Steel workers' strike in Venezuela attacked by Chavez' state

Steel workers in Venezuela have been attacked by the Chavez government folowing a series of strikes.

Submitted by Beltov on April 2, 2008

The following is a translation from Internacionalismo.

The Chávez government - with the support of the opposition and unions - has unleashed repression against the workers of the Steel Zone of Venezuela who are struggling for their most basic necessities. Here we see the real Senor Chávez and his "socialism of the 21st century".

After more than 13 months of discussion of their collective contract, the steel workers at Ternium-SIDOR have had enough. Indignant about the starvation wages they receive (near to the minimum salary, in one of the regions of Venezuela with the highest cost of living) and the deplorable working conditions that have lead to the deaths of 18 workers and left dozens ill from industrial illness over less than a decade, they have carried out several strikes against the firm's refusal to meet their demands about wages and working conditions.

Various parts of the media have echoed the firm's campaign of victimisation, claiming that their demands amount to more than the firm's annual sales. These lies form part of a "black out" of information, both from the opposition media and the official media, about the true causes of the metal workers' struggles. Since the 1990's these workers have been subjected to a policy of cuts in pay and working conditions, introduced through the programme of restructuring, that has led to their benefits being lower than other workers in the region. The metalworkers' struggle is about a decent level of living. They know that if they accept the company's terms and conditions [1] they will suffer more than two years of miserable increases in their wages and benefits, whilst the price of food and the cost of living increases by more than 30% annually, according to the none too reliable figures of the Central Bank of Venezuela. Another important demand of the movement is to make the contracted workers (who make up 75% of the workforce of 1,600) permanent, since this will give them better benefits. Thus, the struggle of the SIDOR workers is expressing the discontent and uncertainty that dominates the workers in the region and the whole country, faced with the endless increase in the price of food and cost of living generally, along with precarious working conditions.

Likewise, the metalworkers have had enough of the bickering between representatives of the company, government and unions. The latter in particular have progressively undermined the initial demands of the movement (the unions are now "demanding" 50 Bolivars a day, whereas at the beginning of negotiations it was 80). Having fulfilled all of the requirements for going on strike, they took part in the high level commission formed by the nefarious triumvirate. Whilst these gentlemen discussed behind the workers' backs, the workers themselves assembled at the steel work's doors and decided to carry out several stoppages, the most important of these being that of the 12th March for 80 hours which expressed the radicalisation of the movement. They did not have to wait long for the firm and the state to respond: on the 14th March the National Guard and police unleashed a furious repression, leaving more than 15 workers injured and 53 arrested. With this repressive action the Chávez government has unmasked itself in front of the workers: it cast aside its "workers" uniform and put on its true uniform, that of the defence of the interests of the national capital. It is not the first time that the "workers and socialist" state has attacked workers' struggle for their own demands: we only need to mention for example, the terrible repression meted out to oil workers last year who were struggling to improve their working conditions.

The SUTISS union is also part of the repression of the workers (despite union leaders suffering repression), since its role is to act as a fireman in the movement. It tries to put itself at the head of the movement whilst negotiating a reduction in the wage demand.

Referendum and nationalisation: new traps for the movement
Faced with the workers' intransigence, they have pulled another trick from up their sleeve: the holding of a referendum in order to consult each worker about their agreement or not with the firm's proposals. Promoted by the Chavist minister of Labour (a Trotskyist or ex-Trotskyist), the proposal has already received the agreement of the SUTISS, though with certain "conditions". Class instinct has led several workers to reject this trap, which is aimed at undermining the sovereign assemblies (where the real strength of the working class is expressed) by turning each worker into a "citizen", who will have to define himself for or against the firm and state in isolation by means of the ballot box!! Faced with this the workers need to affirm themselves through their sovereign assemblies.

