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«STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Stanford, California 1986 Modern Latin American Historiography and the Labor Movement Twentieth-century Latin American ...»

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In some ways, however, emphasis on the issue of ownership slights the degree to which the nitrate economy was under foreign, and especially British, domination during the whole period. British capital built and controlled most of the railroads and port facilities in the nitrate area. British ships dominated the carrying trade to Europe. British and German commercial houses handled the sale of nitrate abroad and financed p r o duction in Chile. Moreover, British and other foreign managers and technicians ran not only their o w n nitrate oficinas, but many of the Chileanowned ones as well. 20 The one sector of the nitrate industry that remained consistently Chilean was labor. Even before the War of the Pacific, a majority of the w o r k ers in the Peruvian and Bolivian nitrate zone were Chilean. T h e migration of rural Chileans to the nitrate zone was part of a broader historical pattern. From colonial times on, a large segment of the rural labor force in Chile consisted of migratory, landless workers w h o followed the harvest up and d o w n the central valley. During the nineteenth century Chileans emigrated to Peru and Bolivia to work in railway construction and the nitrate industry, to Argentina to w o r k in the livestock industry in the south, and to California to work in the gold fields. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century observers alike stressed the abject condition of Chilean rural workers, be they sharecroppers, tenants, or landless migrants. In the face of such misery, the propensity of Chilean rural workers to m i grate to cities and mines or even beyond Chile's borders in search of better conditions is understandable. So, too, are the high incidence of alcoholism among the w o r k i n g class and Chile's shocking infant mortality rate. As late as the 1920's, for every 1,000 live births in Chile, 250 infants

20. Again, this predominance of foreign managers and technicians reflects the realities of the world distribution of technical and commercial knowledge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1920's there were many Chilean managers and technicians in the oficinas.

Chile 37 died within the first year. (Comparable figures are ioo for Argentina, 153 for Venezuela, and 159 for Colombia.) 2 1 Arthur Lawrence Stickell has thoroughly studied the migration of Chilean workers to the nitrate zone. His data show that despite efforts by nitrate employers to discriminate against Chileans and recruit Bolivians and Peruvians w h o were willing to w o r k for less, Chileans constituted the majority of the labor force during the entire nitrate era. Foreigners were most heavily represented during the first decade of the twentieth century, when they accounted for one-quarter of the nitrate labor force. 22 The vast majority of foreign workers, some 80 to 90 percent, were B o livians or Peruvians. Most of the others were Europeans, many of t h e m skilled workers. T h e n u m b e r of foreign workers slowly decreased until by the 1920s Chileans constituted m o r e than 90 percent of the w o r k force. T h e nitrate industry's low incidence of foreign workers reflected a larger national pattern. Unlike Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, Chile never had a large contingent of foreign immigrant workers in agriculture, manufacturing, or mining.

Life and Work on the Nitrate Pampa The root of the distinctiveness of the Chilean labor movement lies in the special experience of workers in nitrate production. 2 3 Conditions of life and w o r k on the nitrate pampa were vastly different from those in other Latin American export economies. T h e location of nitrate p r o d u c tion, the structure of ownership in the industry, the demography of the labor force, the nature of the w o r k process, and the conditions of life in nitrate oficinas and northern port towns all had important effects on workers and created a m o n g tfiein special needs and opportunities. Their

21. Arnold J. Bauer, Chilean Rural Society from the Spanish Conquest to 19.30 (London, 1975). Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz, The Population of Latin America (Berkeley, Calif., 1974), p. 200.

