Interview: Chilean Dockworkers Organize Month-Long Strike and Face Down Police in Rooftop Standoff

Casual dockworkers met during their 36-day strike last year at the Port of Valparaíso, one of the largest ports in Chile. They want benefits equivalent to those in other Chilean ports. Photo courtesy of Katy Fox-Hodess.

Casual dockworkers in the Port of Valparaíso, one of the largest ports in Chile, in December ended a 36-day strike.

The majority of Chile’s fruit exports pass through this port. The strike came at the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere—the height of the season for fruit, one of the biggest export industries in the country.

The strikers were demanding that their employers negotiate over the lack of employment guarantees for casual workers and agree to pay $3,000 to compensate workers for wages lost during a downturn in employment. They also demanded that the employers stop using blacklists to punish activists.

Strikers faced heavy police repression, including a standoff that significantly damaged their union building while nearly two dozen workers were trapped on the roof. Many activists faced threats or violence from unknown thugs.

Dockworkers undertake all the work involved in loading and unloading cargo from ships in port terminals—from operating heavy machinery like cranes and straddle carriers to securing and checking containers. While some of the work is done by workers with permanent contracts and fixed schedules, much of the work is done by casual workers who are technically hired from shift to shift with no fixed schedule or long-term guarantee of employment.

Rank-and-file workers organized and led the strike, despite opposition from the leadership of their local union, Sindicato No. 1 de Estibadores (Longshore Workers Union Number One), the largest union at the port. It’s one of a few that make up the COTRAPORCHI confederation of port unions, known for its close relationship to the employers.

The vast majority of Chile’s dockworker locals are affiliated to a competing national organization, the Unión Portuaria (the Dockworkers Union). The affiliates of COTRAPORCHI, including the one in Valparaíso, have consistently declined to participate in national dockworker mobilizations called by the Unión Portuaria and have actively undermined its strikes by accepting diverted cargo. The working conditions for casual dockworkers in Valparaíso have therefore remained inferior to those found in other ports in the country. For example, in contrast to casual dockworkers at other ports in Chile, the Valparaíso dockers do not control the work roster through their union hiring hall and lack access to paid vacation time, sick leave, and parental leave.

Historically, the Chilean labor movement was among the strongest in Latin America. But it suffered major reversals during the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which disappeared thousands of labor and left-wing activists and made lasting changes to labor law. One of the most significant legal changes was to shift organizing and collective bargaining from the national to the sub-enterprise level, meaning that every company may have multiple unions seeking to organize workers, and that those unions only exist at the company level (though they may join national confederations). Additionally, the shift from a strategy of economic growth through industrialization to a strategy of economic growth through the export of primary commodities resulted in the collapse of the manufacturing sector, historically one of the strongest sectors of the labor movement.

Since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, Chilean trade unionists have struggled to rebuild. Nevertheless, in some sectors, workers have made significant gains against the odds. The Unión Portuaria has provided a particularly vivid example of the kinds of gains that are possible through unity, militancy, and rank-and-file leadership. Through month-long national strikes in 2013 and 2014, the Unión Portuaria forced the government to participate in national sectoral-level collective bargaining for the first time since before the dictatorship, despite lacking a legal basis to do so. The resulting agreement, which covered both permanent and casual workers, resulted in significant payouts to dockworkers who had long been denied their lunch hour, which is now guaranteed by law.

This time around, Valparaíso dockworkers won a modest financial settlement from the strike. But more than two dozen casual workers active in the struggle have been blacklisted by the employer and have not had work since October. Nevertheless, the struggle to improve working conditions in Valparaíso is ongoing. The casual workers hope to win contracts with benefits equivalent to those in other ports in the country.

In January I spoke to one of the blacklisted activists, Marcos Montecinos, a key rank-and-file leader during the strike, the day after a group of dissidents, sympathetic to the Unión Portuaria, won nearly all the elected offices in the union. The interview was conducted in Spanish.—Katy Fox-Hodess

Labor Notes: What were the key factors that led to the strike?

Marcos Montecinos: The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the shift work began to diminish considerably. From May onwards we started to do two shifts a week; after that in July, one shift a week; and in August we were doing one shift every two weeks. No family can endure that. So I created a Whatsapp group called Fuerza Portuaria (Docker Strength). I added a lot of comrades. The rank and file began to mobilize.

