General strike in Chile

Nov. 2019 Chile strike (CUT via Telesur)
Photo from the CUT trade-union federation, Chile.

By ERWIN FREED

Business and transportation ground to a halt on Nov. 12 in Chile, as workers walked out in a nationwide general strike—the second in three weeks. School classes were canceled and many government offices closed their doors. Many thousands of striking workers joined marches in the cities, while some protesters, including truck drivers, erected barricades to block the highways and streets.

In less than a month, there have been well over one million people in the streets of Santiago, Antofagasta, and across the entire Chilean map. Since protests began over proposed metro fare increases on Oct. 18, workers have made demands that include a huge increase in the minimum wage, nationalization of important resources, and a constituent assembly to remove the institutional holdovers of Augusto Pinochet’s long and bloody dictatorship.

Various revolutionary groups have seized the moment to fortify the movement into something that will not stop until, at minimum, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera falls and the possibility of workers actually taking state power is created. Today, Nov. 12, thousands of workers have put down their tools and gone into the street to bolster their demands for the president’s resignation and a solution to the socioeconomic crisis.

Conditions of the crisis

Despite being rich in resources and the world’s largest copper producer, Chile has much poverty and one of the highest levels of inequality in Latin America. Over half of all Chilean workers earn less than $550 a month, and over half of those living off pensions get less than $190 a month. This is in one of the most expensive countries regionally and where the U.S.-backed dictatorship of the 1970s-90s privatized all public services. The so-called “democratic” governments since Pinochet’s fall have continued the trend. Chileans have some of the highest consumer debt in the world for the same reason that we do in the United States. Health care, education, retirement, and all other aspects of social life are in the hands of private capital.

The current set-up in Chile is a boon for imperialism. U.S. companies own three of the AFP pension corporations, and in general there is over $26 billion of annual U.S. investment in the country. Piñera has also made moves for Chile to become China’s “business hub in Latin America.” Chinese annual FDI into Chile is already double that of the U.S.

Rediscovering the general strike

The demand for a second general strike in less than a month was taken up on all fronts within the workers’ movement. Following Piñera’s initial response to the massive upsurge of workers and students, which included both concessions and severe repression, Oct. 23 saw the country’s first general strike in many years. The strike forced out multiple officials in Piñera’s regime as well as more concessions and commitment to “dialogue,” but none of the main demands have been met and protests have continued by the day.

On the conservative end of the workers’ organizations are the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio (Broad Front). These groups support the call for a general strike but want to control it and limit its scope. They have been accused of holding coordination meetings behind closed doors and without the active participation of the broad reaches of the working class.

The announcement of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) in favor of another general strike came after a Nov. 6 decision by the government that the monthly minimum wage would only be raised to CLP$350 thousand, about USD$70 more than the current minimum wage. The demand from the movement is for a minimum wage of CLP$500 thousand (USD$640).

Workers’ assemblies emerge

Across the country, workers have begun to self-organize in assemblies, which serve as stunning examples for the entire world movement. Especially in areas where the Social Unity Board, a collection of reformist groupings and trade unions, is absent, these assemblies have given the Chilean working people spaces to plan, organize, and coordinate their fight against the government. Instead of creating a phony “dialogue” with Piñera and Chilean capital, assemblies like the Comité de Emergencia y Resguardo in Antofagasta allow real discussions for the only social force that can sweep away the remnants of Pinochet’s dictatorship and implement the necessary economic and political changes to ensure a green economy, livable wages, and cheap quality public services.

