Chilean Labour Voices on the National Lithium Strategy
May 9, 2023
|        BULLETIN #

Bulletin 133: Chilean Labour Voices on the National Lithium Strategy

by Lala Peñaranda

Last week, we looked at the Boric administration’s launch of the National Lithium Strategy, the creation of a National Lithium Company, and some initial responses by trade unions. In this bulletin, we’ll highlight clips of interviews from diverse trade union perspectives on the role of the labour movement in the lithium sector.

Video interview with Miguel Soto Roa, coordinator of the Lithium for Chile Movement

TUED sat down with Miguel Soto Roa, coordinator of the Lithium for Chile Movement and longstanding union leader in the mining sector, to discuss the implications of state control over lithium. The full video interview is in Spanish; the following is a highlight: 

What role should trade unions play in the longer-term vision for industrialisation?

Miguel Soto Roa: It is possible to manufacture lithium batteries in Chile with alliances. For example, we need research from public universities to push us toward this goal. We disagree with the Chilean Foreign Minister’s statements about rejecting a lithium alliance with Argentina and Bolivia. We believe that there should be synchronisation between the states in order to safeguard the lithium wealth that exists concentrated in our countries. Today, there is an additional possibility that Mexico will also be an important player in the exploitation of this mineral. From the Movement, of course, we will continue to promote regional integration in the lithium sector, especially when there are common interests. At a state level, we must have an agreement in Latin America that will allow us to have better industrial development and transfer technologies. 

Unfortunately, in the trade union sphere, there have only been informal conversations through the seminars that have been held, but officially linked with trade unions in Argentina and Mexico. We hope that with Bolivia, we will generate a greater rapprochement. This is a developing effort.

What is the relationship between lithium workers and the current private lithium companies, like SQM and Albemarle?

Miguel Soto Roa: There is a fierce persecution of workers by SQM. To this day, there is no collective bargaining agreement. The company does not accept that the workers negotiate in the time they have to generate a regulated negotiation that recognizes their right to strike. For a long time, SQM was even condemned by the Supreme Court for denying this right to lithium workers. We had workers who were persecuted and fired. And workers were then forbidden to talk to those targeted union leaders. Therefore, we only came to realise the true power that SQM had and the degree of corruption it generated when all the manoeuvres were uncovered at a political level (...). That's when we realised that our struggle had to be on a national scale. We decided to create the Movement of Lithium for Chile to defend the resource, ... push for the development of a national lithium industry that would incorporate value-added, that would respect the rights of the workers and the communities, but also of the Salar del Atacama, a living territory that must be protected for its biodiversity in terms of valuable elements for life and development not only for the communities but for the country and humanity as a whole. From there, we began to generate national mobilisations. We have had a very strong movement at the student, academic and trade union level.

Lithium workers have repeatedly stated that if the management of either of the two companies [SQM & Albemarle] were to leave tomorrow, workers have full confidence in their training to continue producing lithium in the same way they do now or better. I have first-handedly seen lithium workers manifest this point directly to the Minister of Mining at meetings we’ve attended.

View the full interview in Spanish here

Movement Response to National Lithium Strategy

Last week, on April 26, TUED attended a meeting with over 50 trade union leaders from the Lithium for Chile Movement, who exchanged analysis and impressions of the Boric administration’s National Lithium Strategy announcement. The meeting opened with a summary of the key developments by academic Jan Cademartori of the University of Antofagasta, followed by questions and discussion from the trade union leaders. 

‘Finally, the government caught up to what we’ve been demanding for decades’ was the general sentiment of the meeting, with a celebratory tone that made plenty of room for nuanced concerns, questions, doubts, critiques – and above all, calls to action. Our general takeaways from the meeting: 

  • A historic moment: concerns and critiques aside, the achievement of the National Lithium Company’s founding is historic and has significant potential for advancing working-class energy policies. “The creation of the National Lithium Company is historic. We hadn’t seen anything like this in at least 50 years since the nationalisation of copper. In all these years, the Chilean State had not created a single mining company or, for that matter, a public company in any sector. It has famously left everything to the private sector. In this historical context, we celebrate the novelty of the creation of the National Lithium Company (ENL),” said Cadermatori.   

  • The public-over-private share must be fought for: Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) have always spelt trouble for the working class. The current Chilean Congress (2022-2026) is conservative, and naturally, class interests are at play (see Finance Minister Mario Marcel’s statements), attempting to maximize private participation in the future of the ENL. Workers discussed their commitment to defending the state-led National Lithium Strategy from corporate interests who seek to maximize private participation while underscoring the importance of keeping their guard up by increasing their organizing work in communities and in the streets to demand and pressure for the largest possible state ownership share in contracts, stronger environmental regulation, enforceable community agreements, robust labour rights, and real worker decision-making in the public company. 
  • Based on this and other recent trade union discussions, it is clear that a great deal is still “up for grabs” in the National Lithium Strategy in terms of a public goods approach surmounting the continuation of private capital’s interests. Mobilisations and pressure from trade unions and coalitions will be necessary for the National Lithium Company to serve its true public mandate to workers, communities, and the environment. 

