In the early to mid-2000s, Walmart workers in both retail and logistics in Chile organized unions, went on strikes, and secured unprecedented gains in their wages and working conditions. What was particularly striking was that they did it within the confines of an unfavorable labor code — one that has not been substantively revised since the Pinochet dictatorship. The Chilean labor code forbids sectoral bargaining and allows multiple unions to exist in each workplace. As a result, many small unions proliferate, fragmenting the labor movement as a whole. In the case of Walmart, roughly forty-thousand workers are represented by over eighty unions and four labor federations. 

As I explore in Building Power from Below: Chilean Workers Take On Walmart, these leaders and workers pursued a rank-and-file strategy that prioritized political education, leadership development, and militancy. The creation of their unions occured in the context of rising student militancy, a renewal of the labor movement as a whole, and the unique political opportunity of Walmart’s entrance into an already unionized Chilean supermarket industry. Over the last five years, workers at Walmart have not been able to make the same kinds of gains. Walmart is no longer new in Chile, and the company has figured out how to use the fragmentation of unions to obtain the upper hand. For example, the company often offers small benefits to some unions over others to settle weak contracts more quickly. 

I caught up with Sandra Neida, president of the Autonomous Federation of Walmart Workers Chile; Natalia Duque, president of the Federation of Walmart Workers; and Juan Vergara, a legal advisor to Duque. They talked about the challenges they face in the industry, the importance of the constitutional convention process, and what it means for labor. These interviews, which have been edited and condensed, were conducted before the September 4th plebiscite. 


What are the challenges facing the retail industry, and, specifically, what’s going on in the supermarkets?

Natalia Duque: I think all of us in the supermarket sector are in the same boat. We’ve discovered that today cross-training is something that’s affecting retail universally. It’s not exclusive to just one company: all companies are moving toward having multifunctional workers. When we first organized the union, workers had specific duties, such as cashier, restocker, butcher, bread, etc. For the past decade, the company has been moving toward a model of one worker doing everything and that worker becomes a “store operator.” The effects of this are loss of jobs, more stressed workers, more leaves of absence, lower productivity, higher turnover, and more precarious work.

Sandra Neida: We’ve now formed a labor union front, which brings different Walmart unions together, at least those that want to challenge the company. We insist that the store operator issue isn’t so much about the automation of jobs but rather the number of functions people are given, which reduces the staff in the stores. Several unions came together, even ones that didn’t get along very well; we put aside our differences for the sake of unity. I think there are plans for a big congress. 

ND: The focus of this congress is to say: “Well, we all have a common enemy.” Which isn’t a company but rather the implementation of this multifunctional model, where — regardless of it having been declared illegal in no uncertain terms — today none of the supermarkets respects the ruling. Companies like Walmart always believe that they’re above the law, and there’s been no enforcement of the law. The same thing is happening at other companies.

The only way we are going to be able to fight these problems is by building unity among workers and saying that we’re not willing to have precarious jobs or jobs that are outside the law. The challenge today is to somehow recover workers’ dignity, which we’re already losing due to these multifunctional processes. Our task is to force business owners, especially Walmart, to adhere to what Chilean law says, at the very least. That’s the challenge that we have today: to work together against the bosses.

SN: I think the changing gender of the industry is also a problem for us. The industry used to be 70% women and now it's changing dramatically. Cashiers used to be 95% women, but as they are moving to this “store operator” model and forcing all workers to do everything, the older cashiers just can’t do it. So now they are hiring more men. Today, I think 60% or 55% are women. 

Juan Vergara: I think the gender issue is very much tied to the reduction of labor costs. Retail companies are experiencing increases in their labor costs. Since the minimum wage has increased significantly in recent years, companies have been reducing their labor costs through a reduction in other kinds of compensation (bonuses, commissions, etc.). The elimination of the cashier position means eliminating a position that paid a full-time worker approximately $200 per month more than a worker stocking shelves. It’s a big difference. The company is saving that amount per worker. Companies are also anticipating the reduction of the work week from 45 hours to 40 hours in the next year. They are adjusting to this reduction in hours with more work for the workers so that they don’t have to go out and hire more people to cover those unworked hours.

I think it is significant that, in a sense, the worker has already disappeared as a person and become a “concept.” The numerical value of that concept is what companies care about. In legal terms, the change to “store operator” is a severe setback in labor rights, since what companies demand of workers is much more extreme than what is authorized by Chilean law. 


What were your achievements during the latest collective bargaining? I know it was super difficult.

SN: Natalia and I finished negotiating at almost the same time. We were hours away from going on strike. Hours, just hours! Yeah, the negotiation was really tough. The company wants to implement whatever they want at all costs. Unfortunately, I can tell you that I don’t think it was a good negotiation. There were end-of-conflict incentives — we kept our bonus and everything. But we lost rights. For example, we will have to negotiate the federation bonus in two years, when it used to be guaranteed. I discussed it at the bargaining table with my union leaders. We took it to a vote, and the majority didn’t want a strike. But that will have consequences for the future. I don’t feel like it was a bad, lousy negotiation either. People got a good end-of-conflict incentive, and they raised our salaries. But I feel that, in terms of the company and our rights, it wasn’t as good.

