EspañolWhen Nicolás Maduro won Venezuela’s presidency in 2013, he proclaimed himself the “president of the workers.” However, trade unionists from mineral industries in Guayana, the southeast region of the country, are inclined to disagree.
For almost five years, workers from the state-run Orinoco steelmaker Alfredo Maneiro (SIDOR) have been negotiating a collective agreement with the government, with no apparent success. Instead, these workers, who once supported the expropriations of these same industries, now say they have been being betrayed by the Chavista politburo.
During a press conference on Wednesday, the president of the National Assembly and vice president of the PSUV ruling party, Diosdado Cabello, was unimpressed and hit back. His strong statements toward the trade unions described them as “mafias.”
For several months now, the unions have led protests and strikes to force the government to abide by their promises. However, according to Cabello, the union’s actions are only meant to “affect the company’s productivity as part of a greater plan to destabilize the country.”
“They are demanding conditions that are impossible to meet,” explained Cabello.
“They don’t want to see the company operating, and they harm thousands of workers who do want to work,” Cabello stated firmly.
“Nothing will work,” he said, “if the workers aren’t truly committed and don’t distance themselves from these union mafias that are harming the company — not just SIDOR, but all the other companies of Guayana.”
“We can’t negotiate a collective agreement that the company is not capable of meeting; it doesn’t make sense,” Cabello continued. He noted that since last October, the steelmaker has only worked 90 days, due to the “sabotage” led by these “irregular groups.”
Out of the 14,000 workers of SIDOR, there are 2,000 people that work exclusively for the trade union. In other words, they earn a salary from the steel company for nothing more than being part of the union. According to Cabello, these individuals cost the state about 1.4 billion Bs. per year (approximately US$18.9 million).
“Nowhere else does this happen in Venezuelan; not in any other union. It’s an outrage. These 2,000 individuals … [they] lead the actions to block the streets and harm the entire public of Guayana.” Cabello also rejects members of this group referring to themselves as part of the PSUV or as “revolutionaries.”
“It’s an anti-revolutionary attitude, because it’s against the country. While SIDOR is halted, housing project goals fall behind. That is not revolutionary, and we have to condemn it.”
In 1997, SIDOR was sold to the private sector. However, in 2008, then-President Hugo Chávez nationalized the steel maker located in the state of Bolívar.
For the regime, the problem is that the SIDOR union is not the only one demanding collective bargaining, better salaries, and better working conditions. Roughly 2,000 workers from 55 unions in different industries held protests on Wednesday in the state of Carababo.
Julio Polanco, from the Unitary Federation of Bolivarian Unions from the State of Carabobo (FUSBEC), rejected Cabello’s accusations and noted his organization supported Chávez during the expropriations. Polanco stressed the importance of the government listening to their demands before the situation becomes a ticking “time bomb.”
“If we achieve a large percentage of workers daring to walk out, no one can stop that, and they won’t be able to stop us. We will take to the streets in a peaceful protest.”
Cabello’s controversial statements were rejected by another Chavista group as well. Socialist Tide, a grassroots movement within Chavismo, released a response to the vice president of the PSUV.
“What Cabello ignores is that the company was halted for several months for lack of supplies and replacements.” According to the group, SIDOR’s operational crisis intensified because the “alleged financing” that Maduro approved never found its way to the manufacturer. “We never knew where all that money ended up,” said their statement.
The group also highlights the fact that in the six years since the steelmaker was nationalized, it has had six different presidents leading the company.
Among their criticisms, Socialist Tide also took issue with the central government prioritizing exports to China over Venezuela’s domestic production. The group explains that in 2012, SIDOR’s board of directors decided to deliberately decrease the company’s production, so that Ferrominera — another state-owned company that extracts iron — could redirect the iron to China, and therefore, complete the agreed upon quota.
“What do workers and union conflicts have to do with these decisions? Who benefits from SIDOR’s low productivity, and the fact that we have more mineral iron to export? Certainly not the workers … [and] why should they pay for the inefficiency of their directors?” the statement says.
Even though Maduro promised that the government would subsidize all state-run companies’ collective agreements for two years until their productivity recovered, the promise never realized. Cabello now claims that the government cannot guarantee any collective agreement if the company is not productive.
“Once again, the government chooses confrontation with the workers, who are the social foundation of the Bolivarian process,” concludes the statement from the Chavista group who supported the nationalization of the steel company.
Marcela Máspero, president of the national union federation UNETE, recently visited the SIDOR workers in Bolívar, and spoke with the PanAm Post on the matter.
“The government is employing a rope-a-dope strategy and, eventually, will eliminate the trade union. We can’t allow, under any circumstances, [the government] to question the rights of workers,” Máspero stated.
“Now, the government’s deal is: if there’s productivity, the workers will get paid. Workers can’t be responsible for a company’s productivity. There have been numerous changes to the board of directors, the plant is in a terrible condition, and there are conflicts between workers.”
Between 2004 and 2007, while operating as a private company, SIDOR’s production surpassed 4 million tons of liquid steel per year. By 2013, however, the steelmaker was down to 558,404 tons of steel per year.
“Why doesn’t the government check where all the money they have invested in Guayana has gone?” questioned Máspero. “For example, the US$800 million they allegedly allocated to Alcasa [state-owned aluminum plant]; no one knows where that went. The plant is just as deteriorated as always.”
The trade unions in Guayana are represented by the Bolivarian Working Force and are officially members of the PSUV. “It is unacceptable that Diosdado Cabello doesn’t care and gave those statements,” Máspero warns. “We won’t allow it, and we won’t quit the streets until our demands are heard.”