The Socialist 12 June 2004 |
Join the Socialist
Chile's Workers Battle Against Neo-Liberalism
THE CHILEAN capitalists claim that unlike the other Latin American
countries they have managed a successful economy.
But beneath the headline figure of a 4.8% growth rate lies a mass of
unemployment and poverty. On a recent visit to the capital, Santiago,
Socialist Party general secretary PETER TAAFFE describes the conditions facing
the working class.
IN CHILE I discussed with Jose Ortiz, general secretary of
the CUT (Central Unificadora de los Trabajadores), the Chilean equivalent to
the British TUC.
However, there is a stark difference between the CUT
building and the TUC headquarters. The CUT is alive with ordinary workers who
are earnestly discussing their problems with CUT officials, in a way that is
inconceivable compared to the British TUC.
Josť Ortiz was recently arrested on the demonstration on
the day of the recent general strike. Could one imagine Brendan Barber of the
British TUC being treated today in this manner by the British state?
Interview with Chilean trade union leader
I ASKED comrade Ortiz about the present situation of the
Chilean labour movement.
"We face a complex situation," he said. "The government of
Ricardo Lagos was brought to power on the votes of the working class with huge
expectations that it would satisfy their demands. But the government has done
everything to further the interest of capital, to pursue the neo-liberal
programme of privatisation in the health sector and the water industry.
"Even worse, they promised before they came to power, to
take action against the repressive labour law inherited from the Pinochet
"You have to understand", he said, "that the right to
negotiate only exists at company level, there are no national negotiations.
The majority of companies employ less than 50 workers, which allows them to
avoid union recognition. The employers are able to come together on a national
level but not the unions, and they use all kinds of devices to divide the
working class, effectively implementing the agenda imposed by the bosses".
I then asked what the strength of the trade unions is and
how have you reacted to the refusal of the employers and the government to
meet the demands of the workers?
"The present membership of the trade unions is 17% of the
labour force, 10% of them are organised by the CUT. This is about half the
numbers organised in unions prior to 1973." [When Pinochet's military coup
"We reflected the pressure of workers by formulating a
series of demands in 2002. The bosses refusal to meet us on these demands led
us to call a general strike last year which was very successful. It was the
first general strike since the fall of the dictatorship .".
How did the government and the bosses react to this?
"They tried to attack and fragment the trade unions. As we
meet, discussing here today, the government are collaborating behind the backs
of the CUT with sections of the Christian Democrats [the Chilean Tories] to
organise a rival CUT.
"We are confident we can meet this challenge and mobilise
the majority of workers behind the CUT".
If Lagos does not react to your demands, what will be your
"We are preparing to organize a general strike and
national mobilizations on 29 July, unless the government is prepared to
respond to our demands."
I would add here that Socialismo Revolucionario (SR) -
CWI, Chile - has supported the actions of the CUT but in a friendly way has
been critical of the CUT for not properly preparing for the strike. Socialismo Revolucionario
is fighting for an effective one-day-general strike which will show the real
power of the working class. It has suggested committees of action, and will
give particular attention to mobilising school students, university students
and young people generally.
I asked comrade Ortiz what his opinion was of the role of
the government and in particular the Chilean Socialist Party. I also asked him
what the CUT could do to give more of a political voice to the working class.
The working class do not have a mass party as the Socialist Party is now a
"We are confident we are entering a new phase. Discontent
is growing, more people are joining the trade unions."
When questioned about strikes he replied that
be less strikes but they are much more determined and militant than before.
Many workers have occupied their workplaces, such as in the big Chilean
textile firm Johnston's, the Spanish company HERPA and others".
He "did not think that a new party was immediately on the
agenda. It was more of a theoretical issue at this stage."
I asked him how this could be the case, given the
performance of the Lagos government and the disillusionment felt by working
Lagos opposed the Iraq war in words, but when the Chilean
ambassador at the UN abstained he was removed by Lagos.
Moreover, Lagos supported the failed coup against
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2002, which is absolutely scandalous
especially given the experience of the Chilean people. Did this not indicate
that the socialist party was a capitalist party now?
Comrade Ortiz said he
"agreed in general, but there were
complicating factors in Chile. The Socialist Party was still associated with
the martyred figure of (Salvador) Allende", he maintained.
It is quite clear that while the older generation make
this connection of Allende with the Socialist Party this is not true of the
new active layers of the working class who are extremely hostile to Lagos and
Socialismo Revolucionario have put the idea firmly on the
agenda of a new mass party. He replied that "time will tell and we will have
to continue the dialogue."
The conditions of the working class
THE official unemployment rate in Chile is 8.5%. In reality, according to the comrades of Socialismo Revolucionario (Chilean section of the CWI), it stands at 20%.
Young people under 18-years of age receive a mere 78,000 pesos (£66) a month, the minimum wage is £100 a month (115,000 pesos). 20% of workers earn this minimum wage, while 60% are on 150,000 pesos (£127).
The government of Ricardo Lagos, officially under the signboard of the Chilean Socialist Party, a year ago introduced a law for payment to the unemployed. This is paid for out of the contributions of the workers themselves. The promise is, that if they are made unemployed they will receive 50% of their last salary but the law is a dead letter and has not been implemented.
Pensioners receive 70,000 pesos a month (£60), which means that most workers have to subsidise their own parents out of pitifully low wages.
According to recent studies in Chile the average worker needs at least 200,000 pesos a month to feed a family of four. Working people have significantly cut back on more expensive food, with poorer quality rice and meat now on display in the shops.
A 'modernised' fire service?
I AM walking through the centre of Santiago, the capital of Chile, on a gloriously sunny afternoon. I could be in any European capital but with the advantage of the splendid Andes as a backdrop. Superficially it would appear as though everything in Chile is for the best in the best of all capitalist worlds.
However I am reminded of the "other Chile" inhabited by the vast majority of the people of this country who still live in terrible poverty when we stop to speak to a group of "bomberos" (firefighters).
They were sitting in a shining fire engine but were asking for financial donations from people passing by. When I enquire what the money was for they reply that it is to pay their salaries. They only receive 25% of the wages from the government while the rest has to be collected from the people.
Is this where the bosses would like British firefighters to end up?