Class, Gender and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951

Contested Communities: Class, Gender and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951

Sullivan, John

Thomas Miller Klubock Contested Communities: Class, Gender and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951 Duke University Press, Durham and London 1998. pp. 363 ISBN 0-8223-2078-9 (hbk) L40.00

Reviewed by John Sullivan

Most writers on the Chilean working class have stressed the difference between the Chilean Labour movement and others in Latin America. In Argentina and Brazil trade unions were state controlled and patronised by populist leaders such as Peron and Vargas, but Chile showed a much more ‘European’ pattern, where strong Communist and Socialist parties coexisted within a generally united trade union movement.The Communist Party resembled the French party in its commitment, self-sacrifice, strong organisation and also in its bureaucratism, intellectual poverty and intolerance of dissent. The Socialist Party contained both revolutionaries and moderate Social Democrats. Labour movement historians have been interested in the interplay between unions, parties, and rank and file workers.

Klubock is less interested in such issues than in the micro-history of working class experience, particularly the interactions between men and women. He draws heavily on feminist theory to illustrate issues which have been neglected by historians with a more traditional, institutional approach.

El Teniente is Chile’s largest copper mine the export earnings of which were crucial to the Chilean economy. Its North American owners, the Braden company, ran the mine and its surroundings as a dictatorial company town. The firm’s Welfare Department acted as police, social worker and welfare provider.There was draconian control over worker’s private lives, and ferocious repression of trade unions. The Chilean state loyally backed up the company, sending troops to arrest trade unionists, in a pattern which did not change until the election of a Popular Front government in 1938.

The original labour force in the mines had been migrant, following an earlier pattern set by the workers in the nitrate fields in the North. Miners would work until they had enough money to provide for their immediate needs and then return to the countryside. Alternatively, when dissatisfied with the horrific conditions and low wages, they would leave and seek work elsewhere, which resulted in high labour turnover. In its early years El Teniente, set in a bleak mountain area, had a wild west atmosphere. There were no female miners, but women went to the area as domestic workers, tavern owners and prostitutes. The company was unhappy at those uncontrolled activities, and brought pressure on couples to undergo civil marriage, as part of a campaign to create a settled labour force. There are hilarious descriptions of the company journal’s efforts to get miner’s wives to ape North American middle class domesticity, complete with make up advice and beauty contests. Klubstock suggests that prostitution and multiple sexual relationships were part of a struggle for female independence, opposed by both the Braden company and male workers.These had a common interest in persuading women to accept the status of wives and mothers, but that thesis clashes with the creation of women’s organisations by the unions and workers’ parties to agitate for better conditions.

His concentration on the microlevel means that he does not give much weight to the proceedings of trade union conferences or political manifestos. Good use is made of oral sources, but given the period studied and the short life span of the ElTeniente workers, those testimonies are generally not from miners, but from their children. He also examines company records although, on the eve of nationalisation, the Braden company destroyed many of those and threw out the rest in a disorganised heap. Klubock also uses newspapers, company reports, personnel records and the stories of Baltazar Castro, a famous writer and former Braden employee brought up in the mine. He has not used translators, which sometimes leads him into error. For example, a pensionista is a resident not a pensioner, few of whom would be capable of the physical activities he credits them with.

The themes of class and gender, suggested by the book’s title, never really come together in spite of much fascinating, if repetitious, detail. Nor does the conceptual framework add much to the empirical material. Klubock himself seems to doubt its value as it is quietly abandoned and seems to have no explanatory power. Unions and parties are described but they remain background presences, so that the study of class conflict is seldom related to the broader picture. The extremely restrictive legislation, which did so much to shape Chilean labour relations, is barely mentioned. There is surely something to be said for the traditional approach which relates working class consciousness to the institutions the class creates. For example, there is little mention of how rival party affiliation affected workers’ relationships.

Klubock’s strengths lie in his creative use of neglected materials such as company disciplinary records and in the telling detail. These are a product of his whole-hearted identification with people who fought for generations and who continued to do so under the ferocious repression following the Pinochet coup.

John Sullivan teaches for the Open University, UK.

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Autumn 2001

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