Gonzalo Díaz is a trained economist and has been the senior strategist to the Chilean Port Workers Union for over two decades. During that time, he has witnessed union leaders rise and fall and strikes succeed and fail. He has also been in conversation and confrontation with the various parties in the transition to democracy. These experiences have helped him understand the potential as well as the shortcomings of disruptive strategies in the port industry. 

Importantly, unions in the port industry are not formally recognized by the state. They are illegal. Yet these unions are among the most powerful in Chile, in part because of their structural location and their ability to leverage their militancy during key political moments. A long-term project of political education has served to lift the class consciousness among workers in this sector. 

Chilean port unions were instrumental during the 2019 social uprising: their call for a general strike in November of 2019 helped solidify the social movements on the street by providing a level of union legitimacy. The political elites could no longer disregard the movement as being organized by anarchists, communists, or thugs. The involvement of the labor movement helped to create the political opportunity to call for a constitutional process. In this interview, Gonzalo reflects on challenges that Chilean port workers face and what is at stake in the new constitution for the labor movement. The interview, which has been edited and condensed, was conducted before the September 4th plebiscite.  


What are the current challenges in the port industry in Chile?

The port industry is a standardized industry because the same ships are docking in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. So there have to be minimum standards of production between these four countries; this is something the other three countries have been working towards, but Chile hasn’t. Chile has not moved in that direction mainly because employers are resisting the professionalization of workers. If the infrastructure and technology in the ports is upgraded it will mean new jobs, retooling, and educating workers. Because the work is hands on, it means that the training has to happen in the ports. New workers would likely be unionized, increasing union membership. Port industry employers want to avoid that at all costs. 

Resisting the professionalization of workers — and therefore paying higher wages and creating better working conditions — means that the industry has fallen behind in terms of the modernization process, especially following the subprime crisis. This has caused production to become very expensive, with the new demands being made by shipping companies. In other words, it’s starting to be less attractive for shipping companies to do business here. We’re talking about a highly concentrated global shipping industry, where of course they currently establish the rules of the game. Here, it’s almost as if, I don’t know, they prefer to lose everything but never give in to the workers. That’s the big problem we have now, and our main challenge. Some companies have already hit rock bottom and they’ve had to sit down and talk, but others simply prefer not to talk and sink even further.


So, thinking about this context and the challenges in this industry, what are your thoughts on the constitutional process?

What the constitutional process intends to create is a balance of power between the workers and companies, where dialogue becomes the way to solve problems. Currently, the style in Chile is what labor sociologists call the style of dominance, rather than collaboration. The constitutional reform provides a new direction, one that is  much more favorable to the process of modernization of the ports, because the negotiation process has to be inclusive. In other words, not only does the company have to do well, but the workers must also do well. Everyone has to participate in this. So, worker participation in the company — not only as bodies that move objects, but also as persons who think and have a stake in the company — is this new vision that is being proposed in the constitution.


What do you think about the role of the labor movement in the constitutional process?

You have a country where union fragmentation is very, very extensive. And so coordination between unions is very difficult, especially when there are several unions in a company. I’m telling you, in the port sector, which is what I’m most familiar with, there are ports here that have over 30 unions. That makes it practically impossible to coordinate anything. The union leader’s job isn’t just to make a case with the employer but also to compete with the unions next door. And that competition makes collaboration difficult.

Therefore, with such a short period of time, they had to write the constitution, which strictly speaking was no more than six months — it was a year, but they took two months to harmonize everything, four months to create the bylaws; in the end, there were six months to draft it. So that made it very difficult to do anything, and what was done, it was basically done by each union independently, on its own. There were attempts, sure, but that difficulty is what prevented us from having much more elaborate participation. 


What are the achievements for the labor movement in general in the new constitution?

