Chile-Labor Movement Update

September 25, 2007

We can't have a free market economy which functions well without a compatible scheme for labor. Labor Minister Jose Pinero, architect of Chile's new Labor Code The aim of the Labor Code is to divide and conquer ... the status quo only protects the capital of certain 'gentlemen,' not the work- ers ... if I speak out about my pro- blems I'll be taken off to jail. a worker at CORESA refrigerator plant More than six years after the military coup, it has become com- monplace to talk both about the junta's aim of institutionalizing its regime and about the gradual but sustained reactivation of the mass movement. A key link in both pro- cesses, and a point at which they are in increasingly open conflict, is the labor movement. Over the past year, the junta has announced a number of De- cree Laws which, together with the July 1979 Labor Code, are pro- minent features of the jun- ta's-and big business's-plans for a "new economic model" in Chile. National labor confederations and industry-wide unions have been outlawed or emasculated. Union leaders have been harass- ed and blacklisted and fraudulent elections held to replace them. The right to strike, though legalized for the first time since the coup, has been gutted. Strikes are 36 limited to wage demands, ex- cluding such previously hard- fought issues as job security, health and safety, maternity leaves or social security. Their duration is limited to 60 days, after which striking workers are considered to have "voluntarily resigned." Public meetings or pickets are outlawed, as is any support from other unions. Employer lockouts, on the other hand, have been legalized, and scabs may be freely hired. Even such weaponless strikes as this are prohibited in "strategic sectors" of the economy, such as mining and construction. And, to top it off, the government may pro- hibit any strike for reasons of "na- tional security." The Chilean government has presented the Labor Code, im- mediately tagged the "bosses' code" by Chilean workers, as evidence of their good faith and fairness. Recently, in a special advertising supplement to the New York Times, the Labor Code was described as "a modern creative response to the needs of our time and circumstances ... designed to create in Chile a new set of labor institutions, with union organizations removed from political party tutelage which, in the past, did so much harm to the Chilean labor movement." Un- doubtedly, it was this concern which led the government to ex- clude as a candidate for union of- fice during the sham elections held last year anyone who had been a known member of a political party in the past ten years. After the enactment of the Labor Code, the Inter-American Regional Workers' Organization (ORIT) and the AFL-CIO agreed to suspend a threatened boycott, arguing that the Labor Code ac- tually represented a step forward in relation to existing violations of labor rights-which had originally motivated the threat of interna- tional sanctions-by providing a definite legal framework for the few remaining trade union rights. Overstepping the Limits Despite the obstacles presented by reactionary legisla- tion and the fierce attacks endured over the past half-dozen years, workers have regrouped and reorganized their unions at local and national levels. The past year has seen increasing numbers of strikes and other labor protest ac- tions which, in many cases, have gone beyond the narrow bounds of the junta's Decree Laws. Seven national labor confederations con- tinue to exist and function despite harassment and persecution, the dissolution of some as "legal en- tities" by government decree and the firing and arrests of union leaders. Included among these are the CNS (National Trade Union Coordinating Body), FUT (Workers' Unity Front), CEPCH (Private Employees Union), the so- called "Group of Ten" (Christian Democrat labor leaders) and UN- TRACH (National Employees Union of Chile). However, most of the increas- ing militancy in the workers' move- ment over the past year has come from the rank-and-file level. The national confederations are hampered by restrictive legislation which seeks to limit them to little NACLA Reportupdate * update . update . update more than mutual aid societies. They are divided along industrial and craft lines, and plagued with problems of bureaucracy. At the same time, there are sometimes sharp differences over strategy and tactics within and among the confederations, particularly in those where union leaders sym- pathetic to the 1973 coup still maintain influence. An example of the latter is Guillermo Medina, a leader in the copper workers' union at El Teniente, who was characterized by the workers as a "chameleon" because he shifted so frequently between defending the union and the bosses' interest. Critical Demands The most urgent issues con- fronted by the workers in their ac- tions are job