The CUT union federation (Workers’ United Center of Chile) reported on Nov. 3 that over 300 councils had been organized by various worker and community groups, with over 10,000 Chileans participating. These councils came together despite the government imposed “state of emergency” which made public assemblies illegal. The demands, as articulated by the minute taker from one council, were put thusly:

“New Political Constitution; constituent assembly; New Pension and Solidarity Pension System, the NO + AFP was repeated many times as one of the important slogans; Environmental protection, no more areas of sacrifice; Nationalization of Common Goods such as water, energy and natural resources such as lithium and copper as well as basic services; Substantial increase in the Minimum Wage and improvements in the Labor System; Quality and free Public Education; creation of a Single Public Health System with the necessary resources for timely and quality care and without undercover privatizations such as waiting lists; effective access and improvement of housing; Tax Reform, modification of the tax system where the richest should contribute more; real and timely justice for violation of human rights; gender equality and feminist approach in public policies. In short, Chileans and Chileans demand a real and participatory democracy that effectively includes all the people who inhabit this territory: women, native peoples, children, and migrants.”

Question of constituent assembly

A major proposed concession from Piñero calls for a process to change the Chilean constitution. The proposal is a conscious echo of the demand for a constituent assembly, which has been raised continuously from the streets. However, it is an obvious betrayal and inversion of the will of the people and has been unanimously rejected by workers’ organizations. Piñera’s plan would leave drafting the new constitution up to a committee in which half of the delegates would be elected by Chilean citizens and half decided by the current reactionary congress.  The whole function of this procedure would be to keep Piñera in power and deflate the popular movement in the country.

Among left-wing organizations, a debate is taking place concerning the type and necessity of a constituent assembly. The Frente Amplio and Communist Party seem to be willing to accept a constituent assembly that would start with a plebiscite to decide the scope of the process and generally leave untouched the social relations within the country. These reformist groupings demand a new process of governance somewhat symbolically, also accepting and even going out of their way to begin a dialogue with people like Minister of the Interior and Public Security Gonzalo Blumel.

On the other end of the spectrum sits the Left Workers Movement (MIT), affiliated with the International Workers League-Fourth International, who argue that a constituent assembly would be a trap to defang the workers’ movement. In the MIT’s view, instead of focusing on the demand for a constituent assembly, revolutionaries should be fighting to organize the class around economic and political demands. These include:

  • Forgiveness of the debts of workers, youth and people
  • End the AFPs [private pension system]. Minimum pension of 500 thousand pesos
  • Free public and state health, education, and transportation, controlled by workers and the people
  • End of subcontracting and informal work that reduces our rights
  • Reduction of working hours to guarantee employment for all. Minimum salary increase to CLP$ 600,000
  • The right to self-determination of the Mapuche people and immediate demilitarization of the Wallmapu.

Finally, there is the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR), affiliated with the Trotskyist Fraction, who argue for a “free and sovereign” constituent assembly. In this view, a constituent assembly would need to be convened purely out of the workers’ mobilizations through the already-existing industrial and community assemblies discussed above. Instead of simply drafting a new constitution, the constituent assembly would be faced with the tasks of reshaping Chilean society to the utmost limit of what is possible in bourgeois democracy—and beyond. These demands include:

  • Expropriation of the ports without compensation
  • Nationalization under workers’ control of the electricity, water, gas, and all public service companies
  • Nationalization of copper and strategic natural resources, with no compensation to the owners, under the management and control of the workers and the communities.

They note, “If an emergency program like the one we are proposing is implemented, it will likely come up against the violent opposition of the big capitalists, who will defend all their privileges tooth and nail alongside their repressive state.” Therefore, “it is more urgent than ever to form assemblies and coordinating committees at workplaces, schools and universities, and in neighborhoods.”

Chile’s road remains open

What will happen next in Chile is an open question. At the same time, the fact that there is such uncertainty in the country is emblematic of the new phase that the global class struggle seems to be entering. If Chilean workers’ continue on their path of self-organization and mass movement militancy, the possibility remains that cordones industriales (workers’ councils that coordinated political struggles in several factories and companies), such as the ones that were built in the early 1970s, can reemerge in the country. Today’s general strike may be a step towards dual power re-emerging in Latin America. Alongside the apparent coup in Bolivia and the workers’ response in that country, all eyes are on the revolutionary moments opening before us.

Watch video of medical workers marching in Santiago during the Nov. 12 general strike:

https://www.instagram.com/p/B4xCjfoJvto/?igshid=1dp2gvz0ffbo1

 

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