Chile’s Social Movements and Organized Labor Are Central to the Fight to Transform Society

Chile’s president Gabriel Boric’s government rose to power on the back of a decade of industrial militancy and popular protest. To achieve its aims, it will need to use these forces as a battering ram against the elite.

People with Chilean flags take part in a rally in support of amending the constitution established under the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet, on October 22, 2020, in Santiago, Chile. (Martin Bernetti / AFP via Getty Images)

On June 20, Gabriel Boric’s recently inaugurated reform government announced the closing of a copper smelter in the Punchuncaví-Quintero industrial corridor. The plant, which had polluted the air and riverways of the neighboring towns for decades, was frequently responsible for public health crises in the region. The most recent occurred in May when pollutants from the factory contaminated the local water and poisoned over five hundred children.

Community groups and environmental organizations, both key supporters of Boric’s campaign, hailed the decision to close the plant, which in 2018 Greenpeace described as a “Chilean Chernobyl.” Since the plant opened in 1964, local farmers and residents had complained of the damage it was inflicting on their health and the environment, and scientists had observed high levels of arsenic in the surrounding area.

Despite this, the backers of the president’s Apruebo Dignidad coalition were not united in support for the closure of the smelter. The Federación de Trabajadores del Cobre, the union representing employees of Chile’s state copper industry, also a crucial constituency of the new government, immediately responded to the announcement with a national strike. Endorsed by the general workers’ confederation, Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), miners mobilized to defend their livelihoods as well as public industrial infrastructure that Boric’s coalition had just placed on the chopping block.

Superficially, the episode, which pit social justice movements against organized workers in strategic sectors of the resource-based economy, appeared to embody a core tension within the millennial new left. But the conflict, which jolted the government’s agenda earlier than expected, was not simply a sign of an antagonism between civil society groups against extractive industries and the workers they employ. Rather, these conflicts indicate the new political terrain on which Chile’s left will have to struggle if it is to be successful.

Expanding Popular Power

Chile’s October 2019 popular rebellion upended the country’s governing system, pummeling the neoliberal regimes’ ruling alliances and thrusting new forces to prominence. While the mass explosion buried the old party system and spurred the rise of insurgent forces, Chile’s postauthoritarian neoliberal order had been faltering for roughly a decade.

Twenty years after the country’s democratic transition, Chile’s establishment parties began to struggle to maintain their electoral supremacy. The center-left Concertación and the center-right Alianza had dominated politics since the transition to democracy in 1990; following four consecutive victories, the center left began alternating turns in office with its center-right ruling partners, all the while steadily reducing voter turnout.

The rebellion or estallido that took hold of Chile in 2019 and its aftershocks, exacerbated by the pandemic, sent the once-mighty coalitions into outright collapse. In last year’s presidential elections, they failed to even make the runoffs. Together, the two parties mustered less than a quarter of all votes.

The decay of the center-left and center-right former hegemons offered an opening for the new left coalition. The success of Boric’s Apruebo Dignidad, which joins the historic Communist Party and the president’s still cohering Frente Amplio (FA) alliance, was thanks to an increasingly mobilized working class. When Apruebo first competed in Chile’s 2020 constituent assembly elections, much of its support came from the well-established student movement, environmental and community groups’ campaigns, retirees’ mass mobilizations, and a surging wave of feminist protest.

After decades of quiescence by Chile’s poor and working classes, unexpected rounds of student protest exploded first in 2006 and again five years later, starting a cycle of insurgency that culminated in the great rebellion. The 2011 movement, in which university students organized 125 major protests, proved to be a pivotal moment. As mobilization grew, Chile’s youth adopted more disorderly tactics, like choking the main streets of Santiago and other major cities. In hundreds of actions, students adopted combative tactics including the direct confrontation of state authorities.

Others followed suit. Shaken by the country’s extreme deregulation and commodification yet heartened by the university and high school rebellions, protests spread across the country. Some were organized by mortgage debtors, others by neighborhoods and towns like Puchuncaví-Quintero that had been irreparably polluted by local industry, and still others by remote towns and cities, areas and provinces neglected by the central state.

