[Marxism] 'Militant' report on end of Venezuela steel strike

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri May 21 08:36:46 MDT 2004


There is no report on this as yet on the Venezuelanalysis website, which
carried the report on this complex and hard-fought strike that I
submitted about ten days ago.
Fred Feldman


The Militant        May 31, 2004  
 
Steelworkers end strike in Venezuela 
 
BY CARLOS CORNEJO
AND MARTÍN KOPPEL  
CARACAS, Venezuela—More than 4,500 steelworkers returned to their jobs
May 13 after a 19-day strike at the giant SIDOR steel works in Ciudad
Guayana, in eastern Venezuela. The workers, members of steelworkers
union SUTISS, were fighting for improved job safety and back payment of
bonuses. 
Workers approved a settlement in which each union member will receive a
$1,500 lump-sum bonus offered by the government. SIDOR agreed to
establish a joint safety committee made up of officials from the union,
company, and government. 

The company had insisted from the beginning that the strike was illegal,
and the government sent in the National Guard at the request of the
company. On April 29 National Guard troops fired on striking workers
with rubber bullets and tear gas. 

In telephone interviews, union officials and workers reported that while
they had not won some of their demands, the strikers had stood up to the
boss assault on the union. “The company was not able to break our
strike,” said Carlos Ramírez, a member of SUTISS. No workers, including
contract workers who are not in the union, crossed the picket lines,
SUTISS members said. 

SIDOR, the fourth-largest steel producer in Latin America, was a
state-owned company until 1997. At that time the government of
Venezuelan president Rafael Caldera sold a majority share to foreign
investors and local businessmen. Today a consortium of capitalists in
Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela own a 60 percent stake in the
company; the state owns the other 40 percent. 

Since the sale of the company, the bosses have slashed size of the
workforce from 18,000 to 12,000. Today almost half the employees are
contract workers—temporary workers hired through subcontractors. The
contract workers, who are not members of SUTISS, are subject to
arbitrary dismissal and are often not paid the official minimum wage,
which equals about $125 per month, one-third the average wage paid to
union members. 

As a result of the bosses’ productivity drive, forcing fewer workers to
do more work, the number of employees killed or maimed on the job has
increased. “Over the past six years, 11 workers have been killed due to
unsafe working conditions. Nine of them were contract workers,” said
Valdemar Alvarez, a member of the SUTISS executive board, in a May 13
telephone interview. 

The workers won their demand for a joint union-company-government
committee to be established to monitor health and safety conditions. The
company also pledged to enforce the contract stipulation that
subcontractors pay workers the minimum wage. 

The union demand for payment of profit-sharing bonuses due to workers
for 2003 was rejected by the company, which stated it made no profits
that year and so owed nothing to the workers. This claim was rejected by
the union. Under the strike settlement, the union accepted an offer by
the government of a one-time “productivity” bonus totaling $6.3
million—about $1,500 for every worker. 

The government deployment of hundreds of National Guard troops outside
and inside the facilities was a blow to the strike. “They had the plant
militarized,” said Alvarez. 

During the strike the company fired 200 workers, including the entire
SUTISS executive board. As part of the settlement the bosses agreed to
reverse the firings of about two-thirds of these workers. Alvarez told
the Militant the union is negotiating to reverse the remaining
dismissals. 

To mobilize support for the strike, SIDOR workers held a march May 6 of
more than 3,000 through the streets of nearby Puerto Ordaz. Unionists
said that demonstrators included contract workers and members of other
unions and neighborhood organizations.One of the demands of the march
was that the government re-nationalize SIDOR. Alvarez reported that
sentiment in favor of nationalization has grown among the steelworkers
as a result of their latest battle with the bosses. During a visit to
the SIDOR steelworks last September, Militant reporters found that only
a small minority of the workforce supported nationalization at that
time. 

“Now I am in favor of nationalization,” said maintenance technician José
Marín in a phone interview. “Privatization has benefited only the
owners, who have created nothing but problems for us.” 

Alvarez said the union had been preparing to send a large delegation of
workers to Caracas to ask the national government to back their fight.
Shortly before the scheduled trip, the settlement was announced and the
trip was cancelled. 

The SUTISS members at SIDOR have faced the bosses in a number of ongoing
struggles. Last October thousands of steelworkers there carried out job
actions demanding improved safety and health as well as wage increases
stipulated in the contract. In December 2002, when the SIDOR owners
joined a nationwide employer “strike” as part of an effort by
capitalists to destabilize and remove the government headed by President
Hugo Chávez, the steelworkers mobilized to oppose the bosses’ sabotage
of production. The national lockout was finally defeated through the
actions of working people across the country. 
 
 





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