The Working Class in Its Labyrinth: A Conversation with Eduardo Sánchez

Cira Pascual Marquina
https://venezuelanalysis.com/files/styles/full_content/public/images/%5Bsite-date-yyyy%5D/%5Bsite-date-mm%5D/eduardo_sanchez_va.png?itok=0G1D88BWA respected trade union leader, Eduardo Sánchez is the president of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Universidad [University Workers’ National Union] and the Federación de Universitarios [University Workers Federation]. The son of a campesina and a construction worker, Sánchez began his political militancy at age 15 and first entered a union as an 18-year-old paper mill worker. He later worked at a Goodyear plant, becoming the head of the rubber workers union. After being laid off for leading a strike at Goodyear, Sánchez began working at the Universidad Central de Venezuela [UCV, Central University of Venezuela], where he continues to work security to this day.

A Marxist and internationalist, Sánchez is one of the founders of the Movimiento Popular Bolivariano, a Latin-Americanist organization that preceded Chávez’s emergence but joined his movement early on. In this interview, the trade unionist talks about the conditions of the working class and what he calls the “capitalist restoration” promoted by the Venezuelan government.

What can you tell us about the situation of the Venezuelan working class?

The crisis of the working class is multidimensional. First, the minimum wage in Venezuela is less than one dollar a month, according to official data. The UN considers anyone who has an income below 1.9 USD per day to be in extreme poverty.

To give you a more precise approximation, the CENDA [research center for the working class] estimates that the basic goods basket here – including food, housing, and other basic goods and services – comes to around 300 USD per month.

This drives the working class to search for precarious, sometimes dangerous jobs to supplement these tiny salaries.

In addition to the economic asphyxiation, we had our rights taken away in October 2018. That was when the government signed Memorandum 2792 in the context of the Economic Recovery Plan. That document, prepared by the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Planning, aims to protect capitalists by overriding the Organic Labor Law.

Memorandum 2792 did away with Chávez’s Organic Labor Law, which was the result of many struggles. That law states that a salary is established through a discussion between workers and the employer, while the Labor Ministry operates as an arbiter and as an impartial guarantor. Now the government takes upon itself the right to decree the salary across the board.

The Memorandum eliminates the right to strike, does away with union democracy, and freezes collective contracts and social benefits. In short, our collective bargaining rights disappeared in 2018.

Today the salary is merely symbolic. Labor power – which is the only thing workers can sell in this world – has been stripped of its value. Now workers cannot negotiate the price of their labor power or their working conditions.

These low salaries are often accompanied by bonuses. Let’s talk about what the labor movement has come to call the “la bonificación del salario” [replacing salaries with bonuses].

Many workers receive the minimum salary plus a bonus, which is non-wage remuneration. Bonuses range from 10 to 40 USD per month. In the case of university employees – including professors, administrative personnel, or workers –, we are all on the same boat: our salaries are all under 5 USD while we receive a bonus of about 10 USD per month.

The aim of these bonuses is to keep workers from abandoning their jobs, but they are far from satisfying our basic needs. Additionally, these supplements do not count toward retirement, social security benefits, etc. It’s a boon for employers since the bonuses come with no future obligations.

This is why unions call the government’s economic policies “an adjustment disguised as socialism.” In effect, the government’s measures cast the full weight of the crisis onto the base of the pyramid: the workers. They do so by freezing the salary in a hyperinflationary economy, eliminating workers’ rights, and exempting large corporations from paying taxes.

What is the situation of the workers at the Universidad Central de Venezuela [UCV] in these times of pandemic?

The situation of UCV workers is the same as that of the working class: the pandemic has hit us hard.

For three or more years, university employees and the majority of workers in the public and private sector lost HCM coverage [medical insurance paid by the employer], which is part of our collective bargaining agreement. This has a bad impact on our health, which is all the more troubling in the context of a global pandemic.

Additionally, Covid-19 medications are extremely expensive, from 4 USD and up, while renting an oxygen container costs about 500 USD. Unfortunately, since hospitals are running critically short of beds and medication, patients’ families are forced to seek alternative solutions. As a last resort, the working class often turns to superstitions, witch doctors, and curative teas.

This week we lost two UCV workers to Covid-19, and last week we lost five.

Beyond some symbolic gestures, neither the government nor the employer [UCV] seem to be concerned about our situation. When we ask for wage increases or access to healthcare, the government tells us to request it from the university administration. Meanwhile, the university administration tells us that our wages come directly from the Ministry of University Education and… there is nothing they can do!

What is the impact of the sanctions on the working class, and how do they in turn affect salaries and rights?

The sanctions are very harmful not only for the working class but for the country as a whole. In principle, US sanctions and those imposed by other countries target the government, but they really harm the whole of society.

Certain medical supplies, components of gasoline and diesel, and inputs required by the Venezuelan industry (particularly the heavy industry) have all gone missing. These supplies are fundamental for the day-to-day life of Venezuelans, and for the country’s economy.

