May Day in Venezuela:
Hundreds of Thousands Rally, Wages Raised 30%

by Kiraz Janicke


Caracas, May 2, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) — Waving red flags and pro-revolution banners “against imperialism” and for “socialism and peace,” more than 300,000 workers marched in Caracas on Thursday to celebrate May 1, the International Day of Workers Struggle. The rally also celebrated a decree by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez increasing the minimum wage by 30%, giving Venezuela the highest minimum wage in Latin America.

A day earlier, at a special ceremony to swear in new Minister of Labor Roberto Hernandez at the Teresa Carreño Theatre, Chavez announced a 30% salary increase in the minimum wage from Bs.F 615 (US$286) to Bs.F. 799 (US$371.6) per month, to take effect from May 1.

If the Cesta ticket (food subsidy) is included, minimum monthly earnings reach Bs.F. 1.199 or US$557; more than double the Latin American average, the president added. The measure directly affects 5 million workers, approximately 20% of the population.

In addition to the increase in the minimum wage, Chavez also decreed a 30% wage increase for all public sector workers. The government expects the measure to spark demands for wage increases in the private sector.

To offset inflationary pressures from the wage increase Chavez said the government would issue “Workers’ Bonds” with high interest returns in order to encourage saving and soak up excess liquidity in the economy. The government is also considering other anti-inflationary policies, but not at the expense of workers, he said.

The president also signed a decree formalizing the nationalization of SIDOR, Venezuela’s largest steel plant previously controlled by an Argentine-Italian consortium, the Techint group. Chavez first announced the nationalization of SIDOR on April 9 after a long struggle by workers at that plant.

“With this law, Venezuela recuperates SIDOR. Congratulations to our workers, to our unions!” he said.

Addressing approximately 2,000 specially invited union leaders,  representing the major currents in the National Union of Workers (UNT) — including Stalin Perez Borges, Orlando Chirino, Marcela Maspero, Orlando Castillo, and Osvaldo Vera, as well as a contingent of workers from the SIDOR steel plant — Chavez declared, “The working class is essential for the construction of socialism.”

In the context of a recent call by one faction of the UNT — the Bolivarian Socialist Worker’s Force (FSBT) — for unions to disaffiliate from the UNT and form a separate national federation, Chavez emphasized: “The unity of the Venezuelan working class is imperative…It is fundamental in this historic moment.”

Union leaders must set their personal differences aside and have the “necessary humility to unite,” he added.

However, the president clarified, the working class must be autonomous in its decisions and its capacity to choose its own leaders.

“Now that the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela] is being born, it must contribute to the unity and struggle of the working class, the struggle of the campesinos, the youth, the students, and the women’s movement. But the party should never aim to take the reins of the workers’ movement. It should never aim to supervise or subordinate it. Long live the working class, the workers movement!” he declared to a standing ovation.

The new labor minister who spoke at the May Day rally also emphasized the need for unity; otherwise “imperialism wins,” he said.

Despite their differences, this emphasis on unity was also reflected on the platform by UNT national coordinators Marcela Maspero and Stalin Perez Borges and FSBT coordinator Orlando Vera, who all agreed on the need to strengthen the workers’ movement.

Perez Borges spoke of the need to defend the UNT, and Maspero argued that workers should take over control of production.

Omar Rangel, from the National Bolivarian Union of Education Workers said that the salary increase was an act of justice for the working class. “The salary increase will help the workers a lot to improve their living conditions.”

Others argued for the reduction of the work day from 8 to 6 hours, initially proposed in President Chavez’s constitutional reforms last year, as a way of allowing for increased worker participation in the political affairs of the country.

The rally also heard from John Cleary from the Electrical Trades Union in Australia, visiting Venezuela as part of a May Day delegation organized by the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network.

“The struggle of Venezuelan workers to build socialism is inspiring workers in Australia and around the world,” Cleary told the crowd.

International solidarity also featured prominently in the rally with banners and placards opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. interference in Haiti, Cuba, and Bolivia.

Thousands of workers also joined pro-revolution May Day rallies in the regional cities of Valencia, Maracaibo, and Ciudad Guayana, where workers celebrated the nationalization of the SIDOR steel plant.

The opposition-aligned Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), largely discredited for its role in the April 2002 military coup against the Chavez government, held a significantly smaller demonstration of around 1,000 people across town, opposing the presidential decree increasing the minimum wage, saying it would contribute to inflation.

In a document delivered to National Assembly deputies from the opposition party PODEMOS, the CTV argued, “In 2007 inflation reached 22.5%, and in the food sector it reached 33%. Everything indicates that in 2008 these figures will be surpassed.”

Journalist Vanessa Davies from state television station VTV commented that the CTV march “curiously” did not include any workers’ demands.