The law provides that all private- and public-sector workers (except armed forces members) have the right to form and join unions of their choice, and it provides for collective bargaining and the right to strike. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights, and in practice, the government deployed a variety of mechanisms to undercut the rights of independent workers and unions. Minimum membership requirements for unions differ based on the type of union. Forming a company union requires a minimum of 20 workers; forming a professional, industrial, or sectoral union in one jurisdiction requires 40 workers in the same field; and forming a regional or national union requires 150 workers. Ten persons may form an employees association, a parallel type of representation the government endorses and openly supports.
The law prohibits “any act of discrimination or interference contrary to the exercise” of workers’ right to unionize. The law requires that all unions must provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster that includes the full name, home address, telephone number, and national identification number for each union member. The ministry reviews the registration and determines whether the union fulfilled all requirements. Unions must submit their registration by December 31 of the year the union forms; if not received by the ministry or if the ministry considers the registration unsatisfactory, the union is denied the ability legally to exist. The law also requires the presence of labor inspectors to witness and legitimize unions’ decisions before the Ministry of Labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns about the ministry’s refusal to register trade union organizations.
Under the law employers may negotiate a collective contract only with the union that represents the majority of their workers. Minority organizations may not jointly negotiate in cases where no union represents an absolute majority. The law also places a number of restrictions on unions’ ability to administer their activities. For example, the CNE has the authority to administer internal elections of labor unions, federations, and confederations. By law elections must be held at least every three years. If CNE-administered and -certified elections are not held within this period, the law prohibits union leaders from representing workers in negotiations or engaging in anything beyond administrative tasks. The ILO repeatedly found cases of interference by the CNE in trade union elections and called since 1999 to delink the CNE from the union election process.
The law recognizes the right of all public- and private-sector workers to strike, subject to conditions established by law. By law workers participating in legal strikes receive immunity from prosecution, and their time in service may not be reduced by the time engaged in a strike. The law requires that employers reincorporate striking workers and provides for prison terms of six to 15 months for employers who fail to do so. Replacement workers are not permitted during legal strikes. The law prohibits striking workers from paralyzing the production or provision of essential public goods and services, but it defines “essential services” more broadly than ILO standards. The ILO called on the government to amend the law to exclude from the definition of “essential services” activities “that are not essential in the strict sense of the term…so that in no event may criminal sanctions be imposed in cases of peaceful strikes.”
The minister of labor and social security may order public- or private-sector strikers back to work and submit their disputes to arbitration if the strike “puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population.” Other laws establish criminal penalties for the exercise of the right to strike in certain circumstances. For example, the law prohibits and punishes with a five- to 10-year prison sentence anyone who “organizes, supports, or instigates the realization of activities within security zones that are intended to disturb or affect the organization and functioning of military installations, public services, industries and basic [mining] enterprises, or the socioeconomic life of the country.” In addition, the law provides for prison terms of two to six years and six to 10 years, respectively, for those who restrict the distribution of goods and for “those…who develop or carry out actions or omissions that impede, either directly or indirectly, the production, manufacture, import, storing, transport, distribution, and commercialization of goods.”
The government restricted the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining through administrative and legal mechanisms. Organized labor activists reported that the annual requirement to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster was onerous and infringed on freedom of association; they alleged the ministry removed member names from the rosters for political purposes, particularly if members were not registered to vote with the CNE. Labor leaders also criticized the laborious and costly administrative process of requesting CNE approval for elections and subsequent delays in the CNE’s recognition of such union processes. Additionally, there reportedly was a high turnover of Ministry of Labor contractors resulting in a lack of timely follow-through on union processes.
Labor unions in both the private and public sectors noted long delays in obtaining CNE concurrence to hold elections and in receiving certification of the election results, which hindered unions’ ability to bargain collectively.
The TSJ suspended union elections for the Orinoco Iron Workers Union (Sintraferrominera) three days before the scheduled May 27 vote. The TSJ ruling criticized irregularities in the call for elections, but the media reported that a more likely reason for the suspension was the low support for the PSUV union leader running for re-election. The Venezuelan Unitary Federation of Oil Workers (FUTPV) for Venezuelan Petroleum (PDVSA) workers had scheduled elections for August, but the FUTPV president, who had been due to run for re-election since 2014, again postponed the vote. According to potential opponent Jose Boadas, the government ordered a further delay to avoid “an imminent defeat” of the progovernment candidate and PSUV activist Wills Rangel.
According to PROVEA, “large sectors of national, state, and municipal public administrations and an important number of state enterprises continued to refuse to discuss collective agreements.” According to the Autonomous Front in Defense of Employment, Wages, and Unions (FADESS), there were more than 300 expired public-sector union contracts nationwide. Labor leaders reported the majority of unions that failed to negotiate collective agreements were in the public sector. The Model Contract for Public Administration, which covers approximately three million public workers, was last negotiated in 2004. President Maduro promised it would be finalized in 2013, but no further progress was made during the year. The government did not respond to at least two formal ILO requests for information about reports that the majority of collective bargaining agreements in the public sector had expired but continued to be applied, with the right to collective bargaining denied by authorities due to “overdue elections” (not convoking or concluding the electoral process).
