On November 17th, last year, workers at SIDOR —the giant state-owned steel-mill in the southeast of Venezuela— took the streets in a strike. Y’know, the usual. However, this particular protest has a number of plot twists that shine a light on just how bizarre labor relations in Guayana have gotten.

these workers were demanding…iPhones. Yes, iPhones. And laptops. And other shiny high-end gadgets that had been promised as Christmas presents for their kids.

Plot twist one: higher wages? better hours? Nope: these workers were demanding…iPhones. Yes, iPhones. And laptops. And other shiny high-end gadgets that had been promised as Christmas presents for their kids. The deadbeat company was offering them only money. The Union’s Toy Committee (yes, that’s a real thing) said no: money is useless in Guayana.

Plot twist two: the plant is already working at less than 10% its capacity, so if they weren’t striking they wouldn’t be doing much.

Plot twist three: they’re employed by SIDOR, but they weren’t protesting at SIDOR. They were protesting at CVG, the holding company that hands down the payments from PDVSA. These guys know how the copper is beaten.

The road to hell

It all started with the expropriation of Guayana’s ‘basic industries’ —the sprawling mess of mining and metalworking concerns the government built in the 70s, privatized in the 90s and then re-seized during Chávez’s Exprópiese phase. Well, that together with the 2012 labor law (the infamous Ley Orgánica del Trabajo, los Trabajadores, las Trabajadoras y los Tres Tristes Tigres que comen Trigo en un Trigal). Just as a populist state was taking ownership over the basic industries, LOTTTTTTTT shifted all the power from the horrible, exploitative employers to the heroic workers, all in nice communist fashion.  

Workers are entirely within their right to demand better conditions, of course. But in the normal world of industrial relations, they expect a bit of pushback. Guayana today is a showcase in what happens when the company just won’t push back: you end up with the unions shooting penalties at an open goal.

Workers started skipping weekdays to do their work duties on the weekends so they could charge the overtime fees on top of their normal salaries. Some didn’t show up at all, or when they did, it was only to make sancocho and parrilla or watch porn on the company’s wifi. Workers competed for the infamous ‘double shift’: de 7 a 11 y de 11 a 7 (straight from 7pm to 7am: steel-mills have to run around the clock) just to go to sleep under their desks.

Hyperpaternalistism. Eventually the workers fully internalized that the company had to pay them, not because of they’ve earned it, but because it was their right, and they wouldn’t get fired because father Chávez understands the plight of the worker or whatever.

As long as those sweet petrodollar checks from PDVSA kept coming, SIDOR and the rest of the Guayana state-owned enterprises could just coast on this “business model”. Many private ones didn’t last.

“Daddy, where’s my flat-screen TV?”

Company Christmas gifts for the worker’s kids has always been a thing in Guayana, just one of the many perks of working in one of the Basic Industries. There’s been a bit of a clientelism arms race at play here. First it was balloons, then bicycles, eventually it became Playstations, laptops, flat-screen TVs and smartphones. When oil was at $114 a barrel, it seemed normal.

Fast forward to that protest scene last week and things got a little bit awkward. The bonanza petrolera is long gone; the malandros took over the labor unions (who can forget the lovely cow tongues that were hammered in a tree back in 2012 to prevent workers from complaining?) and no one actually works at SIDOR anymore.

Still, workers are protesting for their kids’ toys: one of those iPhones equals roughly 15 times their monthly income.

The play is obvious: they want to sell them to buy more important things. They don’t care if the company isn’t producing a dime, or that they haven’t worked a day in the last year, those were the toys their kids picked, and they wouldn’t want to shatter their dreams. Oh, and also because all the other PDVSA-dependent companies received cool gifts too.

how was SIDOR supposed to get the dollars to import toys when the company’s basically bankrupt?

Carlos’ neighbor has the biggest TV he has ever seen (people are selling them in Mercado Libre. They’re the Samsung ones). It pairs nicely with the Cadivi-bought Wii U (remember the cupo electrónico?).

His other neighbor from Bauxilum, which gets a similar deal, got the shiny high end laptop and a PS4.

“We’re keeping the laptop;” he told us recently. “The kids can use it to do the homework and it’s way better than the canaimita. But we will sell the Play Cuatro. We’re not gonna spend a quincena in a single game.”

