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Longshoremen and Miners Strike

Longshoremen and Miners Strike

Chile 1907

Synopsis

The labor stoppage among the longshoremen and miners in Iquique, Chile, in the early twentieth century played a major role in the development of a working-class consciousness. Workers in the region viewed this labor mobilization as a source of their political and economic strength. This first sign of labor militancy involved nearly 10,000 workers. The major grievance by the workers was over wages and working conditions. The strike, however, became part of a larger series of worker mobilizations in which the government violently suppressed the workers, imprisoned the movement's leaders, and shut down the union halls. The repressive actions of the government, both during the strike and in the months after the mobilizations, caused deaths and injuries and proved instrumental for the workers on a national level by unifying the working class in challenging the long-ruling oligarchic Chilean government.

Timeline

  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1891: Construction of Trans-Siberian Railway begins. Meanwhile, crop failures across Russia lead to widespread starvation.
  • 1896: Nobel Prize is established.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1906: After disputes resulting from the presidential election in Cuba, various Cuban parties invite the United States, under the 1901 Platt Amendment (which limits the terms of Cuban independence), to restore order. American troops begin a three-year occupation of the country.
  • 1906: German neurologist Alois Alzheimer identifies the degenerative brain disorder that today bears his name.
  • 1906: An earthquake, the worst ever to hit a U.S. city, strikes San Francisco on 18 April. It kills some 2,500 people, leaves another 250,000 homeless, and destroys more than $400 million worth of property.
  • 1906: The British Labour Party is founded.
  • 1908: The Tunguska region of Siberia experiences a strange explosion, comparable to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, whose causes will long be a subject of debate. Today many scientists believe that a comet caused the Tunguska event.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.

Event and Its Context

In the late nineteenth century, domestic politics favored the creation of a strong political labor movement in Chile. Specifically, Chile had a parliamentary system that allowed freedom of expression and labor mobilizations. This facilitated the rise of a multiparty system and the creation of organized labor associations. Nevertheless, worker mobilization was challenged by an oligarchic state, which, while preaching liberal and democratic ideas, practiced repressive measures against the working class. Chile witnessed numerous worker strikes in the years preceding the Iquique strike. In 1903 dockworkers declared a work stoppage in Valparaiso. In 1905 workers declared a general work stoppage in Santiago in what many rank-and-file workers called "the red week." In 1906 railway workers in the mining area of Antofogasta declared a work stoppage. Each of these strikes was significant in that the issues concerned basic living and working conditions, such as wages and housing.

In 1907 workers in the northern port city of Iquique staged a labor stoppage to protest low wages and deplorable working conditions. Skilled workers, primarily longshoremen and miners, participated in the action. Many of these workers belonged to the most militant labor organizations in the arid enclaves of northern Chile. As a result of a nationwide economic depression in 1907, the radical anarcho-syndicalists found the northern port city a fertile recruiting ground of discontented, unemployed skilled workers. The organizations in turn formed informal types of societies to care for its workers. Also known as mancomunales, or mutual aid societies, these regional organizations essentially served as recruiting centers for many workers. Indeed, many times they functioned as mutual aid societies, which allowed workers to borrow money and to seek financial aid and social assistance when needed. These associations proved beneficial for the many unemployed workers living in the area. Moreover, these associations played a major role in the labor mobilization of 1907.

The period leading up to the 1907 strike is critical to developing an understanding of the nature of the labor mobilization of 1907. From 1900 to 1907 Chile was plagued by political and labor turmoil. Some historians have estimated that between 1903 and 1907, workers called for work stoppages more than 200 times. In 1907 alone there were 20 strikes. The response by the government to these labor actions resulted in deportations and killings. For example, in a 1903 strike by dockworkers in Valparaiso, government shock troops killed more than 40 workers; in the 1906 railway strike, more than 150 workers may have been killed by government troops. The government's reaction to the strikers was perceived as repressive.

