Sidor workers reject arbitration: continue industrial action

Thousands of workers at Venezuela's largest steel plant, the Argentine-controlled Ternium Sidor, activated staggered strikes today as part of an ongoing dispute for a collective contract, which has dragged on for more than a year.
Sidor workers strike last Thursday (Aporrea)

Caracas, February 27,
2008 ( – Thousands of workers at Venezuela's largest steel
plant, the Argentine-controlled Ternium Sidor, activated staggered strikes
today as part of an ongoing dispute for a collective contract, which has
dragged on for more than a year.

The dispute involves
5,400 permanent workers and a further 9,000 contract workers outsourced from
350 small and medium businesses that service the steel industry. In addition to
improved health and safety conditions, the workers are demanding a salary
increase to put them on par with workers in similar industries.

The salary increase is
the most contentious point of the negotiations – the company claims the demand
of the workers is "unreasonable" and
the workers have characterized the Sidor management as "intransient."

The latest demand by the union was for a raise
of 68 Bs. (US$31.6) per day, down from their initial demand of 80 Bs (US$37.2). The company has offered a 24 Bs.
(US$11.15) raise, and the intermediary proposal of the Labor Ministry is 45 Bs

Labor Minister José
Ramón Rivero recognized Monday that the salary and conditions of workers in the
steel industry are "backwards", but he said the 16-hour strike that paralyzed
Sidor last Thursday was an "error," and called on Sidor workers to agree to
form of an arbitration committee to resolve the conflict, ABN reported.

The proposal of the Labor Ministry involves the creation of a binding
arbitration committee consisting
of three members who have no direct relation to the conflict: One chosen by the
company from a shortlist of three presented by the union, one chosen by the
workers from a shortlist presented by the company and the other jointly
designated by the company and the union.

According to the
minister, "if the workers decide to deepen the
measures of pressure, the executive – in keeping with article 504 of the
[labor] law – has the authority to call on the workers to resume work and
submit the conflict to arbitration," if it determines that the conflict,
"affects the normal functioning of the country."

The minister also
accused some of the worker representatives at the negotiating table, of being
emissaries of the opposition and of being responsible for maintaining the
conflict in Sidor.

"They are the same
people that supported the sabotage stoppage [of the oil industry], the same who
during the stoppage worked against Sidor," he claimed.

However, the United
Steel Industry Workers Union (SUTISS) has categorically rejected the minister's

"We defend this
revolutionary process, we are with the policies of the President of the
Republic, Hugo Chávez Frías, but we reject the policy that the Minister of
Labor is applying against us, trying to impose an arbitration committee,"
SUTISS Finance Secretary and member of the Marea Socialista union current, José
Meléndez, declared.

SUTISS President, José Rodríguez questioned, "Who will
guarantee benefits for the workers in an arbitration committee?"

"We will not
delegate the responsibility that has been assigned to us by the workers. We
were elected by the workers and in this sense we are going to continue the
struggle until the final consequences," Rodríguez told Correo del Caroni on

"If they take us
away handcuffed, they take us away, but we're not going to rest until we
achieve better working conditions," he added.

At first the
workers welcomed the initiative of the Labor Ministry to participate in
negotiations between SUTISS and Ternium Sidor to avoid a major conflict,
Rodriguez recounted.

"But today we note
certain coincidences between the functionaries of the Labor Ministry and the
representatives of Ternium Sidor against the Sidor workers movement," he

Meléndez, was more emphatic,
saying of the Labor Minister, "the mask has fallen, he has jumped ship towards
the endogenous rightwing," and insisted in declaring him "persona non grata."

The position of the
Labor Ministry "follows the bosses representation and therefore is a betrayal
of the struggle of the workers," Meléndez said.

Meléndez called for
"solidarity at a national level in this struggle against exploitation."

Eduardo Sanchez, a
spokesperson for the National Union of Workers (UNT) and member of the Collective
of Workers in Revolution union current, affirmed the UNT's support for the Sidor workers
in an interview with Union Radio yesterday

The official
position of establishing an arbitration mechanism supervised by the Labor
Ministry corresponded to the practice of previous governments and does not
contribute to or fulfill the demands of the workers, Sanchez said.

Sánchez reiterated
that the position of the UNT is for the nationalization of Sidor, which he
compared to the nationalizations in the Orinoco oil fields last year.

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 company later reached an agreement with the government to avoid

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 strike action.

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.