Another trap used against the movement is the proposition by the unions and various "revolutionary" sectors of Chavism to renationalise SIDOR, which is mainly owned by Argentine capital (the Venezuelan state owns 20% of the shares). This campaign could be a disaster for the struggle, since the workers have no choice but to confront the capitalists, be they Argentine or Venezuelan state bureaucrats. Nationalisation does not mean the disappearance of exploitation; the state-boss, even with a "worker's" face, has no other option than to permanently try to attack workers' wages and working conditions. The left of capital presents the concentration of companies in the hands of the state as a quick way to "socialism", hiding one of the fundamental lessons of marxism: the state is the representative of the interests of each national bourgeoisie, and therefore the enemy of the proletariat. The Chavist bourgeoisie today is the head of the state which is seeking to increase the amount of surplus value it can gain, and in the name of "Bolivarian socialism" massively increases the level of precariousness of work through the missions and jointly managed companies (as happened with the workers of Invepal or Inveval).

These "Bolivarian revolutionaries" try to make the workers forget that for many years SIDOR was a state firm, and that they have had to struggle at various ties against the high rank bureaucrats of the state who administered it and their forces of repression, struggling for their own demands but also against the unions (the allies of capital in the factories). At the beginning of the 70's during the first Caldera government, this included burning down part of the installations of the CTV in Caracas in response to its anti-worker actions.

The state has been in the hands of the Chavists since 1999, but has not magically lost its capitalist character. All that has changed are its clothes, which now have a "socialist" colouring; but it is still a fundamental organ in the defence of the interests of capital against those of labour. The fact that Chávez presents himself as a "Sidorist" or a "worker" when it suits him should not confuse us about the class character of the Chavist government, which capital put in place in order to defend its system of exploitation as it sinks deeper and deeper into crisis. The workers are not so stupid as to believe these "revolutionaries" who put forwards the panacea of "re-nationalisation", but who live like bourgeois, earning salaries 30 times or more than the official minimum wage.

The only way to win: real workers' solidarity and solidarity with the population
The only way that this movement can succeed is through looking for solidarity. Initially with the contract workers, where the demand to make them permanent is one of the principle expressions of solidarity; but it is no less important to win the solidarity of workers in other branches of industry, at the regional or national level, since whether we work in the state sector or the private sector, we are all being hit by the blows of the economic crisis. It is also necessary to express solidarity with the population of Guayana, where the unemployed are affected by the high cost of living, and by the problems that the state cannot resolve, such as delinquency, housing, etc. However, this solidarity cannot be carried out through the unions, since they are the main organs for controlling the struggle, creating divisions between different industries and sectors, and in the last instance, complementing state repression; neither can solidarity with the local population be left in the hands of the social organisations created by the state, such as the communal councils. Solidarity must be "generated" by the workers themselves, through assemblies open to other workers.

The struggle of the metalworkers is our struggle, because they are fighting for a decent life, for the benefit of the whole of the proletariat. But the best benefit, apart for the momentary increase in the level of wages, resides in the development of consciousness of the strength that the proletariat has in its own hands, outside of the unions and the other institutions invented by the state in order to control social discontent.

The national bourgeoisie know that the situation in Guyana is intensely dangerous to its interests. The concentration of workers in this region and their experience of past struggles makes it very explosive, since at the same time there is a wider accumulation of labour and social discontent which has existed for some time due to the attacks on employment and workers' living conditions. In this sense, the so-called Metal Zone has a potential for transforming itself into a focal point for the workers' struggle in the country, as happened in the 60's and 70's.

The SIDOR workers have taken the only road possible for confronting the attacks of capital, that of the struggle. Spreading the fight to other branches of regional and national production, whilst looking for solidarity from the population as a whole: this is the road that will enable the Venezuelan proletariat to become part of an international movement for the overthrow capital and the creation of a real socialist society.

[1] An increase of 44 Bolivars divided up as follows: 20 initially, 10 more in 2009 and another 10 in 2010, with another 1.5% based on performance.

From the Venezuelan paper "Internacionalismo" (March 25, 2008, International Communist Current), translated by Marmot