Chávez Responds to Workers’ Protests, Promises Historic New Labour Law
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez pledged to enact a new labour law this Thursday, as workers took to the streets of Caracas demanding “revolutionary” legislation to further advance the workers’ control project and improve working conditions.
Speaking to hundreds of workers at the closing ceremony for the Countryside, City and Sea Workers Socialist Central Congress, Chávez stated that he would create a “truly revolutionary and socialist labour law” before workers’ day next year on May 1st.
“This is definitely a debt owed to the people, to the workers, by the revolution” said Chávez, who will approve the law through the 18-month law-decree powers granted to him by the National Assembly in December 2010.
“This is part of the acceleration process for making the transition from an undeveloped and dependent capitalist model, which we are living at the moment, to a socialist model, equal to the dreams, hopes and historic struggles of the people” he said.
The Venezuelan Head of state also indicated that the law would be drafted through a direct consultation process with the Venezuelan people and workers.
“We are going to work following the strategic norm of a national debate. We are not going to pull a law out from under our sleeve, like they did in 1997, straight from under the sleeve of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)” said Chávez.
Despite this, there is division amongst the workers’ camp, with some organisations such as the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) and the National Workers’ Union (UNETE) publically declaring that they want the law to be approved following a widespread debate at the Venezuelan National Assembly as opposed to via presidential decree.
“For the law to be passed, it is absolutely indispensable that a debate takes place at the heart of the National Assembly and the working class,” said Pedro Eusse, National Secretary for the Workers and Union Movement in the PCV.
Workers Demand “Revolutionary” Law
Workers and unions such as UNETE have been mobilising since 2003 for the constitution of a new labour law. Despite regular protests and marches, plans to overhaul existing legislation have been consistently held up in the National Assembly (AN).
Frustrations came to a head in the days preceding the congress, as some workers’ organisations petitioned Chávez to bypass the AN and use his decree powers to push through the new law. On the same day as Chavez’s announcement, over 2,000 workers attended a march convened by the National Workers’ Union (UNETE) in Caracas.
“We are marching for a new and revolutionary labour law...we, the workers’ councils, are also marching to demand that the National Assembly begin a discussion with regard to the Special Law for Socialist Workers’ Councils,” said Adelaida Seipa of the Workers’ Councils Platform to Venezuelanalysis.
Seipa pointed out that in July, the workers’ movement handed over more than 52,000 signatures to the AN in support of both legal projects, but that a discussion had still not taken place.
“We don’t want reform, we want a new labour law that improves labour conditions within the framework of the construction of socialism. We don’t just want to patch (the law) up, we want a new law that comes from the bases, the workers” she added.
Socialist Workers’ Councils are currently being formed throughout Venezuela, with some already having been functioning for a number of months. Independent of unions, the councils are organisations of popular power through which labourers can effectively organise and play a protagonistic role in the running of their companies through their participation in the productive, administrative and management processes at their places of work.
Initially proposed to the AN in 2007 by the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), the Special Law of Socialist Workers’ Councils would consolidate these collectives as a legal instrument through which to organise the nation’s workplaces and establish the conditions to deepen workers’ control.
If the law is passed, workers hope to establish a council in every workplace in the country, an initiative that they see as the first stage in dismantling the exploitative social relations of the capitalist system.
Workers have hailed as a historic victory the announcement that a new law will be enacted after many years of mobilisation to replace Venezuela’s current labour legislation, commonly referred to as the “Caldera Law”. Decreed in 1997 by then president Rafael Caldera under considerable pressure from the IMF, the 1997 law eliminated many legal requirements for employers, such as that of severance pay and extra compensation for unfair dismissal.
During his speech, president Chávez said that one of the central goals of the new legislation would be to reinstate these requirements and resources, which he said had been expropriated by the Venezuelan oligarchy.
“That is what the AD (Democratic Action) and Copei (Christian Democrat Party) parties did. That is what the Fourth Republic (1958-1998) did. They looted the people, they robbed the workers in order to meet the demands of a mandate from the International Monetary Fund, international imperialism and the national bourgeoisie” said Chávez.
Chávez estimates that this mandate has robbed workers of over 100 billion dollars since 1997, a debt which he said would be addressed and paid back in full to workers through the new law. According to the president, new legislation should create a “cumulative system,” which recognises how long the worker has been employment with the company, as well as conduct a “retroactive calculation” of severance pay, based on the employee’s salary at the time of dismissal.
“It is about doing justice, even though the fiscal burden may be large,” he said.
Workers reacted with jubilation upon hearing Chavez’s announcement, although some sectors are concerned that they have still received no concrete answer from the government with regard to the Special Law of Socialist Workers’ Councils. In July, the worker’s movement vowed to keep mobilising until the AN set a date for a discussion of the law.
“We’re prepared to go to a national referendum,” stated Seipa, who reiterated that the workers’ movement would continue to organise until the law is passed.