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Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 00:08 GMT 01:08 UK
Venezuela outlaws oil strike
Venezuelan oil workers
Oil workers picketed fuel depots in last year's protest
The government in Venezuela has declared illegal a strike by thousands of oil workers.

The workers began their 48-hour strike on Wednesday to demand a 15% salary increase.

We're going toward a total victory. We're going to demonstrate that PDVSA is mistaken

Rafael Zambrano
Fedepetrol union
They have been joined by teachers and steelworkers in what many see as a battle between President Hugo Chavez and labour unions, virtually the last bastion of opposition to his plans to revolutionise Venezuelan politics.

Union spokesman Felix Jimenez told the BBC that the oil workers' stoppage had 90% support in the industry.

The pay rise was promised to public sector employees last May by presidential decree, but Venezuela's state oil company (PDVSA) claims the decree does not include oil workers.

It said a contingency plan had been activated and operations were continuing normally.

President Hugo Chavez
Chavez has come to blows with unions before
But union leaders were confident of success. Fedepetrol union director Rafael Zambrano said:

"We're going toward a total victory. We're going to demonstrate that PDVSA is mistaken."

The authorities in Caracas have accused the union leaders of using the strike as a way of garnering votes ahead of union elections.

The Labour Ministry called a meeting between union and PDVSA representatives but later cancelled it.

Latest dispute

The strike is just the latest in a series of threats during month-long talks with PDVSA.

Earlier this month, Fedepetrol managed to hold on to a $3,000 bonus for workers, which PDVSA had wanted to take back.

Negotiations over the pay rise broke down last week when the PDVSA said it would take the matter to the supreme court.

Strikes and threats of stoppages are a regular feature of pay negotiations and rarely have an impact on the country's three million barrels of daily oil output.

Past disputes

Fedepetrol has already scored two major victories in the last six months in wage disputes with the government.

Workers paralysed the oil industry in October last year with a four-day strike to protest against failed collective bargaining talks, and won a 60% pay rise.

The company agreed to raise basic daily pay by $7.25 to about $14.

But as from last February, there should have been the further $1.45 hike for public sector workers.

This would then satisfy Fedepetrol's demand for a $9 a day rise.

Venezuela is the world's third largest oil exporter, and the number one exporter to the US.

It gains about a third of its GDP and three-quarters of its exports from oil.

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See also:

15 Oct 00 | Americas
Oil workers win in Venezuela
03 Mar 00 | Americas
Venezuelan oil strike called off
20 Oct 00 | Americas
Venezuela signs cheap oil pact
31 Jul 00 | Americas
Chavez: Visionary or demagogue?
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