In 1907 skilled workers in Iquique, influenced by anarchosyndicalist ideology and the violent protests of the previous 20 years, declared a general work stoppage in the booming port city metropolis. Many workers were disgruntled by the unequal and skewed pay structure in the mining camps. For years, American workers performing the same tasks as their Chilean counterparts received an average of twice the wage. Moreover, the high standards of living in early-twentieth-century Chile contributed to worker discontent as the price of consumer goods more than doubled between 1906 and 1907. Exacerbating the political and economic tensions was the fact that by the early twentieth century, American ownership of the nitrate industry, which produced raw materials for use in explosives and fertilizers, had reached unprecedented levels. Statistics vary, but between 1900 and 1940 approximately 55 percent of foreign trade derived from the prosperous nitrate industry. The majority of this trade involved British and American nitrate companies operating in the region. This alienated many workers in the region, particularly as the Americans received favorable economic and political treatment from the national government. Clearly, by 1907 the potent force of nationalism was increasing within the region. As labor contended with an increased nationalism among their rank-and-file members, they also had to deal with a national government that was becoming increasingly hostile and aggressive to the interests of a mobilized working class. Throughout 1907 the regime of Chilean president Pedro Montt embarked on a policy of increased repression of the striking longshoremen. Pressured by American capitalists to quell the workers, Montt mobilized the Chilean National Guard to attack the workers. As thousands of guardsmen entered the city, the longshoremen and their counterparts assumed a more aggressive stance. Union leaders expected the worst. In late 1907 the government sent the national army into Iquique to repress the strike, which was threatening production levels as well as the economic situation. As a result, over 100 workers were killed by government forces. Clearly, the government's response indicated weariness by American capitalists and the national elite in dealing with the impact of the strike. The impact of declining production levels, in concert with an economic depression, created problems for the government.

The workers met the government's response to the strike with indignation and shock. Union leaders demanded that the government cease the repression. When these calls went unheeded, union leaders had no alternative but to continue the strike. Labor unions continued the mobilization for a few more days until the government sent in shock troops to quell the conflict. Support for the workers during the strike was evident throughout the nation. Placards appeared in the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, posted by members of the potent middle classes as well as other sectors of the working class. Government repression of the strike played a major role in eliciting public support of the strike and drawing public criticism. By the end of the strike, public favor became a serious issue for the Montt regime. The government's behavior toward the striking workers proved highly unpopular. However, for the workers, the action proved equally disastrous. Within months after the conclusion of the strike, most dockworkers' unions had been shut down by government decree. Most decrees cited a communist influence within the miners and dock unions as the major reason for the shutdown of the representative organizations. Essentially, the repressive actions of the Montt regime had destroyed the workers' movement in the booming port city. However, other organizations throughout Chile took heed of the actions of the port workers and called a general work stoppage within days of the final government clampdown.

Impact

The impact of the Iquique strike by the longshoremen is multifaceted. In the short term, the actions of the workers contributed to the decline of the working-class movement. The economic depression of 1907 stoked a decline in union membership as the nitrate companies began to dismiss many workers. Many of these unemployed fled the region after the strike, finding their way to the streets of the major urban centers. However, in the long term, the strike played a major role in the definition of a working-class culture and identity among the Chilean working class. The brutal repression of the strike by the government, in concert with the actions of the unions, served as an example for many future labor leaders.

Luis Emilio Recabarren founded the Socialist Workers Party (POS) in 1909 with the goal of creating an open labor organization. He wanted to create a labor association that would embrace all aspects of labor. He cited the labor protests specifically of the Iquique strike. More important than Recabarren's efforts to unify the labor movement, however, was the impact of the massacre and strike on the Chilean national consciousness. The strong and vibrant Chilean middle class viewed the events of 1907 with severe disdain, as it revealed the contradictions of the so-called Parliamentary Republic. Many members of the middle class, like Arturo Allesandri, began to question the liberal and democratic rhetoric emanating from Santiago, the national capital, when the government's actions in the working-class centers indicated a growing repression. This pointed to stark contradictions within the liberal political model that had been established in Chile. The result was that Allesandri would emerge victorious in 1912 at the head of a coalition of working-and middle-class organizations.

Key Players

Alessandri Palma, Arturo (1868-1950): Alessandi led the middle class in the aftermath of the Iqueque massacre. He criticized the contradictions within the Chilean political system. He served as president of Chile from 1920 to 1924 and again in 1925.

Montt, Pedro (1848-1910): President of Chile during the Iquique strike, Montt called out the National Guard to repress the strike. He served as president of Chile from 1906 to 1910.

Recabarren, Luis Emilio (1876-1924): Recabarren was a key actor in the unification of the Chilean labor movement. After the Iquique strike, he left the Chilean Democratic Party and created the Socialist Workers Party, which later became the Chilean Communist Party (FOCh).

Bibliography

Books

Collier, Ruth Berins, and David Collier. Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement and Regime Dynamics in Latin America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

De Shazo, Peter. Urban Workers and Labor Unions in Chile,1902-1927. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Monteón, Michael. Chile in the Nitrate Era: The Evolution of Economic Dependence, 1880-1930. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.

—Jaime Ramón Olivares

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