CARACAS, Venezuela -- As tensions mounted between President
Hugo Chavez and opposition labor groups, tens of thousands of oil
workers went on strike Wednesday to demand higher wages.
Oil workers union leader Vladimir Blanco claimed the strike
brought 90 percent of oil production and refining activity to a
standstill in Venezuela, which exports about 3 million barrels
daily and is one of the largest suppliers of crude oil to the
Oil is Venezuela's largest foreign currency earner.
State-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. insisted the strike by
about 25,000 of Venezuela's 40,000 oil workers didn't immediately
affect crude exports or production, and said it would be able to
supply crude and derived products for at least a week under strike
Managers were replacing workers in many jobs and automated
operations helped minimize the strike's impact, vice president
Domingo Marsicobetre said.
Government officials were to meet representatives of Fedepetrol,
but union leader Rafael Zanbrano said he was skeptical an accord
could be reached.
''We have been talking for the past 11 months and nothing has
been resolved, so why should we talk now?'' he said.
Meanwhile, National Guard troops were patrolling Venezuela's
major oil installations to prevent violence.
Wednesday's strike highlighted the growing conflict between
opposition labor leaders and Chavez, who has denounced union
leaders as corrupt.
Fedepetrol has been without a labor agreement since November.
Workers went on strike in March to protest a government order to
suspend negotiations for six months. That strike had no major
effect on oil production.
Fedepetrol is seeking a raise of $9 daily. The monopoly has
offered a raise of $5 a day. Oil workers' minimum wage is about $14
The monopoly insists the workers' proposal would cost it an
unacceptable $2.9 billion over two years.
Frustrated by months of fruitless efforts to come up with a
collective bargaining agreement, the oil union had threatened to
strike during a Sept. 26-28 Organization of Petroleum Exporting
Countries summit in Caracas.
The union followed through after Congress, which is dominated by
Chavez's coalition, this week called a Dec. 3 national referendum
for a plan that would scrap the country's four main
opposition-friendly labor unions. They would be replaced by one
central organization, with the leaders elected later.
Labor leaders say the plan is unconstitutional because the
referendum would allow outside parties to make decisions on the
internal affairs of private organizations and would violate a
constitutional right to organize.
The Geneva-based International Labor Organization also has
protested the plan.
''No one can force a citizen to belong to a single political
party, nor a worker to belong to a single union,'' said Carlos
Ortega, director general of the Confederation of Venezuelan
Workers, Venezuela's largest umbrella labor organization.
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