From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Fri May 21 2004 - 10:46:08 EDT
from marxmail.org Another side to the Chavez government, no? Sending in the national guard? Rakesh The Militant May 31, 2004 Steelworkers end strike in Venezuela BY CARLOS CORNEJO AND MARTÍN KOPPEL CARACAS, Venezuela-More than 4,500 steelworkers returned to their jobs May 13 after a 19-day strike at the giant SIDOR steel works in Ciudad Guayana, in eastern Venezuela. The workers, members of steelworkers union SUTISS, were fighting for improved job safety and back payment of bonuses. Workers approved a settlement in which each union member will receive a $1,500 lump-sum bonus offered by the government. SIDOR agreed to establish a joint safety committee made up of officials from the union, company, and government. The company had insisted from the beginning that the strike was illegal, and the government sent in the National Guard at the request of the company. On April 29 National Guard troops fired on striking workers with rubber bullets and tear gas. In telephone interviews, union officials and workers reported that while they had not won some of their demands, the strikers had stood up to the boss assault on the union. "The company was not able to break our strike," said Carlos Ramírez, a member of SUTISS. No workers, including contract workers who are not in the union, crossed the picket lines, SUTISS members said. SIDOR, the fourth-largest steel producer in Latin America, was a state-owned company until 1997. At that time the government of Venezuelan president Rafael Caldera sold a majority share to foreign investors and local businessmen. Today a consortium of capitalists in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela own a 60 percent stake in the company; the state owns the other 40 percent. Since the sale of the company, the bosses have slashed size of the workforce from 18,000 to 12,000. Today almost half the employees are contract workers-temporary workers hired through subcontractors. The contract workers, who are not members of SUTISS, are subject to arbitrary dismissal and are often not paid the official minimum wage, which equals about $125 per month, one-third the average wage paid to union members. As a result of the bosses' productivity drive, forcing fewer workers to do more work, the number of employees killed or maimed on the job has increased. "Over the past six years, 11 workers have been killed due to unsafe working conditions. Nine of them were contract workers," said Valdemar Alvarez, a member of the SUTISS executive board, in a May 13 telephone interview. The workers won their demand for a joint union-company-government committee to be established to monitor health and safety conditions. The company also pledged to enforce the contract stipulation that subcontractors pay workers the minimum wage. The union demand for payment of profit-sharing bonuses due to workers for 2003 was rejected by the company, which stated it made no profits that year and so owed nothing to the workers. This claim was rejected by the union. Under the strike settlement, the union accepted an offer by the government of a one-time "productivity" bonus totaling $6.3 million-about $1,500 for every worker. The government deployment of hundreds of National Guard troops outside and inside the facilities was a blow to the strike. "They had the plant militarized," said Alvarez. During the strike the company fired 200 workers, including the entire SUTISS executive board. As part of the settlement the bosses agreed to reverse the firings of about two-thirds of these workers. Alvarez told the Militant the union is negotiating to reverse the remaining dismissals. To mobilize support for the strike, SIDOR workers held a march May 6 of more than 3,000 through the streets of nearby Puerto Ordaz. Unionists said that demonstrators included contract workers and members of other unions and neighborhood organizations.One of the demands of the march was that the government re-nationalize SIDOR. Alvarez reported that sentiment in favor of nationalization has grown among the steelworkers as a result of their latest battle with the bosses. During a visit to the SIDOR steelworks last September, Militant reporters found that only a small minority of the workforce supported nationalization at that time. "Now I am in favor of nationalization," said maintenance technician José Marín in a phone interview. "Privatization has benefited only the owners, who have created nothing but problems for us." Alvarez said the union had been preparing to send a large delegation of workers to Caracas to ask the national government to back their fight. Shortly before the scheduled trip, the settlement was announced and the trip was cancelled. The SUTISS members at SIDOR have faced the bosses in a number of ongoing struggles. Last October thousands of steelworkers there carried out job actions demanding improved safety and health as well as wage increases stipulated in the contract. In December 2002, when the SIDOR owners joined a nationwide employer "strike" as part of an effort by capitalists to destabilize and remove the government headed by President Hugo Chávez, the steelworkers mobilized to oppose the bosses' sabotage of production. The national lockout was finally defeated through the actions of working people across the country.
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