Historically, the trade union movement, under the umbrella of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), formed one of the pillars of Venezuela's elitist, consensus-based political system. However, the CTV lacked internal democracy, and current president Hugo Chavez's rise to power created pressure for elections within the confederation, with the government playing a critical role. The confederation's 2001 elections ended unsatisfactorily and led to cleavages both within the CTV and between it and the government. By 2002 the confederation had fully joined the political opposition movement, and the government began to encourage new unions to compete with CTV-linked groups at both the company and national levels. The National Workers' Union (UNT) was formed in 2003 for this purpose, and many unions joined the new umbrella group. However, the government does not enjoy absolute support from the UNT. On the contrary, autonomy has remained a divisive issue, with the leader of the UNT's main faction, Orlando Chirino, strongly in favor of maintaining independence from the government.
In 2007, Chavez explicitly stated that all unions should submit to his revolutionary project. This attempt to degrade union autonomy led Chirino to call for abstention from a controversial constitutional referendum that year. When the amendment package was narrowly defeated, Chirino lost his job at PDVSA, the state-controlled oil firm, in a move that heralded further factionalism within the trade union movement. The government has since declared that it will not engage in collective bargaining with any union that does not support Chavez's socialist ideology. The minister for energy and oil has also ordered oil-sector employees to set up socialist committees, and declared that those not participating "will be considered suspect of conspiring against the revolution."
According to the constitution and labor legislation, workers have the right to form trade unions of their choice, conduct peaceful strikes, and engage in collective bargaining. In practice, these rights are limited either legally or, more often, by political considerations. The National Electoral Council is constitutionally tasked with monitoring the internal elections of unions, a practice that the International Labour Organization (ILO) has criticized as undue government interference. Sections of the constitution require trade unions to establish term limits for leadership positions, and the government has been criticized for stripping unions of their right to conduct collective bargaining if they do not conduct elections under state supervision. The ILO has also found fault with the fact that collective bargaining is only permitted for unions representing a majority of workers in an industry, even though some industries lack such a union. In addition, the emergence of several new modes of management, including cooperatives, co-managed enterprises, and proposed workers' councils, has led to overlapping functions and confusion regarding the role of unions.
New unions have proliferated under Chavez. To some degree this reflects new dynamism, but it also signals state-encouraged parallel unionism. One effect of the surge in new unions is a substantial increase in violence within certain sectors, particularly the construction industry. The rival unions compete for control of jobs, which they may then legally distribute to their members, often for a fee. Scores of union members have been killed in such disputes in recent years, and in August 2007 the government initiated a dialogue in an attempt to halt the battles. In a 2007 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that the government pay greater attention to the problem. In 2009, the commission expressed concern over the escalating number of attacks and threats on trade union leaders. According to the Human Rights Vicarage of Caracas, 34 labor leaders were assassinated in 2008 and 2009.
Unions are also used to transmit government directives on voting and political participation to the rank and file. During the 2006 presidential campaign, oil minister and PDVSA chief Rafael Ramirez suggested that all PDVSA employees who did not wish to vote for Chavez should leave the company.
The right to strike is embedded in the constitution, with a partial exception for public-sector workers. However, unions and human rights groups have expressed concern that the right to strike is limited in practice by 2005 amendments to the penal code. The changes significantly increased penalties for pot-banging and blocking transportation routes, both of which are traditional forms of protest in Venezuela. Strikes are also limited by policies that treat almost all public services as essential.
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