PDVSA Workers Turn Up the Pressure

About 2,000 dissident staff members of PDVSA, voted late Wednesday in favor of radicalizing a five-week conflict with the government and the company's board. However, they stopped short of announcing a work stoppage or full-blown strike, and gave their chief mediator, Luis Salas, until Tuesday to resolve the dispute. Salas heads the National Assembly's Energy and Mines Commission.

White-collar workers declared themselves in favor of continuing dialogue but added a so-called "zero-hour" clause to the resolution. Such a clause is usually a first step toward a work stoppage or strike. "We will wait until Salas gives his answer. He asked us to wait until Tuesday, " Horacio Medina, a representative of the workers, said in a televised interview early Thursday. A demand that the government reconsider the firing of two high-level executives and the recent reshuffle of PDVSA's board is still on the table. The dispute between the Venezuelan government and dissident staff escalated last week after PDVSA President Gaston Parra called for the resignation of two top executives: Oscar Murillo, a legal advisor at the company, and Armando Izquierdo, a public affairs director. Their public adherence to protests against the government's decision to name a new board was the reason for their dismissal, several spokesmen for the dissident group said.

"If the response by Salas on Tuesday is negative, no doubt actions will follow," Medina said. He didn't say what actions to expect from disgruntled staff. He couldn't guarantee disgruntled staff wouldn't take matters into their own hands and act before Tuesday.

The conflict has entered its fifth week. Over the past month hundreds of PDVSA managers have protested President Hugo Chavez's appointment of five directors to the company's board. They argue that the appointments are based on political affiliations rather than merit, and have staged street protests during their lunch hours.

Oil Minister Alvaro Silva made clear during a televised interview Tuesday that the government doesn't plan to replace the five members appointed to the board. "We don't see a reason to change that," Silva said. Work stoppages and protests so far haven't seriously affected Venezuelan oil exports and production.