The Workers Who Seized the Means of Production

During the height of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, workers began to take over their factories and assert their right to live free of those who had oppressed them for generations.

One of the last Popular Unity rallies during the Salvador Allende government in Santiago, Chile, 1973. (Marcelo Montecino / Getty Images)

On the night of Wednesday, April 28, 1971, hundreds of Chilean workers and their families converged on a large textile factory in downtown Santiago. They were celebrating — hugging, singing, dancing, crying, kissing, and shouting in joy. They had just received word that after three days of being out on strike, Chilean president Salvador Allende had finally agreed to socialize their factory.

The firm had for decades been in the hands of the Yarur family, one of Chile’s dominant economic “clans,” with Amador Yarur running the factory at that time. His brother, Jorge, during his short stint in management before Amador took over, had instituted a new system of industrial management, the Taylor System, surveilling the workplaces and controlling every aspect of workers’ day. Lower and middle management were given despotic power over the shop floor. Supervisors would yell at workers and even hit them if they were considered inefficient.

Coupled with the grueling work, pay was so low that many workers could not afford basic needs like health care, education, or even lunch. In Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism, Peter Winn writes that suspected disloyalty was the worst transgression imaginable, incurring Yarur’s wrath in the form of being transferred to work in “‘Siberia,’ an unheated and damp underground storeroom,” getting pay docked, or even being fired.

Amador Yarur combined his brother’s Taylorism with a more paternalistic style of management he inherited from their father, Juan, the original patriarch of the Yarur family and its empire. Amador, unlike his brother, tried to ingratiate himself to workers through gifts, social activities, and most importantly, rewarding loyalty to the patrón.

But by 1971, the tactic was no longer working. Emboldened by the election of a socialist government, workers at the textile factory were finally able to organize an independent union, freeing themselves from a captive company union. As Chile polarized politically between a socialist left now in power and a reactionary right, these workers had taken things a step further. We, the Santiago mill workers argued, should not just work at our factory — we should control it. And if these experiments in self-management succeeded at one firm, why wouldn’t they at firms across the country?

A mass socialization of the Chilean economy was now a very real possibility. And the stakes couldn’t be higher — both for workers and employers.

From Above and Below

The Santiago cotton mill was the lynchpin of the Yarur empire. The Yarurs founded their original mill in 1937, amassing their dynastic wealth from textiles. Along with a couple of other families, the Yarurs had effectively monopolized the entire sector by 1971. They had also expanded into banking and finance, with a firm grip on major Chilean financial institutions by that time. The Yarurs were considered one of “the eleven financial ‘clans’ that dominated the Chilean economy” — “rich as a Yarur” was a common saying in Chile.

While workers had managed to fight back from time to time, like in a strike in 1962, they had generally failed — met with intense repression and a state that routinely sided with the boss, even when center-left governments were in power. During the nine-week strike in 1962, militias violently terrorized striking workers and their families, and ultimately the conservative government ordered the workers to resume production, sending a military officer to oversee the end of the strike and to dismiss hundreds of strike leaders and activists.

In the late 1960s, a small group of young workers — politicized through socialist and communist politics — began to organize, once again, for an independent union. For years there had been a company union led by Yarur loyalists, effectively denying workers the legal ability to organize and strike against the boss.

The effort, dubbed Liberación Sindical, began as a small and clandestine organization, due to the totalitarian nature of Amador Yarur’s rule. However, unlike previous attempts at independent worker organizing, this time the workers were bolstered by Salvador Allende’s socialist presidential campaign with many of the Liberación Sindical leaders coming from the various parties that made up Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. La Firme, the campaign’s agitational newsletter, emphasized the tight-knit relationship between the workers’ “campaign for an independent union [and] Allende’s campaign for the presidency,” describing Allende “as the workers’ candidate” and linking shop-floor issues to Popular Unity’s socialist program.

When Allende visited the factory during his 1970 presidential campaign, he proclaimed that, if elected, he would nationalize their factory so that it would “belong to the workers and to the people of Chile.” His visit bolstered the workers’ confidence and in turn, their confidence bolstered his campaign: “When Allende’s election was confirmed by the Chilean Congress, they celebrated his triumph as their own.” Almost overnight the balance of power in the factory shifted toward the independent union campaign, with workers openly “identifying with allendismo at once.” Shortly after Allende’s inauguration, the Yarur workers won their independent union. A compañero finally occupied La Moneda.

