For many decades, Chile had one of the most extensive labor movements in the Western Hemisphere. Large increases in unionization through the 1960s occurred in response to efforts by the authorities to organize working-class groups. Intense competition between the Christian Democrats and the left added further to the extraordinary efforts to mobilize previously disenfranchised groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Under center-left administrations, Chile's workers obtained an array of workers' rights and established a collective bargaining system in which the state played a significant role as mediator. During the Popular Unity years, unions closely tied to the parties of the left played important roles in the management of enterprises taken over by the state. However, Chile's organized workers hardly constituted the revolutionary vanguard envisioned by some sectors of the far left. They were proud of their "conquests" and envisioned the policies of the Allende government as a continuation of favorable treatment for workers. Despite the size of Chile's labor movement, labor had little autonomy from party leadership. Most labor demands, outside of particular collective bargaining situations, responded to the strategies and calculations of party leaders both in and out of the government.
When the coup came, despite the rhetoric of the far left there was no independent working-class movement capable of resisting the imposition of military rule. With the arrest of labor and party leaders, any possibility of resistance vanished. The military regime was extremely harsh on organized labor because of its close ties to the parties of the left. The principal labor federation, the United Labor Federation (Central Única de Trabajadores), was disbanded and many of its leaders were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. The authorities adopted a new labor code, which prohibited labor federations, sharply restricted the right to strike, and gave significant latitude to employers in the hiring and firing of workers and in procedures for settling disputes.
Structural changes in the Chilean economy, particularly the collapse of large traditional industries that had depended on state subsidies and tariff protection, combined with the highest levels of urban unemployment in Latin America during the 1980s, also exacted a harsh toll on the labor movement. By the mid-1980s, the number of unionized workers was only one-third of its highest level, while the growing numbers of women in the labor force, particularly in commercial agriculture, remained nonunionized. By 1987 only about 10 percent of the total work force was unionized; approximately 20 percent of industrial labor belonged to unions. Only in select areas, such as copper mining, where 60 percent of the workers were unionized, was the union movement able to hold its own.
Despite organized labor's decline, when the military authorities attempted to develop an alternative labor movement with a "renewed" leadership to their liking, they failed. Even in government-mandated elections for new union leaders at the plant level, workers tended to select union members who were hostile to the government and had close ties to opposition parties. It was this "tolerated" labor movement, spearheaded by the Confederation of Copper Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores del Cobre--CTC), that ignited the widespread protests and strikes of 1983 coordinated by the National Workers' Command (Comando Nacional de Trabajadores--CNT). Less militant was the centrist (pro-PDC) Workers' Democratic Federation (Central Democrática de Trabajadores--CDT). The government moved swiftly, however, to curb all labor activism through repressive measures and threats to fire workers, particularly in the copper mines. Party leaders soon replaced labor leaders as the principal organizers of the growing opposition to the military government.
In the early 1990s, the principal labor confederation in Chile was the Unitary Confederation of Labor (Confederación Única de Trabajadores--CUT), established in 1988 as the successor to the National Trade Union Coordinating Board (Coordinadora Nacional de Sindicatos--CNS), a grouping of industrial, professional, and mining unions led by leftist Christian Democrats and elements of the left. With the return of democracy, labor pressed for a more favorable labor code and for social policies that would improve poor people's standard of living. Although the Aylwin government was constrained in approving new labor legislation by the opposition majority in the Senate, some modifications were made to the labor code. The strong climate of opinion in the country in favor of free markets and minimal government restrictions on labor markets, a position embraced by the Aylwin government, has hemmed in labor's room for maneuvering.
The weakness of the labor movement reflected not only the low incidence of organized labor in Chile's new economic context but also the degree to which labor continued to be controlled by Chile's principal parties, parties that were able to exert substantial "labor discipline" during Aylwin's transitional government. There were indications, however, that this discipline may have been obtained at a cost. There appeared to be dissatisfaction among rank-and-file workers with the close relationship between union and party leaders and some bitterness about the low priority the government accorded their interests, despite government success in changing some of the labor laws.
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