Socialist Worker

Was fuel protest like Chile 1973?

Issue No. 1715

Was fuel protest like Chile 1973?

"LET ME remind you of the other occasion that trucks and lorries were used by the self employed and the far right to attack democracy. That was in Chile in 1973-and it started the chain of events that brought down the Allende government."

Those were the words of TUC general secretary John Monks last week, at the height of the fuel blockade. His conclusion was that the unions should give "full support" to Tony Blair's government.

Allende was the head of the Popular Front government which was overthrown by a military coup led by General Pinochet. Monks was confused over what happened in Chile. And the conclusions he drew about Britain were completely wrong.

Both movements were based on small businessmen, some owning fleets of lorries, some owning just the vehicle they drove. One history of the Allende government tells how in October 1972:

"In response to the government project to form a state trucking company, the president of the Chilean Truck Owners Association called for his associates all over the country to stop work. The Confederation of Retail Merchants joined their strike. They were followed by the transportation guild of private owners of microbuses and bus-taxis."

Factories ground to a halt and employers tried to lock out workers without pay. Allende ordered General Brady to intervene to end the "strike" in the capital, Santiago.

"General Brady did everything to make sure that, contrary to Allende's orders, the transportation guild's microbuses and taxi-buses would not go back to work." The attitude of police chiefs and oil bosses in Britain last week did have clear similarities.

But there were important differences between the protest movements. Allende ran a Labour-type government. But it was one which had done much to benefit workers and upset big business since its election two years before.

It had nationalised major industries like copper. It had distributed large estates among the poor peasants. It had raised low wages faster than the rate of inflation and frozen the prices of key goods.

AT THE end of Allende's first year in office, in 1971, people's consumption of basic foodstuffs had risen by over 20 percent. Workers were not attracted to the slogans of the lorry owners as they were last week.

The entire ruling class was intent on getting Allende out of office by parliamentary means if possible, or by military means if necessary. They looked to do so by raising prices and then putting the blame on the government. This won them the support of many poorer sections of the middle class.

By contrast, Tony Blair is privatising, not nationalising, industries. He has left the rich paying lower taxes than through most of the Thatcher years. He has put up taxes on consumer items that hit poor people more than the rich. The level of poverty has grown while the rich are wealthier than ever.

Far from the big bosses hating him, many are advisers to his government and are funding his party conference next week. The bosses distrust the Tories because of their policy over Europe.

The bosses are happy to see Blair grovel before them. They do not want to overthrow him. It was small businessmen, not the major corporations, who were most fervent for last week's movement. The second big difference is the response of the working class to the bosses' strike.

In Chile in October 1972 it did not listen to the John Monks types who told it to put its trust in a government which was putting its trust in the police and the military.

Workers began to take over the factories to produce goods without the absent bosses. They began to use trucks from the factories to distribute food to poor and working class neighbourhoods, and selling at prices much cheaper than the local supermarkets.

They set up committees known as cordones, linking workers in the different factories. The bosses were forced to abandon their "strike", and the mood in the country swung further to the left. The left got its highest ever vote in parliamentary elections in March 1973.

But Allende and the leaders of Chile's workers' parties and unions made a series of tragic mistakes that enabled the right to regain the initiative. Instead of building on the success of the workers' action in October, they put their faith in the very army officers and police chiefs who had connived with the bosses' strike.

Allende gave important ministerial posts to top army officers and allowed the army to "restore order" by breaking workers' occupations. The government made it clear it was not gong to take over any more companies. "This country is going through a capitalist process," Allende insisted. THE "FREE market" allowed prices to rise more rapidly than ever. The bigger bosses' were able to profit from this.

But workers were told by their unions not to push for wage increases. And the self employed also suffered as their costs rose. The unity that had beaten the bosses' offensive in October began to fragment. The best organised and most militant section of the Chilean working class had historically been the copper miners.

They were better paid than most other workers, but they were isolated in unsanitary camps in the middle of the desert and worked under appalling conditions.

They could expect to die between the age of 40 and 50. In 1970 between 60 and 70 percent of them had voted for Allende. They struck for a wage increase to keep abreast of price rises in April. At first the socialist and Communist militants in the mines supported the strike.

But then the government set out to prove its respectable business credentials by opposing the wage increase. The left parties switched from supporting the strikers to denouncing them as labour aristocrats somehow living off the backs of other workers.

The right wing parties were given a golden opportunity to pretend to be the friends of a section of workers-although they did not seize it until the strike had already been going a month.

The same bosses and middle class guilds that had led the bosses' offensive in October now began to collect money for the strikers. They also began to influence many miners who felt completely abandoned by their traditional political parties.

The miners' bitterness grew even greater when the government sent in the riot squad and police with armoured cars to attack their protests. Some miners made the terrible mistake of believing the right wing parties were favourable to them. Others saw little reason to defend the left wing government against the right.

By this time prices were rising by over 25 percent a month. But union leaders stopped other workers striking to keep their wages up and denounced workers who did strike.

Many workers became demoralised as the gains they had made in the first year of the government disappeared. The right wing parties were able to build on the discontent of the self employed and the small employers to launch another transport owners' strike at the end of July.

The government reacted by giving more power to the generals. They used their troops to sweep through working class areas, searching for arms and arresting members of left wing parties.

Finally, in early September 1973, the generals used the troops to overthrow the government, and smash the left wing parties and the unions. The workers' victory of October 1972 had turned into a bitter and horrifying defeat. There are lessons to be learnt from Chile. But they are the opposite of John Monks's.

When discontent in society means that a wide section of people support a movement of the small employers and the self employed, you do not put your faith in a government which has no answers to that discontent.

The answer is to lead organised workers into action that offers an alternative. John Monks refused to do that last week, just as Chile's unions and major left wing parties refused to do so in the vital months of 1973. They suffered a vicious, devastating advance of the right as a result.

We did not suffer such a defeat last week. But sections of the right have shown they can tap popular discontent with the government so long as the unions tell their members simply to put their faith in Blair. And that could well be dangerous in the future.

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Sat 23 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1715
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