SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 112 - October 2007

Chile: a new political landscape

MORE AND more people in Chile are getting weary. While the politicians from the government and opposition parties act in the service of capitalism, and big business congratulates itself on the rapid growth of the Chilean economy, life has not improved for the mass of the workers and their families. Frustration is mounting over the contradictions facing working people, between the promises and the reality, concerning casual labour, personal debt, low wages and, now also, rising inflation.

The workers’ movement has, once again, taken up a leading position in struggle. There is still a long way to go, but the bosses cannot just continue making claims about the benevolent nature of the ‘Chilean model’ without being challenged by the exploited and socially excluded. Pro-big business commentators speak at length about economic growth while keeping quiet about environmental destruction, the growing gap between rich and poor (the top 20% of incomes control 60% of Chilean GDP), and the worsening quality of public services, education, health care and housing. The surge in personal indebtedness has grown to surreal proportions, with financial institutions giving away credit cards to students and the unemployed.

The mainstream media do not discuss people’s working conditions. Seventy percent of the workforce labours under uncertain, casual conditions. As part of an anti-trade union strategy, and to escape collective negotiations, companies have outsourced work to subcontractors or created phantom companies. These are attempts to atomise the workforce. Workers can find their colleagues are technically employed by a different company. The Chilean labour code prohibits collective negotiations over working conditions relating to the workers of two or more different companies. In these circumstances, having joint trade union negotiations or action by workers employed by a subcontractor is practically illegal. This leads to the situation where work colleagues employed by a subcontractor earn less and work in worse conditions than workers employed by the parent company.

This situation of gross inequality finally led to explosions this year. More than 5,000 workers for Bosques Arauco, an enormous company dealing with forest exploitation (a subdivision of Holding industrial), went on strike and won improved working conditions. They had to pay a high price for this as their struggle met with violent repression from the police. One of the workers, Rodrigo Cisternas, a 26-year-old father, was shot dead by the police.

But the Bosques Arauco strike was taken as an example and followed by subcontracted workers at the Codelco mine. These workers won the right to collective bargaining after a long and hard strike. Today, there are many such mobilisations: struggles in which workers get unionised and organised. Other sectors in struggle include workers from the construction industry (who work with many subcontracting workers), the banking sector, and workers in the big export-oriented agricultural sector. The latter are one of the most neglected workforces in the Chile.

On top of the immediate work-related exploitation we have to add the general crisis in housing. Millions of people are at risk of losing their social housing because they cannot afford to pay the mortgage. People have had to organise marches and demonstrations to defend their right to accommodation and prevent banks seizing their properties and selling them off. Subsistence fishermen, who are suffering from industrial trawling fleet competition, have organised demonstrations and faced down police repression to get some emergency aid from the government. The indigenous people are still the poorest and most exploited of the country. The Mapuches are struggling to recuperate their ancestral lands that have been fraudulently seized from them. They face severe repression and the state has used anti-terrorism laws against them. Some Mapuche people were given ten-year prison sentences for burning fields and many regularly face imprisonment on the basis of made-up charges. At the time of writing, two Mapuche women are on hunger strike in prison, in an attempt to highlight their plight.

We also have seen the mobilisation of workers and youth who live in Santiago de Chile, the capital city of six million inhabitants. They are protesting against the consequences of the huge ‘restructuring’ of public transport, Transantiago. The government conceded that Transantiago was a disaster, causing increased waiting times and the disappearance of whole routes. At the same time, we have heard announcements of more profits for the banks and companies involved in the contracts for Transantiago.

No surprise then that the trade union federation, CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), were forced to call a national day of mobilisations, on 29 August, because of the pressure of the rank-and-file union members. Yet CUT’s main leaders are also leading members of the parties in the Concertación government (the ex-social democracy Partido Socialista and the Christian democrats of Democracia Cristiana), or of the Communist Party (PC) which is now negotiating a pact with the Concertación parties.

The slogans for the demonstration were very general: ‘Against neo-liberalism’, ‘For a social state and solidarity’, ‘Put an end to exclusion’ (relating to the demand for a change of the law that would allow the PC to enter parliament). However, many social organisations, including some sections of the trade union movement, pushed to make the demands more concrete and precise. Specific issues were raised: against the hike in bread prices, against the rises of food staples, for higher wages, for better working conditions, for public transport, etc. All of these demands were carried on placards and banners during the demonstration by different local and community organisations.

It is not the first time the CUT has taken the initiative for such a mobilisation. In the past, these have been more of a rallying of forces without any direction or intention to take the struggle forward. The role of the CUT in this mobilisation was not any different. There was no meeting or rally and the participants did not receive clear instructions or a plan of what was going to happen on the day. The general secretary of the CUT, Martinez, said: "Every member can do what he or she thinks is best".

But if it was the intention of CUT leaders to have a little walk around Santiago without any real consequences, they were mistaken. The mobilisation was used by working people to express their frustration. The government tried to ban the demonstration but thousands of people were determined to march. The police attacked the protest and there were stand-offs with the militarised police and riots – 750 people were arrested. The police violence was shown on television. Footage showed an unprovoked police attack on people who were queuing for a bus. A member of parliament was hit on the head and suffered a fractured skull, while he was chatting with a police official in charge.

Last year, when 600,000 secondary school students occupied the schools, marked a turning point. Chile has changed. The way in which workers have now entered the struggle confirms this. A new generation is free of the trauma of 1973 – when the elected left government of Salvador Allende was bloodily overthrown and was followed by long years of Pinochet dictatorship. They are now on the move and reconstructing the trade union and social organisations. They are giving these mass organisations a strong sense of democracy from below and instilling a distrust of the traditional political parties.

New perspectives have opened up. Recent events show the potential for the building of democratic trade unions, with leaderships independent of capitalist state power, and for the construction of a new workers’ party with a socialist, democratic and fighting programme.

The workers, poor and youth have learned one elemental lesson that appeared to have been forgotten: a collective solution is possible and is the only one open to the mass of the workers. To bring it about we have to organise and struggle.

Patricio Guzmán

Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI Chile) (website of the Committee for a Workers' International)


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