And then comes the moment when the journalist, inevitably, becomes part of the story. 

“Chamo,” he says, looking hopeful “do you know how to put things on mercadolibre?” It’s our #TropicalMierda version of Craig’s List. “Could you help us out with that? We could use the money, sabes cómo está la cosa.”

For SIDOR, the PDVSA checks have stopped coming, though, and they just can’t afford that many goodies. In desperation, the company ended up giving Bs.300,000 –eleven monthly minimum wages- per kid’s worker to each of the 15,000 or so people directly employed at SIDOR. That only angered them further, it’s way less than the other companies. Still, how was SIDOR supposed to get the dollars to import toys when the company’s basically bankrupt?

That was Christmas time, but this year the protests will start again, most likely over the health benefits that have been intermittent since February last year. This isn’t as frivolous, but it’s the same dilemma: the company can’t afford it, because the company doesn’t have any damn income. The palanquilla mill has been stopped since September, the planchones mill stopped production on January 6, and the pellas steelwork is working at less than 50% its capacity. “Workers” (and you need the scare quotes, because most of them don’t actually do any work) are trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.

The government will most likely keep paying them with made-up freshly-printed money, feeding inflation further. But the entire set-up is a fiction: a grotesque facsimile of a labour relation that fools nobody.

31 COMMENTS

  1. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I’m not in favor of labor unions and I am not in favor of weak management that created this monster. Bad dynamic all around.

  2. The SIDOR monster was created when part of the 70’s oil increase windfall was spent to produce steel/et. al. at a much higher cost than it could have been imported from even as far away as Japan. Including real costs of electricity/water inputs, and not even including massive corruption, SIDOR has never been profitable. But, even operating at 10% of capacity, its still doing its Revolutionary job of providing materials for the Gran Mision Vivienda’s miraculous construction of 1 THOUSAND new housing units PER DAY, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, or 365 THOUSAND total, for 2016, with almost double that amount announced for 2017 (SNL-worthy, sarcasm included).

  3. This article corroborates that Venezuela’s ailments are not just because of “Maduro”, or Chavismo.. In the past 18 hellish years, things just have gotten worse. They have been stealing even more than before, working less, cheating more.

    But as some comments here indicate, Sidor, PDVSA Corpoelec, etc have ALWAYS been a mess. Highly corrupt, unproductive, from top to bottom. Since before the 70’s. Only Perez Jimenez managed in just 5 years to build what other governments haven’t built in decades. MPJ was also corrupt, but much less, obviously. Carlos Andres Piñerua, Luis Herrera, Caldera, etc, etc,,, all highly corrupt, unproductive. Some call it the Oil Curse.. except now that oil prices went down, se acabo el bonche.. Party’s over. Can’t steal that much and work that little forever..

    Let’s face it: the majority of Venezuelans do not work very hard, and have ALWAYS been involved in some “guiso”, from top to bottom, from the General Managers down to smaller bosses, to the average employees. Especially in public companies. There has been less corruption in some private companies like Polar..

    The point here, as this article describes, is that Venezuelans indeed tend to be “vivos”, don’t like to work too much, and engage in corruption very often. At all levels, everywhere,not just the politicians, or the big fish, it’s part of the culture and even the few rare honest entrepreneurs left those who do work hard and produce and earn their living properly, they constantly have to bribe, and engage in dubious practices just to survive. Ask anyone what it takes to even live there.. you have to “bajarse de la mula”, bribe everyone, everyday left and right, at all levels of society. From the average police guard, to the bank teller, to the union guy, down to the guy who picks up garbage (aguinaldos..) up to the company owners. It’s endemic, and many people thus deserve the mess they are in, instead of i-phones.

  4. A esos hay que gritarles con megáfonos todos los días, por lo menos tres o cuatro veces al día, que eso es culpa del “exprópiese” del cobardante podrío.

  5. Unions are very important in a productive economy that also ensure workers are not exploited.

    Unfortunately, what you are talking about is not an union, not a goverment and ot a public company, but an extended patronage system pretending to be all those pieces. And then collapsing as nobody remembered to actually have the production that would sustain their bloodsucking.

