Rival Factions in Strike Underscore the Fissures in Post-Chávez Venezuela
By William Neuman, NY Times, October 6, 2013
CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela—Rival union groups squared off outside this country’s biggest steel mill last week, arguing over whether to continue a lengthy strike at the government-run plant. Each faction blasted its message at top volume over loudspeakers, trying to drown the other out. Pushing and shoving ensued, along with dueling renditions of the national anthem.
And then the region’s chief government official, a former general, showed up with another set of loudspeakers to tell everyone that they should all just go back to work.
The workers shouted him down, too.
President Nicolás Maduro has insinuated that the strike at the company with about 14,000 workers is part of an American plot to destabilize the country, and last week he expelled the top American diplomat in Venezuela and two other embassy officials amid dark warnings of a conspiracy. As evidence Mr. Maduro pointed to a visit the diplomats made to this industrial city last month, when they met with labor leaders and members of the political opposition.
But he offered no proof that the diplomats’ visit had anything to do with the strike, which was already under way. Union leaders adamantly denied any link to the embassy.
The strikers’ main demand is that the government-owned company, the Orinoco Steelworks, also known as Sidor, pay millions of dollars in bonuses and other benefits they say were wrongly calculated.
And despite the charges of outside meddling, the scene here on Friday was quintessential Venezuela—unruly and loud, with lots of shouting and little or no listening. Yet it might never have occurred under Mr. Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the charismatic socialist Hugo Chávez, who led the country for 14 years until his death in March.
"Sidor is a little Venezuela, with its elites and its divisions, with its pro-government people and its opposition people, and where changes are taking place," said Leonel Grisett, a member of the union’s executive committee. "The workers realize that the great leader is not here anymore."
Since Mr. Chávez’s death government leaders have repeatedly called for unity, urging their followers to stick together at all costs against a common foe. But there are growing signs that the message is not getting across as severe economic problems, including soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods, make many loyal Chávistas waver. Mr. Chávez, a former soldier and a father figure beloved by many, maintained discipline and commanded respect, something Mr. Maduro has struggled to achieve as he seeks to continue his predecessor’s self-declared revolution.
The strike creates an especially knotty problem for Mr. Maduro, who calls himself the worker president and frequently points to his past as a union leader in the Caracas transit system.
Ciudad Guayana, 325 miles southeast of Caracas, the capital, was created in the 1960s as a planned city and a home to Venezuela’s heavy industry. Today it still has the broad avenues and modern apartment blocks dreamed up by planners from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but it also has extensive slums. And while its vast, government-run mills and smelters continue to employ tens of thousands, they suffer from declining production, corruption and meager investment.
Sidor grew along with the city. Founded by the government in the 1960s, the company was privatized in the 1990s before being nationalized by Mr. Chávez in 2008. But production has plummeted by about 60 percent since the government takeover, and analysts blame mismanagement, corruption and a lack of investment and maintenance.
The strike at Sidor began in mid-September with protests by rank-and-file workers who walked off the job, angered by a long delay in negotiating a new contract to replace the one that expired three years ago and by the allegations that for years the company had underpaid annual bonuses.
That grass-roots beginning and the lengthy strike itself are noteworthy in a country where most unions have a cozy relationship with the government and its Socialist political party, especially at government-run companies like Sidor.
After the work stoppage spread, most union leaders took up the cause.
But a faction opposed the strike and closed ranks behind Mr. Maduro and Sidor’s bosses, setting up a political struggle within the union and an unusually public divide among pro-Chávez forces.
That set the stage for Friday’s battle of the loudspeakers. Around 6 a.m., following the routine of recent days, union leaders of the pro-strike forces gave speeches broadcast over loudspeakers while hundreds of workers milled about.
But on this day the dissident faction set up its own speakers some 30 feet away. With the volume cranked to earsplitting levels they preached against the strike.
One worker, Hugo Navarro, 29, stood in between, as if dazed.
"You can’t understand any of it," he said.
At one point the antistrike contingent played a recording of Mr. Chávez singing the national anthem, as its adherents belted out the tune.
As soon as the recording ended the pro-strike unionists, who far outnumbered their opponents, broke into their own full-throated rendition.
Just as it seemed things might calm down, a truck drove up carrying Carlos Osorio, a retired general and a former confidant of Mr. Chávez who is the top government minister in the region and the president of the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana, a kind of government holding company that controls Sidor and other state-run companies.
The truck contained an array of black speakers much bigger than those already deployed by the rival factions. Mr. Osorio climbed onto the roof of the vehicle and tried to address the crowd.
But, in another tellingly Venezuelan moment, there was a technical glitch and the speakers produced only a muffled sound.
"Can you hear me?" Mr. Osorio said over and over as the strikers taunted him.
Mr. Osorio eventually made his way to the small stage used by the strikers, where he took a microphone.
He urged the strikers to go back to work. The company was prepared to pay some additional benefits, he said, but he refused to meet the strikers’ main demand for a recalculation of bonuses, insisting that they had been paid properly in the past.
The strikers responded with hoots and chants. “We’re Chávistas but we want our money!” they shouted.
The union leaders took back the microphone and berated Mr. Osorio. They pledged their allegiance to Mr. Chávez’s memory and his revolution, but they vowed that the strike would go on.
On Friday night Mr. Maduro, speaking on live television from Caracas, again took up the theme of the expelled diplomats.
"They went with their suitcase full of dollars to buy off union leaders at Sidor, to keep Sidor shut down," he claimed.
Calling the strike illegal, he warned that if it continued much longer he would take “drastic measures.”
His words highlighted the distance between the presidential palace and the plant gate. “That guy doesn’t know the reality here,” said Eduardo Brito, 28, a forklift operator.