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World

Socialist Venezuelan Government Clashes With Labor Unions

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Venezuela's socialist government likes to portray the country as a worker's paradise. A former bus driver, President Nicolas Maduro comes from the working class. But his government has often clashed with labor unions. That's provoked strikes and factory shutdowns, which have worsened Venezuela's ongoing economic crisis. John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At Venezuela's largest steel mill, massive presses turn out laminated metal sheets that are used to make refrigerators and cars. Known as Orinoco Steelworks, the factory sits in the eastern city of Ciudad Guayana, which was built in the 1960s with the help of urban planners from Harvard and MIT. The idea was to establish an industrial hub, a sort of Venezuelan Pittsburgh.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Ciudad Guayana is also a union town, one that strongly backed the socialist revolution launched 16 years ago by the late president, Hugo Chavez.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGO CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In 2008, Chavez announced that he was nationalizing Orinoco Steelworks. At first, factory workers, like Leonel Grisett, were thrilled.

LEONEL GRISETT: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Grisett is a staunch leftist. He tells me his parents were once members of a Venezuelan guerrilla group and that he used to believe that capitalism was evil. But now, Grisett, who is a railroad inspector and a union leader at the steel mill, calls the government takeover a disaster.

GRISETT: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As we drive past smokestacks and smelting plants, Grisett says there have been major delays in signing contracts and that salaries have not kept pace with galloping inflation. And just as the ruling Socialist party dominates all branches of government, Grisett claims that it is now trying to take over the Steelworkers' union.

GRISETT: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They want to control us and then make us disappear," Grisett says.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Another problem, workers say, is that former military officers with no background in steel making now run the company. Blast furnaces and rolling mills have gone dormant due to the lack of maintenance, says Yunis Hernandez, a former union president who no longer feels proud to work here.

YUNIS HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Do you see this big area we just walked through," Hernandez tells me. "There's not one machine that's working."

(SOUNDBITE OF UNION RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Later, Hernandez takes me to a union rally at the entrance to the steel mill, where speakers denounce the Maduro government. These workers have also staged a series of crippling strikes. The labor unrest and state mismanagement have caused steel production to plummet by 75 percent since the government takeover. That's led to nationwide shortages of everything from construction supplies to coffins for funeral homes. The head of Orinoco Steelworks declined to comment to NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DIOSDADO CABELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But in a speech last year, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello described the Steelworkers union as riven with saboteurs who are trying to overthrow the government. President Maduro is also dealing with food shortages and plummeting oil prices. Opposition leaders are calling on Maduro to resign and have begun staging a new round of street protests. Anti-government demonstrations last year left 43 people dead. It is a swelling opposition that now includes legions of factory workers like Hernandez.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "As steelworkers and as Venezuelans," he says, "what's happened here makes us enormously sad." For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.