Steel Worker’s Strike Shuts down Venezuela’s Largest Steel Plant

More than 14,000 workers at Venezuela's largest steel plant, the Argentine-controlled Ternium Sidor, look set to extend a 48 hour strike Friday night, after negotiations for a collective contract, which has dragged on for almost a year, broke down.
UNT national coordinator Stalin Perez Borges talking to striking workers (MAH)

Caracas, January 1, 2008 ( – More than 14,000 workers at Venezuela's largest steel plant, the Argentine-controlled Ternium Sidor, look set to extend a 48 hour strike Friday night, after negotiations for a collective contract, which has dragged on for almost a year, broke down.

The President of the United Steel Industry Workers Union (SUTISS), José Rodriguez, blamed what he called the intransigence of the company. The intention of the union is to achieve an agreement that is "serious, decent, and respectable," Rodriguez said. However, "Despite the intermediation by the Labor Ministry, the company has maintained a stubborn position," he added.

While the workers lowered their initial demand for a daily salary increase from Bs.F. 80 Bs.F. to 70 (US$32.56) during negotiations on Wednesday, Sidor management said the workers' demand was "totally inviable" and offered an increase of only Bs.F. 22. The union is also demanding a retroactive payment of Bs.F. 50,000 for each worker, for retirement funds, which it says had been agreed to in 1998, but that the company never paid.

The Vice Minister of Labor, Rafael Chacón, who has been mediating the dispute since early January, proposed a daily salary increase of 45 bolivars and a retroactive payment of Bs.F. 20,000, which the company said it would review. However, after 9 hours of discussions, Sidor management suspended negotiations without any concrete agreement being reached.

Nerio Fuentes, General Secretary of SUTISS, who pulled thousands of workers off the job in a 24 hour work stoppage last week over the same dispute, said they will extend the strike indefinitely if the company fails to meet their demands.

Fuentes added that the mediation of the Labor Ministry had been what the workers had hoped for, because they had respected union autonomy and not interfered in the actions decided on by the workers.

Workers also blocked major transit routes in Puerto Ordaz today and Wednesday causing traffic chaos in the city.

"If there is no solution, we will continue in the streets, we will continue with the paralyzation," Rodriguez declared.

The strike involves 5,400 permanent workers and a further 9,000 contract workers outsourced from 350 small and medium businesses that service the steel industry. Omar Martinez, president of the Steel Industry Business Alliance in the state of Bolivar, said that these small and medium businesses linked to Sidor are losing approximately US$3 million per day as a result of the strike.

Sidor, which manufactures wire and metal piping, is the number one steel production plant in the Andean region and the fourth largest in Latin America. Management has estimated that the company has lost an estimated US$7 million for each day of the strike.

Located in the state of Bolivar in the south of Venezuela, Sidor was privatized in 1997. Argentina's Trechint now owns a 60% controlling stake, 20% belongs to workers and retirees, and the remaining 20% is owned by the Venezuelan state.

Since privatization the company has reduced its number of permanent employees from 18,000 to 5,400 and increased outsourced labour from 3,000 to 9,000. The union says working conditions have decreased dramatically and 18 workers have been killed in workplace related accidents over this period. They also said the outsourced workers, who earn significantly lower salaries than the permanent workers, suffer inferior working conditions and are victims of 65% of workplace accidents. The company "has applied a policy of savage neoliberal capitalism for more than 10 years," Rodriguez said.

Last year, in the framework of President Chavez's call to "re-nationalize everything that was privatized," sections of the Sidor workforce called for the company to be nationalized and put under worker's control.

Chavez also threatened to nationalize the company if it did not prioritize production for the domestic market and pay more for the raw materials, which it had obtained at a subsidized rate from a state-owned mining company. However, the government and the company later reached an agreement.

A report in the February 1 edition of opposition daily, Correo del Caroni criticized what it described as "union impunity" and said the strike in Sidor was "very dangerous" and "compromising" for the national government because it would "generate a new scenario of conflict."

The report, along with Sidor, and other industry groups, also claimed the strike was "illegal" and that Sidor workers were some of the highest paid workers in Venezuela.

However, SUTISS finance secretary José Meléndez, rejected the claims of "newspaper columnists who are the spokespeople of Sidor," and invited them to verify the workers' pay.
Stalin Perez Borges, national co-ordinator of the National Union of Workers, who visited the strikers on Wednesday, condemned the treatment of the workers in Sidor and called for unions to carry out actions in solidarity with the strike.