«STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Stanford, California 1986 Modern Latin American Historiography and the Labor Movement Twentieth-century Latin American ...»
26. Firms producing nitrate worth over 1 million Spanish quintales accounted for 9 percent of total production in 1913, 30 percent in 1929. Producers of 500,000 to 1 million worth accounted for 21 percent of total production in 1913, 37 percent in 1929. Mediumsize firms producing between 100,000 and 500,000 quintales accounted for 62 percent of total production in 1913, but only 26 percent in 1929. Small producers contributed only 8 percent of production in 1913, 7 percent in 1929. Stickell, "Migration and Mining Labor" (cited in n. 22), pp. 221 and 249.
Chile 4i with w h o m they formed close personal and organizational alliances to express their sense of constant movement on the vast pampa. Barracks in the nitrate oficinas were buques ("ships"). To sleep was doblar el asta (loosely, " t o pull in the sails").
Nitrate workers developed an informal communications n e t w o r k of friends, relatives, and compadres all over the nitrate pampa and monitored conditions in the various nitrate oficinas. Although w o r k and living conditions, as we shall see, were not good in any oficina, w o r d spread when they were marginally better in one. Employers kept wages and expenses on labor as low as they could, but they were constrained from going below a certain m i n i m u m and were acutely aware of the competitive nature of the labor market. Wages in the nitrate zone were relatively high, and nitrate workers, especially single males, could accumulate enough savings to allow them to search for alternative w o r k relatively quickly.
Unencumbered by family obligations, single workers could pack up their clothes and tools on the slightest provocation, on getting word of better conditions elsewhere, or simply on a w h i m. Elias Lafertte captures all
these ideas in a particularly illuminating passage:
In those days, the most characteristic phenomenon on the pampa was precisely that of emigrating from one to another oficina. Nobody put down roots and it was very difficult to find, as happens in the countryside, people who had grown old in the same place. No; the pampinos were nomadic, roving people, who didn't stay long at the same oficina. Fortunately, there was a lot of work and although the companies knew who had been fired for grave offenses, they didn't deny work to those who were simply restless. People used to take off and move at the drop of a hat. The oficinas would open then close then open again. The pampinos would change their place of work in order to earn a few pesos more, because they were interested in a woman in an oficina several kilometers away, because they found better housing, or because the food was better in another place. If anyone had taken a survey, they would have been astonished at the number of oficinas each pampino knew. I myself, by the time I was twenty, had already worked at a long chain of nitrate centers.27 Nitrate workers collectively expressed the harsh reality of dependence on cyclical w o r k and the limited independence of geographical mobility in the word they chose for the activity that dominated their lives. A j o b, they said, was a pega. The noun derives from the verb pegar, " t o stick or adhere to lightly." 28 The willingness, even compulsion, of nitrate workers to take advantage of the opportunity to move in search of better material conditions and physical and spiritual release was a powerful statement about the nature of w o r k and the quality of life in the nitrate oficinas. Nitrate workers contended daily with conditions that sapped their physical and mental
27. Elias Lafertte, Vida de mi comunista (Santiago, 1961), pp. 38-39.
28. Ariel Dorfman provided me with this last shade ot meaning.
42 Chile health and threatened their very existence. U n d e r these corrosive conditions workers developed attitudes and institutions first to cope with, and then to change, the nature of their lives. 2 ' T h e typical nitrate oficina was a noisy, smoky, smelly industrial c o m pany town set incongruously in the quiet grandeur of the Atacama Desert. Seen in daylight, from a distance, the oficina must have appeared as an inconsequential dot in the vast surrounding expanse of pampa and sky.
At night, however, the electric lights and the rumble of the ore crushers could be perceived from great distances through the dry desert air. At those times, even from afar, the nitrate oficina conveyed an image of power and significance.