CUT Chile

Chile’s largest national trade union centre, CUT Chile, is a member of the Movement Lithium for Chile. “We value the creation of a National Lithium Company that guarantees the public ownership of lithium, takes into account the communities and people of Chile, and protects the environment,” read their first statement following the launch of the lithium strategy. Lithium was also a centre-stage issue at this year’s May Day rally. In his speech, David Acuña, President of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT Chile), said, “The National Lithium Strategy is fundamental for the state to play an active role in the exploitation and industrialisation of lithium, which will bring greater wealth and well-being to the people of Chile. We believe that lithium will allow us to swell Chile's so-called salary.”

In their social media statement, CUT Chile shared, “When resources are generated, they should be used to improve social benefits and not to be distributed among large national and foreign private capital. Lithium policy has to take care of distributing and returning the resources to their rightful owners, the people of Chile.”

IndustriALL Chile

The Industriall Global Union’s affiliate in Chile, the Confederation of Industrial and Service Metalworkers Confederation - CONSTRAMET, is a leading member of the Movement Lithium for Chile. Following the launch of the National Lithium Strategy, the president of Constramet issued an opinion statement, welcoming the Natinoal Lithium Company and highlighting concerns about the government’s relative silence regarding the role of workers and communities: 

The decision to move forward with the creation of a National Lithium Company, a campaign promise cast into doubt less than a week ago by the same government team, was welcomed [by Constramet]... It is clearly a decision that will have to be defended against the more neoliberal positions, which will oppose the strengthening of the state, which for us still needs to be delimited and clarified in greater depth.

President Gabriel Boric presented his National Lithium Strategy, the great absentee in his speech were the workers of Chile, and we can not fail to point out our concern about it. Promoting a national economic policy that is part of this process must be accompanied by an industrial development plan that not only puts us [workers] at the forefront of lithium production but also of the technological progress that will accompany this global transformation. The first milestone of the National Strategy cannot be exclusion, there is no development possible without the workers of the homeland. We support the measures that mean progress for the country, and we expect the immediate inclusion of the voice of the workers in the public debate of our national sovereignty.

Interview with Cristian Cuevas, Spokesperson of the National Coordination Committee of Codelco's contractor workers; co-founder of the Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC)

Cristián Cuevas Zambrano is a trade union leader and activist of the Chilean left. He is currently director of the Federation of Mining Workers Fetramin and Spokesperson of the National Coordination Committee of Codelco's contractor workers. Previously he was one of the founders of the Confederation of Copper Workers CTC and was its first President for six years. In addition, he was a leader of the Executive Board of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores CUT Chile.

Lala Peñaranda [LP]: For trade unionists around the world reading this announcement, what is the most important thing for them to understand? What would you say are the main conclusions? 

CC: What trade union leaders and workers must understand is that we cannot mortgage the future of our country and the improvement of the living conditions of the population as a whole by handing over the exploitation of this non-renewable mineral resource to private companies, whose only interest is to capture income to increase their capital without looking at the general interest, which is a clear loss of economic sovereignty and political independence by being subjected to the interests of the economic groups or the ruling class.

Read the full interview in English and Spanish.

Beyond Statism

In a critique titled “National Lithium Strategy: the plundering by the State in Conjunction with the Transnationals and the Destruction of the Salt Flats,” writers Domingo Lara and Teresa Melipal underscore a significant issue: public ownership alone is insufficient and can be corporatist if not democratized and accompanied by a public mandate. They write: 

“However, what they [citing ENL celebratory statements] do not say is the lack of working-class and community protagonism in the control, management and planning of lithium. This aspect continues to be absent in the discussion of left sectors. A state company can not be at the service of the great social needs, not even have the slightest protection for the environment, and even function internally with subcontractors and managers with millionaire salaries, which are no different from the managers of large private mining companies, without going any further that is how Codelco functions today.

The only thing that can allow a state-owned company to function in a way that is really different from that of private companies is that it is controlled by those who make it produce. That is to say, the workers and this, in turn, should not be done under corporate or trade union interests, but rather in relation to the communities and in order to confront major social and environmental problems.” 

Salt Flat Workers’ Union of the Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (SQM)

In a recent interview with the Chilean press, Helmo Leiva, president of the SQM Salt Flat Workers' Union, highlighted the capabilities of lithium workers in terms of research, development and innovation, as well as the union’s position on the importance of caring for ecosystems. The following is a highlight:

What role should workers play in this historic process?

Helmo Leiva: Lithium workers are not just another cog in the production chain, we are the engine of Chilean production. Last year it was our work that saved the nation's budget. It is with our efforts that the private sector achieved record production figures, and it is with our sacrifice that the government obtained a fiscal surplus after a decade. In the 2021-2022 cycle, our work brought payments to the state of more than 5 billion dollars, doubling the contributions that Codelco made to the treasury. [...] SQM's profits increased by 567% thanks to the workers. 

Additional resources: 

  • National Lithium Strategy Seminar (Spanish)
  • Building a Democratic Energy Future: Navigating the Complexities of Lithium Extractivism and North-South Inequalities Event (English): to be uploaded on the RLS-NYC YouTube Channel this week. 
  • Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining Report by the climate + community project