Chile's new labor code plays into leftist hands

Chile's new labor code, initiated to stop a union drive for a boycott of Chilean goods,may be backfiring on the government. In the 10 months since the law came into force, it:

* Appears to be strengthening the hand of leftists in key union positions.

* Has not lessened heavy criticism of the government from Chilean and international labor organizations, although appeasement of workers was one of its key aims. The nation's military leaders, in fact, have come under increasing attack because of the labor policy.

In a letter to a Chilean magazine, American labor leader Lane Kirkland writes that the clear intention of the law is to "mutilate the democratic labor movement in Chile."

Many other labor leaders, including some who had supported the coup that put Chile's military back in power, also complain about the law, saying their members are not benefiting from it.

The code restricts open union organizing, making such activity possible only at the plant level. There is evidence that communists and socialists turned this restriction into an advantage in recent union elections. They are good organizers at the shop level, and there is evidence they have maintained and even improved their positions within the unions.

At the Lota coal mine near Concepcion, for example, five of six union directors elected were of clear Marxist leanings.

Elections are planned this month at the huge Chuquicamata copper mine and the Huachipato steel complex, two critical production centers. Observers here believe that the left will do well in those elections, too.

Chile's conservative military regime actually may be creating the conditions for the radicalization of the labor movement that it is trying to stop, they say.

The outspoken president of Chile's United Workers' Front, Carlos Frez, says: "What the government wants is to atomize the labor movement, take away its capacity for negotiation, and give as much power as possible to business."

At the same time, Labor Minister Jose Pinera defends the code as one of the "most modern and liberation labor schemes in the world."

Though it limits organizing, collective bargaining, and the right to strike, it allows more union leverage than workers have had since 1973. More than 2,000 contracts have been signed, with only 3 percent of negotiations ending in strikes.

The government has announced it has no intention of opening the way for more union activity. Only minor "technical adjustments" in the law will be allowed, it has stated.

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