Venezuela Oil Union Elections Delayed Again, Contract On Hold

CARACAS (Dow Jones Newswires), Aug. 13, 2009

Elections to determine the leaders of Venezuela's powerful oil unions have been pushed back again as the government struggles to keep opposition forces at bay and ensure candidates who support President Hugo Chavez emerge victorious.

The elections for FUTPV, a federation of more than 100 oil unions representing about 50,000 Venezuelan oil workers, are now tentatively scheduled for Sept. 2, according to the state-run news agency. They were originally planned for last September, and have been re-scheduled at least five times, say observers involved in the process.

Those who win in the voting will form the negotiating team for a new three-year collective bargaining agreement for state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela, or PdVSA. The current three-year contract expired in January.

Reducing labor costs is seen as critical for PdVSA, which has struggled financially amid lower oil prices and the heavy burden of taking on thousands of new workers from private oil companies that had their operations nationalized as part of the government's agenda for "21st Century Socialism."

PdVSA now has a bulging workforce of nearly 100,000 employees, about half of which are unionized.

Socialist rhetoric notwithstanding, the company in April froze wages for rank-and-file employees, even as annual inflation is running at a rate of nearly 30%. PdVSA has also reduced medical coverage and has been shutting down company-run grocery stores that gave workers huge discounts.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, who is also president of PdVSA, said last month he will only negotiate the new contract with union leaders who firmly support "Commander Chavez."

"I'm not going to sit down to discuss the collective agreement with any enemy of Chavez," Ramirez said.

Those blunt remarks have caused a backlash among workers. Even PdVSA employees and unionists who support Chavez said Ramirez was wrong to bring politics into the process. They said his comments are proof that the elections are going to be rigged, and they're prepared to march in protest or possibly go on strike following the vote.

"The government is suggesting [it is] going to do whatever is necessary to win," said Orlando Chirino, a former PdVSA employee, who now heads up the National Workers' Union, or UNT.

Chirino said he supports the so-called Socialist Revolution that Chavez promotes. But he said he is worried the Chavez administration is anti-union and said a "new bourgeoisie" is being created that seeks to eliminate workers' benefits.

He also said the government under Chavez is "criminalizing protests," which he warned may eventually cause more unrest.

Among the main candidates in the election is Wills Rangel from the Socialist Worker Vanguard, or VOS, and current president of the FUTPV. Some observers say Rangel and his coalition are a favorite of PdVSA management and oil minister Ramirez himself.

Rangel denied this in an article last week in local daily El Mundo, and indicated that he, too, disapproved of Ramirez's remarks last month regarding the union elections.

"Ramirez has nothing to do with VOS," he said. "These elections are of the workers, and we're not going to allow any intrusion of any manager or minister."

Neither Rangel nor other officials at FUTPV were available to comment.  

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