'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Life on the Ground in Venezuela 

UPDATE: Two good sources for news and commentary about events in Venezuela: Oil Wars and venezuelanalysis.com.

INITIAL POST: Last year, I visited Venezuela as part of a tour conducted by Global Exchange, and post several entries about it here. One of them addressed the resistance to the privatization of the aluminum and steel industries in Puerto Ordaz. Sadly, the public steel company, SIDOR was privatized, but ALCASA and VENALUM, the aluminum companies, were not, as Chavez arrived on the scene just in time.

The consequences of the privatizations of the 1990s in Venezuela remains an enduring issue, as the following article demonstrates, and reveals that the social reality of Venezuela is far different than what is described by right wing sources in the US media:

A large scale protest yesterday by workers from the Sidor steelworks secured the release of five of their co-workers after they were arrested by the National Guard on charges of undue expropriation and seizure of plant machinery. The protest, supported by the unions at the plant, partially closed down the steelworks and brought the city of Puerto Ordaz, in Venezuela’s Bolívar state to a standstill. The five men deny any wrongdoing and say the management tried to intimidate them.

On exiting the Palace of Justice where they were held, Juan Valor, Leonel Grisset, Richard Gregorio Alfonzo, Joel Hernández Ruiz and Osmel Ramírez spoke in front of thousands of supporters. Valor, who is the press secretary of Sutiss, the largest steelworkers union said, “The union won’t shut its mouth, and we’re going to keep struggling for workers’ rights. There are more than 8,000 workers that are being exploited and the Ministry of Work doesn’t try to solve the problems that exist in the country.”

The five men work for Transporte Camila, one of 232 private contracting companies that employ workers on a casual basis – on lower wages and with less benefits than permanent workers. The General Secretary of Sutiss, José “Acarigua” Rodríguez, spoke fully in support of the protest and said the situation was a “reflection of what occurs in many other contracting firms that exploit the workers of Sidor in order to obtain large profits, without consideration to their salary and social rights.”

The protests started at six o’clock on Tuesday morning when the workers of the plant blocked the routes in and out of Puerto Ordaz. They then made their way in their thousands towards the Palace of Justice, blocking the streets on their way. By 10.30 they had blocked all the main arteries of the city. Outside of the palace they shouted slogans such as “freedom for our comrades.” According to Rodríguez, at least 3,000 of the protesters were permanent workers in solidarity with their less fortunate compañeros.

Rodríguez also claimed that the protests, while focused mainly on the five arrested men, were about other more general grievances the workforce has towards the management. Outstanding wages, unpaid benefits such as health insurance & holiday pay and bad safety practices by employers are just some of the issues around which workers are united.

Orlando Aguilar the owner of Transporte Camila and the president of the Chamber of Service Industries (CESA) said the five men forcefully took machinery which caused losses to the steelworks and for that reason, “there remained no alternative but to call the law.” He also said the industrial action by the workers will have exceeded $2 million.

Francisco Rangel Gómez, governor of Bolívar State, also condemned the protests and called the continuous militancy of the unions in the state, which he said often leads to battles between unions, “union terrorism.”

Sidor, a former state-owned company, was privatised in 1998. Until then it had 18,000 permanent workers employed under a collectively negotiated contract. After privatization the total number employed was reduced to 15,000 with 10,000 of those forced to accept temporary contracts. Inevitably, conflict between management and workers has been common with many strikes occurring over the last eight years. During the opposition sponsored oil industry shutdown in 2002, the Sidor management closed down the plant in solidarity. At the time the workers backed the government and worked across the state to keep gas flowing.

While the protesters can claim a victory from their organisation it wasn’t outright. The five freed men still have to present themselves at the Palace of Justice every thirty days. Officials there may have a surprise waiting for them on October 5, however.

“They have imposed the ruling that we present ourselves every thirty days, and I want to make a call to the conscience of all the workers so that we all present ourselves here every thirty days at the tribunals,(..), I’ll see you all on October 5”, shouted Juan Valor at the end of his speech.

