A new stage of the workers’ movement

Chile: Dockworkers are once again on strike. Victory to the dockworkers!

January 20, 2014

From Mejillones to the country’s ports. From repression to the National Dockworkers’ Strike

12-23-2013 The strike of around 400 dockworkers belonging to the Union No. 2 of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Contratados y Eventuales Unidos (United Permanent and Temporary Workers’ Union), the local sector of the Unión Portuario (Portworkers’ Union) begins. The strike hits the ports of Angamos de Mejillones, Antofagasta, Coloso and Esperanza, in the region of Antofagasta in Chile’s north. The workers demand that the company must recognize the right of the 250 “eventuales†[1] (the most casualised dockworkers) to be a part of the negotiation process before any negotiation of wage demands take place. This right of recognition is denied to the “eventuales†under the anti-worker Labor Code laws from the era of the Pinochet dictatorship, and with the collusion of the Department of Labour, who act in the favour of the company. This fundamental demand, for unity between the ranks of permanently hired “contratados†and the casualised “eventuales†, brings the negotiations to a stalemate. Brothers Sven and Wolf Von Appen, owners of the privatized Ultraport company (and the sons of a Nazi [2]), offered the permanent “contratados†a lousy 15 percent increase to cover expenses such as travel, meal breaks (colación) and overtime. This union played the lead in a militant 23-day strike in April 2013 which was then transformed into a national solidarity strike that took on a political character.

01-01-14 In the morning of the New Year, portworker Luis González Fuentes (“Makety†), was found gravely injured by the side of a truck near the strike camp at Mejillones. He is still in the Antofagasta Hospital in a coma close to death. The union, together with the Antofagasta People’s Defence Committee (Defensoría Popular Antofagasta), has denounced this as a planned action by the police in connection with the company. A criminal complaint is to be lodged against those responsible. This action comes after police and company intimidation, harassment and other measures against the workers in the camp. The police have treated this as an accident, the product of the worker driving under the effects of alcohol, which is totally false, since the vehicle that he traveled in does not have a single scratch.

03-01-14 An illegal dockworkers’ strike by the Frente de Trabajadores Portuarios (FTP) of San Antonio, also a part of the Portworkers’ Union (Unión Portuario) begins. The workers are demanding that they be paid in full for their half an hour meal breaks and that they be paid retroactively from 2005 to 2013 (in the case where dockworkers decided to not interrupt their shift and forgo their half-hour break, the company must pay for the half hour worked). This legal requirement became law in 2005, and past governments have committed to monitoring it, but companies have in the past refused to pay anyone this entitlement.

In April 2013, the dockworkers at the Angomas Port of Mejillones won their demand to be paid for these meal breaks after a militant 23-day strike. This strike not only acquired a political character against the government and big business, it also extended to a national solidarity strike across 95 percent of the country’s ports. During the 23-day strike displays of solidarity action were seen across Chile, as dockworkers refused to work any ships that had been diverted from Mejillones. The strike also pushed forward the struggle in Chile’s northern ports.

07-01 The strike extends to all northern ports covered by the Portworkers’ Union (Unión Portuario) in the north. In solidarity with the strike in Mejilliones and the stoppage in San Antonio, the ports of Iquique, Antofagasta, Tocopilla, Chañaral, Huasco y Caldera are completely paralyzed. This day also sees a police assault on the blockades at the entrance of the Angomas Port in Mejilliones that have totally shut down the port. Tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets are used in an attempt to end the blockade. The dockworkers resist and confront the police, and the police are forced to withdraw.

08-01 From 6am the dockworkers at the Mejillones strike camp and blockade are (along with picketing students) encircled by both police and marines, who guard the ports like a maritime arm of the bourgeois army. A huge deployment of police and Special Forces, including 40 trucks with water and gas cannons, 15 police patrols, 60 vehicles, and a contingent of armed marines, spread out across the port. In an act of true militarization, the marines and police besiege the port in an attempt to unblock the port entrance and send in strikebreakers.

In opposition to this repression, the national dockworkers’ strike extends to the south of the country. The Portworkers’ Union (Unión Portuario) of Bío Bío in the ports of Coronel and San Vicente are shut down in defiance of these acts of repression. Now the strike is effectively an indefinite strike in solidarity in the majority of the country’s ports organized by the Unión Portuario. In Valparaíso a portion of those who fought for compensation pay for the privatization of that port have shut that port down and blocked its entrance (against the gangster-like bureaucracy of the Christian Democracy [right-wing political party], allied with the bosses). The ports of Corral, Calbuco, Puerto Montt and Chacabuco could also join the strike at any moment.
Once again, in less than a year, in the face of the bosses’ intransigence and police repression, the dockworkers across the country have paralyzed the ports with solidarity stoppages.

