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VENEZUELA: Trade Union Job-Peddling Leads to Bloodshed

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Feb 13 2007 (IPS) - Seventeen shots fired by three hired killers cut short the lives of construction industry trade unionists Héctor Jaramillo and Alexis García as they were driving in Ciudad Guayana in southeastern Venezuela.

Their funeral was also infiltrated by paid thugs, who began a gun battle in which two other members of the same union, Neomar Rodríguez and Robert Rivero, as well as one of their friends, Eloína García, were killed. Four of the funeral-goers were also injured.

The violence that broke out in late January exposed the entrenched practice of purchasing jobs, especially in the construction industry. In Ciudad Guayana, in the state of Bolívar, a hub of the steel and aluminium industries, where a large number of bridges and roads have been built in recent years, trade unionists hire paid killers to settle scores.

“Because of the high unemployment in the area, thousands of workers gather outside of the construction sites in search of a job, and unscrupulous individuals who call themselves unionists charge them to put them on the payroll,” Víctor Moreno, president of the regional Federación de Trabajadores of the state of Bolívar, told IPS.

The situation has triggered all-out wars between rival trade unions, which charge workers between 250 and 450 dollars – a month’s wages – to put them on the payroll.

“The deaths of Jaramillo and García were aimed at eliminating them from the game, in order to penetrate the construction site where they were operating, sell the jobs, and maintain control at gunpoint. That means their lives were worth the equivalent of 250 dollars times 300 jobs,” said Manuel Muñoz, another trade unionist in the area.

The murdered men belonged to the Sindicato Único de Trabajadores of the state of Bolívar (Sutrabolívar) and were working on the expansion of the Cachamay stadium, one of the facilities to be employed by the South American Cup, the football tournament that will be hosted by Venezuela in June and July.

The stadium has been put under heightened police and military security since the killings, to prevent further outbreaks of violence.

Late last year, four construction workers were shot to death on a highway in El Pao, to the south of Ciudad Guayana. The judicial police determined that the shootout was the result of a vendetta that was not based on labour problems.

But the press in that area has reported that around 100 construction workers have been slain in the last four years – 30 in 2006 alone. Fifteen of last year’s victims held positions of responsibility in their trade unions, according to Sutrabolívar president Asdrúbal López.

Trade union leaders across the board repudiate the practice of job-selling and the use of violence. But so far they have not taken any measures to prevent these problems.

In the meantime, the strength of trade unions is waning in Venezuela.

Even the president of the Communist Party, Jerónimo Carrera, warned that “Venezuela’s path towards socialism is lacking a true organised workers’ movement.”

“Job-peddling is a perversion of an old labour movement achievement – the clause ensuring trade union protection, which granted unions power to give their members jobs, to keep the bosses from making it impossible for the most combative workers to make a living,” labour lawyer León Arismendi told IPS.

In Venezuela, “that gain has been turned into a business scheme, first in the oil industry and, more recently, in the construction industry, where trade unionists, instead of fighting for their class interests, shoot each other over the booty,” lamented Arismendi.

Moreno, who is opposed to President Hugo Chávez, said that “in Guayana and in the construction industry in particular, the situation has been aggravated by the lack of public spending, which translates into fewer public works, in a context of 14 or 15 percent unemployment.”

Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics reported in December that unemployment stood at 8.4 percent.

Moreno added that “the government is partly to blame because in its eagerness to dismantle the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), it promoted parallel unions, and around 10 different rival organisations are now active in Guayana.”

The CTV was Venezuela’s largest trade union federation throughout the 20th century, and is strongly aligned with the political opposition against the leftist Chávez.

Trade unions at times “strike deals with businesses on a construction project so that only the members of that particular union are hired,” added Moreno, who said that the first step towards a solution would be for the Labour Ministry to call for the election of a single unified construction industry union.

“But the problem is that unity among workers can’t be decreed, and it would be really difficult to achieve unity among unions that would prefer to solve problems at the business end of a gun,” Eduardo Piñate, leader of the Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores union, which is aligned with the Chávez administration, told IPS.

“Of course we repudiate the use of hired thugs to resolve trade union differences, as well as the perverse practice of selling jobs,” said Piñate. “And we criticise this even more so when it is carried out by activists or supposed leaders of trade unions that claim to be taking part in the process of transformation and change that Venezuela is going through.”

Unified trade unions at an industry level have never been established in Venezuela, despite the fact that several trade union federations promoted them for decades. On the contrary, thousands of small labour groupings cropped up.

Many of them came together in the CTV or in smaller labour federations like the communist-aligned Central Única de Trabajadores de Venezuela, the Confederación de Sindicatos Autónomos (Codesa), and the Confederación General del Trabajo, which has Christian Democratic roots. And six years ago, trade unionists who supported Chávez created the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), made up of unions from several regions.

Violence waged by labour unions is not limited to Ciudad Guayana. In Caracas, groups of workers from different unions that back Chávez have clashed violently outside of companies that are engaged in public works for the city’s subway system.

In Ciudad Guayana, the judicial police reported last week that they had identified three members of a band of hired killers that operates in a poor neighbourhood in that city as the murderers of Jaramillo and García.

With respect to the shootout at the funeral, the authorities say the occasion was used to cover up a personal vendetta.

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