Fri, Jul 17, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Union leaders slam threat to Venezuelan oil workers

AP , CARACAS

Union leaders on Wednesday condemned a warning by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s oil minister that workers in the nation’s petroleum industry should be socialists or face suspicions they are conspiring against the government.

State-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) has followed a strongly pro-Chavez line since a 2002 to 2003 oil strike that unsuccessfully sought to force Chavez from office and brought thousands of firings at the company.

Union leaders now are accusing the government of not respecting workers’ rights to their own political views.

In a televised speech to workers on Tuesday, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said employees who do not join socialist community groups organized by the governing party would be suspected of “conspiring against the revolution.”

This and other comments, including Ramirez’s assertion that he wouldn’t negotiate a collective labor contract “with any enemy of Chavez,” drew outraged responses from some union leaders.

“It’s an irresponsible statement,” said union leader Froilan Barrios, who is aligned with Chavez’s political opposition.

He said workers were planning meetings to determine a response.

“We won’t accept it,” he said.

Union leader German Cortez echoed that sentiment, saying oil workers in western Zulia state are planning demonstrations next week to call for a collective contract.

PDVSA has been expanding its social role in recent years, doubling its payroll to 80,000 since 2004 and taking on duties ranging from food distribution to training Olympic athletes.

Some analysts say the political pressure adds to inefficiency at a company already weighed down by excess responsibilities and a shortage of skilled personnel.

New employees who may be attractive to the government for their political leanings often lack the experience of about 20,000 skilled workers who were fired following the strike, said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with the Eurasia Group in New York.

“PDVSA’s growing politicization doesn’t bode well for its future as a company that can juggle all these new responsibilities,” he said.

Chavez has made a point of bringing the oil industry strongly under government control in recent years. After nationalizing four major oil projects in 2007, he seized more than 70 oil contractors in May.

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