22. Arthur Lawrence Stickell, "Migration and Mining Labor in Northern Chile in the Nitrate Era, 1880-193(3" (Ph. D. diss., Indiana University, 1979). This rich study is a social history of nitrate labor based on previously untapped company and government records. It provides much statistical information on the recruitment and demography of the nitrate labor force, on wages and prices in the north, and on health facilities and housing on the nitrate pampa. Stickell laments the radicalization of Chilean nitrate workers and tries to show that, because conditions for workers eventually improved, that development could have been avoided. On the immigration policy of the Chilean government and the recruiting programs of nitrate companies, see also Miguel Monteon, "The Enganche in the Chilean Nitrate Sector," Latin American Perspectives 7:3 (Summer 1979): 66-79. Monteon traces the response of organized workers to the companies' efforts to undermine labor unity and bargaining power by encouraging foreign and domestic immigration to the north.

23. The argument pursued here does not deny the importance of other sectors of the Chilean labor movement. Nor is it meant to slight the significance of earlier, nineteenthcentury developments in working-class organization and attitudes. Rather, it calls attention to the characteristics that distinguish Chilean labor history from that of other Latin American nations.





Chile considerable success in defining an autonomous working-class culture and in building progressive social and political institutions for their class reflects not only their determination and creativity but also the unique environment in which they worked.

O n e of the most striking features of this environment was the geographic mobility of nitrate workers, much of which, as noted earlier, was a consequence of conditions beyond their control. The cyclical nature of the industry, especially after 1914, forced tens of thousands of nitrate workers to leave the pampa and sometimes the north itself during periods of crisis. But workers were also extraordinarily mobile within the nitrate zone in good times as well. Stickell, w h o has studied company records, reports very high levels of labor turnover. Labor leader Elias Lafertte recalls in his autobiography that as a youth he was employed in more than a dozen different jobs in as many oficinas during one three-year period in the early twentieth century. In periods of expanding production and high labor demand, workers w o u l d often remain at a given j o b for only a few days or weeks before moving on in search of better wages or living conditions. Employers frequently lamented their inability to keep their labor force and claimed that their problems stemmed from a "labor shortage."

T h e y devised ingenious credit and payment schemes and sometimes required deposits on tools in their effort to retain workers by making it costly to move. Workers were paid only once a m o n t h, and between paydays they were advanced credit in the form of scrip, or Jichas, which could be spent for water, food, clothing, tools, and many other items at the company store. Nitrate companies restricted commerce by outsiders and routinely expected profits from the company store to defray about 10 percent of their labor costs. At some oficinas this percentage was much higher. Especially in the early years, markups in the company stores on some items of basic consumption such as bread could be as high as 50 or 60 percent. Workers could cash in fichas only at certain times, sometimes at a discount. Still, fugados, the name managers gave to workers w h o left without settling their accounts, were frequent, and the numbers of w o r k ers w h o cashed in their company scrip, even at a discount, in order to move on were numerous. All these credit and payment devices—which sought to retain labor, and which served the needs of capital in other ways as well 24 —were a constant source of worker dissatisfaction and were targets of protest during the entire period.

In moving from j o b to j o b, nitrate workers took advantage of a series

24. For example, the use of scrip and the extension of credit made large shipments of cash to meet payrolls at isolated oficinas unnecessary. Deposits on tools, which usually amounted to more than a man's daily wage, could furnish, especially at large oficinas, important sums of interest-free operating capital. Finally, restrictions on commerce reduced contact by workers with peddlers and merchants in pampa towns. Oficina managers often denounced peddlers as sources of information on conditions at other oficinas and as conduits of radical ideas.

Chile 39 of structural conditions in the nitrate zone. In the northern desert, capital could not immediately tap a reserve of unemployed or lower-paid w o r k ers. Virtually all economic activities in the north were nitrate-related and relatively highly paid. Individually and collectively (through the Asociacion de Productores del Salitre) nitrate capitalists recruited actively in southern Chile during periods of expansion in the industry. Early in the twentieth century, as we have seen, they enlisted the resources of the state in these endeavors. Despite the success of their efforts, not everyone had the stamina or could acquire the skills for many jobs in nitrate p r o d u c tion, and capitalists never succeeded in glutting the labor market during periods of expansion. If workers could not secure satisfactory e m p l o y ment in the north, they could not be absorbed into agriculture or m a r ginal urban activities there. People came north to the desert to make money. If they did not, they were w o n t to return as soon as they were able to families and friends, and the less costly, more benign living conditions of the south.

