Caracas, June 15, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan industrial workers and social movements demanded the immediate liberation of two trade union leaders detained during recent protests at state-owned steelmaking company Siderúrgicas del Orinoco (Sidor) in Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar state.
Daniel Romero and Leonardo Azócar were arrested on June 11 following a five-day sit-down strike alongside hundreds of metalworkers to urge the company’s board to adjust salaries to rising living costs as well as reinstate health insurance and collective bargaining rights. A third worker, Juan Cabrera, was detained as well but released hours later.
On Wednesday, Sidor worker Carlos Villarroel alongside social activists and members of leftist political organizations staged a protest in front of the Attorney General’s Office in Caracas, where they delivered a letter demanding the release of the union leaders. The demonstrators also requested protection for all workers protesting for their constitutional rights and to end the military occupation of the company.
“I came all the way from Guayana to Caracas to tell the country what is happening. Workers from our industrial companies are rallying for better pay to be able to feed their families, a problem that reflects our nation’s economic and labor collapse,” said Villarroel.
He added that Romero and Azócar’s “unfair detention” is the result of an ongoing state policy to criminalize labor protests across the country.
“We are demanding justice for our detained companions whose only crime is defending our wage claims,” exclaimed Villarroel. “We want attorney general Tareck William Saab to stand with workers and to stop being an instrument of the current criminalization drive.”
Officials from the prosecutor’s office received the demonstrators in a short audience and promised to examine and follow the case. The activists pledged to stage another rally in a week if the two workers were not freed before then.
According to lawyer and human rights activist Eduardo Torres, the union leaders have been charged with incitement to hatred, criminal association and boycott in a “rigged hearing” carried out by a tribunal in Bolívar state. The two detainees were reportedly later taken to Caracas but neither their families nor lawyers have been able to talk to them.
Torres likewise denounced that on June 13 a local judge issued a measure prohibiting protests, threatening both union leaders and metalworkers with jail sentences. The judicial order includes a list of 15 people not allowed to strike.
“In view of this situation, we call on the Venezuelan working class and popular movements to rise up in struggle, to mobilize, to stand in solidarity with those who are being criminalized by the state,” stated Pedro Eusse, a leader from the CUTV trade union confederation, during Wednesday’s rally.
Since June 7, hundreds of Sidor workers have walked out from their posts in the pellets plant, paralyzing production after the company’s board refused to sit down and discuss labor issues.
Apart from the living wage and social benefits demands, the Sidor workers also want the total reincorporation of people fired in 2020 without justification and those placed under a “non-required” list. César Soto, affected by this measure, told the local press that workers under this condition are forced to stay home receiving less than US $60 a month. Until February, around 7,000 laborers were active, representing half of Sidor’s workforce.
According to Soto, an active Sidor worker is earning around $200 in monthly wages plus $80 in government bonuses following May 1’s announcement. However, with the country’s basic food basket estimated at over $500, metalworkers are demanding an urgent salary adjustment.
The same demands were made in January when Sidor’s workers blocked a local highway in Ciudad Guayana. The protests also led to several arrests with the majority released in short order and some placed under the “non-required” modality. At the time, the company’s board agreed to set up a dialogue committee, but the agreements were never fulfilled.
On March 30, Sidor president Néstor Astudillo and Basic Industries Vice-Minister Pedro Maldonado were arrested amidst a wide-reaching anti-corruption probe. Maldonado additionally headed the Venezuela Guayana Corporation (CVG), which brings together several heavy industries in eastern Venezuela, including Sidor.
Following the arrests, the Venezuelan government named an “Intervention Board” led by Productive Economy Vice-Minister Héctor Silva and National Assembly (AN) deputy Alexis Rodríguez Cabello. In April, Silva was replaced by Colonel Sandi Villarroel Rodríguez.
Prior to the corruption scandal, President Nicolás Maduro visited Sidor and ordered the company’s authorities to prioritize workers. “We must produce more and invest in the working class, in their collective bargaining contracts and in their rights,” he said.
With an area spanning 25,000 square meters, Sidor was founded in 1953 and nationalized by the Hugo Chávez government in 2008 leading to worker control experiments before a state-led, top-down management model was imposed. In recent years, the steelmaking complex has been hard-hit by the country’s economic crisis and US sanctions well as a diminished workforce due to migration and a reduced capacity to invest and perform maintenance.
In 2022, Sidor experienced a slight recovery with a reported production of 230,000 tons of steel, representing just around 6 percent of the installed capacity. In January, Line “A” of the pellets plant produced 122,459 tons after being reactivated the month before following years of paralysis.
The steelworkers’ protests in eastern Venezuela have coincided with a string of mobilizations from oil, teachers and public sector workers in recent months also demanding fair wages and new collective contracts. On May 1, there was no minimum wage increase, with the amount remaining at the 130 BsD ($4.8 at the present exchange rate) set in March 2022 and the Maduro administration raising non-wage bonuses instead.