The nucleus of the nitrate oficina was the maquina, or processing plant, a black metal maze of tall smokestacks, crushing machines, boilers, huge processing tanks, and drying pans. To a practiced eye the size of the slag pile behind the maquina revealed the age of the oficina. Beside the p r o cessing plant was the coal storage area, and nearby the maestranza, or machine shop, where skilled workers repaired the heavy railway and p r o cessing equipment and sharpened the hand tools of the miners. A bit farther on sat the campamento, the barrackslike housing for production workers, and still farther, segregated from workers' dwellings, the more substantial houses for managers and technical personnel. T h e central part of each oficina also contained the pulperia, the company store. Some oficinas also featured a c o m p a n y - r u n restaurant and bar where single men could take their meals and drink. Some also contained a o n e - r o o m school, sometimes funded by management. O n l y a few had a chapel.
Stretching out into the pampa, beyond the processing plant and living quarters, lay the oficina's ore reserves and the overturned remains of mined areas. Mining operations involved the bulk of the oficina's labor force, and wages for the miners alone constituted about half of total o p erating costs. The mining of nitrate ore began with the w o r k of the barretero, w h o mapped a section of the deposit by digging a grid of widely spaced holes into the surface of the pampa. Caliche usually lay between one and three meters below the surface, and it was generally necessary to blast away the desert floor to uncover it. Using a variety of iron bars with sharpened or spoonlike ends, the barretero dug a hole t h r o u g h the deposit wide enough for a small boy to slip down and scrape out a chamber in the
29. Although descriptions of life and work on the nitrate pampa are many and varied, I found the following four previously cited sources most useful in preparing this section: the autobiography of Eh'as Lafertte (cited in n. 27); the meticulous manual for prospective nitrate entrepreneurs by Semper and Michels (cited in n. 3); the report of the congressional committee on conditions in the north edited by Salas Lavaqui (cited in n. 11); and the unpublished dissertation by Stickell (cited in n. 22). 1 have also relied on another congressional report, published as Common parlamentaria encargada de estudiar las necesidades de las provincias de Tarapacd y Antofagasta (Santiago, 1913).
Chile 43 rock below the caliche to accommodate an explosive charge. " O p e n i n g " a caliche deposit involved settling on a line of advance, then exploding a series of charges to open a rajo, or trench. Then the nitrate miner, or particular, could enter the trench to separate, break up, and load the caliche into a mule-drawn cart for transport to the oficina, where the quality of the ore was j u d g e d before it was dumped into the crusher. Meanwhile the barretero, w h o serviced several particulares, advanced a few meters and dug a new line of holes parallel to the rajo. Once the particular had removed the caliche uncovered by the previous detonation, he set charges in the new holes and the process of excavation could begin anew. Barreteros and particulares both owned some of their tools and were a m o n g the highest-paid workers in the oficina. Their earnings were determined on a piecework basis, at rates that fluctuated according to the hardness of the ground and the ease of extraction of the caliche. Disputes between these workers and management over rates of pay and over the quality and weight of the ore delivered to the oficina were c o m m o n. Success at the backbreaking, dangerous w o r k of barreteros and particulares involved much practical knowledge and considerable skill in the use o f the p o o r grade and unreliable explosives manufactured at the oficina and sold to miners at the company store.
Boys of different ages, often relatives of adult workers, played i m p o r tant roles in the mining process. In addition to the destrazadores, the 8- to io-year-olds w h o dug the chambers for the explosives, there were matasapos, i o - to 12-year-old boys w h o helped particulares break chunks of ore too large to carry and load. Young teenagers worked as herramenteros, carrying tools to workers on muleback. Older teenagers might load or drive carts, or begin doing a man's w o r k in mining. All workers w h o labored in mining operations in the sun on the open pampa—the asoleados, as Lafertte referred to them—were paid on a piecework basis.