The government continued to support many “parallel” unions, which sought to dilute the membership and effectiveness of traditional independent unions. In general these government-supported unions were not subject to the same government scrutiny and requirements regarding leadership elections. For example, the Socialist Bolivarian Workers’ Central had not held elections since 2011, yet it was regularly accredited to participate in ILO meetings, including for the ILO International Labor Conference in Geneva in June. The government excluded from consideration other, independent union federations, including the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, the General Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, Confederation of Autonomous Unions of Venezuela, and National Union of Workers (UNETE). The ILO expressed continuing concern that the government did not consult with representative worker organizations or accredit their members to the ILO conference. In contrast, the Labor and Trade Union Action Unit, an independent organization of labor federations and other labor groups and movements, was able to meet freely to coordinate interventions for the July meeting, analyze conclusions from the meeting, and discuss follow-up actions.
According to the labor group FADESS, the ministry did not send labor inspectors to opposition-leaning union meetings to witness and legitimize unions’ decisions, as required by law, thus rendering moot decisions by many unions.
The government continued to refuse to adjudicate or otherwise resolve the cases of 19,000 employees of the state oil company, PDVSA, who were fired during and after the 2002-03 strike. The Ministry of Labor continued to deny registration to the National Union of Oil, Gas, Petrochemical, and Refinery Workers (UNAPETROL), a union composed of these workers. Union elections in the state steel conglomerate’s workers’ trade union were suspended in 2014, and the TSJ upheld the suspension in January 2015.
Union leaders in the construction sector were subject to violent attacks--some of which resulted in killings. The lack of effective investigations made determining the motives for such attacks difficult; NGOs alleged the killings were the result of rival attacks over contracts. According to OVCS and PROVEA, the government did not make arrests or prosecute anyone for most violent crimes, including those committed between and against union workers, and few were solved. PROVEA reported that fewer than 5 percent of the cases were investigated. The ILO requested the government establish a national tripartite committee on situations of violence and provide information on the findings of the investigations carried out by the national prosecutor appointed to investigate all cases of violence against trade union leaders and members.
Union leaders were also subjected to harassment and verbal attacks. For instance, on his weekly television show, the former National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello made accusations against leaders from FADESS and the National Association of Autonomous Workers, Entrepreneurs, and Small Business Persons. The ILO raised concerns about violence against trade union members and government intimidation of the Associations of Commerce and Production of Venezuela (FEDECAMARAS).
The OVCS 2015 report on labor conflicts released on May 2 noted there were 969 labor-related protests in 2015. The OVCS’s data revealed that salary increases had been insufficient to offset the impact of high inflation, layoffs, and other deteriorating conditions for workers. The OVCS reported that during the first six months of the year, there were 624 labor rights-related protests related to increased pay and benefits, the need for collective bargaining agreements, and outsourcing and the integration of contract workers. According to media reports, the government blacklisted and punished union leaders and workers for peaceful protests demanding wage increases and better conditions at work.
In practice the concept of striking had been demonized since 2002 and periodically used as a political tool to accuse government opponents of coup plotting or other destabilizing activities. Legal provisions on the right to strike were used to target company management as well as labor leaders. Labor activists were charged under legal provisions on impeding the production, manufacture, import, storing, transport, distribution, and commercialization of goods, as well as under provisions for “instigation to commit a crime,” “blocking public access,” and restriction of the “right to work.” According to some business managers, some union leaders had extraordinary power to cause the arrest and prosecution of business managers for actions that could be considered normal aspects of their jobs. Some companies, especially in the public sector, had multiple unions with varying degrees of allegiance to the ruling party’s version of the “socialist revolution,” which could trigger interunion conflict and strife.
A 2012 law set a May 7 deadline for the incorporation of all contract workers in both the public and private sectors into the companies for which they worked. (The largest number of contract workers is in the public sector.) The media reported concerns that this deadline was not met and that the status of a large percentage of workers was not regularized. While there were no official statistics, media sources estimated that 40 percent of the contractor force had been transitioned into formal positions.
On June 7, dozens of workers from the state-owned electric utility company Corpoelec went on a hunger strike to pressure the government to resume negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement, as well as to protest a prohibition of the right to assembly on Corpoelec premises imposed by Electricity Minister Luis Motta. The collective bargaining negotiations had been suspended since May 3. The secretary general of the Electric Workers Federation (FETRAELEC), Reynaldo Diaz, said the union submitted a proposal of terms for the collective bargaining agreement to Labor Minister Osvaldo Vera on May 9 and had not received a response. After the first six days of the hunger strike, some workers faced health complications, and the strike was halted. FETRAELEC representatives declared they would continue pressuring the government with protests and strikes until the collective bargaining agreement was signed.