In Venezuela, Shootings of Union Organizers Common
Two shots to the head, fired from a van, put a sudden end to the life of Argenis Vásquez, the organising secretary of the Toyota assembly plant workers' union in the city of Cumaná, 400 kilometres east of the Venezuelan capital, as he was leaving his home at 09:00 local time.
But his death was just one of the cases that marked the start of another bloody month for Venezuelan trade unionists.
The day before, on May 4, 29-year-old Keller Maneiro, a delegate of the Union of Construction and Lumber Workers in Ciudad Guayana, 500 kilometres southeast of Caracas, was murdered in the parking lot of a supermarket.
A few days later, Sergio Devis, leader of another construction union in Ciudad Guayana, was intercepted along a rural road by men who roughly forced him out of his car and dispatched him with shots to the head, according to witnesses.
Vásquez had organised a strike at the Toyota plant in April, and immediately after he was killed a group of enraged workers attacked the factory, destroying gates, windows and a security booth. They set two cars on fire and assaulted one of the supervisors as well as reporters covering the event.
The state governor, Enrique Maestre, of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), to which Vásquez also belonged, said he was "concerned that hired killers should have reached our state of Sucre," in the northeast of the country.
Some of Toyota's workers say the company is responsible for Vásquez's murder, while others blame a power struggle within the union.
The national chief of the judicial police, Wilmer Flores, is conducting an investigation, but veteran police agents say, based on experience at Ciudad Guayana, that if hired killers are involved it will be difficult to establish connections between the victim and the assassins.
The area around Ciudad Guayana is a centre of heavy industry, where iron ore, bauxite and precious minerals are mined and there are steel and aluminium works and hydroelectric plants. Bridges, dams and other infrastructure are also under construction.
So far this year, four activists belonging to different construction industry unions have been murdered. One was shot inside a hospital in Ciudad Guayana.
Pedro Moreno, human rights officer in the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (CTV), which is aligned with the opposition and has long faced accusations of corruption, told IPS that in the last decade "more than 150 trade unionists have been killed.
"Together with Provea, a human rights organisation, we have prepared a report to take before the International Labour Organisation (ILO)."
Provea said that in the period from October 2007 to September 2008 there were 29 homicides related to union activity – lower than the 53 murders during the period from October 2006 to September 2007.
"As well as being heinous crimes, they are a sign of the weakening of the trade union movement and a threat to the effective rights of workers," Marino Alvarado, the head of Provea, told IPS.
In Moreno's view, "these crimes are committed by organised groups within the unions created by the ruling party, which hand out jobs to workers in exchange for their first month's salary and other payments. Then when labour activists oppose these practices, they settle the problem with their guns."
In November 2008, three union activists at the Colombian-owned Alpina food company in Villa de Cura, 100 kilometres west of Caracas, were murdered, presumably by hired killers.
They were active in the Classist Unitary Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (C-CURA), a group that supports the administration of Hugo Chávez, with reservations, within the National Union of Workers (UNT), a pro-government central trade union.
In January, in the eastern state of Anzoátegui, governed by Tarek Saab of the PSUV, police fired upon picketing workers who were occupying a Mitsubishi assembly plant. Two workers were killed.
"Two workers dead. That is a blow I feel deep down in my heart," President Chávez said on that occasion. "Those responsible must be sent to prison."
Orlando Chirino, the head of C-CURA, retorted that "it is not enough to make speeches promising thorough investigations and severe punishment for those responsible. What has happened is a systemic problem of workers being targeted in violent attacks, not just an isolated incident of excessive force by police."
"What's happening in some Venezuelan labour sectors is basically a result of the chaos that followed the near-dissolution of political parties," Francisco Iturraspe, head of the department of Labour Law at the Central University and a leading figure in the Latin American Association of Labour Lawyers, told IPS.
Ever since the 1930s, when political parties and trade unions were organised, "the parties, especially the social democratic Acción Democrática (AD), exercised discipline over the labour movement through its union bureaux, but this collapsed when the parties unravelled during the past decade," according to Iturraspe.
He quoted Enrique Tejera París, foreign minister in the second government of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974-1979 and 1989-1993), as saying that "without the tutelage of AD, trade unions in Venezuela would start a war over access to their share of oil revenues."
But the PSUV "has no apparatus to control the workers' movement, which has been of secondary importance in its strategy of power, and this can be seen in the different currents vying for control of the UNT, multiplying the number of unions to the point that in Ciudad Guayana there are nearly a dozen pro-government unions in the construction industry," Iturraspe said.
William Lizardo, secretary of the Federation of Construction Workers, said "the Labour Ministry is responsible, because it permitted and encouraged the creation of unions headed by people who are criminals or have been dismissed from companies for wrongdoing, in a bid to displace the traditional unions."
He said there were 24 unions in the construction industry in 2002, one for each region of the country, but now there are 150 unions, "each vying for their members to be allocated jobs on some construction site."
"This is very clear in Ciudad Guayana, where unemployment is twice the official national figure (of 7.3 percent in March 2009), and thousands of workers gather at the gates seeking work. They fall prey to unscrupulous mafias operating under the cover of the profusion of unions," Víctor Moreno, president of the regional union federation, told IPS.
Meanwhile, Labour Minister María Cristina Iglesias said "when we entered government (in 1999) there were approximately 1,300 unions. Now we have close to 6,000. This means we are a country where there is trade union freedom.
"Never have there been so many union organisations, and never have they been listened to as they are now.
"These organisations are maturing, trying to build a different reality, which involves demands for better wages and conditions, and also means making the political leap toward having a say in the management of companies and making decisions about production. In other words, it means taking on their role as the working class in the building of socialism," the minister said.