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CHILE
Strengthening the trade union movement
Arnaldo Pérez Guerra
12/5/2014
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Union workshop promotes worker organization to defend their rights.

Through the union workshop La Clase (The Class), young workers and professionals linked to the labor sector, seek to contribute to rebuilding the labor movement by using the tools of popular education “to train us as working class,” retaking the labor tradition that gave rise to unionism in Chile.

“We started the union workshop La Clase in March 2013, conducting training schools for unionized workers with the aim of raising class consciousness and generating the need for the organization. Due to the boom that the social and popular movement has had in recent times, we believe that workers are vital to radically transform the model we live in,” says Santiago, a workshop leader, who asked to only be identified by first name.

According to youth of La Clase, since 2006 — the year President Michelle Bachelet, during her first term (2006-2010), enacted the subcontracting law which legitimized a new type of precarious work — an increase in unionization, strikes and the radicalization of some of these processes has resulted.

Between 2007 and 2012, there was an increase in unionized workers, reaching 940,000, or 12.2 percent of the employed labor force. For La Clase, unionism is helping to slowly regain the value of the organization of the people.
 
Politicization process
The demonstrations against the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) and the drive for the workers’ movement increased the number of unionized workers during the first years of the governments of the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Concert of Parties for Democracy), or Concertación Democrática. In 1991 there were 701,000 unionized workers (15.1 percent), but the number began to decline slowly each year since 1992, reaching 580,000 union members in 1999 (10.7 percent).

The Concertación Democrática perpetuated the policies of the dictatorship and as neoliberalism progressed—a situation that suited the Concert—workers’ ability to organize decreased.

“It is paradoxical to realize that the CUT [United Federation of Workers] repeatedly signed ‘Framework Agreements’ with businessmen, ensuring them peace and cooperation; one of these agreements was called ‘Chile: an historic opportunity’ where private property was key and workers ‘would cooperate and protect the company and jobs’,” says Francisco, another workshop leader who also chose to be identified only by first name.

This situation led to an increase in the persecution of social activists in the 1990s. The “Framework Agreements” also did not mean improvements in working conditions. There was no change until 2006.

“While we recognize that many of the [current] union struggles are economicist, going on sit-down strikes with a more political objective seeks to end practice of unions depending only on leaders,” says Francisco. “Clearly, the [union] bases must generate a process of politicization and increased awareness,” he adds.
 

Training Manual
In an effort to break away from these economicist issues, to organize and to fight for “wage increases but with a class perspective,” says Francisco, a year ago the workshop La Clase published the “Manual of union action:  experiences and current practices of the working class” (Pueblo en Lucha Edition).

The manual is dedicated to Rodrigo Cisterna — forest worker killed in May 2007 during a strike that was violently repressed by the Special Police Forces during the first government of Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) — and Juan Pablo Jiménez, union leader gunned down in February 2013 inside Azeta, a contractor company for Chilectra, a distributor of electricity, during the administration of former President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014). The manual is the result of a collection of experiences of some unions with interviews of various leaders. It also seeks to recover certain practices that were effective in labor disputes and that empowered the sense of class, explains Francisco.

The manual is defined as “an outcome and input which we hope will help the new cohorts of workers who have decided not to continue bowing their heads and have joined the popular struggle that has been growing in the country.”

For these union action youth activists, “today we face a government tailored for business; they insituted the labor plan and banned our participation in negotiations with other unions, forcing us to look only into what was happening inside ‘our’ company. This is how any opportunity to be part of the political decision-making process at the national level was ruined. Today they intend to make us comply with a labor law that only benefits them.”

According to data collected in the manual, today the rate of unionization is low, only 13.9 percent. For La Clase this situation is not by chance.

“We are facing production planning that is supported by the law. Fragmented companies with contracted workers and high turnover. It is hard to form bonds and unionize legally. Using contractors is common, [but it] deregulates the employment relationship since the labor code is not applicable. However, despite all this, history shows us that the law is not the limit or the end to transform reality,” they state.

One of the demands that is strongly being advocated in political and legal terms is the end of subcontracting, which restricts labor rights such job security, decent working conditions and collective rights, among others. According to the Ministry of Labor, an estimated 35 percent of the workforce is subcontracted.

Francisco explained that the manual has a didactic tone: “It ranges from the formation of a union, the reaction of the business or employer, and the work of the union. We stopped at that because we also believe that the law should fill in the gaps. Workers have the responsibility as political subjects to create the life of the union, to go beyond economic terms, to create opportunities for training, and to create bonds of solidarity and territorial ties.”

The manual also addresses collective bargaining, explaining its procedures in legal terms and also how to use tactics to achieve better results in negotiations. It discusses the stages of formal negotiations and when and how workers can have a say in the process. It collects successful experiences and also lessons from processes which did not end in good terms or were failures.

The youth in La Clase say that they will continue to host many political and social activities and will continue to provide legal advice to workers and unions. They say their work is about building the necessary paths to truly represent the interests of workers which are not currently part of CUT, which has become a corporate apparatus of the government.

“We know of many attempts to unionize, but we think they are useless if they stay only at the level of leaders and do not represent the the [union] bases,” says Santiago. —Latinamerica Press.


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The end of subcontracting is one of the main demands of unionized workers. (Photo: Leandro Torchio Olivares)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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