Processing of the caliche involved crushing the ore, dissolving the sodium nitrate in it in water, then allowing the solution to crystallize and dry in the desert air. To this basic process, k n o w n to man in p r e - C o l u m bian times, the nitrate oficina applied mechanical power, fossil fuel, and a technology that greatly increased the efficiency of the dissolving p r o cess. Water and ore were steamed in a series of dissolving vats called cachuchos. Operations in the processing plant were, nonetheless, very laborintensive: 30 paleros shoveled the caliche into the crushers by hand, ripiaSemper and Michels explained: "Ordinarily mechanical installations, which save on labor, are avoided because, given the high price of coal, no economies over manual labor are obtained, and because complicated machinery [can break down] in the Desert and lead to unacceptable disruption of the work process." They explained the labor intensivity of mining operations in the same way, adding that the extensive nature of the process and the often soft surface of the desert made movement of machines difficult. See La industria del salitre (cited in n. 3), p. 47 and pp. 80-81.
Chile dores entered the hot dissolving vats after the water had been drained off to break loose and remove the tailings, still other workers turned the drying nitrate powder in the sun and shoveled it into burlap bags sewn by boys and w o m e n, and finally loaders carried the incredibly heavy 139kilogram bags onto freight cars for shipment. 3 1 Almost all workers in the processing plant were also paid on a piecework basis, determined in part by the skill required for a given task and the difficulty of performing it, and by production in the plant as a whole. Ripiadores, whose task had to be accomplished at great speed under conditions of extreme heat, were generally the most highly paid. Most processing plants ran 24 hours a day every day of the year except September 18, Chilean Independence Day.
Shifts were twelve hours long, with a total of t w o and a half hours set aside for lunch and rest periods. Sometimes plant workers, w h o generally labored in gangs charged with a specific task under the direction of a foreman, would work an additional half shift. Stickell found that these w o r k ers often labored long hours in concentrated spurts of several days, then took off a day or m o r e to rest. Most, however, averaged more than six days a week.
Work schedules and supervision on the pampa were less rigid. Particulares were more or less free to come and go as they pleased and generally worked 7 to 9 hours a day. Supervisors were primarily concerned that they extract the caliche thoroughly. When the ore was of low quality or difficult to mine, particulares sometimes had to be contracted on a dailywage basis. A Bedaux time-work study done in 1930 found that nitrate miners set informal production levels for a fair day's w o r k and pay. When time cards were introduced, workers slept for a time in the trenches so as not to exceed these levels.
Work in nitrate processing, as in mining, was dangerous. It was also unhealthy, disagreeable, and strenuous. Workers had to contend with constant dust from the crushers, m u d from the dissolving process (Lafertte called processing-plant workers the embarrados, " m u d d y ones"), noxious fumes, and the ever-present heat from boilers and steam lines and the sun of the desert. Machinery was often in very poor repair, and safety regulations and protective devices were almost nonexistent. A parliamentary commission sent to investigate the situation in the north in 1904 found safety and health conditions especially shocking at the older oficinas. Whereas injuries to miners resulted primarily from cave-ins and the use of unpredictable explosives, plant workers had a high incidence of lung infections and were often mutilated or burned while operating
31. Semper and Michels noted that part of the early organizational success of stevedores in Iquique resulted from the very fact that few workers could handle the weight of nitrate bags. They go on to say that in the early twentieth century the weight of bags was reduced to 100 kilograms (La iiidustria del salitre, p. 90). In 1904, however, a workers' committee complained to congressional investigators that no bags weighed less than 120 kilograms, and that some were as much as 150 (Salas Lavaqui, Trabajos, p. 588).
Chile 45 the machinery. Hospital facilities and doctors on the pampa were in very short supply. Indeed, only one hospital existed in the entire nitrate region in 1912. In that year it served 1,026 patients, 326 of them classified as suffering from industrial accidents. Of these, 83 were particulares, 44 ripiadores. Most of the patients were single males between the ages of 15 and
40. Most industrial accidents were not reported and were treated in primitive facilities in the oficinas. Workers usually had to contribute one peso a month toward this service. Company compensation for accidents was infrequent. Workers early organized mutual-aid societies to sustain injured or sick members and consistently resisted the one-peso health fee deducted by management from their wages. The need for minimal safety standards, especially protective grates over the cachuchos, figured among the earliest collective demands by nitrate workers.