[Marxism] [com-news] Lat Am largest steel plant on strike in Venezuela; workers urge nationalization

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon May 10 22:34:44 MDT 2004


Venezuelan Workers Struggle against Neo-Liberalism in Latin America’s
Largest Steel Plant

Friday, May 07, 2004  Print format 
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By: Jonah Gindin – Venezuelanalysis.com

 
Sidor workers rally at Portón 3
Credit: Jonah Gindin - Venezuelanalysis.com 

The conflict at Siderúrgica del Orinoco (Sidor)—Latin America’s largest
steel company, affecting 4,500 direct employees and 7,000 contract
workers—has entered its third week.  As the strike has developed, it has
come to represent the current contradictions within the government’s
relationship with labor.  As the workers call for nationalization, the
Ministry of Labor has yet to take concrete measures to meet their
demands.  Whatever happens at Sidor, the strike will have widespread
implications for the Venezuelan labor movement as a whole and, in
particular, with respect to the union’s relationship with the government
of President Hugo Chávez Frías.

Ramón Machuca, the president of Sutiss, the steelworkers union, is
running for Governor of the state of Bolívar on a chavista platform,
even though he is not the official candidate of the 5th Republic
Movement (Chavez’ party, MVR).  His main rival appears to be Francisco
Rangel Gómez, the former director of the CVG (Corporación Venezolano de
Guyana—the state corporation that owns a 40.3% stake in Sidor).  Thus,
perhaps it is not surprising that allegations that this strike is
politically motivated are circulating in both the Chavista and
opposition camps.  Yet it would appear that these allegations themselves
are politically motivated.

Víctor Moreno, the president of Fetrabolívar, which is the union
federation of Bolivar state, recently suggested to the Venezuelan
newspaper El Universal that the problem at Sidor is due to a conflict
between Machuca and Chávez. He offered two explanations for the
conflict: first, the stock-options that Sutiss workers are seeking
should come from the government and not from the Amazonia Consortium,
which owns 59.7% of the company. However, this claim directly
contradicts statements made by Sutiss members, who say the share should
come from the consortium.  Second, according to Moreno, Machuca has
broken with Chávez because he was not appointed the official MVR
candidate. However, a more likely explanation is that Machuca resents
not being choosen by the unions that initially conformed the UNT to be
its president. What is certain is that Moreno and Machuca are long-time
rivals, and it is worth noting that in the past Fetrabolívar has joined
with the CTV in actively opposing the Matancero union reform movement,
who represent 70% of the Sutiss leadership including President Machuca
and Secretary General José Rodriguez Acarigua.

 
Sutiss President Ramón Machuca addresses a rally at Porton 3
Credit: Jonah Gindin - Venezuelanalysis.com 

Whether or not political considerations were involved, the strike has
moved far beyond these.  Machuca, Acarigua, and the rank and file all
maintain that bonuses owed workers must come from the Amazonia
Consortium, and not the CVG.  But, the issue of bonuses has taken a
backseat to safety concerns, and the trans-national’s political campaign
against the union.

The Amazonia Consortium consists of the Argentine group Techint, which
holds a 60.5 percent stake through its Tamsa unit in Mexico, and Siderar
in Argentina, who have born the brunt of the workers’ animosity; Mexican
steelmaker Hylsamex, 19.5 percent; Brazil's Usiminas, 16.6 percent; and
Venezuelan steelmaker Sivensa, 3.4 percent. 

Precursors to the Strike

Nuevo Sindicalismo and the Matanceros

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s the Nuevo Sindicalismo movement (new
unionism) gained rapid and near-total influence in the state of Bolívar.
The nuevo sindicalismo was represented at the party level by the
newly-formed La Causa R, with a labor-leader at its head: Andres
Velasquez, a former steelworker.  Nuevo sindicalismo and La Causa R had
their roots in Sutiss as part of the broader Matancero movement, which
laid the foundation for the current politicization of Sutiss workers.
Nuevo sindicalismo and La Causa R brought participatory democracy to
Bolívar long before the MVR even existed, and until the 1990s conceived
of itself “as neither bargaining agent nor political broker but a
representative accountable between elections to workers who were
expected to act in solidarity with one another.”[1]

However, by the 1990s La Causa R had assumed a role more or in keeping
with other established parties, and nuevo sindicalismo was coopted,
eventually cooperating with the CTV—its former nemesis.  The Matancero
movement managed to avoid this fate, due to its deep-seated suspicion of
political parties.  Today the Matancero movement remains a powerful
force in Sutiss and remains unaffiliated with any political parties,
though the movement supports el proceso (“the process,” as the
Bolívarian revolution is commonly known).

2001 Strike

In May 2001 Sutiss went on strike for 21 days.  The CTV quickly declared
their solidarity and began considering a general strike in support of
the Sidor workers.  However, it soon became evident that, while
Machuca’s concerns were generally ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, CTV heads
Carlos Ortega and Alfredo Ramos had a political agenda.  The CTV sought
to use the excuse of supporting Sutiss to call a general strike which
they could turn into a political tool to attack Chávez.  Thus, recent
declarations of support for the present Sutiss from CTV
Executive-Secretary Pablo Castro must be viewed in this context.[2]

2002-2003 Oil-Strike

Sidor participated in the 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, shutting down
production completely even though it cost them dearly.  Particularly in
light of the serious financial straights in which the company has found
itself since privatization, their decision to participate signaled
dedicated opposition to Chávez.  In support of the government, Sutiss
workers reacted to the shutdown by occupying gas stations all over the
state, and by creating a gas-caravan of private cars from Anzoátegui to
keep gas flowing in Bolívar.

The Current Impasse            

Contradicting the claims of Sidor, which has begun a media-campaign
characterizing the strike as a greedy attempt by well-fed steelworkers
to increase wages, Sutiss has identified several key issues as
justification for the strike, including: access to health services,
health & safety, contract workers, transportation, the presence of the
National Guard at Sidor, and bonuses.  But one larger problem has come
to represent all of the others: Neoliberal management policies that have
caused Sutiss to begin calling for re-nationalization.

Health services

As outlined in the collective bargaining agreement between Sutiss and
Sidor, the company is responsible for providing health care for the
workers. However, according to Sutiss Secretary-General José Rodriguez
Acarigua, “the medical situation here is a disaster
 Right now there is
a big problem with the health system for the workers—we have two workers
who died because they were denied access to the health system
and they
died in the streets, in a public hospital
”[3]

Health & Safety

As a direct result of the now-familiar management technique of shifting
the work-load from well-paid and well-trained unionized workers to
contract-workers to cut costs, the number of accidents at Sidor have
steadily increased.  The company is now operating with far fewer workers
(around 13,000 as opposed to 24,000 in 1997) and production has been
increased 39% since 1997. Contract workers are subjected to the
riskiest, most exposed conditions in the factory, are not being provided
with adequate health and safety training or with adequate safety
equipment.  Furthermore, contract workers are often unfamiliar with the
risks because they are not given time to acclimate to the conditions in
specific areas.  They are posted in one location for a short period of
time, then they are moved to another area of work, or they are “let go”



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