Chile: interview with Tomás Pizarro Meniconi, president of the Recoleta Industrial Cordon in 1973

The experience of the Industrial Cordones is without a doubt one of the most important processes in the history of the workers’ movement in the country, key organizations that confronted the coup reaction, but went further by transforming themselves into real spaces of self-determination of the working class, by incipiently exercising the seeds of a double power, fundamental for revolutionary transformation. The historical value of this process, told by its protagonists 50 years after the victory of the Popular Unity and 47 years after the end of the peaceful road to socialism resulting from the military coup, invites us, the new generations, to draw the conclusions from the Chilean revolutionary process in the decade of the 70s, the limitations of the UP, and makes us question what were the Industrial Cordones, which weren’t fully studied nor claimed. That is why we, from the Anti-Capitalist Movement, analyze it through an interview with Tomás Pizarro Meniconi, President of the Recoleta Industrial Cordon in 1973.

Interview by Maura Galvéz – Bernabé for the Anticapitalist Movement

Maura Gálvez – Bernabé: We have a very important guest today who recapitulates one of the most important processes of Popular Unity, in which organizations of workers, the Industrial Cordones, were constituted.

Tomás Pizarro Meniconi, who was president of the Recoleta Cordon until 1973, is with us to talk about this. Hello comrade, how are you?

Tomás Pizarro Meniconi: Hello, fine, a greeting to the entire audience, to all the people interested in the rescue of the history of the Chilean workers’ movement, particularly in this chapter in which I had the task, at that time, to be a participant in something that we didn’t know would have transcendence until almost 50 years later. I am certainly grateful for all the efforts made by those who value this experience and at the same time want to consider it as a reference for political learning for the new generations, so, for the rest, I am available and naturally very happy.

Maura: Thank you very much, comrade. We are proud to have you with us today, telling us about this important moment in the organization of the working class. In order to get to know you, you were the president of the Recoleta Cordon until 1973, can you tell us about the process of building the Recoleta Cordon in particular?

Tomás Pizarro Meniconi: Yes, look, actually, the history of the cordones is very brief. The first was the Cerrillos Industrial Cordon, which was formed between July and August of the year 72 and then in that second semester of the year 72 the Vicuña Mackenna Industrial Cordon was created. There were only these two industrial cordones for the October 72 strike and the response of the cordones was to keep the companies working as the reaction sponsored by the CIA and the Yankee imperialism was to generate a boycott and a breakdown in the economy, generating an artificial shortage of supplies.

The response of these two big industrial enclaves along Vicuña Mackenna Avenue and Cerrillos Avenue was that all these factories, all these unions agreed on a plan to increase production. There was demand, the policy of President Salvador Allende’s government was to increase purchasing power, therefore, the whole population could buy more and that naturally, in the productive capacity, was badly damaged to generate this shortage and charge it to the government, but on the other hand there were many possibilities to buy, but the products were not enough. Then, the battle of production was one of the great slogans that the Industrial Cordones of Cerrillo and Vicuña Mackenna give as an answer to the October strike when it becomes evident this boycott was generated by the different employers’ organizations, the cordones decide to look for the same commitment in other industrial sectors, In this situation, what the colleagues of Vicuña Mackenna and Cerrillos did was answering to the task of making contact with other companies. I worked in the company Via Sur, an inter-provincial transport company, and we were the only company in the social area that was on Recoleta Avenue.

Cerrillos Cordon marching

On Recoleta Avenue there were about 150 companies of different sizes, from 50 workers like El Castillo textile company to the biggest one which was Beltrán Tannery and La Reborde which had about 800 workers, but the only company in the social area was ours. The comrades of the Vicuña Mackenna cordon called us, talked to our union, this was around January of the year 73, after the strike of October, and they proposed that we should also create an Industrial cordon because the companies that were in the Recoleta Avenue were located in the same way as in Cerrillos or Vicuña Mackenna. The union found it interesting that we could carry out this type of action because we had already carried out some in the October strike, in particular we, as a transport company, kept all our machines rolling towards the south of Chile, naturally if there were intentions to stop the country, we as workers who also participated in the administration of the company decided that for no reason would we give in to this pressure to the detriment of the population and we kept working. We had that experience of commitment and also because it was a company that had a joint management process with the CORFO delegates, who were the company executives and from us, the unions, because we had two, the drivers’ and administrative union and the industrial union. We were about 180 workers from the industrial union and about 80 from the administrative union, the two unions worked together in the administration of the company.

Zone where the idustrial cordones developed.

Faced with this situation, the comrades of the Vicuña Mackenna Cordon felt that we had the conditions to also demonstrate that we were in the production battle, but at the same time they entrusted us with the task of organizing the  Industrial Cordon and in the union the management discussed, talked about the subject and assigned me to be the representative of the union of the company Vía Sur in the Cordon. It also meant that the task of making contacts with the other companies was mine because we had the responsibility as unions of a company in the social area to convene the rest of the unions. That’s how we were there for about three months and by the end of April and the beginning of May we had the Recoleta Industrial Cordon, which was created by 51 unions of all sizes, we were about 30 thousand, we were a small Industrial Cordon, Cerrillos had about 200 thousand workers, Vicuña Mackenna had almost 500 thousand. We were a small Industrial Cordon. However, the level of commitment and intense relations with our colleagues who often visited us and supported us in different tasks also asked us to do things and we did them, for example, to put our machines at the service of what, at that time, was the popular vacation.

