Caracas , Venezuela , September 7, 2006— A largescale protest yesterday by workers from the Sidor steelworks secured the release of five of their co-workers after they were arrested by the National Guard on charges of undue expropriation and seizure of plant machinery. The protest, supported by the unions at the plant, partially closed down the steelworks and brought the city of Puerto Ordaz, in Venezuela’s Bolívar state to a standstill. The five men deny any wrongdoing and say the management tried to intimidate them.
On exiting the Palace of Justice where they were held, Juan Valor, Leonel Grisset, Richard Gregorio Alfonzo, Joel Hernández Ruiz and Osmel Ramírez spoke in front of thousands of supporters. Valor, who is the press secretary of Sutiss, the largest steelworkers union said, “The union won’t shut its mouth, and we’re going to keep struggling for workers’ rights. There are more than 8,000 workers that are being exploited and the Ministry of Work doesn’t try to solve the problems that exist in the country.”
The five men work for Transporte Camila, one of 232 private contracting companies that employ workers on a casual basis – on lower wages and with less benefits than permanent workers. The General Secretary of Sutiss, José “Acarigua” Rodríguez, spoke fully in support of the protest and said the situation was a “reflection of what occurs in many other contracting firms that exploit the workers of Sidor in order to obtain large profits, without consideration to their salary and social rights.”
The protests started at six o’clock on Tuesday morning when the workers of the plant blocked the routes in and out of Puerto Ordaz. They then made their way in their thousands towards the Palace of Justice, blocking the streets on their way. By 10.30 they had blocked all the main arteries of the city. Outside of the palace they shouted slogans such as “freedom for our comrades.” According to Rodríguez, at least 3,000 of the protesters were permanent workers in solidarity with their less fortunate compa ñeros .
Rodríguez also claimed that the protests, while focused mainly on the five arrested men, were about other more general grievances the workforce has towards the management. Outstanding wages, unpaid benefits such as health insurance & holiday pay and bad safety practices by employers are just some of the issues around which workers are united.
Orlando Aguilar the owner of Transporte Camila and the president of the Chamber of Service Industries (CESA) said the five men forcefully took machinery which caused losses to the steelworks and for that reason, “there remained no alternative but to call the law.” He also said the industrial action by the workers will have exceeded $2 million.
Francisco Rangel Gómez, governor of Bolívar State, also condemned the protests and called the continuous militancy of the unions in the state, which he said often leads to battles between unions, “union terrorism.”
Sidor, a former state-owned company, was privatised in 1998. Until then it had 18,000 permanent workers employed under a collectively negotiated contract. After privatization the total number employed was reduced to 15,000 with 10,000 of those forced to accept temporary contracts. Inevitably, conflict between management and workers has been common with many strikes occurring over the last eight years. During the opposition sponsored oil industry shutdown in 2002, the Sidor management closed down the plant in solidarity. At the time the workers backed the government and worked across the state to keep gas flowing.
While the protesters can claim a victory from their organisation it wasn’t outright. The five freed men still have to present themselves at the Palace of Justice every thirty days. Officials there may have a surprise waiting for them on October 5, however.
“They have imposed the ruling that we present ourselves every thirty days, and I want to make a call to the conscience of all the workers so that we all present ourselves here every thirty days at the tribunals,(..), I’ll see you all on October 5”, shouted Juan Valor at the end of his speech.