Chile: Union Protests Calling for Greater Social Spending Result in Violence

Article excerpt

Chilean federal police clashed with demonstrators in the capital city of Santiago during protests in the final week of August. The Aug. 30 demonstrations, organized by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), resulted in with more than 750 arrests and 37 police officers wounded. The unrest revealed that at least a portion of the Chilean population is dissatisfied with the government of President Michelle Bachelet and its level of social spending. Conservative opposition leaders accused the government of backing the strikes, since groups allied with Bachelet's Partido Socialista (PS) organized and supported them.

Significant sectors of the Chilean left and civic groups have demanded higher expenditures from the government as copper prices have soared in the past few years. The Chilean government derives a large portion of its revenues from the state-owned copper company Corporacion del Cobre (CODELCO), and prices are more than triple what they were earlier in the decade (see NotiSur, 2006-02-24, 2006-09-08 and 2007-07-27).

As Bachelet has attempted to maintain a large budget surplus with CODELCO's increased profits, groups from copper contractors to activists critical of Santiago's troubled transit system have demanded that she spend more (see NotiSur, 2007-04-13). Most prominent among these protest movements was a large-scale strike by public school students last year, not long after Bachelet's inauguration, calling for legal reforms to the nation's education law and greater education funding (see NotiSur, 2006-06-23 and 2006-07-28).

Demands: higher minimum wage, pensions, benefits

The marches of Aug. 29-30 sought a greater increase in the national minimum wage, among other demands. The CUT, the country's largest labor confederation, called on Bachelet to step up her role as a Socialist president and reduce the neoliberal nature of the Chilean economy. Neoliberalism is a principle that views the free movement of trade and capital as the key element driving an economy.

Chilean police used tear gas and water cannons and arrested scores of people in the first day of the protest. The CUT had billed the rally as the biggest since democracy was restored 17 years ago, after the dictatorship of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), and urged residents to turn out across the capital to march for a better minimum wage, pensions benefits, and collective bargaining.

The demonstration was a fresh blow to Bachelet, whose popularity has tumbled in recent months after the troubled introduction of a flawed, chaotic new transit system for the capital, called Transantiago. The August march also came hot on the heels of a lengthy strike by contracted workers at CODELCO.

Several thousand people gathered across the city and there were 59 arrests in the capital, said Felipe Harboe, the deputy interior minister. Other arrests followed protests in Valparaiso and Concepcion.

Despite some isolated incidents, including bus and taxi drivers blocking roads and letting the air let out of the tires on a bus, city transport was not paralyzed.

Harboe claimed 85% of school students had made it to class and 90% of workers got to work. "I think the turnout hasn't been what they expected," he said.

"This is a protest against the economic model this government is following," said Ana Maria Munoz, CUT vice president, adding that unions were "very disenchanted" with Bachelet. "We expected much more," she said.

Union leaders say the government's recent increase in the minimum wage to 145,000 pesos (US$284) from 135,000 (US$264) pesos per month was still too little to live on. The government passed a law in June increasing the minimum wage to 144,000 pesos (US$282), which would increase to 145,000 pesos at the start of 2008 if economic growth after the first three quarters of 2007 exceeded 5.8%.

Economists consulted by Chilean newspaper El Mercurio said that work stoppages, by slowing economic growth, might actually prevent the 1,000-peso increase. …