Jesus Pino, a representative of the Revolutionary Front of Steel Workers at SIDOR in Venezuela, visited Britain at the end of November 2008, invited by the Hands Off Venezuela campaign to attend its National Conference in London. The interview is in Spanish with English subtitles.
Jesus Pino, a representative of the Revolutionary Front of Steel Workers at SIDOR in Venezuela, visited Britain at the end of November 2008, invited by the Hands Off Venezuela campaign to attend its National Conference in London.
While in Britain he had the opportunity to visit the offices of the civil servants' union PCS, where he met with Assistant General Secretary Chris Baugh and other union officials. He also visited the headquarters of the Fire Brigades Union, at the invitation of its general secretary Matt Wrack. Both unions have been supportive of the Venezuelan revolution and of the HOV campaign, and were very interested to hear about the nationalisation of the SIDOR steel plant and the struggle of workers there for genuine workers' control and socialism. Jorge Martin interviewed him.
Could you explain who you are and who do you represent?
My name is Jesus Pino and I come from Siderurgica del Orinoco, SIDOR, a company which has been recently nationalised and I represent the Revolutionary Front of Steel Workers, an organisation which was set up when the company was nationalised, with the clear aim of carrying out what President Chavez said at the time: that the company should be productive and socialist.
Could you explain how the nationalisation of SIDOR took place?
For ten years the company was managed by a multinational, Techint, originally from Italy but based in Argentina. For ten years the workers suffered great exploitation, creating discontent amongst the workers, which led to more than 400 strikes during those ten years, because of the working conditions in the company. It is important to underline that during the 10 years of control by the multinational, 18 workers died in work accidents. In October 2007, during the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement a conflict developed, until March 2008 in which the multinational refuses to continue talks, particularly in relation to wage increases, the incorporation of subcontracted workers to the main workforce, and pension rights. Negotiations broke down and then the Venezuelan government intervened. President Chavez appoints the Minister of Labour Ramon Rivero, in order to fulfil the fair demands of the workers, but this Minister sided with the company. The Minister proposed a referendum amongst the workers for them to accept the company's proposals. The union SUTISS, representing more than 3,800 workers, did not accept the proposal of the Minister and organised its own referendum, where it received the support of more than 80% of the workers. There was then a demonstration and the Minister and the regional governor sent in the forces of repression, resulting in a number of workers being arrested and injured. The president got to know about this, removed the Minister of Labour and sent the vice-president directly to take part in the talks. Then, in April, during talks between the union, the vice-president of the Republic and the company, the company refused to make any concessions, the vice-president called president Chavez, at 2 am, and president Chavez decided to nationalise the company, clearly because of the lack of response to the workers' demands.
When announcing the nationalisation Chavez explained that he was against the model of state capitalism and that he wanted the company to become a socialist company. Could you tell us what has changed in the company regarding the demands of the workers, and what is the position of the Front regarding what a socialist company is?
First I would like to add that the Minister was not only removed from the talks, but was also immediately removed from his job by the president of the Republic.
Sorry, this was the same Minister who had played a negative role in the struggle of Sanitarios Maracay workers, wasn't he?
Yes, he had had a dark behaviour in his relations with the trade unions. He had participated in a number of elections without winning any of them, and one wonders how he became the Minister of Labour. Now, you were asking me about the statements of president Chavez at the time of nationalisation, which were made at the plant itself. First of all he made an appeal for workers' unity, because he knew that it had been the workers themselves which had forced the different factions in the union to unite. There were three factions defending their own interests until the workers forced them to unite around the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement. This nationalisation is very important, because SIDOR is a company, which had been state-owned until 1997, then privatised, and then it has been re-nationalised. The president said: "this company is yours" and has made repeated appeals for us to set up workers' councils. And this is the crucial point of a nationalisation: the participation of the workers in the decision-making process in the company, there can be no socialism in SIDOR unless the workers participated in the management of the company and have control over it. Secondly, the resources of the company have to be used to generate well-being for the Venezuelan people as a whole. Unless these two conditions are met, then we would be repeating previous processes of nationalisation or state-ownership, like we have next to SIDOR, like the aluminium companies, which have been weakened from the point of view of production because the workers do not participate in their management. The Revolutionary Front argues for the need to set up workers' councils, so that we can carry out the president's line that this company should be a model company, but also because one could not talk of a process of building socialism in the company unless the workers participate in its management. For now, the capitalist structures remain. The Front drafted a document, as a result of a three month long discussion, we gave it to management, and we are now distributing it to the workers as our proposal and the only alternative to take the company forward. In other state-owned companies there is a lot of corruption, there is a lot of bureaucracy, and we think that with the workers' councils we can avoid this, because the workers will carry out social control, they will look after the company's resources, which would prevent corruption.