After the April 1971 municipal elections, in which Popular Unity won about 50 percent of the vote — an incredible expansion from the coalition’s 36.6 percent in the 1970 presidential election — the now independent Yarur workers union felt emboldened enough to strike, demanding their factory be nationalized under worker control. But they weren’t on their own anymore — now they were working with allies in Allende’s Ministry of Economy to organize the strike and even to plan for socialization.

Socializing the now ex-Yarur factory was a historic moment for Latin America. Allende’s government had nationalized many other businesses and industries before the Yarur textile factory, but, according to Óscar Garretón, Allende’s deputy minister of the economy:

Yarur was the first time that the government didn’t nationalize an enterprise because it was inefficient or because it had committed some offense or for being a foreign enterprise, but did it for the simple fact that it was a monopoly and that the government was disposed to act with extreme severity against monopolies . . . and because in addition it had produced consumer shortages that permitted its requisition.

While the government officially had a legal rationale for the seizure, to the Yarur worker-leaders, it was much clearer — they understood themselves to be in a permanent and irreconcilable conflict with the boss that could only be overcome through taking the factory out of the owners’ hands and giving it to the workers.

It was here that the now ex-Yarur workers pioneered Chilean worker self-management, becoming the first industry to put in place democratic structures for firms including an elected council, coordinating committee, and regular general assemblies. As the first of its kind to take on this new structure, there was enormous pressure for the ex-Yarur factory to succeed economically.

But contrary to any fears about socialist inefficiency, production did not decline under the new system. The factory’s maintenance shop was converted into a spare parts factory, allowing for greater self-sufficiency by producing the vast majority of spare parts instead of importing them. Among other worker-led innovations were a new, more rational accounting structure as well as the design and construction of a successful ventilation system. Self-management not only improved the wages, benefits, and lives of the ex-Yarur workers but unleashed the workers’ creative energies that had been denied under capitalist management.

The struggles of the ex-Yarur employees inspired workers around Chile to organize and demand the socialization of their own workplaces. As Winn documents in Weavers of Revolution, “Less than a quarter of the enterprises that had come under state control [by the end of the Popular Unity government’s first year] were on the government’s [original] list for incorporation into the social property area, [revealing] that it was the workers who were leading the way, shaping the social property area according to their own revolutionary vision and priorities.” At this point in time, forty enterprises employing seventy-one thousand workers had some form of worker participation in management.

But by the middle of 1972, Chile was riddled with intense upsurges of reaction and class struggle, facing middle-class and capital strikes, US economic sanctions, and a terrorist campaign — all an attempt to put an end to Allende’s socialist program. In response to these challenges, workers began to organize forms of democratic management of production and distribution of the economy, what they called poder popular — popular power.

Poder popular began with continued worker management of firms that capitalists abandoned in order to keep the economy running. Other practical steps taken were using union organization to distribute goods to communities, the reopening of shops that were previously shuttered, and the establishment of vigilance committees to guard the factories. Eventually, workers began to organize cordones industriales, industrial belts, which were regional industry-wide worker-managed bodies to coordinate production. By 1973, there were thirty-one cordones.

The ex-Yarur factory workers “were one of the principal founders and largest industry of the Cordon O’Higgins, one of Santiago’s four major cordones industriales” and through Cordon O’Higgins, they “helped organize several of the small clothing factories and played an important part in the seizure and socialization of the Salinas y Fabres machine shop.”

To solve the issue of distribution, especially in the face of shopkeeper hoarding, local peoples’ stores and distribution networks were set up and organized.

These forms of popular democracy in processes of production and distribution were led by thousands of militant workers throughout Chile and marked a high point and potentially revolutionary moment in Chile’s democratic socialist revolution — the result of working-class struggle both inside and outside of the state.

Fulfilling the Dream

It is through these interrelated processes of class — and then revolutionary — struggle within and outside of the state that Chilean workers came to recognize themselves as a class, and their mission to emancipate themselves through the struggle for socialism.

After all, it was only after the union presented Amador Yarur with a petition they knew he would reject that they were able to lay the groundwork for a legal strike to demand the socialization of the factory. When the petition was read by leadership along with the explanation of management’s rejection, among the fifteen hundred assembled workers there was “a spontaneous outpouring of worker militancy and anger that overwhelmed [the leadership’s carefully planned] script and made it redundant.”

This outpouring of anger was so powerful that Jorge Varas, the national union functionary sent by Allende to explain to the workers that the factory would not be socialized, instead only encouraged their activity by offering them advice on how to ensure that the strike and nationalization could hold up in court.

