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Lester Calderón, the Chilean Worker Who Wants to Bring the Voice of the Workers to Congress

Lester Calderón is a union leader in an explosives factory in Antofagasta, Chile’s mining capital. He is a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) who unexpectedly garnered 13 percent of the votes for governor in May. Now he’s running for Congress.

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Chilean worker and socialist Lester Calderon, a bearded 34-year-old stands in the center. The text says, in Spanish, "A worker for Congress."

Lester Calderón is 34 years old, a worker and union leader at an explosives factory in the industrial district of the city of Antofagasta, Chile’s mining capital. He surprised many in the Norte Grande region in the elections in May, when he ran for governor of the mining region and won 21,387 votes (more than 13 percent). He is a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR), an organization that is part of the International Network La Izquierda Diario and the Trotskyist Fraction, which is present in 14 countries worldwide. He is now running for the lower house of Congress “to win a seat for the workers, to strengthen our struggles and those of all the people, young people and women.”

A Worker Engaged in Politics, against the System’s Politicians

Lester was born in the city of La Serena in July 1987. But at the age of 12 he moved to Antofagasta, which has long been his home, his beloved desert. He grew up in the northern sector of the city. As a kid, he joined the punk scene, and between parties and concerts he began to take part in demonstrations, joining the different social movements that emerged in the city.

Lester attended B-13 High School, which is known for the activism of its teachers’ union and where important city leaders have emerged, like Patricia Romo, former communal president of the Teachers’ College and a fellow member of the PTR.

Lester tells us he began to become socially aware at a young age, “seeing the glaring inequalities and injustices of a city that is very rich in natural resources, but whose wealth is enjoyed only by a small minority of big businessmen, while the great majority of us barely get by and live in debt and poor health.” He studied philosophy at the University of Antofagasta and was an active member of the students’ movement in 2006 and 2011, seeking to unite students and workers in a movement for free education.

At the university he became a member of what is now the PTR, an organization that has earned an important space for itself in the mining region, having been a part of different struggles and movements and played a significant role during the 2019 uprising. Once he became a father, he was forced to abandon his studies and began to work in the industrial sector. There he began to organize his coworkers, managing to take back the union that was in the hands of the bureaucracy. At the Orica factory, he led several struggles with his coworkers. In 2016, for example, the union organized to establish security measures after an explosion in the factory due to corporate irresponsibility killed two workers. In the same factory, they strengthened their organization from the grassroots, enabling them to fight layoffs in the following months and to achieve better wages and working conditions. He quickly became an example for different sectors of workers who were organizing and fighting for better working and living conditions.

Lester belongs to a new generation of workers, women, and young people who are organizing in their workplaces, schools, hospitals, towns, and on the streets, but who also “engage in politics, not like the politicians of the system who live like millionaires, far away from the population, but as workers, from our different struggles, to organize for our demands and to achieve a life that is worth living, to fight to transform this society, in which the profits of a handful of banks, mining companies, and corporations are worth more than our health and our lives, and build a society in which workers will organize production and social life for the benefit of the vast majority, to meet the demands we’ve been fighting for, for years: free and high-quality public health and education, salaries and pensions that allow us to live with dignity, housing for all, etc.”

From the Grassroots and in the Struggles

Lester garnered broad support in the region as a candidate for governor. Lester says the support he received from miners and industrial, service, retail, health, school, and municipal workers didn’t fall from the sky. “It was the result of many previous experiences by workers and the oppressed who have been fighting in the region for years, with strikes and work stoppages, student protests, struggles against the pension system, and environmental movements against environmental exploitation, for which the large mining companies and the Luksic Group are responsible.

In 2019 we established the Emergency Care and Protection Committee [CER], where hundreds of us organized in self-defense against the repression and violation of human rights, fighting for [then president Sebastián] Piñera to resign and for a free and sovereign constituent assembly. In the electoral campaign, we traveled throughout the region, setting up branches in the mines, factories, schools, hospitals, and towns, and we found broad support there and were able to strengthen the organization from below, against the politicians of the system or those who make agreements with the powerful. Today we want to win a seat in Congress for the workers of the entire region.”

This did not fall from the sky. It is the product of years of struggle and solidarity. Lester was an active collaborator during the port strikes in Mejillones and Antofagasta, and in 2013 he supported and showed his solidarity with the striking teachers in 2014, 2016, and 2019, as well as with striking mining and industrial workers, seeking to unite the struggles and organizing several joint marches in the city.

He supported the strong teacher’s movement during the rank-and-file uprising that gave rise to the profesores indignados phenomenon. He also supported the struggle against layoffs in the railway company Ferrocarril Antofagasta Bolivia (FCAB), which is owned by Luksic. These are the processes that laid the foundations for the emergence of the PTR in the region. During these struggles, Lester traveled throughout the region, providing support and coordinating struggles in Calama, Tocopilla, Mejillones, and María Elena, “where we joined the Likan Antay community in their fight against the exploitation of the big lithium companies.”