  6. Just for the record, the guy with the “40” hat and mic in the picture illustrating this post is named Leonel Grisett. He’s the leader of Coalición Siderúrgica, a current within Sutiss which draws together chavista, opposition, and independent steelworkers and has attacked corruption and sectarianism at Sidor.

    For this, he’s faced years of harassment. A few days ago he was arrested and sent to jail on a technicality related to a régimen de presentación. It’s likely they went after him this time around because he’s become a fairly high-profile leader of Voluntad Popular in Bolívar.

    So, Grisett is potentially a political prisoner for having put his ass on the line so that sifrinos like you can return to power, and meanwhile you’re here mocking him as lazy and greedy, lamenting the fact that the government hasn’t cracked down more violently on him and his co-workers, and posting asinine Ayn Rand quotes and references to Margaret Thatcher. Every so often a post here reminds me that you people might be even worse than the chavistas.

    • “…you’re here mocking him…”

      Nowhere in the photo (OR IN THE ARTICLE) says that he’s Grisett, or that the editor KNEW it was him on the photo, so you’re making a storm in a glass of water.

  7. Oh!, excuse me for pointing out that Grisett was only capitalizing on these workers demands so as to rise to stardom and possibly figure as a relevant political figure down on Guayana. (this sounds too much like the Leopoldo’s stocolm syndrome to me)

    _Me sabe a casabe_ if he is or was lazy and greedy, he’s representing, in part, people who indeed are greedy and lazy, and, unluckily, he has to stand up to the consequences of being their spokesman.

    OTOH, if we were on a different government and SIDOR et al were under the state control with all these “sifrinos” in charge, we’ll see the same harassment and clashing when Unions start pressuring with “better conditions/payment/gifts/etc/younameit”.

    Unions only exist to protect lazy workers from competing with more cheap, (and sometimes better and younger) workers.

    • Someone who thinks that having to refresh the Cadivi home page once or twice makes him a “job creator” shows up to suggest that steelworkers are an undifferentiated mass of lazy bums, cheers the arbitrary jailing of a trade unionist without knowing any of the details, and then begins to crow about his desire to eliminate a range of basic Human rights when he and his buddies come to power. You people are like comic villains fresh out of central casting.

  8. I never said a word about nazis, but come to think of it I shouldn’t be too surprised that the kind or person who openly fantasizes about taking revenge on uppity workers might be a somewhat touchy about that particular association. Keep it up.

    • “…his desire to eliminate a range of basic Human rights when he and his buddies come to power.”

      There, you compared people here with nazis.

      Keep trying, but try not to smash your keyboard too hard, those things are quite expensive and scarce lately, thanks to your president’s giordanomics-merentenomics.

      • Okay, I suppose if you think that your opposition to labour rights makes you a nazi I don’t have much choice but to take your word for it.

        • And he’s your president, not mine. I’m not Venezuelan and haven’t even been there in the past couple of years. He’s likely to remain your president until you people learn to keep your sick fantasies about how you intend to take revenge on all the poor and working-class “parasites” and “bloodsuckers” to yourselves. You really need to shut up about it already. Just a bit of helpful advice.

          • You have a serious, grievous case of dissociate bipolarity, keep digging, maybe you’ll find oil someday, poor little hysterical chavista lackey.

    • Your dedication to embarrass yourself in this topic is hilarious, you tried to pass for a “radical oppo” saying something about the guy in the picture being a prominent VP leader, but in the next sentence you resorted to ass-pull this crackpot theory about the article talking against him, but your ridiculous little ego is so frail, that you couldn’t take the first reply against yours, so you blew your cover and started to hysterically call us fascists and all the standard chavista rubbish.

      It’s a good thing comments can’t be edited in this page, that way everybody could see how easily a rabid chavista cracks and goes berserk the first time somebody gainsays their lunacy, a waste of public money while the population starves to death.

  9. This is pretty clearly you engaging in psychological projection. I’m confident anyone who reviews this thread will be able to see that.

    • Anybody checking your rambling will immediately see that you are a rabid chavista posing as an oppositor, and also will notice how much of a lousy job you did, blowing your cover at the first post you didn’t like.

