Socialist Worker

Miners' victory in Chile is part of an awakening of workers

by Michael Stanton, Santiago, Chile
Issue No. 2065

Cristian Cuevas (Pic: LosAndesonline.cl)

Cristian Cuevas (Pic: LosAndesonline.cl)


At the beginning of August, contract miners in Chile’s new CTC union federation celebrated a significant victory against Codelco, Chile’s state-owned mining corporation.

A five week strike won better conditions for all contract workers, including those not involved in the action. The use of contract workers is endemic in Chile – including in banking, supermarkets and mining.

Codelco employs 33,000 workers on fixed term contracts, with only 18,000 permanent workers. In 1980 it directly employed 28,000. The contracted out jobs are not peripheral – many are the same jobs that directly employed workers do.

The workers’ victory means all Codelco contract workers will be paid overtime on total pay instead of on the basic wage.

Everyone will also receive a bonus of 450,000 pesos – about two months’ wages.

Codelco has promised to pressurise all contract companies to accept the terms of the agreement. The movement has produced this negotiation between a “mother” company and workers from different subcontracting firms.

This kind of negotiation was previously illegal under labour laws dating from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990.

The fact that permanent and temporary/fixed term workers are subject to different labour laws has been a big obstacle to the unity that many workers want.

The strike started at Machalí in central Chile when the CTC put forward a demand for a bonus of 1 percent of the profits from the increase in copper prices since 2001.

Of 33,000 contract workers in Codelco, some 23,000 were actively involved in the strike at some time during the dispute.

In August 2006, directly employed workers at the Escondida mine went on strike and won a 30 percent wage rise and a free healthcare system.

This was against a company owned by BHP Billiton, one of the world’s most influential mining multinationals.

The strike proved that organised workers could win their demands. It inspired a series of wage negotiations in both state and private mining.

Movement

The Codelco strike was part of that movement. CTC union leader Cristian Cuevas told Socialist Worker, “The movement was born in 2003, when a subcontractors’ union took legal action against Codelco at the El Teniente mine near Rancagu in central Chile.

“The union organised a go-slow that ended up with 200 workers being sacked and several beaten up by police.

“In 2004, a coordinating committee was formed to organise in several of Codelco’s mines. In January 2006, a 21 day strike during the presidential elections forced Codelco to negotiate.

“A conference in Machalí at the beginning of July formed the CTC. The strike was organised out of this to force Codelco to really negotiate.”

The miners’ movement has also awakened other groups who have suffered discrimination.

On Wednesday 8 August at a meeting of fruit company executives, 20 women temporary workers stood up at the front holding placards which complained that they had no work contracts or union rights.

This is one example of how the conflicts in one sector bubble over into another.

The biggest such action took place in March, when 5,000 contract forestry workers employed in the Arauco region took action.

Many were on the minimum wage of 135,000 pesos a month. Other forestry workers were supposed to be on the minimum wage, though some were paid less.

Transport union president Pascual Sagredo said, “That’s not enough to get kids through school and out of Arauco.

“The region is a goldmine for the company, but 30 workers die every year because they haven’t got safety equipment and protection to do the work.”

The strike went on to victory, despite the death of striker Rodrigo Cisternas at the hands of the police in May 2007.

It won a 52 percent monthly increase for those on the minimum wage and 12 percent for the highest paid.

Jorge Gonzales of the Forestry Workers Confederation says it’s the first time that forestry workers have managed to negotiate together and win something.

Dignity

He added, “What the people need are successes and to recover self esteem and dignity.”

The feeling that it is possible for contract workers to fight and win is growing stronger.

Pedro Marín, director of the Miners’ Federation of Chile (FMC), thinks time is running out for the Concertación centre left coalition government. It has forgotten the promises it made at elections.

He said, “However, there are individuals, such as the minister for labour and some MPs, who have tried to change the economic model that has created instability for many Chileans.”

Pedro Marín feels that what could unite everyone in mining is a movement to renationalise Chilean copper.

The FMC is organising an international congress in September aimed at this and forming a copper equivalent of the Opec organisation for oil exporting countries.

Pedro says that “The Bolivian miners’ demands reflect what we are feeling and they would be welcome in our Congress.”

The next step for the CTC, according to Cristian Cuevas, is to move onto organising contract workers in the huge private mines that dominate Chile’s copper industry.

He says, “Our victory is one for all contract workers.”


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International
Tue 21 Aug 2007, 19:11 BST
Issue No. 2065
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