Venezuelan Steel Workers End Strike

Almost 8,000 contract workers of the Venezuelan recently nationalized Sidor Steel plant ceased strikes and protests that they had maintained for more than 90 hours, after the Venezuelan vice president Ramon Carrizalez promised to provide a response to their demands.
Workers at the Sidor plant. (Tamara Pearson)

Mérida, October 23, 2008 (– Almost 8,000 contract workers of the Venezuelan recently nationalized Sidor Steel plant ceased strikes and protests that they had maintained for more than 90 hours, after the Venezuelan vice president Ramon Carrizalez promised to provide a response to their demands.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez nationalized Sidor in July of this year and the struggle for that nationalization and for a collective contract that preceded it included the incorporation of contract workers into the payroll. Sidor currently employs 8,600 workers though subcontracting companies.

Workers began the strike on Friday October 17 because the Minister for Basic Industry and Minerals, Rodolfo Sanz, had promised to give a definite response to their demands on Friday, but did not come. On Monday they ended the strike and began protesting on the street. On Tuesday from 6 in the morning until 5 that afternoon, workers blocked traffic on the road between the two main cities of Bolivar and Puerto Ordaz.

The announcement of Carrizalez’s arrival saw the end of the two days of street protests. According to Sidor, the company lost US$ 8.5 million as a result of the strikes.

Hugo Bastardo, a representative of the contract workers, insisted that they meet with the vice president as “Rodolfo Sanz has turned out badly, tricking us, laughing at us…”

He said they had stopped the strike because the governor of the state called the vice president and agreed to provide solutions this Wednesday.

However another worker, a representative of the union Unidad Matancera, Francisco Fermin, claimed the conflict had ceased because the Nationals Guard dissolved it. He said there were injuries and some detained contract workers.

“But we should make it clear that we aren’t coup plotters, we are workers of this plant and we should remind the president of the Republic that he came to [the city of] Guayana and spoke of justice, equality and fairness and they are discriminating against us in a big way and they should do something about it,” he added.

On Monday Joan Moya, another contract workers’ spokesperson, said that although the company was functioning, “all the contact workers are on strike and we are protesting because we are earning a daily wage of BsF 24 ($US 11) while the [permanent] workers of Sidor earn BsF 85 ($US 40) and we want them to adjust our wages to the reality.”

“We just want to be paid well, because we do the same work as the permanent workers,” one worker, Donis Cortes, said.

Apart from a decent salary, workers are also demanding school supplies for their children, 120 days of vacation, end of year bonus, production bonuses, and back pay for the pay rise dating back to the signing of the collective contract.

The governor of the state of Bolivar, where the steel plant is located, Rangel Gomez, has taken on a mediating position and called for the formation of a high level commission to resolve the conflict.

“The solution must be obtained in a climate of dialogue and shouldn’t affect thousands of people,” he said, referring to the closure of the main roads.

Sanz said he is studying alternatives to resolve the problems of the contract workers and will present a plan in 10 days. He urged the workers to be patient and said that the best decision can’t be hurried but also assured that those contractors who fire workers for demanding their rights, will be removed from Sidor.

“We won’t allow abuse nor humiliation of the workers but at the same time we ask [the workers] that they don’t play into the hands of those who are trying to make the company fail, because now this company is the state’s,” he said.

Finally, on Wednesday, Carrizales headed a meeting with representatives of the striking workers and Sanz to resolve the conflict. Gomez acted as mediator in the meeting.

In the meeting Bastardo explained that his fellow workers suffer worker-discrimination in the plant.

“We are prohibited from using the transport of the company, the bathrooms and the dinning room.”

Carrizales gave various instructions to be implemented immediately. The management should guarantee that the wage of the contract workers not be affected by the days they were protesting and no one should be fired. He committed to overseeing that they also get access to transport and a dining room and to return in a week to supervise the implementation of such changes.

Sanz requested a meeting with the workers for this Thursday.

A statement by the Revolutionary Classist Tendency in Sidor said, “The strike initiated by the contract workers of Sidor [was] just and necessary, given the constant delays that they have received from the company.”

The statement calls for the workers to receive a fixed wage and is against the fact that they receive half the wage and go without labor, union, and social rights. It also suggests that government authorities and representatives of the company such as the Executive director of Sidor, Miguel Alvarez, have tried to portray the strike leaders as saboteurs and conspirators and have confronted and threatened the workers involved in the struggle.

“The true conspiracy is the maintenance of the current situation of the 8,000 contractors without a response, as well as allowing that the contractors continue on hunger wages and they laugh at the Organic Law of Work and put our lives in danger with miserable conditions of hygiene and industrial security.”

Sidor was nationalised by Chavez after 10 years in the hands of the Argentinean consortium Techint, who bought the factory under the name of Consorcio Amazonia from the previous Venezuelan government of Rafael Caldera in 1998.