With less than a month before Chile’s presidential and parliamentary elections, its largest labor alliance, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), instigated a nationwide strike on Wednesday involving thousands of public sector workers.
The coalition of more than 14 public sector unions is demanding an 8.8 percent raise for most public sector workers, as well as a full 10 percent increase for the lowest wage earners. The demands apply to government ministries, education, health, municipalities, universities, and kindergartens, said Raul de la Puente, president of Agrupacion Nacional de Empleados Fiscales (ANEF, the National Association of Public Employees). He also claimed that 90 percent of public sector workers participated in the strike.
Carlos Insunza, secretary general of CUT, has indicated political motivations behind the timing of the public sector strikes, with them so close to upcoming presidential elections. He told the Santiago Times “we cannot pretend that Chile will develop to become fairer and more democratic if labor is not put at the center of a public debate, and of the presidential candidates’ programs.” Bárbara Figueroa, president of CUT, also stated that the unions want negotiations to start before Chile’s elections on November 17, a move which would presumably provide a boost to socialist-leaning candidates in the elections.
— Carlos Insunza Rojas (@sombraroja) October 22, 2013
Figueroa explained that the impending negotiations “not only impact the more than 600,000 public sector workers, but they also affect future negotiations in the private sector [by setting precedent].” Chile already has the third highest minimum wage in Latin America at US$416 per month, according to Chile’s embassy.
Public services affected by the strike include teachers, health care workers, prison employees, and trash services. The absence of trash services due to the strike has already created an emergency situation in Valparaíso due to unsanitary conditions, forcing the city to implement an independent contingency plan to deal with the pileup left by public employees on strike.
— La Tercera (@latercera) October 23, 2013
Santiago Rebolledo, president of the Asociación Chilena de Municipalidades (AChM), acknowledged the impact the sudden strike is having on the country.
“Beyond doubt, to cripple 80 percent of municipalities is to paralyze Chile. We deliver all [government] services, and we have a serious problem here if this conflict is prolonged,” he said.
Only a handful of public sectors did not participate in the strike, including police, some health care workers, and Chile’s Civil Registry and Identification Service, which handles identification cards, passports, marriage licenses, and a range of other documents and licenses.
While the nationwide strike involving public services has managed to have swift consequences, only 18 percent of Chile’s entire labor force is unionized; of those, 96% are affiliated with CUT, according to the Chilean embassy.
Commenting on the national strike, Chile’s interior minister, Andrés Chadwick, questioned the usefulness of striking at this stage in negotiations, and quipped, “it’s like a tradition that they hold a strike before first starting at the negotiating table. That’s the truth.”