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May Day 2021 in San Francisco: the ILWU, Chilean Workers and International Solidarity
by Elizabeth Milos (elimilos at gmail.com)
Monday May 3rd, 2021 5:49 PM
ILWU supported Chilean dockworkers and all workers in Chile during the May Day March in San Francisco. International Worker Solidarity against Neoliberalism.

Photos: Leon Kunstenaar / Pro Bono Photo

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On May 1st, 2021, a May Day march was held in San Francisco sponsored by the five Bay Area Labor Councils to compel the US Senate to pass the Pro Act, a federal guarantee of the right to unionize.

At the head of the march was the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Workers Union drill team to honor their historic 1934 General Strike in San Francisco. Also at the head was Angela Davis, marching alongside the ILWU officers from all of the Bay Area locals.

On its way down Market street the ILWU contingent stopped at the Chilean Consulate together with a contingent of Chileans whom held banners supporting the workers of Chile on May Day and denouncing the government of Piñera for its human rights violations.

Trent Willis, President of Local 10 and well-known leader and retired longshoreman Jack Heyman, declared support for the Union of Chilean Dockworkers’ general strike actions during the past week. Jack Heyman reminded workers about the historic decision by the lLWU to refuse to load arms cargo onto Chilean ships during the dictatorship of Pinochet. This historic decision in 1978 was not the only one of its kind by the ILWU when it comes to International Worker Solidarity.

During this past week of April, approximately 7,000 Port workers in Chile carried out work stoppages throughout the entire country. According to representatives of the International Dockworkers Council, approximately 19 ports and 34 terminals were paralyzed during 7 work shifts and demonstrations held in major port cities. This was in response to President Piñera’s refusal to abide by a law passed by the Chilean Congress after major demonstrations, that would allow workers to make early withdrawals from their private retirement accounts (called AFPs) in order to weather the economic hardship of the COVID pandemic.

Piñera attempted to solidify his stance by taking Congress’s law to his rubber-stamping Constitutional Tribunal to have it declared unconstitutional. The Constitutional Tribunal made the unprecedented move to rule against Piñera, and many believe this was due to the work stoppages from the Port Workers during that same week, the announcement by the International Dock Workers Council to support a blockade of Chilean goods and the threat of another general work stoppage on April 30th by broad sectors of the both unionized and non-unionized working class. Also, as elections are right around the corner, many in the rightwing political class abandoned Piñera to support this popular early withdrawal from AFPs law.

On April 30th, Teachers, Healthcare workers, Public Worker unions, many Central Labor unions, including the CUT carried out work stoppages as well as demonstrations finalizing the day with nationwide nighttime “cacerolazos” or loud and persistent pot-banging, an unmistakable sign of severe and massive discontent.

This early withdrawal victory comes on the heels of two other similarly bittersweet victories because these only remind workers that the government and corporate class has forced the working class to pay for the human and economic costs of the pandemic.

One of the main demands of Chilean workers is for a basic universal income to quell the hunger and stop workers from becoming exposed to COVID; a tax on the rich, notorious for its corruption and tax-evasion schemes; and last but not least an end to the privatized system of individual retirement accounts, AFPs, which has left retirees surviving on less than minimum wage after decades of mandated worker contributions. The demand to end this system has been expressed by a movement called No Mas AFPs, which predates the October 2019 uprising by several years.

Ironically, the vast majority of those not forced into the privatized retirement system and whom continue to enjoy the benefits of a public pension are the military and police, mostly paid from the 1/3 remaining state-owned share of Codelco, the copper mining corporation, which had been nationalized by Allende.

Chile was the test tube of Neoliberalism, a system that was imposed almost 50 years ago via a military coup and US intervention. For years it was called “The Chilean Miracle” because the financial markets boomed. Yet it was on the backs of Chilean workers, who have been facing ever-increasing labor insecurity through outsourcing, non-permanent work contracts, lower wages, ever decreasing purchasing power, and immense household debt, all of which was only possible due to the dictatorship’s repressive labor laws and its constitution.

The October 2019 uprising, triggered by high school students, was an awakening of a broad spectrum of Chilean society exhausted with trying to keep up with the demands of this oppressive system. The uprising included students and workers saddled with unsurmountable student debt (similar to the Trillion-dollar student debt that many people under 40 have in the US); retirees living in poverty from their individual privatized retirement, and transportation sector burdened by ever increasing tolls from privatized highway systems.

The plight of the educational sector had already exploded during the high school and university student demonstrations of 2006 and 2011 denouncing severe inequality from a privatized and for-profit educational system and teachers’ unions accompanied student demands for a free and quality education.