security, protection against the rapidly rising cost of living, and the fight to preserve basic benefits such as overtime, paid vacations, productivity bonuses, maternity and sick leave, and retirement benefits, all of which are under attack by the government as part of a systematic "give-back" policy. '.4 Workers at the Chuquicamata copper mine MayiJune 1980 Job security is a key issue. Of- ficial unemployment figures have been running at 12-16% since 1975, with at least another 3% disguised unemployment hidden by the Minimum Employment Pro- gram (PEM) which pays about $10 a week. Recently, there has been a wave of layoffs and firings. For example, at Lirquen Plate Glass Factory, 182 out of 305 workers were fired and production cut by 2/3, only to be restored to 2/3 capacity without rehiring fired workers. At CORESA refrigerator factory, the entire workforce of 210 was laid off after a 59 day strike, when the owners announc- ed they were temporarily closing the plant. The workers have de- nounced plans to reopen the plant "under new management" by the same financial group that owns it. In other cases, PEM workers have been used to break strikes. Although the junta's Labor Code boasts of guaranteed cost-of-living increases, such "automatic" raises are based on the official Consumer Price Index which grossly underestimates inflation. Besides, the adjustments are granted with considerable delay. The junta's munificent "guarantee" to maintain current wage levels takes on additional significance when one recalls that real wages have already fallen by almost 50% from their highest level under Allende since the junta took power. Strikes and other job actions are beginning to push beyond the narrow limits of the Labor Code. When 600 workers at Goodyear went out on strike late last year, they organized a peaceful march to the Labor Ministry, the first such mass public labor protest since the coup. The workers at Goodyear also illegally joined 37update * update . update update forces with 75 striking women from the nearby Salome Bakery to organize "ollas comunes", solidarity soup kitchens to keep the strikers going. Miniscule Gains Such actions have inevitably led to new reprisals by employers and repression by the government. A second march by Goodyear strik- ers and their supporters was broken up and union leaders ar- rested. In many cases, strike leaders have been fired after a dispute is settled, sometimes leading to renewed worker pro- tests, as happened in 1978 at Chu- quicamata copper mine. At Goodyear, 80 workers were fired following the strike settlement; at Panal Textiles, 100 were fired and a number of union activists were also fired from El Teniente follow- ing the settlement there. Union leaders and rank-and-file activists have had to face the fact that many of the recent strikes and labor protests have won few if any of their demands. At Goodyear, after 17 days the workers who had asked for a 30% increase settled for 6.4%. At El Teniente, the initial demand for a 55% increase was beaten down to a 9% settlement. Some workers fared even worse. At La Scala Textiles, 119 strikers, most of them women, were forced to return after 23 days on strike with only a 1.5% raise; 10 were subsequently fired. At Condor Tiles, the workers were forced to return after 57 days having won none of their demands. And at CORESA, as previously men- tioned, the workers not only went back with no gains after 59 days, all 210 were subsequently laid off. Commenting on the result of the strike at Condor Tiles, union presi- dent Hector Morales stated bitter- ly: "This strike only served to prove that the Labor Code is a failure from the point of view of the workers, favoring only the bosses." Those sectors best prepared to win a strike-larger plants in strategic sectors with skilled workers where a strike could not so easily be sustained by the owners or broken by scabs-are precisely the sectors where strikes are forbidden by law: mining, transportation, communications, construction and basic industry. In the face of this situation, union organizers, rank-and-file activists and militant workers have had to combat defeatism, demoralization and resignation. Yet the very fact that so many strikes and protest actions have taken place over the past year despite all obstacles is a measure of the growing strength of the workers movement. Crucial to their capacity to grow will be their ability to develop creative new forms of organization and struggle, forms which decisively transcend the legal strictures im- posed by the junta. For such steps to become a reality it will be necessary to link immediate economic demands with broader social and political demands of the entire Chilean people, and to im- prove its level of coordination and united action.

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, labor repression, neoliberalism, job security

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