Because the majority of nitrate workers were single males, they were more free to protest unfair or intolerable w o r k i n g conditions, and m o r e willing to move in search of better ones. Both company and, later, g o v ernment recruiters sought to enlist men with families. This policy was explicitly designed to tie the worker to the oficina and reduce the value of his major bargaining chip, his ability to move and find better pay or conditions elsewhere. Despite housing incentives and the offer of free transportation for dependents (defined in some cases to include more than the nuclear family), this policy met with only limited success. T h e A s o ciacion de Productores del Salitre reported that in the first five years of its recruiting operation, from 1901 to 1905, it had brought 4,567 men, 751 women, and 276 children to the north. Stickell carefully surveyed the demography of the north and concluded that on average about half of the people in nitrate oficinas were single males, only one-fifth adult females.

In fact, the whole demographic structure of the nitrate provinces in the early years of the twentieth century was skewed, with roughly twice as many males as females. T h e preoccupation of nitrate workers with female companionship and sexual gratification found expression in a rich regional vocabulary. Andar al palo meant to be (or move about) without a woman. Caserne ("to marry") was sarcastically used in the sense of sleeping with a w o m a n. Hacer la cosita rica conveyed the pleasure of c o p ulation. Hacer el favor was coined to express the decision by a w o m a n to have sex. Nitrate miners used the verb tirar ("to throw or shoot") to mean to copulate, and cartucho ("cartridge" or "stick of dynamite") to refer to a woman's virginity. Whorehouses were simply salones. The verb capotear (meaning to tease or trick a bull with a cape) meant to gang rape. 25 S- Andres Sabella, Semblanza del rwrte chileno (Santiago, 1955).

Chile 4o Sex ratios in the north and the bachelor status of most nitrate workers thus worked in t w o ways to encourage labor to m o v e about: they made the consequences of quitting a j o b less overwhelming, and they impelled men deprived of female companionship to seek it elsewhere.

However strong the desire to move, it was the competitive and diffuse nature of nitrate production that made moving sensible. Although o w n ership and production became more concentrated in the industry over time, both were relatively widely dispersed t h r o u g h o u t the entire pe- riod. 26 Even at the end of the nitrate era, in 1928, some 69 oficinas, owned by more than half as many different nitrate companies, were still in o p eration. The n u m b e r in earlier years was much higher. Some 53 were o p - •' erating in 1895, 113 in 1908, a peak of 137 in 1925. After the war the n u m b e r fluctuated widely: 125 in 1919, 53 during the depression of 1922, 96 during the b o o m of 1925. Most nitrate oficinas after 1900 employed a few hundred workers; only near the end of the period did some employ several thousand. T h e existence of many competing employers in a tight labor market made shopping for the best terms of w o r k and living con- ' ditions possible; it also limited the ability of owners to discipline workers w h o complained, broke rules, or joined with their fellows to secure better conditions.

The diffuse nature of nitrate mining resulted in large part from the geology of caliche deposits, which were widely scattered and of varying size and richness. Until the late 1920's, when new technology made the processing of low-grade deposits possible, oficinas often had to close or relocate once the richest ore at a site had been extracted. D u r i n g periods \ of low world demand and prices, marginal producers closed down, only to reopen again once the profit margin allowed. In both cases nitrate • workers found themselves temporarily out of w o r k and forced to move to find it.

Scattered production facilities led to the rapid development of c o m munications networks on the nitrate pampa. Privately owned nitrate railways measured some 860 kilometers in 1887, and twice that by 1905.

Mule trails and, later, roads for truck, bus, and automobile traffic linked the scattered oficinas with each other and with the major nitrate ports.

Workers used this transportation network, but until the 1920's many simply walked—searching for w o r k in good times, relief in the ports in bad.

Nitrate miners borrowed terms from the port and maritime workers



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