The sanctions and the blockade are criminal because they claim lives, but they also lead to sacking of the nation’s resources. The case of CITGO, the gasoline refining and distribution network in the US, is emblematic. CITGO is a Venezuelan state-owned company, which was kidnapped by US imperialism in 2018. Its assets are being “auctioned” with the acquiescence of Venezuela’s anti-patriotic, ultra-right sectors.

The sanctions are murderous, criminal, and they should be brought to a halt immediately. Additionally, Venezuelan politicians who foster the sanctions should be tried for treason.

The Venezuelan government has used the sanctions to justify its labor policies and rush the implementation of the economic adjustment package. As such, what we are going through is a process of capitalist restoration. It is a capitalist restoration because, while the salary is frozen in a hyperinflationary context and our rights have been eliminated through Memorandum 2792, local capitalists pay some of the lowest taxes in the region, and foreign capital is exempted from paying taxes [Foregin Investment Law, December 2017].

As a union organizer, how do you evaluate the situation of the labor movement in Venezuela right now?

The working class may be going through its worst moment when it comes to organization. The main problem is the movement’s fragmentation in a polarized context. However, the polarization is not class-based. Instead, it is defined by party lines that are, paradoxically, increasingly blurred in ideological terms.

One obstacle that we face as we try to promote a patriotic and autonomous movement is the Central Bolivariana Socialista de Trabajadores [CBST, Bolivarian Socialist Workers Central]. Created by President Chávez as a sort of union federation, it eventually became a [government controlled] organization that operates as a containment barrier. The CBST is a tailor-made interlocutor that opposes strikes and rubberstamps the abrogation of workers’ rights and collective contracts.

Many unions that joined the CBST because it was a Chavista space have abandoned it. However, despite its minority character, the CBST claims to be the voice of the working class. It also has free access to state media, which systematically bans the participation of autonomous labor organizations, Chavista or not.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find labor organizations historically co-opted by the right, including the Central de Trabajadores de Venezuela [CTV, Venezuelan Workers Federation]. The CTV played a leading role in the coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002.

Those are the two poles. In between, there is a large mass of workers who don’t identify with either federation and who are struggling to survive. In fact, this is probably the number one circumstance that keeps workers out of mass mobilization. Nobody lives on their salary… The labor world has changed. Workers have to look for other ways to survive. They are immersed in an exhausting situation that demobilizes them.

Additionally, the trade union movement has lost credibility. CBST spokespeople live lavish lives, drive expensive cars, and are portrayed on TV legitimating the employers’ actions in the name of the trade union movement. That undermines trade unionism’s credibility.

We are between two poles, neither of which serves the working class. On one side, we find a bloc that has no credibility or autonomy, an appendix of the government. On the other, there is the recalcitrant right-wing bloc that is an enemy of the patria, and it acts as a party and not as a promoter of workers’ rights.

Furthermore, when a strong union movement gets going, both sides try to control or liquidate it. They both attempt to eliminate anything that is autonomous and willing to struggle.

Finally, the state represses workers demanding better working conditions and the reinstatement of the collective contract. However, people continue fighting. Workers want to rescue the Organic Labor Law. This is a struggle against two currents, both intent on capitalist restoration.

You mentioned the repression of the working class. How does this repression express itself?

The workers of the metro system, the workers of the basic industries in Guayana, and many others are under a military regime. The presence of the National Guard and other branches of the armed forces in the workplace is common. Moreover, when workers organize, they are threatened with layoffs. There are cases of locked-up workers such as Alfredo Chirinos and Aryenis Torrealba, Bartolo Guerra, or Eudis Girot, whose real crime was to denounce corruption. In fact, there are more than fifteen PDVSA workers behind bars.

We have comrades who have spent eleven months without a preliminary trial despite the fact that the law establishes a maximum of 45 days. The most scandalous case is Rodney Alvarez, who has been in jail for 10 years without being convicted of anything. And here we could point out, although it is frankly irrelevant, that many of the comrades behind bars are Chavistas.

We also encounter repression in the streets. For example, a couple of weeks ago, we organized a demonstration of university workers. There were only about 200 of us on the street, but 500 policemen were deployed to the site. This is all very regrettable because we come from a period in which the conditions of the workers advanced significantly.

In view of this situation, we believe that there must be a process of self-critique and rectification: union organizations must come together and fight together. This is important not only for the workers, but for the country as a whole. It is impossible to raise production without a change in the conditions of the working class.

Even though the situation is difficult, there are spaces where workers are struggling. What can you tell us about those spaces?

Important protests have been taking place in Guayana during the past year or so. There, the workers have mobilized for wages and to defend their rights in general. They are also expressing their concern about opaque negotiations that seem to point toward privatization.

The nationalization of the basic industries was one of Chávez’s major achievements. Now, as a result of problematic management practices, the companies are not profitable. However, the state is not questioning the management model but the viability of state property.

PDVSA workers also held protests last year. Now a movement against the internal union mafias and corruption is heating up. Additionally, all sorts of workers go to the streets to protest, from health workers (particularly nurses) to teachers and retirees. The movement is not strong at the moment, but it is growing.