Young women and the elderly in particular built and sustained disruptive nationwide movements. By the end of the 2010s, they had mobilized millions of members and sympathizers in days of action that paralyzed the country. Large-scale feminist protest, for instance, grew tenfold in the five years preceding the mass explosion. Together with student associations and pensioners, women’s collectives provided the basic infrastructural building blocks of the rebellion.

When the estallido erupted, confrontations with authorities and forceful occupations and destruction of property spread at lightning speed. After student networks shut down Santiago’s subway system on October 18, daily violent disturbances rose to an average of over forty per month, peaking around sixty early in the rebellion. At that time, protesters mobilized a historic 1.2 million marchers in the capital alone. The ability of mass organizations to sustain disruptive protests for a month forced the government to concede the November 15 Pact for Social Peace and a New Constitution, the historic agreement brokered by Boric and other FA figures that paved a way to the plebiscite and constituent assembly elections, and eventually to the victory of Apruebo Dignidad.

By this point, rising popular mobilizations were cohering organizationally and programmatically as nationwide coordinating bodies began shaping unified demands and leading full-blown general strikes.

Decisive Insurgent Capacity

Popular sector organization and mobilization expanded in tandem with growing workers’ power. The resurgence of Chile’s labor movement helped lay the foundations for expanding associational capacity across sectors. Crucially, worker militance grew not only in scale but in terms of its power over strategic sections of the economy. Revived labor insurgency was particularly effective in industries held to be important by Chilean elites. As strikes spread across sectors, increasing proportions of unpredictable wildcat campaigns amplified workers’ leverage.

Stoppages increased sharply from the mid-2000s to the late 2010s. During that span, yearly strikes more than doubled to over 450 in 2016. Over the key years of industrial escalation, the total number of workers shutting production down multiplied more than sixfold. Though the largest share of striking workers were public sector employees who walked out in 2014 and 2015, the number of striking private sector workers increased from 25,000 to roughly 150,000. As total strikes and their duration multiplied, so too did the costs they imposed on business and the state. In 2005, strikes cost Chile’s economy just under 100,000 worker-days. By 2010, employers endured 335,000 lost worker-days, and by 2016, industry suffered another 606,000.

During these years, union density partially recovered from the free fall that took hold after the return of democracy. Still, the decade-plus strike wave was not simply the product of formal organization. Wildcat activity was not only central but served to grow the ranks of unionized workers. Most industrial action during the multiyear cycle of militancy consisted of extralegal stoppages.

Crucially, workers located within the strategic industries on which the state depends for its revenue struck. Industrial action launched by subcontracted and informalized miners and service employees in copper fueled the first phase of labor insurgency. The second phase, rebounding after 2010, involved a more diverse array of sectors, including entire branches of public administration. Yet once again, copper miners, many now organized in dissident unions, played a decisive role along with longshoremen and transportation who also joined the strike wave.

In each case, wildcats remained the norm. In 2014, miners struck fifteen times, with strikes averaging over 1,500 lost worker-days. The following year, militancy in the copper industry erupted again but on an even greater scale. Twenty strikes alone deprived employers of an average of 36,250 lost worker-days. That same year, dock, transportation, and warehouse workers struck forty-seven times for total of 183,200 lost worker-days. By impairing business’s ability to extract and transport minerals to international markets, miners, truckers, and dockworkers imposed severe costs on economic elites and ruling authorities.

As insurgency by unions in strategic industries mounted, workers increasingly coordinated nationwide campaigns. After having attempted just one general strike in the first twenty years of democratic neoliberalism, the protracted strike wave gave the CUT the confidence to flex its muscles. After its reserved endorsements of national strikes called by students in 2011 and 2013, the worker’s federation launched its own general stoppage in 2016, followed by two in 2018, and then five more in 2019. By the start of the great rebellion, CUT, battle tested, was in a prominent position to help direct massive protests involving all large sections of the working and popular classes.

