October 1, 2009

Any union you want, so long as it's mine

Quico says: There is one thing we can be sure about ahead of today’s oil-sector union elections: chavismo is going to win. Of the ten slates on the ballot, nine are broadly pro-Chávez. This should shock no one - virtually every anti-Chávez PDVSA worker was purged from the payroll following the 2002-03 oil strike.

So the question isn’t whether the opposition’s marginal Slate #5 or critical chavista slates like #1 and #9 are going to win. The question is which of the broadly pro-Chávez currents is going to take control of this key slice of the labor movement. And here things get murky right away, because there are chavista slates and then there are government-controlled slates, and the two are far from one and the same.

It's useful to recall that to be a pro-government aspiring PDVSA union leader is, in effect, to side with the boss. While broad ideological alignment with the government is the norm inside PDVSA, even the most ardently chavista of workers are understandably leery to vote for union representatives who are going to automatically side with the boss.

As it turns out, management appears to be spreading its money widely, trying to keep some financial links with whomever comes out on top. But management’s clear preference is for slate #7, (representing VOS, the "Socialist Workers' Vanguard") which has received aggressive, unembarrassed backing from management, helping out with money and logistics, threatening workers who don't toe the line, pulling down all other slate's advertising, stacking voting centers with VOS-friendly witnesses, working to "disqualify" 41 opposing slates' candidates, and even going so far as to enable a deliciously fake little sit-in by Slate #7 workers in PDVSA headquarters in La Campiña a couple of weeks ago.

The campaign has been full of mishaps. The actual election date has been pushed back no less than four times, as the government has struggled to define CNE’s specific role in the elections. In the event, the government’s gone so far as to activate a mini-Plan República, calling out military personnel to oversee the balloting and ensuring a National Guard presence is visible at every polling site.

The intimidatory edge of this kind of military presence is clear, and in a company that’s already established its willingness to throw the book at workers who prove insufficiently docile, it’ll take real bravery for workers to come out and support any slate other than Plancha 7.

It’s not easy for an outsider to get a read on the dynamics inside a campaign like this. Some labor watchers suggest an overwhelming win for Slate #7 would lack credibility inside the oil industry, and could set off the kind of acephalous labor unrest the government is keen to prevent. It may be more likely that a number of the most government-influenced slates will end up taking the cake. Or it may be that the independent chavista slates fight the government-controlled slates to a draw, thanks to the proportional representation system being used.

One way or another, oil-sector unions are a key asset for the government, and it’s easy to see Ramírez mobilizing the resources at his disposal to make sure he ends up with a labor movement that toes his line in contract negotiations.

One thing’s for sure: the vitality of independent labor within the oil industry is at stake today. So today’s elections are worth watching, even if there’s no proper way to forecast a result.