During these struggles he has fervently supported “coordination and unity.” “Throughout all these years, we have learned that if we don’t coordinate, organize, and build mutual solidarity independently of corporations and the system’s politicians, it is much more difficult to withstand their attacks and win the fight.

That is why we have sought to unite the different struggles, for example through the Coordinating Committee against layoffs, and between workers and environmental movements, as in our struggle against the Luksic Group, when we fought alongside rail workers and environmentalists, in addition to coordinating actions between anti-bureaucratic organizations and the Emergency Care and Protection Committee during the uprising. We don’t just participate in the struggles. We have also been coordinating actions in towns like Miramar to provide PPE and supplies to help fight the pandemic, and organizing soup kitchens in response to the increase in poverty.”

“Just a few weeks ago, we ended a legal strike at the Antofagasta regional hospital,” he says. “It included more than 200 workers from the laundry and cleaning sectors, from the most precarious sectors of the city, immigrants, squatters, and people who live in camps and face job insecurity every day. They are essential health workers — as they said, ‘without cleaning workers, there’s no health’ — and they waged a battle that became an example for other workers in the city, not only because they won a significant wage increase from an intransigent multinational company, but also because they gained the support of the population and questioned the system of concessions designed to enrich the business cronies of the political elite.”

It is part of a phenomenon of union and political activism that is beginning to emerge in the region. “Now we aim to transform that organization and support into a broad campaign so that we can have a representative of workers, women, and young people in Congress.”

The Struggle for Life, to Put an End to Exploitation and Plunder

“We are not politicians of the system, those who earn millions and don’t understand our needs.” That is why, Lester says, “if we are elected, we will continue to receive the same salary as we did in the factory and we will fight to end all the privileges that this system gives to the representatives of big business.”

In addition to earning the same as a worker in his factory, Lester tells us that “Antofagasta is a very rich region, which has enormous natural and strategic resources that could be in the hands of working people, who could use them to meet the people’s needs related to housing, wages, education, health, or pensions. But today, this enormous wealth is hoarded by a handful of national and multinational corporations, who take the money abroad while poverty and precarious working conditions increase in the region and throughout the country.”

That is why he says that “one of our central demands is the nationalization of copper and strategic and natural resources without paying compensation to those who have stolen our resources, under the control of the workers and communities, to put an end to the plunder and use that enormous wealth for the benefit of working people, to meet our needs and not to increase the profits of a handful of rich people. We need an emergency plan for the entire working class and the oppressed.” He goes on to say that “other demands for which we are fighting are a minimum wage and pension according to a basic family budget of 600,000 pesos, to put an end to all forms of precarious work, for a housing plan to end bank speculation and high rent, for the right to high-quality, free education and public health, for the right to free, safe and legal abortion, and for the return of stolen lands to the Mapuche people, for their right to national self-determination.”

A Call to Action for the Working Class and the Youth to Win a Seat in Congress for the Workers

Lester tells us that they aim to “gain a seat for the workers. Today we have an opportunity that we are going to fight for, against the candidates of the right-wing and the old Concertación [coalition of traditional center and center-left parties], who now pretend to be on the side of the people when they have been responsible for continuing the legacy of the dictatorship and for creating the situation that we are in now. ‘A candidate of the workers or a politician of the system?’ Therein lies the dilemma.”

Lester also points out that “the people know that if I get into Congress, I will earn the same salary as I did in the factory, and I will donate the rest to different struggles and to strengthen the organization. But I will also not sell out or make any compromises with this system, nor will I be willing to make agreements behind the backs of the people, like the representatives of big business and their parties always do. We want to campaign to fight consistently against the system. We have already seen that the Broad Front, which claimed to represent some kind of renewal, continues to make agreements with the old parties, like they did in the Constitutional Convention, in which they formed a two-thirds majority with the Pinochetistas and the Concertación.”

Lester sees this candidacy and the PTR’s electoral campaign as part of the fight for “a workers’ alternative that is truly independent of all the parties representing big business, an alternative emerging from the people’s struggles and self-organization that can fight to put an end to the entire legacy of the dictatorship, and for workers to govern and use all our resources to meet our needs, not to increase the profits of a minority of millionaires.”

“Our campaign started from the grassroots, without the funding that the other candidates had,” he explained. It was supported and promoted by hundreds of workers and students who want to be able to bring food to their families’ tables. It is totally independent of corporations.” He added that “we will seek to expand this effort to continue to strengthen the self-organization of working people and a political movement that is independent of corporations, to fight for the demands of the movement that emerged in October.”

Originally published in Spanish on August 27 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Marisela Trevin

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