that at all levels the trade unions look for ways of solving the problem of unemployment in Venezuela. These levels of unemployment should not exist in a country as rich as Venezuela, which has iron, gold and bauxite, the income from which is very similar to that which is obtained from oil.
The UNT has to become the most genuine expression of the process that is taking place in the sense that the process has been led and given impetus by all the sectors. This is a debate that is open and it is important that people know that there are sections within reformism that want to put an end to these experiences of the UNT. For that reason we as revolutionaries have to be clear about our duty to make an enormous contribution in terms of time, resources and working with solidarity committees like Hands off Venezuela, so that the example of what has happened at the TUC (the Trades Union Congress, Britain’s main labor federation) becomes part of the building of the UNT. I believe that the objective conditions for doing this are already over ripe. I also believe that the subjective element has begun a very important debate.
What can be done by trade unionists in Great Britain and other countries in order to help the Venezuelan revolution?
In the first place the initiative of solidarity carried out by the campaign, Hands off Venezuela, must be strengthened. Secondly, people must have a clear idea of how to express this solidarity; we welcome all initiatives concerning solidarity. No event or conference in the trade union movement should take place without the theme of solidarity with our struggle being raised. The most concrete form that this solidarity can have from the trade unions is the ability that they have in each country to counter the false information spread by the powerful means of communication which are acting in favor of the counter-revolution.
I think that in organizations like the International Labor Organization or the UN, where yesterday Chavez himself raised the issue of its political bankruptcy, it is important to publicize what he was saying as well as the activities that we carry out when we leave the country in order to travel around gaining help and solidarity from the people, something which in my opinion is not difficult to achieve.
Venezuela has become a very important point of reference. From my point of view, and without wishing to appear self-opinionated, the work that we have done has enabled the birth within people of a very important hope. In addition we have to have the ability to defeat sectarianism as well as the maneuvers of the bureaucracy, and also to counter the role that the CIA is playing in all of this so that we can aid the development of the revolution in areas outside the continents of the Americas.
I think that the resolution that was approved by the [recently concluded convention of the] TUC is an historic event but it may also be the case that it was voted on but afterwards nothing is done. To ensure that this does not happen will be the responsibility of ourselves, of the UNT and the Hands off Venezuela campaign, of all the organizations who are fighting to defend the revolution, who fight for socialism. It will also depend on our ability to establish relations with other countries such as Bolivia. This kind of solidarity has to take place in those places where left or progressive governments are going to win or are already in government.
We are living through exceptional times and therefore it is not accidental that Chavez went to the UN and said what he said—apart from who he is as a person. It is part of the victory that is tied up with the advances made by the people. What is very clear to me is that people have voted for these left governments so that they carry out a complete break with the IMF and this type of thing.
Revolutionary Bolivarian greetings!
—Hands Off Venezuela, February 9, 2006