Report from 2006 World Social Forum

This was original published (in print only) in the February, 2006 issue of the UE News.

In January, three rank and file UE members — myself, Angaza Laughinghouse (Local 150), and Armando Robles (Local 1110) — travelled to Caracas, Venezuela to attend the sixth World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF is an annual gathering of trade unionists, community organizations and other social movements who oppose corporate globalization. The goal of the WSF is to promote a globalization based on solidarity, justice and peace, one that creates jobs rather than destroys them and improves the lives of working people. The UE has been represented at every WSF since the second one, in 2002. As in previous years, we were part of a broader delegation of U.S. grassroots organizations organized by Grassroots Global Justice.

VENEZUELA

This year, the WSF was hosted by the pro-worker government in Venezuela. While much of the media coverage of Venezuela has focused on President Hugo Chavez, there is in fact a much broader process of social change going on in Venezuela, known variously as “the Bolivarian Revolution,” “the Revolution,” or simply “the process.” Virtually all of the working-class people we met were supporters of the revolution, though a few were critical of Chavez personally.

There is no doubt that this process is benefiting the working people of Venezuela. While many speak of the process as being a “revolution,” it is peaceful and democratic. There is no political repression — indeed, the opposition flourishes in wealthier areas, owns all of the private press and media, and in fact organized a large (and extremely well-dressed) anti-WSF march at the beginning of our time there. The “process” seems to primarily consist of using government resources to assist communities and workplaces with self-organization, whether it is around jobs, health care, education, public safety or other concerns. As a result, the access to health care, quality of education, level of public safety and so forth seem to be improving throughout Venezuela, in marked contrast to the U.S. where we are constantly fighting defensive battles. Furthermore, what we in the UE would call “rank and file control” is a central principle of this process; a common slogan was “the revolution is giving power to the people.” The new provision of services in neighborhoods is directed by neighborhood committees, and, most inspiringly, factories and other workplaces closed by their owners are being re-opened by the workers (see below).

VENEZUELAN LABOR

For many decades, workers in Venezuela have been represented almost exclusively by a labor federation known as CTV (Venezuelan Confederation of Labor), which was and is corrupt, undemocratic and tightly connected to both employers and the old political parties (before Chavez was elected, politics in Venezuela were controlled by a two-party system very much like our own, with both parties representing bosses’ interests). The CTV is extremely hostile to Chavez, and was involved in both the Bush-instigated coup against Chavez in April of 2002 and the “general strike” (really a general lockout called by employers) which attempted to force Chavez from power later that year. It is one of the few labor federations in the world enthusiastically supported by the Bush Administration.

In the last five years or so, rank and file workers have created a new labor federation, the UNT (National Union of Workers), which has become the dominant federation in the private sector and has also recently gained the affiliation of the key construction unions. In contract to the CTV, debate and discussion flourish inside the UNT; while the UNT membership is overwhelming in favor of “the process,” there is a vigorous debate over whether the labor movement should be close to Chavez or strive for political independence.

Another issue of great discussion and debate in the UNT is “co-management,” the process by which many closed factories and other workplaces in Venezuela are being re-opened under worker control. We met an electrical utility worker from the UNT who could barely contain his pride that he and his co-workers were now running the shop without bosses. “We run it now,” he said.

EXPOSING U.S. GOVERNMENT HYPOCRISY

At a workshop co-organized by UE and the Southwest Workers’ Union (SWU), which represents school support staff workers in southern Texas, WSF delegates from Venezuela, Colombia, Europe and the U.S. heard Local 150 Executive Board member Angaza Laughinghouse describe the struggle of public sector workers in the U.S. South for collective bargaining rights through the International Worker Justice Campaign. At another workshop organized by SWU on the general issue of workers’ rights in the U.S., Armando Robles (Local 1110) also described the struggle of workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago for a democratic union.

Participants from other countries, who often hear the U.S. government defend its military adventures or interventions against pro-worker governments like Venezuela’s with rhetoric about “democracy” and “rights” were shocked and appalled to hear how the U.S. denies the basic democratic right of collective bargaining to millions of workers. All three of us were also interviewed by a radio journalist from Quebec, who broadcast a story about the U.S. denial of collective bargaining rights over the WSF’s own radio station while we were there and also recorded a program to be played on Montreal radio when she returned.

IMPORTANCE OF SOLIDARITY

We all returned inspired by how workers in Venezuela, and throughout Latin America, are organizing and making improvements in their living and working standards. We were also impressed at how clearly they saw that American workers were not their enemies, but their brothers and sisters in a struggle to improve the lives of all workers, even though our government has been working to undermine their achievements. We returned committed to telling the truth about how Chavez’s democratic revolution is benefitting the workers of Venezuela, and to prevent Bush from intervening in Venezuela.

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