NEW YORK – New York’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 (TWU) hosted a panel discussion of Venezuelan labor leaders here May 26. The delegation included leading members of the Venezuelan Transport Workers, Public Service Workers, Grain and Food Workers, Health Care Workers and Teachers unions, all affiliates of the National Union of Workers (UNT).

The delegation explained that the unions that formed the UNT in August 2003 broke away from the old corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). They said that workers were fed up with the corruption and continued sellouts of the CTV leadership and its abandonment of a class-struggle approach.

The CTV was also involved in the April 2002 coup attempt against democratically-elected government of President Hugo Chavez and is still involved in anti-government activities and economic sabotage. Disgusted with these policies, all the major unions have affiliated with the UNT.

The panelists explained their roles in the UNT and gave overviews of their own unions and the work they are doing to advance the interests of their members. One panelist described an incident in which Venezuelan workers turned corporate corruption to their advantage. Certain companies had taken public money, supposedly to help streamline production and hire more workers. Instead the money was used to fight the unions. Ultimately, the companies were closed down by the government; however, this enabled the workers to take over and run some of them.

Among the main tasks of the UNT is to build trust and confidence with workers and to debunk the distortions coming from the right-wing-controlled Venezuelan mass media. This is a formidable job, considering the unions are autonomous from the government and have no media access. They rely on grassroots organizing. The CTV, on the other hand, enjoys the use of four company-and boss-owned major television networks and many radio stations. This is why the UNT leaders are going around the world, presenting the workers’ side of the story.

Despite the difficulties, the labor leaders said that the people – women, students, workers and indigenous groups – have never been more united.

A small group of the wealthy elite – the traditional oligarchy – is behind an effort to recall pro-union President Chavez. The decision to go forward with the recall vote has been decided by the Venezuelan election commission. The recall is part of an effort by anti-union forces encouraged, supported and directed by the extreme right-wing Bush administration to destabilize Venezuela.

Francisco Torealba, national coordinator of the UNT, summarized the position of the UNT and the workers it represents: “We will defend the constitution of Venezuela. We are against coups, against sellouts, against givebacks. We will not let a tiny elite overturn the recent gains and progress. We will not accept blackmail or foreign pressure to change any legal decision.”

Originally the deputy mayor of Caracas, Gustavo Rosario, was part of the delegation. However, U.S. immigration officials denied him entry into the country. In a breach of standard diplomatic practice, Rosario was detained at the airport for over 24 hours and sent back to Venezuela.

The deputy mayor’s sole purpose for visiting the U.S. was to solicit medical equipment for a much-needed medical program for the very poor, inner-city “Barrio Adentro” neighborhoods. Rosario is also a known supporter of President Chavez. The panelists denounced the detention and expulsion of Rosario as an insult to the Venezuelan people.

In closing, the unionists appealed to union members in the U.S. for solidarity.

The author can be reached at Gary Bono contributed to this article.