Venezuelan Teachers Struggle Against Regime-Imposed Hunger Wages

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The struggle against hunger wages was once again put in the spotlight by the brutal aggression by paramilitary thugs against a demonstration by dozens of teachers in Caracas this past January 15th. On this date, National Teachers’ Day, Venezuelan educators celebrate the 1932 creation of their first union, during the Gómez dictatorship. Coming from a national one-day teachers’ strike last October, and after years of cannibalizing austerity policies from the State, the rank-and-file of the union called for a march on the Ministry of Education; when no response came from the union bureaucracy, they decided to demonstrate anyway. The Venezuelan Federation of Teachers (FVM), led by members of center-right parties Acción Democrática (AD) and Voluntad Popular (VP) decided to stick to organizing a catholic mass, in line with Guaidó’s demobilizing politics.

The government’s response was brutal as usual, as paramilitary thugs were deployed to attack the teachers, beating severely and injuring many of them, stealing cell phones and other belongings, even throwing feces on the demonstrators as they tried to march in downtown Caracas. The paramilitary enforcers acted with the complicity of the Bolivarian National Police, who supervised their actions without intervening.

The anti-popular austerity policies adopted by the Chavista government have had a devastating effect on public education, as budget cuts and hyper-inflation have destroyed workers’ wages and school food programs, forcing massive desertion by teachers and students. Most teachers earn less than ten dollars a month, which barely cover transportation costs.

The protest finally reached the Ministry of Education building. Teacher activist Gricelda Sánchez, interviewed by feminist collective Comadres Púrpuras, stated: “our union is made up of 80% women; most of us are single parents, and our wages aren’t enough. […] The Teacher’s Federation has sold out and tries to shut down the teachers’ struggle […].  [The attackers] harassed us so that we’d stop protesting. But the national strike will continue, we won’t give up or stop until our demands are heard.”

A version of the performance by the Chilean group Las Tesis was adapted by the teachers, pointing out the strike-breaking role played by ex-teacher and Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz. “You are the exploiter”, yelled out the teachers against the Chavista bureaucrat. Handwritten signs held by protesters had messages such as “Maduro and Aristobulo are killing us through hunger” and “A dignified wage is a human right”. One of the central demands is a living wage that corresponds to what is established in article 91 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which states that the minimum wage should be calculated based on the monthly cost of the basket of basic goods and services, currently appraised at 271 dollars. The document written by the teachers’ assembly that called for the demonstration incorporated other demands, such as the recovery of social security, state investment in education infrastructure, food programs for students and an end to the persecution against teachers by bosses and government-appointed supervisors.

Teacher-activist Zuleika Matamoros, a member of the leftist organization Marea Socialista and journalist for the Chavista online forum, denounced in a recent article that mass resignations by teachers are better understood as a form of indirect and unjustified lay-offs, caused by the government’s policies of attrition against workers, with departing teachers often replaced by unqualified strike-breakers. She writes: “the educators staff is being beaten by two hands: that of the government and that of the federations and unions that have given ample evidence of being sold to the highest bidder. However, the protests have entered with considerable force, given the conditions that the country is currently going through.” She also denounced the government’s impediments to autonomous organization by secondary education students.

With the beginning of the school year in September 2019, teachers’ protests gained momentum and developed into a national strike. This labor action in October became the most important demonstration of force by the Venezuelan working class in recent months. The role played by union leaders who support Maduro or Guaidó has been to try and forestall the development of autonomous struggle from the bases and new, independent leaderships.

Mariela Alcalá, teachers’ leader in the northeastern Sucre state and a member of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSL), who played an important role in the teachers strikes last year, wrote in her social media accounts after the January 15th repression: “This is not a socialist government, it´s an anti-worker government that imposes hunger, cowardly announcing miserable wage increases. The union federations linked to the government have become the Minister’s bodyguards”.

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