A battle of strategic importance

At this moment, the semi-militarisation in Mejillones that surrounds the workers attempts to put an end to the strike camp and unblock the barricades that keep the port shut down. They look to end this struggle with repression; and show the dockworkers that this situation of police siege is a “normal†part of ensuring that the ports are able to operate. The national solidarity strike of dockworkers has changed the political scenario. The extension and radicalization of the conflict, the shutting down of 100 percent of the ports with blockades, the preparation of active strikes in the mines where the dockworkers have formed strategic alliances (such as the Union Network of Atacama, a “strategic alliance of the working class of the mines and ports) as well as the strike’s extension until it achieves its demands. All of this explains the attempt by the bosses and government to end the cycle of militant struggles and union victories that have taken place across the country’s port sector since March 2013. This is the same sector that, together with the miners, stopped work on June 26, 2013 as part of the massive free education campaign and called days of worker-student action in the main cities of the country.

Their demands, the attempts of the bosses and the government to end with the cycle of militant struggles and with union triumphs in the port sector from the north to the south of the country from March 2013, the same sector that paralysed on June 26 together with the miners for free education and has spearheaded a number of days of worker-student mobilisation in the main cities of the country. This sector has reclaimed an historic method of struggle – the solidarity strike – while confronting the country’s largest big business groups with links to the Pinochet era.

It is for this reason that the government has intervened. President Piñera has called the strike “illegal†and called on workers to not take part in this struggle. But it was the Minister of Agriculture, Luis Mayol (former director of the Pinochet-era National Agricultural Society), who really took aim at the strike. In a meeting with fruit exporters, he signaled that the strike in San Antonio (one of the major ports in the country that sends exports of fruit and wine to Asia and Europe) is “blackmail†. “This is an illegal strike, which I will add, from the point of view of the fruit industry, is criminal†. “I believe there has to be a change in legislation that raises the penalties and establishes the prohibition of these activities, which are so significant to the country, so that it is no longer possible to carry out these types of actions†.

The different employer groups are alerting the government on the strike and call on it to act. The bosses’ monopoly press does the same. The National Confederation of Truck Owners (CNDC) and ChileTransport A.G. call for the intervention of the government, citing the bosses’ profits that are being affected by the strikes. Fedefruta, the employer group of fruit exporters, together with the Exporters’ Association (Asoex) claim that the strike just in San Antonio is costing them $40 million a week, and 80 million a week when meat and wine are added. 1.5 million boxes of cherries, blueberries, nectarines, plums and grapes are trapped on the docks. This fruit, the best and the majority of the country’s fruit, which is destined for export to Europe, is trapped by the same workers who are unable to access it themselves. Codelco, the Chilean state owned copper mining company, has indicated that there are $130 million worth of copper trapped in Mejilliones. “The port strike is extremely grave, because it will again affect the image of the country†fumed Andrés Santa Cruz, from the Confederation of Production and Commerce (CPC). Industry leader Herman Von Mulenbruck labeled the strike illegal and called on the government to end it.

The CUT [3] must prepare a national stoppage with demonstrations in solidarity with the dockworkers

The workers movement is heading into new battles, and even in these difficult battles is strengthening its organization. In strategic sectors such as the mines, a process of union recomposition and organization in both the private and state sector, and among both permanent labour and subcontractors, is taking place. The same is occurring in the forestry industry. The port sector is following this pattern and becoming a vanguard sector. All of 2013 has seen militant strikes and the extension of the method of solidarity stoppages. The unity of the Unión Portuario, which groups 12,000 port permanent and casual workers, has been strengthened. The union launched a day of strike action together with the miners on June 26, 2013, the first day of worker-student struggle for free education. June 26 saw roadblocks of streets alongside occupations of schools and universities in the major cities of the country, blockades of the principal ports and demonstrations in city centres. This union has organised union meetings between forest industry workers and dockworkers, between miners and dockworkers, between dockworkers and shipyard workers, etc. The fighting unity of the workers ranks, alongside the weapon of the solidarity strike, has shown the dockworkers that they can and must transform themselves into a symbol of struggle for a new workers’ movement.