A defunded public healthcare sector which has caused a crumbling infrastructure and countless deaths for people on waiting lists who can’t afford the expensive private healthcare also mobilized the healthcare workers and many of these same workers participated as street medics during the 2019 protests. Despite their clearly marked universally recognized Medic symbols they faced direct and violent attacks by the police.

The 2019 protests also included the Mapuche and other indigenous people who have been fighting against the forestry and energy companies’ encroachment on their lands and massive hydroelectric projects on the rivers during decades of both right wing and “socialist” governments post-Pinochet. The Mapuche have been targeted by government repression and military raids and its leaders have been killed or framed and imprisoned and if released subject to surveillance and oppressive probation sign-in requirements.

The protests of 2019 included environmental organizations demanding an end to the privatized water system and to the toxic pollution from industries that leave entire coastlines chemically destroyed and communities (called Sacrifice Zones) with severe respiratory and skin lesions as well as cancer; feminist organizations which have been fighting against femicides, gender violence and violence against the trans community, cyclists fighting for safer and more sustainable transit options, artists and a broad spectrum of neighborhood groups organized as Popular Assemblies that met to define what a New Constitution would look like and to get rid of once and for all the most lasting Pinochet legacy: the present Constitution.

Dock workers also participated during these 2019 protests holding work stoppages during November 2019 and faced police repression during demonstrations in the streets of major port cities. The majority of the ports of Chile have also become privatized both during the dictatorship as well as afterwards during the Eduardo Frei Jr. and Ricardo Lagos presidencies and are now in the hands of two of the most powerful billionaire business conglomerates: the Luksic and the Von Appen families.

All of these movements and protests have been fully documented by a myriad of independent media organizations which have sprung up during these past few years as a response to the scarcity of real opposition media which surprisingly existed even during the dictatorship. Groundbreaking investigative journalism however has continued, unearthing widespread economic corruption among the corporate and political class which has for the most part been allowed to proceed unchecked and unpunished by the courts.

The government response to these protests was and continues to be brutal. Four reports from international human rights organizations have denounced systematic violations of human rights. Approximately 460 people have suffered eye trauma and loss of one eye (Two people have lost both) due to police targeting of protestors with US-made shotgun pellets and tear gas cannisters. The government-promised healthcare, psychological and eye prosthesis support has been criminally inadequate. Sexual assault by police against protestors has also been amply documented yet more than half of these cases have been summarily dismissed by Chilean courts.

During all of these protests, tens of thousands of youth, many known popularly as La Primera Linea (Frontline fighters) faced the government water cannons, tear gas, police armored vehicles and shotgun pellets head on with rocks and were the first line of defense in the periphery of the massive peaceful protests. When Spanish human rights jurist Baltazar Garzon went to Chile to see what was happening on the ground, he found the need to be protected from police pellets and teargas by members of La Primera Linea who surrounded him with their bodies, makeshift shields and gas masks.

The Pinera government has imprisoned thousands of these youth under trumped up charges, even framing them by illegal police undercover units and many prisoners still continue to languish in crowded jails with little access to protective equipment, healthcare or even water in the middle of a pandemic. Their due process rights have been violated; many have spent more than 18 months in jail without trial, the length of their imprisonment unwarranted for 1st offense and unproven charges. Those convicted are facing long sentences for charges where the only “witness” was the arresting officer with no corroborating non-police testimony or forensic evidence.

The dozens of deaths and maiming of protestors by police have also gone mostly unpunished; its police and military perpetrators are allowed to walk the streets. Crowd control methods and weapons used are those used by occupying armies rather than civilian police: tear gas that causes temporary blindness, severe headaches, eye pain and produces violent respiratory and abdominal spasms and water cannons that shoot out highly pressurized water with sodium hydroxide (NaOH) producing widespread and painful blisters.

Piñera filled his cabinet with members who had been hardline Pinochet era operatives and the few Pinochet era officers and secret police who were in their plush prison for crimes against humanity or other human rights violations have begun to be released for “humanitarian” COVID reasons.

The human rights violations are so well documented that well-known human rights judge Baltazar Garzon and the Chilean Commission of Human Rights have recently taken Piñera to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The government has continued to pass ever more repressive laws, violating the right of association, due process, press freedom and has even began attacking and destroying neighborhood soup kitchens, or Ollas Comunes which sprang up in shanty towns throughout Chile.

The National referendum held on October 2020 for a new constitution voted almost 80-20 in favor of a Constitutional Convention composed of only popularly elected delegates (instead of Congress) yet the electoral rules almost guarantee the election of people from the same political class that were in power during the past 30 years.

