Venezuela: Steelworkers win, gold miners fight

May 10, 2008

"The workers feel that what we achieved was a great triumph", said Jose Melendez, the finance secretary for the United Steel Industry Workers' Union (SUTISS), on the signing of a new contract for the Sidor steel plant's workforce with the Venezuelan government, according to a May 6 article.

On April 9, the government of President Hugo Chavez had announced the nationalisation of Sidor, one of the largest steel plants in Latin America that was privatised in 1997, after a 14-month dispute between the work force and the private owners over the refusal of the latter to meet workers' demands in relation to wages, conditions and moves to end the use of contract labour.

Melendez spoke "admist celebrations on the streets of Guayana city where the steel plant is based", according to the report. Melendez said the contract signed with the new owners — the Venezuelan state — is a "precedent" for workers nation-wide, and is one of the best in Latin America.

According to, the contract includes pay increases, doubling retirement payments, improves health care provisions and meets workers' demands in relation to "back-wages, overtime pay, incentive pay, and paid vacations".

However, the component that gives Melendez the "greatest happiness", the article reports, is that agreement to begin the process of incorporating the 9,648 non-unionised contract workers into the union. reported: "Melendez vowed that the workers will now be dedicated 'body and soul' to turning the steelmaker into a 'pillar for the revolution on the path to socialism'."

Melendez pointed out that, since the nationalisation was announced and workers took production over, they had already increased production. Melendez argued that "when we, the workers, are treated like human beings, when our dignity is respected, we are capable of making enormous efforts in support of the revolution".

According to the article, Melendez explained that the union was "pushing for the workers to control the democratic management of the new SIDOR".

An April 15 Reuters report, entitled "Chavez emboldens workers with takeover precedent", reported that Chavez's "precedent" of nationalising Sidor after an industrial struggle in which its workforce had demanded nationalisation, "worries businesses".

The Reuters article reports: "Chavez's decision now opens the door to increased pressure to resolve labor disputes and could create headaches for the private sector and the government, which is a major employer ...

"Workers at another union in the region took less than 24 hours to appear on television after the announcement and urge Chavez to take over a smaller company that was privatised along with Sidor in the 1990s.

"Ismael Perez of business group Conindustria said the impact of the nationalizations policy was being felt at labor negotiating tables across the private sector. 'This is something in the mind of many unions, when there are contract arguments, they immediately say they will ask the government to expropriate or nationalize if there is no agreement.'"

A May 7 Reuters article reported that workers at the Isidora gold mine, run by a subsidiary of US mining company Hecla
Mining Co., had halted operations to demand the government nationalise the company. Reuters reported that company officials claimed operations had been shut down for two weeks by workers who had blockaded the mine in protest at working conditions.

An anonymous company official alleged to Reuters that government officials, including the mining minister, had visited the site and "publicly instructed workers to halt operations if they were unsatisfied with working conditions".

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