The discontent came to the attention of some union leaders, who said, “We can’t be party to this, because there have been 18 years of labor peace.” But that labor peace had been achieved, in my opinion, thanks to the manipulation of the dockworker confederation COTRAPORCHI by its leadership, working together with the terminal operators TPS and OPEVAL.

The thing about this dockworker organization is it’s only in the Fifth Region [centered around Valparaiso, standing just west of Santiago]. In the rest of Chile, the Unión Portuaria is the one that really has strength, fighting for dignity and professionalism for casual workers.

How did the strike begin?

We had the support of about 70 percent of the members. The other 30 percent stayed in their homes hoping that the issue would be resolved in some way. The company offered them work, and these are the scabs that we have today.

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Everything began with the discontent, and also because of a meeting we had in the Prat Dock that hundreds of workers attended [on November 16].

We left Prat Dock, we took to the streets, and we made some improvised signs with spray cans and sheets. I took some paper from my notebook and put “TPS” and the “S” was a dollar sign, made with a red pen. I passed them out to everyone. Some alternative and local media arrived to cover the march. We arrived at TPS and were immediately repressed. The Special Forces of the police arrived, beating and assaulting the workers.

That was in November. The rage felt by each worker, as a result of the economic crisis they were trying to cope with, was increased as well by the disproportionate physical aggression and violence on the part of the Special Forces of the police who were there lending support to the company.

The workers began to take justice into their own hands. There were workers running in every direction. Out of nowhere, burning tires appeared. The water cannon from the police vehicle increased, as well as the teargas. And at that point we knew that this was literally a war on the part of the boss, sending his dogs out to shut us up.

But the workers didn’t have food in their homes—so we were going to fight for food for our children, for our wives. We decided to join together all of the unions in the port, but only as workers, and take our decisions without the union. The movement was of the rank and file, and the decision wasn’t taken by any union. We didn’t have trust in our leadership. Our leaders had never fought for us. We were in a crisis and they never took the reins.

During the strike in Valparaiso, how did dockworkers in the other ports in Chile respond?

As soon as they knew that Valparaíso had woken up, the Unión Portuaria contacted us and spoke with us. They guided us because they have experience. All their advice helped to get us through the situation, since this was our first fight.

The Union Portuaria drew international attention to dockworkers' problems. They also made it possible for us to affect the material interests of the companies, and that moved things along at the bargaining table, when the Unión Portuaria got all of the ports in Chile to stop work in solidarity with the workers in Valparaiso.

The Unión Portuaria has connections with other international bodies like the International Dockworkers Council [a militant, global organization of dockworkers’ unions], and the collaboration between the Unión Portuaria and the IDC was very important. The news that the dockworkers were on strike and trapped on the roof of their union, surrounded by Special Forces, putting the lives of each worker at risk, had a big impact. This was seen in many countries.

They provided support by threatening to blockade ships coming from Valparaíso. [Blockades were planned in the U.S., New Zealand and Panama but the dispute was resolved before the ships arrived.] This would directly affect the export of merchandise from Chile. This was the key factor in resolving the conflict as soon as possible.

What were the most important achievements of the strike?

There is a unanimous decision on the part of the workers that have woken up. We realized that we have been manipulated for many years and the real prospect in terms of benefits, economic well-being, and dignity for each worker is in joining the Unión Portuaria.

The most important achievement is that the dockworkers have come to take their future into their own hands. We could perhaps have received some more money, but that wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is what happens now, with the labor reforms and our new rank-and-file leadership, and that the contracts are already being modified to benefit the casual workers. They are talking about having all the workers under contract. We think that soon the casual workers could have the same benefits as the contracted workers, whether in terms of perks or having insurance, as they have in the other ports in Chile.

What will be done about the blacklist?

Getting rid of the blacklists was one of our demands. We are very aware that TPS is going to want to have blacklists, in which the most visible activists are not rehired. Today there are dozens of workers that have not been reintegrated at their workplace, including myself. And the government of Chile was the guarantor, co-signing the agreement in which they promised to not have blacklists—which there are today, as there have been in the past. It has been a month since the conflict was “resolved” and we haven’t been able to work, so we are thinking of taking action.

Katy Fox-Hodess is a lecturer in employment relations at Sheffield University in the UK.