The struggle of the steel workers at SIDOR, Latin America’s fourth largest steel plant, located in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, is unfolding under complex conditions imposed by multiple actors on that country’s revolutionary stage.

Brutal attacks March 14 on the striking workers served to mobilize widespread support from left political leaders and labor forces.

The strike began late on March 12 after a “high level” commission appointed by the Bolivar State governor, unable to resolve competing wage demands and disputes over retirement payments, tried settling the matter with a factory vote that would have bypassed union leadership. The battle, sparked by multiple short strikes, had been 14 months in the making.

Retired General Francisco Rangel Gomez, Bolivar’s wealthy governor, was criticized for creating a commission headed by protégée Jose Ramon Rivero, Minister of Labor, that was anti-labor. Both reportedly equivocated regarding the April 2002 coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez.

During the March 14 attack, some 200 National Guard and state police functionaries tear gassed and shot rubber bullets at 300 strikers supposedly blocking a street. They wounded 13 of them, hospitalized union president Jose Acarigua Rodriguez with a bullet injury, and went on to destroy or damage 50 worker-owned cars. Police jailed 53 workers belonging to the SUTISS union who were released after 40 hours.

National Assembly delegates, national union leaders, and representatives of left parties came to the city to express solidarity. At a press conference March 17 they condemned violence and media bias and urged the commission to resume mediation.

Prominent National Assembly delegate and Communist Party Secretary General Oscar Figuera traveled to Puerto Ordaz to support the striking workers along with Oswaldo Ramos, a regional party official and other local party representatives. Figuera spoke in terms of class and anti-imperialist unity

At a rally outside the plant, hundreds of workers applauded demands that President Chavez realize plans to nationalize SIDOR announced in May 2007. By then his government had already nationalized telecommunications, electricity and oil companies. Pressure from Argentina and the importance of Latin American unity dissuaded him.

The Argentinean-Italian holding company TECHINT controls Luxembourg-based Ternium Company, which gained 60 percent ownership of SIDOR in 1997 when the debt-ridden company was privatized. Ternium owns steel companies in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. The Venezuelan government still owns 20 percent of SIDOR with high ranking employees controlling another 20 percent.

SIDOR escaped re-nationalization when its Argentinean owners agreed to prioritize domestic sales of steel products at reduced prices and purchase iron from mines worked by state-owned Ferrominera at inflated prices.

Since the advent of Ternium, permanent SIDOR workers have fallen from 18,000 to 5,400 while contract employees doing outsourced work rose from 3,000 in 1997 to 9,000 now. Accounting for almost half of Ternium’s Latin American steel output, SIDOR has returned to profitability. Strike leaders advocated enhanced labor representation on SIDOR’s board of directors.

After an Easter week “truce,” allies of the striking workers demonstrated at SIDOR offices in Caracas, rallied outside a SIDOR gate where regional CP secretary Edgar Melendez spoke, marched, staged a “cultural event,” and held a “National Labor Gathering” March 29.

Organizers included the SUTISS union, other local unions, the Venezuelan Communist Party, the National Teachers Union, and far left political groups.

Another strike was held March 25, this time for 24 hours, with workers occupying factories and contract workers assuming an expanded role. Blaming SIDOR for “savage neoliberal capitalism for more than 10 years,” SUTISS President Rodriguez joined demands that President Chavez intervene and that the steel mill be re-nationalized.

Rodriguez demanded that the state be represented on a resumed high level commission by four national figures, the quartet to include Vice President Ramon Carrizales and CP leader Oscar Figuera, President of the National Assembly’s Development Commission.

The union leadership has called upon the newly formed Venezuelan Unified Socialist Party to support workers at SIDOR, a “bastion and symbol of the Venezuelan working class.”

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