ND: So yeah, we didn’t get a “win” on this one, except for some wording issues, and well, the end-of-conflict bonus and some other things. But actually, I believe that it’s by far the worst negotiation we’ve ever had. Sandra was hours from a strike, but I was seconds away from going on strike — we ended up in the Labor Department for almost 27 hours, and the truth is that the company’s current position is to get what they want, at all costs, no matter what it takes. So there was no longer any type of relationship or conversation, and, in fact, we lost a couple of labor rights that were very important to us. For example, our store operators are no longer going to receive their bonuses. It was really hard because the idea of ​​union organizations is not to lose labor rights but to win labor rights.

Bank Muñoz: Do you think a new constitution would change the dynamics that you experience day-to-day?

SN: Look, obviously as union leaders we are all for the Apruebo (“Approval”); there couldn’t be a union leader who isn’t going to approve the new constitution because the current constitution talks about “Fundamental Labor Rights” in Article 16, but it doesn’t guarantee them. It doesn’t say anything beyond the fact that you can have a job, but under what conditions? I was reading the new constitution (or the draft because it hasn’t been approved yet), and there are plenty of guarantees. For example, on the subject of unions, it establishes their full autonomy, that they’re the only entity with the right to collective bargaining; the right to strike is also in there. Strikes are the pressure that workers can use against companies. We have nothing else! Because we can go to a company and say: “No, this is wrong,” we can file a complaint and everything, but the only pressure in a collective bargaining process is and always will be the strike.

So, if the new constitution is approved, we’re going to have to work nonstop to prevent the election of the same old leaders who have been historically elected, who are known by their last names and not by the policies they support. I think a difficult task is coming. But I think this change will be good for Chile. What are we afraid of? They told us: “Oh no, not President Boric!” Dude, he’s 36 years old, so what? We’ve had presidents all throughout history who were over 60, 70 years old, and what did they do? Let’s give young people a chance to change things. Honestly, let’s hope the Apruebo wins. We’re all in for that to happen! I argue every day — I get on Facebook just to argue with bots and everything — because we have to promote debate on this topic.

ND: In labor union matters, the new constitution validates many rights that we lost back in the '80s. And the idea is that we have to reclaim the power of workers. And I think this new constitution is a good option for us to be able to do that today. One of the biggest changes is that it allows unions to choose whether they want to negotiate at the local, national, or sectoral level. 

And in terms of sectoral bargaining, clearly it helps establish a floor because strictly speaking that’s what a sector is: a bargaining floor for all workers, regardless of what company they’re at, so I don’t think it’s something bad. Now, if we could be a little more Argentinean and less Chilean in certain ways, that would be ideal. The Argentineans negotiate in a sector, and they say: “We don’t agree with what this business sector is doing, we’re all going to the streets,” and all the unions take the streets! They don’t need to bring out ordinary people, so to speak, just the workers, because the leaders come out and the street is packed. We’re still missing that because people are still afraid. We have this deeply ingrained fear, sometimes unfounded, that we’re going to go backwards, we’re going to be Venezuela, things are going to go badly for us. In fact, that’s one of the slogans of the Rechazo. 

JV: I want to mention what worries me about the constitutional process: that, in general, we observed a low level of union participation. Although there were unions that took the initiative and constantly monitored this process — not only monitoring but also presenting initiatives every week, speaking with different convention delegates, and trying to exert pressure through social networks, meetings, etc. — in general, we can’t say that there was a strong commitment by the Chilean trade union movement to the constitutional process. Unions had low participation, in terms of the number of unions, in terms of the degree of knowledge they had about the process, and in terms of organized activities for their rank-and-file members. Many unions in Chile aren’t campaigning among their members, guiding them, urging them to vote to approve the new constitution.


One of the reflections I had while reading the proposed constitution is that the participation of social movements is very obvious — particularly feminism, as well as LGBTQ, human rights, indigenous rights — all these movements are seen very clearly in the document. And unions are there, in the sense that there are important guarantees to workers and the labor movement, but it doesn’t have the same characteristic strength as, for example, gender, which is everywhere. So, it seems to me that there’s a fragmentation between the social movements and the labor movement. And that everything that’s been done in recent years — the students, all these social movements — have earned greater public attention than the labor movement. In fact, some of those movements see unions as traditional or conservative — a thing of the past. 

JV: I would agree with that. We can also evaluate the “why” through very “micro” aspects that explain this. First: how many union leaders were elected as constituent delegates? Only two former leaders. Second: if not union leaders, how many constituent delegates have been members of a union or were union leaders at one time? Not very many since a majority of delegates were professionals Third: how many labor law academics were there? Only one. So, union rights got written in there, but it got in mainly from the pressure the CUT [Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, Chile’s equivalent of the AFL-CIO] exerted through the political parties. And also from some convention delegates who were quite radical. So, labor was not as well represented as it could have been. 

Second, the labor movement — unlike environmentalism, ecologism, feminism, animalism, which were capable of electing convention delegates across the board — did not have that capacity, in part because unions have been so fragmented over the past fourty years. So, basically, its levels of influence were with certain political parties: the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. They have a long history of union work, for many years. And the same can’t be said about the parties of the Frente Amplio, which is the other part of the coalition. 


Any final words?

SN: At the end of the day, there is a lot of work to do in the Chilean labor movement. We have to open up to other ideas and movements.

ND: I hope that the new rights in the constitution help us overcome the legacy of the dictatorship and that people lose their fear. It’s the only way forward.

JV: I think the new constitution will win, but we have to educate, mobilize, and ensure people come out to vote. Full speed ahead. 

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