On August 13 the Chilean Trade Union Confederation (CUT) called a one-day general strike. This was the first general strike since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship. It marks the beginning of a new epoch and has to be seen within the context of the general situation in the whole of the South American sub-continent.
The whole sub-continent is in turmoil. Chile was often quoted as being an exception by the bourgeois media, but now close to the 30th anniversary of the Pinochet coup which took place back in 1973 on September 11, the Chilean workers are returning to their militant traditions.
The Chilean government (which is a coalition made up of the Socialist Party and Christian Democracy) has been following the diktats of the IMF and World Bank by opening up the Chilean economy to the USA and the EU. It has also been attacking the living conditions of the Chilean working class, but it has been doing this through a policy of "social partnership", i.e. with the agreement of the trade union leaders.
In spite of the praises heaped on the Chilean governments by the bourgeois in the advanced capitalist countries, the real economic situation is quite dramatic. The number of unemployed has reached over 500,000 out of the total population of Chile of about 15 million, or around 9.5%. The minimum wage is about $150 a month, which is well below the minimum daily requirements of any worker. The number of families living below the poverty line is about 18%. Meanwhile, the richest 10% get 50% of the overall national income. Just these figures alone show that far from being the success story of Latin America, (as in the past Argentina and Brazil were supposed to be) Chile is afflicted by the same disease as the rest of the sub-continent. Thus there is only one option for the working class, to take to the road of struggle. This explains the August 13 general strike.
Long term effects
The government and the bourgeois media at first preferred to ignore the strike, then they tried to play down its importance. Nevertheless the strike was a big success. The police did not ignore it however, as they repressed it with all their might. A clash between the police and the protesters led to the injury of one police officer and resulted in some 70 arrests.
On this website we have reported extensively on the workers struggles throughout South America. We have highlighted the general instability that is affecting the whole sub-continent. The recent events in Chile simply underline the fact that this process has now begun to affect this country as well. What up until recently was merely expressed in economic statistics (unemployment, poverty levels, etc.) has now been given an expression through the workers' mass organisations, beginning with the trade unions. The social discontent has reached such a level that the trade union bureaucracy and the Socialist Party leaders (who are in the government) were forced to call the strike.
This general strike has underlined the deep rift which has opened up between the CUT, dominated by the Socialist and Communist parties, and the coalition government headed by Ricardo Lagos, himself a Socialist Party leader. This puts the Socialist Party members involved in the government in an awkward position, especially considering that the leadership of the party actually supported the strike.
Mr. Insulza, the Chilean Minister of the Interior, who described the strike as "political", insisted prior to the strike that "there are no excuses: those who fail to show up for work on Wednesday have been warned. In a democracy all citizens have the right to demonstrate and express their ideas, but the government also has been empowered to rule and have its laws respected."
These people have a strange understanding of what democracy means. Dozens of demonstrators arrested and the use of tear gas and water cannons against the demonstration in the capital, Santiago, show what kind of democracy they stand for.
This strike will have long-term political consequences within the ruling coalition as well as within the ranks of the Socialist Party itself. Already some within the leadership of the party are preparing to challenge the Socialist Prime Minister, Mr. Lagos.
There is a clear division within the leadership of the Socialist Party. Next week there will be commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Pinochet´s coup. This will be used by a section of the party bureaucracy as an excuse to justify their remaining in a coalition with the right-wing parties in government. In fact they have already stated that Allende's "mistake" was not to widen his coalition to the Christian Democrats. According to their argument, if the left had formed an alliance with one of the main bourgeois parties then the coup could have been avoided! This ignores the fact that the Christian Democrats back in 1973 colluded with Pinochet and actually called on him to intervene. But from the latest developments many activists will draw the conclusion that collusion with the right-wing parties and the bosses is no way out for the working class. What is this government offering the workers today? More and more cuts and attacks on the conquests of the past. The workers will draw the conclusion that what is needed is an independent working class policy. This is the only way of achieving any victory for the working people.
The Trade Unions
The CUT held a National Conference just after the strike on August 24. In that conference it reiterated its support for the strike. It also officially declared that it will maintain its struggle against NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement).
Unfortunately they do not pose a clear socialist alternative to this. They instead support the idea of the MERCOSUR, a kind of South American Common Market. They are incapable of developing a perspective that goes beyond the confines of capitalism.
The union has clearly been going through a crisis and has been trying to recover its influence by organising opposition against the government. The leaders of the CUT need to show that they are taking a clear step to the left if they wish to capitalise on the success of the general strike and at the same time give some glimmer of hope to the left activists that are looking for an alternative.
What the Trade Unions must do is to get rid of those elements that are linked to the bosses and their political representatives. The Colectivo Siglo XXI (21st Century Collective), which is a faction within the CUT that did not support the general strike and actually openly boycotted it. This grouping is clearly a fifth column inside the Chilean trade unions and must not be allowed to use the organisations of the working class to defend the interests of the capitalists and the imperialists.
However, that would not be enough. The trade unions need to elect leaders who are prepared to fight and defend the genuine interests of the Chilean workers. This "Refoundation" conference represents a small step forward. However what was lacking was a serious self-criticism of the recent period of social partnership with the coalition government.
The task is to reclaim the unions for the long tradition of militancy of the Chilean working class. The same goes for the traditional mass political organisations of the working class in Chile, i.e. the Socialist and Communist parties. These have a major influence in the trade unions, as most of the leaders come from these parties. The struggles that will open up in the coming years will put to the test all the organisations of the Chilean labour movement. In this context the workers will relearn all the lessons of the past.
The general strike in August, which was called as a protest action against the casualisation of labour and the anti-union laws, has to be seen as an expression of the great discontent which has built up within Chilean society. It is still in its early stages, but it represents the reawakening of the powerful Chilean working class. The class struggle is once again on the agenda and events in Chile are destined to have an important impact on the revolutionary process that is unfolding in other countries such as Argentina and Venezuela. The Chilean workers will take their rightful place at the side of their brothers and sisters across the sub-continent.