The Promise of a New Political Coalition

Back in power after fifty years in the wilderness and on the back of a decade of organized resistance, Chile’s left has a daunting mandate. Boric’s platform blends protections against various forms of oppression and discrimination with core material reforms. To deliver on the gender, indigenous, environmental, and other social rights central to his campaign, along with the universal welfare and labor grievances that roused the 2019 rebellion, Apruebo Dignidad must transform Chile’s entire commodity-based neoliberal growth regime.

Fortunately, the diverse sectors that mobilized to crush the former governing parties and then swung behind the new left in the constituent and general elections constitute the basis for a powerful coalition that could be up to the task. If the mass movements that have defined the last decade manage to forge coherent links among each other as well as effective relationships to the new government, Apruebo Dignidad could enjoy the social power needed to restructure elites’ accumulation strategies.

The formations of Boric’s new left party coalition was itself a historic milestone. Once Frente Amplio’s young radicals set their sights on state power and the traditional Communists found in them new allies outside the progressive neoliberal class, ordinary Chileans witnessed the reemergence of a viable reform project not dominated by elite interests.

But these reformers lack a parliamentary majority and the outcome of the constituent assembly’s proposals for the draft constitution is unclear. Even in a less hostile environment, Chile’s new radicals could not defy recalcitrant business elites without the backing of strategically aligned movements.

Fortunately, two key characteristics set Chile apart from recent reform efforts in the region. First, a decade of mobilization has created a constructive balance between assorted civil society movements and the power of industrial labor. This configuration of associational and structural capacities gives mass constituencies the wherewithal to keep the heat on the government and elites and press for a broad range of social demands.

While the associational capacity of social justice activists has multiplied over the years, it remains too weak to overwhelm new left policymakers with sectional demands. To avoid a pattern whereby fragmented campaigns pressure Apruebo Dignidad into making narrow, ad hoc concessions, Chile’s mass movements require the type of social weight that will compel Boric’s government to take on business interests, embedding the diversity of civil society demands within encompassing campaigns for systemic change.

The magnitude and nature of Chile’s new labor militance could serve as the coordinating and disciplinary axis for exactly this type of classwide struggle. By deploying their formidable structural leverage in industries on which Chile’s entire model depends, fights against employers and public managers could reverberate into campaigns for universal public goods and protections.

Demands for industrywide contracts in copper mines and ports, for instance, will inevitably raise questions regarding progressive taxation, minimum wages, public pensions, and environmental standards. From this perspective, tensions between miners and community associations in environmental “sacrifice zones” are not necessarily about competing interests but rather about how a strong left should seek to wield the capacities of a diverse movement most effectively in pursuit of universal reforms.

Second, expanding movements are positioned to build strategic relations not only among one another but also with the watershed Apruebo Dignidad coalition and politicians. Given the trajectories of popular sector and labor insurgencies on the one hand and of the emergence of the partisan new left on the other, a favorable opening exists in Chile today for a calibrated, nonclientelist affiliation of mass movements within the alliance.

While the parties in government remain largely composed of middle layers without a direct mass base, mobilized poor and working masses lack parties of their own. Accordingly, as the governing coalition confronts business resistance to its reform program, it has a special opportunity to channel movement insurgency into and through its policymaking and political project.

Apruebo’s Pink Tide predecessors too often ended up rewarding the allegiance of its movement backers with targeted supports and resources. If Boric is able to integrate social movements into the Apruebo coalition in a more methodical fashion, he would be able to avoid the transactional logic that characterized mass incorporation into recent left populisms in the region.

Chile’s new radicals must design and combine organizational tactics that preserve and amplify independent mass militancy while fomenting it from within their cohering parties in pursuit of systemic reforms. In this scenario, social movements have a chance to design and follow a delicate strategy that uses their leverage to shape the government’s reform agenda without politically weakening it as it consolidates in the state.

Though the stakes are high, and the social forces and organizations tasked with enacting radical reform in Chile are still in their infancy, it may be possible for the country’s left to chart a new path to power. This will only be possible if the parliamentary left is able to hold together within its coalition the social movements and organized labor.