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No Venezuelan Oil Workers Strike

March 3, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Ending a threat to production in the world’s third-largest petroleum exporter, Venezuela’s oil workers called off a nationwide work stoppage Friday after just a few hours away from the job.

International oil prices are at nine-year highs. When the strike began Friday morning, analysts said a long work interruption could cut supply, putting further pressure on prices for gasoline and heating oil.

But late Friday afternoon, the strike was canceled. Carlos Ortega, president of the country’s largest union, said failure to suspend it would have placed Venezuela’s oil employees ``outside the law″ because of a new legislative decree.

The decree, written by an assembly that revised Venezuela’s constitution last year, requires unions to choose new leaders through open elections instead of the current practice of hand-picking by party bosses. The decree went into effect Friday when authorities published it in the Official Gazette.

It was likely published as part of a government attempt to end the strike. Ortega called the decree ``ominous″ and said it could enable the government ``to begin a plan of massive firings.″

``We are not willing to give them a pretext to do so and we have decided to end the strike,″ he said.

The work stoppage had been called to protest the state oil company’s refusal to sign a preliminary accord for a new labor contract.

Government officials and oil union leaders announced Tuesday they had reached a preliminary agreement on contract negotiations, but the accord unraveled Wednesday when company President Hector Ciavaldini said the company itself hadn’t signed on to the agreement.

It was not immediately clear what the next step in working out a new contract might be.

Ciavaldini and other company and government officials say they do not want to negotiate until union leaders, whom they say are linked to corrupt political parties, are replaced in democratic elections. Union leaders deny allegations of corruption and say President Hugo Chavez is putting labor freedoms in jeopardy.

Oil accounts for about three-quarters of Venezuela’s export earnings. The country exports some 2.72 million barrels of oil per day.

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