Well, mainly the recognition of work and the recognition of workers. The idea that work must have certain characteristics, and work can’t be just a place where you earn money, it should also be a space where human beings can participate as citizens. In other words, one doesn’t lose one’s status as a citizen simply because one started working. So, participating in the company is also participating in democracy. It’s very easy to say: “OK, there’s no democracy in our company.” That’s what the managers say. And we tell them: “Well, are we in North Korea here? We walk into the company and the republic ends? No, I mean, you [managers] have to adapt to democracy, it’s not our job to adapt to your dictatorship!” There’s a recognition of that dynamic now, and there’s a search for ways to finally achieve dignity in the workplace. Employers can no longer simply operate by fiat. 

The goal was to create a balance of power. A balance of power is ultimately necessary for democracy to work. If some people are above others, it’s very difficult for democracy to work, because someone will always impose their will. The fact that a strike is defined as what it actually is—not what is called a strike in the constitution of the dictatorship—also points in this direction of a balance of power, and therefore, also seeing workers as citizens. So, in the future, if the plebiscite wins, we’ll have to see how this translates into laws. But at least the spirit is there. We hope to win, and we hope to move forward and make these laws, so that it doesn’t become a kind of Colombian constitution, which has been around for 30 years but they still can’t apply it. That’s really a challenge for the union movement: to apply pressure so that this isn’t just a nice book of poetry but rather an instrument to build a more democratic country.


It seems to me that this constitution is truly a constitution produced by social movements, and that shows in its feminism, in its environmentalism, right? And it’s not as focused on a worker-centric model, which I think is also somewhat due to the period we live in. What I see is a separation between the union movement and the other social movements.

Yes, yes, yes. Well, that happens a lot, because the Chilean labor movement has so many legal restrictions. There’s a colleague and union leader who always says that people don’t organize because they like to organize. They organize because they have a goal and want to achieve it. In Chile, it’s easier to achieve an environmental goal than a union goal. Because the environmentalists can simply form an organization, and that’s it. They establish a new entity with legal status, and that’s enough. By contrast, unions have to follow a huge number of laws. The Chilean Labor Code is enormous — in fact, it’s one of the longest ones that exist. And so, the effectiveness of unions is diminished.

In fact, Chile is very strange, because our unionization rate is 20%, but the number of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement is far less, only 9%. Many workers don’t see unions as useful for anything more than the end-of-year party or the family food basket for our national holidays. They don’t see them as organizations that also seek to promote — as the old anarcho-syndicalists did — our freedom as human beings. That’s very much outside their range possibilities. The 1980 constitution, which led to the current Labor Code, basically reduces unions to welfare committees. This is difficult to explain to any leader who’s not involved in these types of unions, like port workers, who have unions with a lot of power but are really exceptions to Chile’s overall reality. 


Do you think there are contradictions or tensions between what pertains to the union movement and what pertains to other social movements in a broader sense? For example, here in the United States there is sometimes bad blood between unions and those fighting for environmental issues. Because there’s a strong contradiction there, since the mines don’t want environmental regulations, you know? 

It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something to keep in mind. It hasn’t happened, but not because there’s greater environmental awareness here or anything like that. It’s simply that, just as unions don’t have much power, social organizations have been formed very recently — we haven’t had to face a Greenpeace yet. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: what’s going to happen when that occurs? Are unions going to say: “Great, that’s fine with me!”? Or are they going to go the easy route by saying, “No, don’t mess with my money!” Given the individualism that has penetrated so deeply in Chile, the latter wouldn’t surprise me. But, like I said, it hasn’t happened yet.

Well, it did happen recently, when they announced the closing of a copper refinery and the unions called for demonstrations. Now, what happened was to be expected because we always call those unions the labor aristocracy. They’re unions with a right-wing perspective, so what happened was predictable, but we also knew they had no real power, so there was very little noise. But that was one case where it happened. There was absolutely no support for them from the other big unions. None. Now, I don’t know if that support didn’t come because they are seen as the labor aristocracy that nobody wanted to help, since they’d never helped us at all, and it was just payback. Or because people thought they were, as we say in Chile, “pissing outside the pot,” that they were talking nonsense. I think it’s a mix of both. 


