Denouncing the "coloniser attitude" and "barbarous exploitation" of workers by the management of the Sidor steel company, Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez announced at 1.30am on April 9 that President Hugo Chavez had decided to nationalise the company.
"This is a government that protects workers and will never take the side of a transnational company", said Carrizalez.
The decision of the Chavez government to nationalise Sidor has begun the process of returning to state hands one of the most important steel factories of Latin America, located in the heartland of Venezuela's industrial belt in Guayana.
Sidor was privatised in 1997, one year before Chavez was elected. The major share-holder has been an Argentinean-controlled conglomerate Techint. Since privatisation, the workforce has been slashed from around 15,000 to just over 5000 and the company has used contract labour in violation of a government decree banning the practice.
The move to re-nationalise Sidor came after more than a year of intense struggle by the Sidor workers, together with the people of Guayana, against not just Sidor management but also the policies of the local "Chavista" governor, Fransisco Rangel Gomez, and the labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero — both of whom have been accused of anti-worker actions.
Sidor workers have been in conflict with the management over the signing of a new contract, with the management refusing to meet the workers' demands. The workers suffered repression at the hands of the National Guard and local police, including a brutal attack involving tear gas and rubber bullets on March 14 that led to three workers being hospitalised.
The move comes as part of a "second wave" of nationalisations being carried out by the Chavez government, following the recent nationalisation of Venezuela's cement industry (nearly 40 factories), several milk producing plants and the subsequent takeover of 32 large farms. These moves are part of government efforts to recuperate control over food production and the construction industry — both of which play a crucial role in national development.
The first wave, carried out at the start of 2007, focused on the electricity, telecommunications and petroleum sectors. After his reelection in December 2006, Chavez pledged to "re-nationalise" all sectors of the economy that had been privatised by previous governments, as part of the struggle to construct socialism.
The labour movement has been electrified by the Sidor victory. In another victory, which reflects the struggle within the pro-Chavez camp between more right-wing sections and those seeking to deepen the revolution, Rivero has been replaced as labour minister, presumably due to his bad role in the Sidor dispute, as well as his public support for splitting the pro-Chavez National Union of Workers (UNT) and creating a new federation.
Below is an article on the significance of the victory by Stalin Perez Borges, who is a UNT national coordinator and a leader of the Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide, <http://mareasocialista.com>) current within the UNT.
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The news regarding events at Sidor continue to reverberate across the world, and will do so for some time. An extraordinary event has occurred — the re-nationalisation of the principal steel factory of Latin America. This is a new revolution within the Bolivarian revolution, which we need to deepen.
This decision by the Chavez government, justly interpreting the demand raised by the workers and people of Guyana (and won by the colossal struggle of the Sidor workers and the revolutionary people of Guyana with the support of people from across the country) changes the political conjuncture following the defeat of Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms in the December 2 referendum.
Given that it involves the four principal countries in Latin America, it modifies the situation in the region in favour of the peoples of our America. The majority of Sidor shares were owned by a corporation comprised of capital from a range of countries including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. The Argentinean and Brazilian interests were closely tied to the governments of those two countries, and the Venezuelan interests were tied to key families of the Venezuelan oligarchy.
It is an event of great importance because it demonstrates, without a doubt, that the revolutionary people of Venezuela want to deepen the process. It could cause a substantial change in the revolutionary process, within which the workers have not been political protagonists of the first order. Nor has Chavez and the rest of the government, so far, wanted to give us this role.
'The dictatorship has fallen, we are free!'
The months of determined struggle could be seen on the joyful faces of the Sidor comrades and the revolutionary workers and people of Guyana. The day after the re-nationalisation was announced, the workers shouted: "We are in democracy, the dictatorship has fallen!" and "We are free!"
The comrades did everything to secure victory, and they achieved it. They confronted brutal repression. They stayed firm and ended up going further than many expected.
The majority of Sidor workers have an immense desire to demonstrate greater efficiency in production and social service than any transnational, national or state capitalist company can provide. In the midst of their jubilation, the workers have proven capable of doubling production levels.
Waiting for the state to take over the administration of the company since April 10, workers in some of the sections started to organise into security and control committees — well before the sabotage of the old owners against the information system began. The mission of these committees is to impede the dismantlement or sabotage of equipment, control production and impede aggression by the supervisors and other bosses.
The will of the Sidor workers is to manage production and the administration of the company. They will present a written proposal for how the new Sidor should function.
Implementing the policies supported by the majority of Sidor workers would be, beyond speeches, a clear demonstration by Chavez and the government that they do want to embark on the path of socialism.
This triumph will also be reflected in the experience accumulated by the workers in an enormous fight, which will be difficult to get rid of.
What is fundamental is that the Sidor struggle has raised enthusiasm, and not only to go out and demand economic gains. It has also put the idea in the heads of workers that there are much more strategic and important political objectives to fight for — ones that can produce structural changes.
Workers have seen that it is possible to take away control of a company from a powerful transnational and that this company can be administered by its workers with good results. They have seen it is possible to change the course of the government — and even of Chavez himself — regarding some of its mistaken policies.
Role of the working class
The Sidor re-nationalisation has totally changed the situation in the workers' movement. It has once again proven that the path to deepening the process is struggle and workers' democracy.
Within this framework, Chavez's speech on April 13 (to more than 300,000 supporters commemorating the sixth anniversary of the 2002 coup that briefly removed his government) has an enormous importance. We need to take up the call made by Chavez for the working class to assume its protagonist role in the Bolivarian revolution.
But a problem remained to be solved — the labour minister and all of his team could not continue to remain in the government. The minister already had to be withdrawn by Chavez from the negotiations in the Sidor conflict because it was so evident that the workers did not even want to hear Rivero speak.
For months he had pressured them to not continue raising their demands against their super-exploitation.
For a while now. he has acted in favour of the bosses and the bureaucrats, favouring the plans of the right wing within and outside the Bolivarian process. His last move was to decree a new union confederation to split the UNT.
This problem was resolved when Chavez, interpreting the sentiment of workers against Rivero, removed him from his position.
It is true that there exists a large dispersion in the union movement, but we are working to turn this around. We believe that it is possible, because we are faced with a historic opportunity for the working class, together with the Bolivarian people, to be the motor of this revolutionary process.
It is urgently needed to convoke a meeting of all the currents within the UNT and the revolution in order to begin to take firm steps towards a necessary regroupment and unification of a working class leadership — one that is democratic, pluralist, and independent of the state. Let the workers, the grassroots unions and their natural leaders be the ones who define the steps towards the reorganisation of the UNT — without excluding any current that supports the revolution.
As a first step towards this unity so yearned for by the workers and so necessary for the revolution, let's convoke a huge united contingent to participate in the mobilisations for May Day — raising all the demands of the workers, beginning with a general wage increase so that everyone can recuperate the wages lost due to increasing inflation.
Also needed is the immediate implementation of a plan of housing construction on a mass scale, democratically worked out with the participation of the workers from the steel, cement and construction industries, together with the communities.
The mobilisation of the working class — involving the UNT, the social movements and the battalions of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — is the only guarantee to successfully confronting the right-wing opposition, as well as the betrayal of the "endogenous right" within Chavismo.
This is the path that we all have to strive for and push towards. The struggle of the Sidor workers proves this path — and that is why they triumphed. This is one of the principal lessons of this grand struggle.