Workers from state owned steel plant Sidor marched through the city of Ciudad Guayana in the east of Venezuela on Monday in rejection of the government’s stance in their long-running labour dispute.
For almost two years the factory’s trade union has been negotiating a new collective labour contract with the CVG, the state entity responsible for the region’s nationalised heavy industries. The last contract expired in 2010, and workers have complained that since then inflation has reduced the value of their wages.
According to Sidor’s Sutiss trade union, talks have dragged in recent months over the last few contractual clauses left for agreement. A second issue of tension has been the falling production at the factory, which is one of the largest steel producers in Latin America. Annual production has sunk from 4.3 million tons of liquid steel in 2007, the year before the plant was privatised, to 1.5 million tons last year.
The simmering dispute turned into an open conflict last week after Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and second in command of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), blamed Sidor’s trade unionists for the delay in signing the contract and for the plant’s falling production.
Cabello said the factory, whose production has been paralysed by strikes on numerous occasions over the past year, was beholden to union “mafias” that were demanding exorbitant conditions in order to sign the new labour contract.
This stance was seconded by President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday evening during a speech to the national PSUV congress in Caracas, when he said that “[a few] corrupt trade unionists have kidnapped the company and have brought it to the point of breakdown”.
Maduro asked for support to “liberate” Sidor, and characterised the labour unrest there are part of a destabilisation attempt against his government.
However this stance has been rejected by both what appear to be a large number of the factory’s workers and the Sutiss union, the majority of whose leaders are considered to be pro-government.
On Monday these workers marched through Ciudad Guayana, the city located near the Sidor factory, to demonstrate their indignation at the government’s comments. They were addressed by the Sutiss president, Jose Luis Hernandez.
“This isn’t about four corrupt trade unionists as denounced by [Diosdado] Cabello, but rather it’s about the offended workforce, who have demonstrated this in a civic march,” he said.
According to local press, Hernandez continued by declaring, “Thanks to this offense all Sidor workers who were in the PSUV are now going to form a party and union of the workers”.
Hernandez suggested that Maduro had been “misled” by Diosdado Cabello over the nature of the dispute. Cabello is a former member of Sidor’s directive board.
In response to Cabello’s accusations, Sidor’s trade union leaders have argued that poor management of the steel complex is the reason for the factory’s problems, and are asking for new investment to increase production.
“We don’t want the state to subsidise us…we’re saying to the government that the only thing we’re asking for is investment, materials and parts…and be sure that Sidor won’t produce just 4.3 tons of liquid steel [annually], but 5 or 6,” said Sutiss secretary Jose Melendez yesterday.
The president of the pro-government trade union federation, the Bolivarian Central of Socialist Workers (CBST), has stood beside the government, condemning earlier protests by Sidor workers that blocked roads in Ciudad Guayana. Local PSUV parliamentarians have done likewise.
However the regional leadership of the CBST for Bolivar state, where Sidor is located, has differed from this stance. The regional organisation released a statement on Sunday recognising the government’s role in nationalising Sidor from transnational control and in eliminating sub-contracting by bringing all workers onto the company payroll.
Nevertheless, the CBST-Bolivar exhorted authorities to “offer the conditions to reach a sensible, dignified and honest solution for Sidor workers based on their labour rights and legitimate leadership”.
Trade unions from several other factories in the region have also reportedly backed the Sutiss in the dispute.
Further, Raul Perica, the president of the Venezuelan oil workers union (FUTPV) and a member of the CBST, has expressed his support for Sidor’s trade union, and has requested that Diosdado Cabello meet with all organised trade union groups to discuss labour relations in the country.
Perica said yesterday that in his opinion current problems with industrial relations in state industries are due to the “bureaucratic actions of a plutocratic current”. He argued that this alleged group maintains “an anti-trade union stance made up of mid-level officials such as managers, supervisors, and company presidents that say they identify with chavismo, but with their behaviour what they really do is [cause] damage to the PSUV”.
The political opposition has also commented on the dispute. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles argued on Tuesday that, “Maduro has destroyed [Sidor]”.
“For the government the workers are good in elections and bad when they want their demands to be listened to,” he claimed on Twitter.