The other thing that seems interesting and complicated to me is the transition towards sectoral unionism. Because there are so many small unions, and starting to think about it on a larger scale means that the leaders of those small unions are going to lose some local power, right?

Of course, of course. The Chilean Labor Code isn’t designed to create a balanced dialogue mechanism between labor and capital but rather an imbalance so that capital always wins. And the concept of “union freedom” is used wrong — it’s misunderstood as forming unions whenever and however people want.

It doesn’t focus on the actual concept of union freedom, which is when workers get the most they can get. I’ve seen unions with 20 workers. What good are they? They go on strike and nobody even realizes they’re on strike. They’ll just think they all got sick. Of course, in a company with 800 workers, a 20-person union is of no use. But it is good for the leader, who may get some individual benefits.

So it’s going to be truly difficult, because unions are so used to this backwards model. It’s a way of life, and I think this will cause tension and conflict between unions: some will want union freedom to ensure workers can win the best victories for themselves, and others will say union freedom is being allowed to do whatever they want. In other words, a more labor-oriented vision versus a more liberal vision of union freedom. I think what’ll happen is that those two worlds are going to collide at some point. 

Start with sectoral negotiation in the sectors with the fewest unions, and then move towards those with the most unions, which are the more strategic industries. Unions are formed there, because in strategic industries, which have money, being a leader gives you a good life. So leave those for the end, so that workers aren’t the ones voting for this. Let it be implemented so that, no matter how much you resist it, or how much copper workers don’t want to vote for sectoral negotiation, it’s already implemented. Either you adapt, or you adapt. I think that’s one way. But to begin with everything tomorrow? No, that would be impossible. No, I mean, just in the port sector, which has 10,000 workers, we have 137 unions.


Are the port unions campaigning for the approval of the new constitution on September 4?

Yes, we began the campaign with a call to reflection because here in Chile the intentional misinformation is brutal. I mean, I think ever since Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson with Brexit, the misinformation campaign has been brutal — people even believed they were going to take away their houses!

A strong sector of the political-economic elite is spending millions and millions. I mean, 97% of all campaign contributions are for the “Rejection” option.

So, here on the other side, we basically have to hustle.  We make the video ourselves, so while the other side has companies to do all that, we have nothing. Now, that gives it an epic spirit, but it also mobilizes. I believe that’s a factor they don’t understand on the other side: when they take away everything else and your only choice is to mobilize, they force us to come together. Maybe if we had the money they have, it wouldn’t be necessary. We’d hire a group of people to put up posters, hand out flyers, and voila! But not now — we have to do it ourselves. And so that forces you to organize; it forces you to get out there.

So, it’s difficult. You have to go out and let people know what’s true, what’s good, deny the things that aren’t. It’s been quite an intense process. So, these things are difficult for us. It’s like a barrier we have to overcome. Every time you go out onto the street, every time you go out and talk to someone, it’s a barrier you have to overcome, this ideological wall that’s so embedded in people’s minds that they don’t even realize that how they act is guided by this ideology. Here, they’ll start saying, I don’t know: “Do you go to a public hospital? Then vote 'Rejection!'" “You earn the minimum wage? Vote Rejection!” I mean, get it through your thick skull: You’re on the wrong side. Wake up!


Do you have any final thoughts? 

Well, look, precisely what you mentioned. These aren’t just challenges that we are facing in Chile. I mean, we can see that the world’s changing. There’s a really good sign that someone made once in Spain, with the Indignados, which said: “There’s no left or right, only those on the bottom against those on top.” And we’re seeing the appearance of a world where people have a desire to participate, a desire to be considered, a desire for justice to exist and not just be a slogan, that’s something which is being pursued everywhere.

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