The strike and seizure of the factory were viewed by the workers as “a battle in an ongoing social war” and “a fulfillment of a dream,” with one female worker, who had experienced the failed 1962 strike, explaining: “I didn’t consider it a strike, I considered it a fiesta, a carnival. I considered it the most marvelous day in the world because, I said: ‘At last, people have opened their eyes and realized what is happening here.’ And with that I felt happy.”

Similarly, winning the socialization of their factory had an intense impact on the workers’ consciousness. Worker-leader Jorge Lorca described the events of April 28 as “the kind of thing that remains in your mind forever. . . . At bottom there was a sense of . . . liberation.”

And it wasn’t just ideologically committed socialist workers who experienced these feelings of elation. Winn writes of one worker who had experienced the failed 1962 strike and subsequent reaction who

had supported “an independent union” but could not understand “why they wanted to kick out the patrón.” However, “that day changed the picture . . . I cried and shouted with the rest . . . and in the moment that I entered the factory where I had worked so many years . . . I felt like a new man . . . and everyone else did as well.”

Under self-management, workers became compañeros, “the factory became a community,” and workers expressed a new level of social solidarity. The ex-Yarur employees, for the first time in their lives, felt dignified and free in their work, developing what many described as deeper levels of socialist consciousness.

Advance or Surrender

Despite the workers’ energy and militancy, the success of Chile’s democratic socialist revolution hinged on how far Allende would wield the state to support the workers’ efforts from below. Allende himself, despite his incredible political prowess and honorable commitment to socialism, pursued a relatively moderate course that, at times, put him in conflict with the mass workers’ struggles from below. Throughout Weavers of Revolution, we see this tension in practice, most pronounced in Allende’s negative reaction to the Yarur workers’ campaign for their factory’s nationalization.

Allende’s political strategy was “to produce an electoral majority for socialism by the end of [his] six-year presidential term.” It would be a “carefully controlled and phased revolutionary process” which would entail “dividing the Chilean bourgeoisie” and “confronting one sector at a time.” Allende wanted mass support from workers and peasants when needed, but didn’t think they should organize independently from — or at a greater speed than — the revolution he was conducting in congress and from the presidential palace.

A banner hung by workers at the Yarur factory, 1971. (Armindo Cardoso / Biblioteca Nacional de Chile)

When the Yarur workers took “the revolution into their own hands [to] fulfill their historic aspirations through direct action from below,” Allende was furious that they hadn’t considered the risky implications for the broader national revolution. After many back-and-forths between the workers and Allende, including the president’s refusal to socialize the factory multiple times, Allende finally acquiesced to the workers’ demands, in no small part due to the militancy of the workers themselves as well as the threatened resignations of Pedro Vuskovic and Óscar Garretón, the respective minister and deputy minister of economy, who were part of the more radical wing of Allende’s cabinet.

We see similar hesitations in Allende and the Communist Party’s actions concerning the cordones industriales and other forms of poder popular. First, to end the anti-government strikes of 1972, rather than immediately deepen poder popular, Allende chose to negotiate with the Christian Democrats, in the end incorporating segments of the military into his cabinet and effectively demobilizing the cordones.

Following this cautious approach, Communist Party members within the now ex-Yarur factory, and others, effectively vetoed their workplaces’ continued participation in Cordon O’Higgins and other cordones during the months leading up to the 1973 coup, further weakening poder popular. It was only on September 10, 1973, a day before a coup would oust the Popular Unity government and lead to the president’s death, that the Communist Party changed its position and encouraged its members to take part. By then it was too late.

Military Takeover

On September 12, the military stormed the textile mill, taking it back from the workers. The workers had already abandoned it the day before, in the last Workers’ Assembly at Ex-Yarur, concluding that they did not have the means to put up resistance. Over the next five days, throughout Santiago, the military went to war with the workers who did put up a fight, destroying all remaining forms of poder popular.

Ex-Yarur workers didn’t return to work until a week later. The factory would be run by the military over the following three months, put back in the hands of the same officer who had overseen the end of the 1962 strike, and was subsequently turned back over to Amador Yarur himself. The leaders of the workers movement at the Yarur factory were dead, “disappeared,” imprisoned, tortured, or underground. And yet, only twelve years later, the “Yarur conglomerate was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy,” and was taken back over by the government, now operating at half capacity.

For nearly two years, a banner hung outside the factory gates that read “Ex-Yarur: Territorio Libre de Explotacion,” Ex-Yarur: Territory Free of Exploitation. This was the dream of the Chilean working class. Winn ends Weavers of Revolution by recounting an interview with Berta Castillo, a Yarur worker who lost everything in the coup on September 11, 1973. She mourned: “Worst of all, they have killed my dream. . . . it was such a beautiful dream.”