Mérida, April 7, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)- The Vice President of Venezuela, Ramón Carrizalez, met on Monday with José Acarigua Rodríguez, the president of the United Steel Industry Workers Union (SUTISS) in the largest steel company in the Andean region, Ternium Sidor, in an attempt to mediate the 14 month-old collective labor contract dispute in the wake of the workers' rejection of the company's final wage settlement offer in a referendum organized by the union last week.
"The transnational [Sidor] has said it will not sit down with the union, that it has no further proposals," Rodríguez declared following the meeting with Carrizalez. "Well, this transnational will have to respond to the national government and the steel workers," said Rodríguez.
Carrizalez had been sent by President Hugo Chávez, who declared Sunday that any enterprise must be firmly held to "comply with Venezuelan laws," and that union leadership shall be in control of the meeting with Carrizalez, not the other way around.
Chávez assured that consensus will be sought and "we will know which decisions to make when the moment comes."
Proclaiming his administration to be pro-worker, Chávez recounted appreciatively how Sidor workers had backed Chávez during the April 2002 coup and refused to shut down the plant during the subsequent general strike aimed at ousting the president.
In response, Rodríguez expressed "with earnestness and responsibility" deep appreciation for the President's support, reiterating that the workers had strongly desired that Chávez weigh in on the dispute.
Chávez's pronouncements followed a worker-led referendum in which 96% voted to reject the Sidor management's proposal to raise worker wages by 44 bolivars ($20.50) per day. The participation rate was 84% of the 4,035 SUTISS members involved in the collective contract dispute. Workers also voted to continue discussions between SUTISS and the company, but no further plan of action was specified.
Rodríguez declared Monday that if Sidor refuses to continue negotiating, then the union will activate a long-term "surprise plan" that could mean indefinite strike, to which nearly 100 worker unions nation-wide pledged their support last week.
He also said the Labor Ministry's arbitration "has no effect," implying vindicated union negotiating power amidst this new, uncertain turn in the path of the dispute.
Sidor claims the workers' referendum was illegitimate because it was not organized and monitored by the Labor Ministry. The company plans its own referendum this week, which SUTISS leaders have threatened to boycott because, they claim, workers have not been consulted in accordance with labor laws, and the company cannot be trusted.
Moreover, union leaders claim the Labor Ministry has teamed up with Sidor to "impose" the ministry-arbitrated referendum on the workers, defend the company's proposal, and undercut the authority of the union.
Riding the wave of the referendum results last weekend, union members energetically publicized their version of the conflict by meeting with Presidential Secretary Jesse Chacón in the Southeastern state of Bolívar, where Sidor is based, marching to a graduation ceremony Chávez was keynoting in Caracas, and circulating their message through independent media including national union currents.
SUTISS Finance Secretary José Meléndez said in an interview over the weekend that worker voices have been "silenced with abusive propaganda in the media" and intimidated by last month's violent repression against SUTISS strikers.
Countering Sidor's insistence that it is unable to offer the workers anything more than its final offer, Meléndez characterized the company's behavior as "savage, exploitative capitalism."
The union leader alleged that Sidor cut back the permanent workforce from over 15,000 to fewer than 5,000 since the company was privatized a decade ago, and reaped in $3 billion in liquid profits last year in a relatively uncompetitive Venezuelan market, while worker salaries had not been increased for 25 months.
Amidst a turbid political climate in which one prominent national union federation is favorable to President Chávez and the other fiercely opposed, SUTISS leaders had been accused in recent months of eclipsing worker sentiments with anti-revolutionary political objectives.
Meléndez, however, declared himself "a revolutionary…a Bolivarian," and implored that Chávez recognize that the company and its Labor Ministry allies are of "the Right" and are using the conflict as an act of internal destabilization, known colloquially as a "guarimba," in order to "go against the Process."
He was echoed by Rodríguez, who declared Monday that "what is happening at Sidor could happen to the Venezuelan working class and that is why our struggle is not only for a collective contract, but rooted in 10 years of bad treatment by the transnational Ternium Sidor."
Consistent with this sentiment, calls for nationalization of Sidor were reiterated by National Assembly Legislator and coordinator of the Bolivarian Workers Force Ángel Marcano, by the Communist Party of Venezuela, and state control has been advocated by SUTISS leaders on multiple occasions.
In 2007, President Chávez had threatened to nationalize Sidor, in which the state currently controls a 20% stake, if the company did not prioritize sales to the Venezuelan market. Last Thursday, the president nationalized prominent transnational cement companies for this reason, and repeated his intention to "nationalize everything that was privatized" by previous administrations.
Meanwhile, the alliance of small and medium-size enterprises that contract with Sidor expressed concern over a continued dispute, but did not take sides. The alliance emphasized that these businesses lack the financial power to survive more suspensions in production.