      • Fijate bien. The original post mocked steelworkers as lazy and greedy, with the implication being that that they (not Hugo Chávez, not Francisco Rangel Gómez, not Chino Khan, not Derwick Associates) were somehow to blame for the ruinous state of Sidor. It was also illustrated, for reasons that aren’t clear, with a photo of a guy who is by most accounts hard-working and honest, has done far more to combat the chavista corruption and sectarianism that wrecked Sidor than all of CC’s readers combined, also happens to be a well-known VP activist, and has been persecuted by Sebin and the GNB. You and your friends then posted a flurry of comments full of sick revenge fantasies and moronic references to Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher.

        When I pointed out that none of this reflects well on CC and the kind of people who read it and comment on it, it seems that I caused you to experience some kind of psychotic break. Now you’re accusing me of being a shape-shifting spy, posing as a radical “oppositor” one minute and revealing myself as a “rabid chavista” the next. It’s plainly deluded and crazy. And it’s all because you hate working-class people so much that you’ve lost your capacity for rational thought.

        • Así que sí hablas español, mucho mejor, porque puedo terminar de cerrarte la boca porque ya estás medio fastidioso:

          1) Empezaste tu peo diciendo que el artículo ataca al fulano Grisett, primera falacia, en ningún lado del artículo se le menciona.

          2) Actúas como el típico chavista neurasténico que se disfraza de opositor, porque primero saliste a hacer un peo de algo que no tiene que ver con el artículo, el cual quieres alegar que es un ataque personal contra el tipo, para luego explotar y revertir a la modalidad de propagandista barato del pusv.

          3) ¿Sabes qué te delató como chavista histérico y rabioso? El momento preciso en que escribiste la oración ridícula de que “Croamos acerca de nuestros deseos de acabar con todos los derechos humanos apenas toquemos el poder”, esa vaina es sacada de “guerra de las ideas 101”, bueno, sólo te faltó agradecerle a tu deidad preferida porque el chavismo sea gobierno, así que te falló el caletre ahí.

          4) Sigues insistiendo en que los lectores en general del sitio, por la intención que nos achacas al “tocar el poder”, son unos nazis ultra fachoderrrrechistaz, comparación que has mantenido por varios mensajes haciendo el ridículo sin parar, cosa que no ves porque estás completamente histérico al encerrarte en esa idea ingenua de que “absolutamente todos los sindicalistas son unos santos impolutos”; madura, carajito, que un grupo de gente que salga a protestar y su consigna sea “REGÁLENME MI IPHONE” no puede ser tomado en serio; los sindicatos de esas empresas están llenos de gentuza corrupta hasta la médula, ¿Por qué crees que esas empresas no producen?

          Sí, lo primero con lo que hay que acabar al derrocar esta dictadura es precisamente con ese aborto llamado “inamobilidad laboral”, que en 18 años sólo ha servido para mantener parásitos haciéndole daño a las empresas donde están, porque JAMÁS ha sido usada con el fulano propósito de “defender al trabajador del despido injustificado”, carajo, en la misma SIDOR han botado gente que JODE, y si no me crees entonces pregúntale al fulano Grisett, pues, que como representante sindical que se supone que es, pues debería estar enterado de eso y luchando contra esa vaina.

          Vuélvete a leer el artículo para que tengas idea de qué carajo vas a criticar, porque se está hablando de unos sinvergüenzas que lo que andan es en plan de “REGÁLENME PORQUE SOY CHAVISTA, NO ME SALE DEL FORRO TRABAJAR PARA ESO”, an gente como ESA y a tantos pelmazos que andan enceguecidos con la ridiculez chavista, SÍ, hay que RESTREGARLES EN SU CARA QUE ESO SE LO ECHARON ELLOS MISMOS AL APOYAR LAS EXPROPIACIONES.

          Ya es hora de que la gente de este país empiece a asumir la responsabilidad de los cachazos que comete, como fué el caso de esos vagos que quieren teléfonos y computadoras pero que eran los mismos que hace años atrás gritaban “así, así, así es que se gobierna” cuando Chávez les dijo que expropiaba SIDOR.

  10. Even assuming that the factories are in the future managed by a rational socialist state or a privately owned company how would the employer ever change a mind set where employees have been paid for not working. That is a malignant form of social cancer difficult to manage much less cure.

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