The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 37           October 27, 2003  
How Venezuela steelworkers
helped defeat boss ‘strike’
CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela—When the big-business association Fedecámaras called a “strike” last December to oust the government of President Hugo Chávez, steelworkers at the SIDOR steel mill here played an important role in undermining the bosses’ efforts.

“I was among those who organized union members to take over company buses and head for Anaco,” said Jesús Fajardo, a member of SUTISS, the steelworkers union. He spoke to Militant reporters at the entrance of the huge steel works here the morning of September 29.

Fajardo and others said the union leadership organized the takeover of 20 company buses at the end of December when initial evidence showed that opposition forces had sabotaged gas pipelines in Anaco, a city several hours north of Ciudad Guayana in the state of Anzoategui. Steel mills and other plants here use natural gas in the production process. Severing the main gas pipeline quickly brought production to a halt.

About 1,200 steelworkers were on the way to Anaco the day after the source of the problem became clear in early January, we were told. They were confronted by an armed demonstration of 3,000 blocking the road. “These rightist thugs included many of the local police, who had taken off their uniforms, and were organized by several mayors who are with the opposition in towns around Anaco,” said Luis Pinto, the financial secretary of the union, in a September 27 interview. “A good number of us were armed too, but we decided to back off at that point. The relationship of forces was not in our favor.”

Pinto and others reported that SUTISS organizes its own defense guard. Training includes target practice. The union makes this publicly known.

The SUTISS contingent decided to back off in order to avoid an armed confrontation. They regrouped a few miles down the road and organized reinforcements. “We told the National Guard in Bolívar state that unless the Guard broke through, we would proceed even at the cost of bloodshed,” Pinto said. He reported that after getting Chávez’s go-ahead, the National Guard did deploy troops in front of the buses. They escorted the SUTISS contingent through the barricades and stood guard while the steelworkers repaired the damaged pipeline. The SIDOR steel works and other plants in the area were up and running by mid-January.

In interviews conducted on September 29 at the plant gate, inside the steel works, and in the union office, located on company property, many steelworkers said their biggest challenge now is resisting layoffs and other takebacks the bosses have imposed in the last five years.  
Toll of employers’ assault on workers
SIDOR was state-owned until 1997. The government of President Rafael Caldera sold a majority stake in the company to Argentine, Brazilian, and other capitalists that year, just before Chávez was elected, we were told.

Since then, the workforce has been cut from 18,000 to 12,000, while production has slightly increased. Nearly half the workforce today is made up of temporary workers hired through subcontractors to do maintenance and other jobs. The contract workers are not covered by the union contract. They make just above the minimum wage, about 200,000 bolivars ($125) per month compared to the average monthly wage of 700,000 bolivars ($438) for full-time SIDOR employees.

In the process, the workforce has become much younger and 20 percent female, compared to 10 years ago, when no women were working there. Some of the unionists said these represent new energizing forces for the union if organized and mobilized.

Meanwhile, however, the bosses have made headway in fostering divisions in the workforce by using the specter of the contract workers and the rising joblessness in Venezuela—now at an official rate of 18 percent nationally.

Without a struggle to bridge the gap between the temporary and the full-time workers, union power on the job—the strengthening of which won respect for this union leadership among the working class in the area—will progressively erode, as a couple of workers explained.

The bosses’ concession drive has taken a toll, particularly on job safety. “The main problem we face right now is safety,” said Carlos Ramírez in an interview at the SIDOR entrance September 29. “Four workers have died from accidents on the job in the last few months, including one two weeks ago. Last week we carried out a slowdown of production for three days to protest and demand improvements.

“Those most adversely affected are the contract workers, who make less than half of union scale and who are less experienced. They are not unionized but we support them,” he said.

Several SUTISS members said they were organizing a workers’ assembly during the morning shift change at the SIDOR entrance September 30 to discuss how to fight the company, which has withheld benefits they are supposed to receive according to the union contract.

The large majority of workers interviewed attributed the deteriorating economic situation to the capitalists, not the Chávez government.

“I am not a Chavista,” said Ramírez. “But if they get rid of Chávez, we will lose. The opposition doesn’t propose any improvement for the workers. And they proved it during all those years they were in power.”
Related article:
After hard-fought battles, 60,000 peasants get land titles in Venezuela
Venezuela miners, steelworkers struggles show radicalization of toilers
Forces on the left in new combinations; Workers Party of Venezuela holds first national assembly  
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