At this moment, it is necessary to extend the solidarity strike to all the ports in the country and to secure all blockades, as well as hold street demonstrations in the aim of further extending solidarity. In the mines there are important and strong union organizations of the private and state sectors, with plant workers and subcontractors that are re-composing their forces and their organizations and are searching for alliances with other strategic sectors. This is the moment to strengthen this unity through solidarity strikes. We must demand that the CUT calls a national strike until the dockworkers win their demands: the recognition of the negotiation rights of the “eventuales†such as those waging the fight in Mejillones; the retroactive payment in full for the half-hour meal break as demanded in San Antonio, as well as an end to all temporary labour and for all workers to earn a minimum base salary for shifts actually worked. We must also demand an end to the Labour Code of the dictatorship that decides how workers can and cannot be organized and blocks unity in the fight of the dockworkers, or in the industry of the union of the multinational Komatsu. This is playing out to be a central struggle. So far the leadership of the Communist Party (PC) and the Concertación within the CUT have refused to adopt this perspective, despite having already passed 17 days of stoppages, repression and police seige. They have refused to call for any solidarity demonstrations, meetings etc. Instead, they have promoted a “Declaration of Goodwill†with the Confederation of Production and Commerce bosses, and are looking toward the Bachelet government for reforms, which the leadership of the CUT supports. The CUT leaders seek to act as an arm of restraint within the workers movement for the Michelle Bachelet government, a government that heads a program of neoliberal “reforms†through the promotion of its so-called “social dialogue†. Despite all this, it is necessary to extend solidarity with the dockworkers struggle. The student federations and centres, despite being on holidays, must actively call for coordinating meetings, demonstrations and marches in solidarity with the dockworkers, a question that until now has only come "from above" and only nominally so, without actively promoting to join to this fight.
In the ports, even while many of the strikes are not being lead by the traditional bureaucracy of the “Nueva Mayoria†(New Majority - Communist Party and Concertación), in many cases independent unionists or those linked to the left outside of the Communist Party still reproduce the same bureaucratic methods; strikes are not prepared from the grassroots, are not discussed in assemblies nor have elected delegate structures in place, which would best organize the struggle and promote the activity of the thousands of dockworkers belonging to the Unión Portuario. From our perspective of refounding the unions under the direct democracy of the workers, there can be no reproduction of the bureaucratic methods of the old union bureaucracy. We need the strength to challenge the unions of the CUT union bureaucracy and the CP and Concertación, and unify from below the unions and working class organizations. A large part of this leadership refuses to wage this battle, equating the bureaucracy of the CUT with the tens of thousands of organized workers, handing over the majority of unions to the leadership of this bureaucracy of class collaboration, and educating the dockworkers movement in a “corporative†consciousness. Their actions have also divided the ranks of the workers movement at crucial moments, such as the national strike of the CUT in July 11, 2013, the most important since the transition to democracy, when they called for no stoppages except the one announced by the CUT.

The intervention of the PTR in the dockworkers’ strike

As the Partido de Trabajadores Revolucionarios (PTR – Revolutionary Workers’ Party) we are actively intervening in the port strike, which is playing out to be a fundamental battle. Together with the comrades of Alternativa Obrera (Workers’ Alternative), in the port of Angamos de Mejilliones we are an active part of the strike and the strike camp. As part of the temporary labour, we look to strengthen the strategic unity with the permanent “contratados†, end all temporary labour, and work to strengthen the rank-and-file assemblies in the struggle to refound the unions from the grassroots. In Valparaíso we are fighting in the port against the leadership of the old democratic pro-business bureaucratic strikebreakers that look to stop this form of activism and any type of struggle. We look to extend the conflict with a national dockworkers strike prepared from the grassroots and for a national stoppage of the CUT. In Mejilliones and Antofagasta, we have launched coordinating committees in solidarity with the dockworkers; where workers, student federations, cultural and left organizations participate. These committees have launched caravans of solidarity, and a festival at the strike camp on January 5 attended by hundreds of dockworkers and students. Performers at the festival included singers from Santiago, such as Portavoz and our comrades Zonyko and Yonni Joints from the Class Struggle Hip Hop Brigade (BH2C – Brigada Hip Hop Clasista), as well as numerous regional bands. We are an active part of the organization and defense of the strike camp against police intimidation, and we look to extend solidarity in all of the city and the region. We also have a presence in the strike camp at Arica with comrades from the Secretary of Worker-Student Unity (Secretaría de Unidad Obrero-Estudiantil) from the Universidad of Tarapacá.

In Santiago we are actively promoting the Coordinating Committee in Support of the Dockworkers. The Committee has organized a rally of over 200 people outside the Labour Ministry and a march of more than 500 workers and students in Santiago on January 7, as well as coordinating meetings, activities and agitation in the streets. On February 10 we are promoting a festival in solidarity with the dockworkers at USACH (University of Santiago, Chile), and on February 9 a rally outside of the company head office.

[1] “Eventual†or temporary labour is a modern form of casualisation in the ports. The contract of employment lasts 7 ½ hours, this means that the relation with the company starts with the work day and ends that day. As more temporary labour is needed when there are more ships, this sector has grown greatly with the current boom in exports. According to the Unión Portuaria, 80 percent of the 21,000 dockworkers in the country are “eventuales†. They have no right to health benefits, pensions, paid vacations and bonuses. They have neither the right to collective negotiation nor to strike. In the event of an economic crisis, the bosses can get rid of “eventual†labour without any legal impediment [Note in original].

[2] Albert Von Appen, who founded the original shipping company in 1952, was expelled from Chile in 1945 as a spy for the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. Under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tow boat belonging to the shipping company was found among the boats where corpses had been thrown into the sea. Sven Von Appen was quoted on the day of the recent Chilean Presidential elections as saying that he had been “looking for another Pinochet†("buscamos a otro Pinochet") in the previous decades [Note by translator].

[3] CUT - Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile, United Workers’ Central. The main Chilean union federation [Note by translator].