Such a seemingly simple story, a labor dispute, but rich in its implications. Upon a cursory examination, we immediately recognize that the American discourse about Chavez subjecting Venezuela to a dictatorial regime is false. Look at the cast of characters: the Chamber of Service Industries, SUTISS, the steel workers labor union, the Governor of Bolivar state, Francisco Rangel Gomez, five organizers of steel plant temporary workers, Juan Valor, Leonel Grisset, Richard Gregorio Alfonzo, Joel Hernández Ruiz and Osmel Ramírez, and the owner of the private contractor, Transporte Camilia, Orlando Aguilar, pretty much the same cast that you would except to encounter during the course of an American, European, Brazilian or Japanese labor dispute, and all acting to aggressively assert what each perceives as their self-interest. Protests, arrests, job actions, public statements to the press . . . this is not the behaviour of people fearful of reprisal.

After this observation, more subtle revelations specific to Venezuela come to the surface. As I emphasized in a post here in October 2005, Chavez has encouraged the implementation of a labor policy known as cogestion, roughly translated as co-management, to empower workers in the Venezuelan economy:

Currently, cogestion is an evolving concept, as Chavez has yet to seek legislation to provide for its implementation throughout the country, rendering it highly susceptible to people projecting their own societal visions upon it. According to BBC reporter Iain Bruce, it is only being attempted within some publicly owned companies, primarily within the aluminum industry, and a couple of bankrupt ones. Elie Sayago, an environmental specialist at CVG Alcasa, the state controlled aluminum company in Puerto Ordaz that produces primarily for the domestic market, defined cogestion as a radical break with the traditional hierarchical methods of management. Workers participate in the fundamental decisions of the company, such as the methods of production, the election of managers, including the director, and the preparation of the budget. Both myself and Bruce, who must have visited the facility shortly after I left the region, had similar conversations with line workers, workers who expressed improved morale and enhanced productivity as a result of their direct involvement in the management of the company. Carlos Lanz, the recently appointed president of CVG Alcasa, told Bruce, "This is about workers controlling the factory and that is why it is a step towards socialism of the twenty-first century."

Clearly, the organizers of temporary workers at SIDOR were motivated to put cogestion into practice, and, given that they were not collectivized and lacked labor representation, they selected a particularly radical form of it: the seizure of SIDOR machinery and equipment in one of the plants. Accordingly to the article, the action was part of a larger pattern of labor unrest at SIDOR that commenced with the privatization of the plant in 1998, and, in fact, even before, as I was told by labor organizers in Puerto Ordaz.

While it appears that the seizure was an escalation of this ongoing conflict, it is not possible to make such a statement with certainty. It should additionally be noted that the conflict also has roots in the late 2002-early 2003 sabotage, the attempt by the management of PDVSA, the state run Venezuelan oil company, to depose Chavez after the failed coup by shutting down production. The article helpfully informs us that the management of SIDOR shut down the plant in solidarity, so the temporary workers, and their unionized allies in SUTISS, undoubtedly have a more serious political purpose to take control of the plant away from its anti-Chavez managers and owners.

One would therefore assume that the recently elected governor of Bolivar state, Francisco Rangel Gomez, described as a close friend of Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, would support the workers. Such an assumption is incorrect: Francisco Rangel Gómez, governor of Bolívar State, also condemned the protests and called the continuous militancy of the unions in the state, which he said often leads to battles between unions, “union terrorism.”

Why? A couple of explanations suggest themselves. First, as I said in my post from September 2005, linked at the top of this article:

It is perhaps a telling indication of the Chavez regime's sensitivity towards the need to attract foreign investment and technology that no effort has been made to renationalize SIDOR.

Second, there is fact that the relationship between Chavez and the labor unions of Venezuela is an ambiguous one, as I noted in the October 2005 post already linked as well:

According to Sayago, the concept of cogestion has been driven more by the government than by trade unions, which is consistent with their past collaboration with the political parties of the pre-Chavez era in facilitating privatization.

Perhaps, there is a residue of mistrust that persists to this day.

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