Candidates to the Constitutional Convention who are members of the social movements uplifted primarily from the popular grassroots assemblies are facing an uphill battle to become elected since only political parties can form electoral slates. Even if elected, they face other hurdles such as the 2/3 rule to pass constitutional articles, agreed upon by the November 15th “Peace Agreement”---a back-door meeting of most of the party leaders in Congress at the height of the protests much to the dismay and disgust of the protestors—then officially voted on and passed by the Congress in December of 2019. The clause in this "agreement" that limits the scope of the Constitutional Convention and disallows any interference or modification of International Treaties practically ensures that International Free Trade agreements which include privatization of water and retirement systems will continue unless there is a massive and clear supermajority of the grassroots assembly supported delegates. The election of the Constitutional Convention delegates was to be held on April 11th but was postponed due to the pandemic until May 15th.

Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic has reached new heights despite massive vaccinations. In a country with almost 19 million people, there are almost 7,000 new COVID cases per day and ICU beds are at 96.5% capacity.

The government imposed COVID lock downs are being used to suppress even demonstrations that follow distancing and mask guidelines; curfews only serve to create more crowded conditions during public transit rush hours for essential workers and those forced to work despite the pandemic in the shopping centers, or other playgrounds for the rich.

Workers in Chile face the choice between dying of COVID or of hunger.

On October 28, 2019 the San Francisco Labor Council passed a Resolution in Support of the Rising Chilean People’s Movement for Economic Equality and Political Freedom. It was a recognition that the people’s response to the hardship that the neoliberal system has wrought in Chile during these past 30 years is unsustainable.

Many unions in the US see parallels in their struggle. For example:

The Union of Professional and Technical Employees-CWA 9119 passed a resolution during its convention in March of 2019 in support the No Mas AFP movement in Chile, committing to stand strong and fight to defend its own pension against the attempts at privatization by the University of California during its 2 year-long contract negotiations which ended in August 2019 with a contract that included a reopener clause.

Teachers from AFT2121 are organizing rallies at City Hall this Saturday May 8th at 11am because they continue to suffer the effects of even more crippling and upcoming layoffs at City College of San Francisco. These are just a few examples of the failure of this neoliberalism model here at home.

Sometimes this model wields the mask of “community regeneration”, or even “affordable housing”.

Howard’s Terminal, the home of ILWU Local 10 is under attack by none other than billionaire Don Fischer, owner of The Gap & main promoter of privatization of public education via Charter schools.

In this case, the ILWU, the unión which has extended its hand to workers at home & abroad is in need of solidarity of its own.

Fischer has plans to construct an Oakland As stadium, a vast commercial development & luxury condos ( w/ as of yet unspecified but promised “affordable housing”) on prime waterfront property. The billionaire will be expecting Mayor Libby to get the votes from the City Council to approve it.

This could mean an end to 1,400 Longshoreman union jobs and the destruction of a major trade hub of the Bay Area unless worker solidarity goes into high gear.

The ILWU will be organizing a Juneteenth demonstration to gather the forces to oppose this billionaire land grab.

It almost feels surreal that workers in the US, in the year 2021, would need to pass a federal law for the right to unionize. But 30 years of neoliberalism, known here as Reaganomics and practiced by both Republican and Democratic administrations has reduced the unionized workforce to 12 percent. One could say that the income inequality crisis has reached such proportions that even a conservative Biden administration has seen fit to support a bill guaranteeing worker protections to unionize.

The last words of Chile’s National Anthem proclaim: “Chile will either be the graveyard of a Free people or an Asylum against Oppression”. It is in this context that the people of Chile have a crucial lesson to teach the rest of us. Neoliberalism is a nightmare for working people everywhere. Neoliberalism must die so that the people and the planet may live and as the ILWU has shown us time and time again, only International Solidarity with workers around the world will make that possible.
_____________________________________________

Elizabeth Milos is a Chilean-New Yorker who has been living and working in San Francisco since 1979, a certified medical interpreter, rank and file member of UPTE-CWA 9119 Local 7 (UCSF), and delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council. She visited Chile most recently during March 2020 and was in Chile when the COVID pandemic hit.

Author would like to extend a special thank you to the Labor Video Project and Work Week Radio for its extensive coverage of Labor struggles throughout the world—union-labor donated work by CWA member Steve Zeltzer and his partner Kazmi.

For a view of the San Francisco Labor Council Resolution on Chile:

https://sflaborcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/10-28-19ResSptChileanPeoplesMvmnt.pdf

https://youtu.be/z9ZqsB_rQq0

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