What has been the impact of the nationalisation of SIDOR amongst workers in other companies?
There are other companies in the region, for instance one which makes ceramics for the furnaces, Ceramicas Carabobo, which was declared bankrupt by the owners a few days ago, and the workers are now on struggle, demanding the nationalisation of the company. There is another factory, Suramericana del Aluminio, SURAL, privately owned, where the workers are also fighting for their rights, and they have said that the only solution to their problems is nationalisation. So SIDOR, being the largest company in the region and one of the largest steel makers in Latin America, has become a point of reference for the rest of the workers. I would also like to underline that the collective bargaining agreement that was finally signed is the best in the country, better even that that of the oil workers, so that the agreement has become a point of reference for the workers in the country, but also the nationalisation of SIDOR is a point of reference.
What has been the role of the working class in the Bolivarian revolution and what should it be?
It is crucial. There will be neither revolutionary process nor socialism in Venezuela unless the workers participate in the process. Even president Chavez has expressed his worries because he realises that the participation of the working class in the process is very limited from an organised point of view. The overwhelming majority of the workers support the process, they are aware that there is no other way out in Venezuela other than socialism, but from an organised point of view, as far as the unions are concerned, there has been no organised response to the process of change we are living through. Unless the workers participate in the building of socialism, there will be no socialism.
What happened in SIDOR during the oil and economic sabotage of 2002?
Despite the fact that the company was owned by the multinational, it was working, and in his Sunday programme ‘Alo Presidente’ the president stressed the fact that SIDOR, despite being a private company, was still working. So a group of employees, mainly in managerial positions made an appeal to stop the company, but without success. We work basically with gas, and in those days the situation with gas was very difficult. There were threats that the local mayor next to where gas was being produced, in Puerto la Cruz, was going to cut off the supply. The union organised a large group of workers, including two coaches, went there and prevented this threat from being carried out. Further to this, in Ciudad Guayana itself, the workers prevented the company dealing with the distribution of petrol from being locked out, which would have left the citizens with no petrol. There was scarcity, as you remember the national government was forced to purchase oil abroad, but the monopoly companies controlling the distribution of petrol were attempting to close it down, in order to create chaos, and the workers played a key role in preventing it.
You are talking about workers' councils and workers' control, are you saying that workers are able to run industry and society?
Absolutely. Not only they are able, but it is necessary. Without breaking down the capitalist structures we will not be able to produce more resources and to use those resources to improve the living conditions of all Venezuelans. This will not be possible unless the workers run the companies. Capitalist structures have already shown that they work for their own interests, that they are unable to solve the fundamental problems of society. Only through peoples' structures can we achieve well-being in our society. It is absolutely necessary for the workers to join in the struggle and to run the companies.
President Chavez has opened the debate about socialism as the only way forward for the Bolivarian revolution. But there are many opinions about what is socialism and how to get it. What is your opinion?
There is only one socialism. There is no other. Already the classics, Marx, Engels, Lenin, wrote about it, they left us a legacy. There have also been experiences, which we should not copy, but use as a point of reference. The only way to get to socialism is through Marxism and the participation of the workers in this process of change. Obviously, socialism cannot be exported, or imported. We must take the classics of Marxism and apply Marxism as a science to the peculiarities of every place. We will be building socialism, basing ourselves on Marxism, taking into account the peculiarities of our country, our history, our culture, etc. There aren't different ways to build socialism. There are different organisations which call themselves socialist, but most of them are really socialdemocratic. In theory and in practice there is only one way to implement socialism, and that is Marxism.
What would you say to workers and youth around the world about why they should support the Bolivarian revolution?
The Venezuelan revolution started at a time when everybody was talking about the end of history, so it became a point of reference for the struggle internationally. There is a revolutionary process in the country, with the participation of the people, and this is, I would say, a point of reference for the peoples of the world. Above all because the revolution was born with a deep seated anti-imperialist character and a deeply popular character, these are the two aspects that can be taken as a point of reference in the struggle of the peoples for national liberation and the building of socialism.
Thank you very much