Venezuelan steel workers: 'A triumph of the revolutionary people'

"Now, to producing Venezuelan steel at the service of the revolution and socialism!", proclaimed Jose Melendez, referring to the victory obtained after 15 months of struggle at the steel factory Sidor, located in the heartland of Venezuela's basic industry in Guayana.

Under orders from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Vice President Ramon Carrizales announced the government's decision on April 9 to re-nationalise Sidor, which had been privatised in 1997, as demanded by its workers.

As finance secretary of United Steel Industry Workers Union (SUTISS) and leader of the revolutionary union group, Union Alliance, Melendez played a key role in the struggle.

Together with Elio Sayazo, who was elected by the workers as labour director on the Sidor board, the two spoke to the newspaper of the left union current Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) to which both belong.

Difficult struggle

"They were some moments that were very difficult" recounts Melendez, "like when we reached the conclusion that the labour minister [Jose Ramon Rivera, since replaced by Chavez] was working for the company, that he was betraying the workers ...

"Another difficult moment was when they repressed us on March 14. The repression was brutal [involving] the National Guard and state police, directed by the managers of the company, in complicity with the ministry [of labour] and the [state] governorship."

Melendez noted the importance of the defeat of the attempt to impose a referendum organised by Sidor management and the labour minister on whether or not to accept the contract being offered by management. "The union responded by carrying out our own referendum, the only legal one. And the response was so overwhelming that there was no longer excuses for the company to not return to the negotiating table."

Melendez thanked those that had demonstrated their solidarity to the Sidor workers, "union organisations, revolutionary political currents", including some of the recently elected national leaders of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — the mass socialist party formed to help lead the Venezuelan revolution — such as Aristobulo Isturiz and the PSUV's first Vice President Alberto Muller Rojas.

Melendez said that the "renationalisation is a triumph of the workers and the revolutionary people."

Melendez argued that the transnational owners of the privatised Sidor "always treated us as slaves. For 25 months they did not increase our salary. Instead they spent millions [of bolivars] to say in the media that the Sidor workers were the best-paid workers in the country, truly mocking us.

"We have always demanded that Sidor return to the hands of the state, the workers and the people ... In this sense the decision of Chavez ... interpreted the desires of the workers, and all the revolutionary people."

"That is why we received the news with great joy", he said, "with the feeling that we had achieved our task — that our struggle was beginning to bear fruit. Not only can we now discuss a just contract and putting an end to the slave-based system of hired labour contracts, but also ensure that our retired workers are treated with dignity."

Workers' control

Melendez explained that there is a struggle for "us, the workers, who make production run everyday, to be an active part of the control and management of the new Sidor. This is a right that we are demanding, and we hope that Chavez will support us in this, or that the PSUV plays a role in convincing him that this is how it should be."

Sayazo explained: "The proposal that we have made from within the board of directors, and which has come from the active and retired workers, is today more valid than ever. The workers, starting from when the iron minerals entry the factory until they exit the process of transformation, have to control production ..."

According to Sayazo, "the challenge that we have is to demonstrate that the administration by workers, as part of the people, means to put those resources at the service of the society itself ..." Sayazo argued that "the workers have to demonstrate to the world that when we work as a team, in an organised and participatory manner ... these resources that belong to all of society".

[Abridged from Translated by Federico Fuentes.]

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