Amid Confusion over Announced Sidor Collective Contract Agreement, Workers Continue Protests

While representatives from both the Venezuelan government and the workers’ union at the state-owned Sidor steel plant in Ciudad Guyana announced that each side had agreed to terms for a new collective workers’ contract early Thursday morning, other union members contested that the negotiations left out key leaders, and convoked protests later in the day.

By Sascha Bercovitch

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While Sidor Workers’ Union Secretary José Meléndez (top) announced the completion of a new collective workers’ contract, other union members continued protests as scheduled (below) (Aporrea, Correo del Caroni)
While Sidor Workers’ Union Secretary José Meléndez (top) announced the completion of a new collective workers’ contract, other union members continued protests as scheduled (below) (Aporrea, Correo del Caroni)
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Caracas, August 14th 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – While representatives from both the Venezuelan government and the workers’ union at the state-owned Sidor steel plant in Ciudad Guyana announced that each side had agreed to terms for a new collective workers’ contract early Thursday morning, other union members contested that the negotiations left out key leaders, and convoked protests later in the day.

The announcements come after two years of negotiations and recent clashes between workers and the government.

While information minister Delcy Rodríguez publically announced the agreement, other sources among the workers maintained that such a contract had not been agreed by a workers’ assembly.

According to the secretary of Sidor’s trade union (Sutiss), José Meléndez, via a telephone interview with state television channel VTV, representatives of the workers and government spent most of Wednesday night in negotiations and finalized an agreement early Thursday morning.

The main details of the agreement, Meléndez reported, consist of a daily salary increase of 170 bolivars (about $27 USD by the official exchange rate), to be enacted in installments throughout the year, and an investment plan to revive the company’s production, which has dropped from 4.3 million tons of liquid steel in 2007, the year before the plant was privatized, to 1.5 million tons in 2013.

Workers had been demanding a 200 bolivars daily increase, while the government had previously offered 100 bolivars.

In addition, the government agreed to pay 200,000 bolivars retroactively to each worker for the time it took to negotiate the new contract. Since the last contract expired in 2010, workers had complained of a reduced wage value due to inflation.

“Our goal, the goal of the workers, has now been achieved: to sign the contract and avoid any plan to distort the reality of the situation,” Meléndez said. “It wasn't easy, and we've apologized for the activities we had to carry out in defense of our rights. We are going to begin to increase the plant's production and efficiency."

In recent weeks, Sidor workers have enacted numerous demonstrations in Ciudad Guyana to protest the government’s stance in the contract negotiations. Tensions flared particularly after both National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro criticized the protests, which have on occasion blocked roads in the city, as beholden to union “mafias” and part of a larger attempt to destabilize the factory and region.

In a protest on Monday, conflicts between workers and the Venezuelan National Guard resulted in several injuries and over a dozen arrests. The 15 detained protestors were released Tuesday night.

Information Minister Delcy Rodríguez tweeted on Thursday that the “guarimba” at Sidor – a reference to opposition protests in February and March – had been defeated.

“The working class has defeated the unpatriotic actions of violent sectors directed by the opposition,” she said.

However Socialist Tide, a small dissident organization with the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), reported on several unresolved issues in the announced agreement after speaking with workers earlier this morning.

According to a press release from the group, in the Wednesday night meeting with government negotiators only some members of the executive committee of the Sutiss union were present, but not the union’s president, José Luis Hernández, Claims Secretary Leonardo Azocar, and Secretary General Julio López. The release said the reason for their absence was not known.

In addition, the statement noted that while union executives and the government had agreed to the contract, this would still need to gain approval from Sidor workers in an assembly, a date and time for which has not yet been announced.

In the midst of this confusion, a Sidor workers’ protest scheduled for Thursday morning continued as planned. The Correo del Coroní, a local newspaper, reported that Sutiss executives Hernández, Azocar, and López participated, while Meléndez did not.

“If the workers, the ultimate authority, do not approve of a certain act of this mission, then that act does not apply,” union president Jose Luis Hernández said at the demonstration. “To those union members who met behind our backs, with political patronage: remove yourselves from the union! Let them foster a political agreement with any minister, any governor.”

He added: “Here no collective contract was approved. And if someone signed an agreement: let them come here to speak with the workers! We are not going to accept the imposition of the state.”