We were born then in May 73. By May 1st we were already an Industrial Cordon, of the new and small ones and we kept ourselves coordinated with the other Industrial Cordons.

Maura Galvéz – Bernabé: Comrade, having been born so close to the coup and in a convulsed process in the country, what was the policy you promoted from the Recoleta Industrial Cordon and what was the policy of the UP at that time?

Tomás Pizarro Meniconi: The policy of the UP for the workers was absolutely transferred through the CUT. The CUT was totally committed to and dependent on the policies of the Ministry of the Economy and, naturally, Allende’s government. They were not seeing what we were seeing, because we, for example, were very critical of the modification of the government program that had proposed to build a social area with 411 enterprises that were going to be expropriated because they had strategic characteristics, and at the same time were sensitive to the country’s economy. And the Ministry of Economy at the hands of the Communist Party – that’s why there was a tight relationship with the CUT in order to implement a policy that was in accordance with the dictates of the ministry – the Ministry of Economy was reducing the enterprises to be expropriated. At that time, we were demanding that all the companies that were strategic and sensitive be expropriated, and they were precisely where there was a boycott by the bosses. The main contradiction arises there, we are committed to the production battle, but at the same time we want to decide what to do with that production, for us it was important to place all the products of the companies in the hands of the population that needed them because of the artificial shortage and on the other hand also, a boycott of production was being carried out.

In the struggle with the Ministry of Economy and therefore, also with the CUT, we thought we were the owners of the spaces we had acquired. We did have a board of directors for the company, but we also had ideas to improve the services and not only obey what the Ministry was ordering, we did not agree with the reduction of the social area and we made our colleagues from the CUT and the Economy Ministry acknowledge it, and that is where the friction started. We had just been born on May 1st, 1973 and we had a severe conflict from the start because we wanted to place all the products directly in the hands of the people who needed them, bypassing the distribution channels because of course there were boycotts, bottlenecks and shortages. We were interested in taking our products directly, so we held fairs and sold them in the streets. At that time, unlike today’s unions, we had to decide on production quotas, that is, in any company, even in those that were not in the social area, the unions had production quotas and therefore could decide what to do with that quota, the commissaries.

Newspaper covers of the factory occupations.

(The commissaries) were an instrument that had been achieved by the union struggles and the decision that the unions had over the destination of these fees was independent of the will of the owner of the company and that fee the unions took to the streets, sold them directly, made agreements with the Supply and Price Boards, with the Neighborhood Councils, made agreements with other unions as we did, for the destination of these products.

This decision-making power was the first thing we became aware of because there had never been such a massification of product volumes that we could coordinate and say, hey, as our direct construction colleagues told us, “lend us a bus to go to the beach,” and we said, “yeah, sure,” we had the conditions and we made it easy for them. Other comrades, for example, from the textile industry, Maisa, where they made shirts and had high technology, worked with polyester, nylon and things like that, the union decided that they were going to increase production so that there would be more shirts. So the union’s fee was also negotiated with other unions, we bought shirts, clothing. That kind of solidarity, that kind of decisions at the bottom, that power was the most dynamic thing.

On the political side is where we saw ourselves in a certain way within that eagerness, within that dream, well, it wasn’t a dream, but a decision, but we saw that our decision clashed with government policies because they were asking us to stop, that is to say, to place the products in the hands of a small social area, and the companies that were finally expropriated didn’t even reach the 41 that the government decided to expropriate, from 400 to less than 5% of them. Therefore, if there were no companies in the social area, we would have to place the distribution that we could do directly in the hands of the bureaucrats of the Economy Ministry. Those were the blows we received. Now, perceived on a daily basis, the CUT and the parties that were in it, unfortunately catalogued us as a union parallelism, which was not what we were doing, we were still in the CUT, we were not making another union central, but our decisions made them uncomfortable, that is, we were making decisions, not the CUT, not the Economy Mimistry, that was the conflict of the cordones with the government.

Maura Gálvez – Bernabé: And in that sense, 50 years after the triumph of the UP and 47 years after the military coup, what reflection does the experience of the Industrial Cordones leave us for today?

Tomás Pizarro Meniconi: What I am convinced of is that the main lesson is active solidarity, that is to say, solidarity for us was not a slogan, this has marked me forever throughout my militant life, slogans do not necessarily express reality or what you can do. The economy of solidarity, for example, which today is expressed in buying together, in the common pot, in bartering, in giving products that you have enough of to give to someone who needs them, all of this in the era of the Cordones was multiplied by incredible volumes. At that time, for example, there were only two detergents and the two detergents were produced by the same company that is in fashion today because they are going to reduce their presence in Chile, I’m talking about Unilever, they had two detergents that washed the same but had two colors on the packaging, the Unilever workers couldn’t use their union’s production quota for direct supply, that was in Barrancas cordon, so a delegation of workers from other cordones went to tell the owners of that company, which was a transnational, that they had to do as the union decided. That was a concrete action, not a sentence, it was a concrete action, to go and to stand at the door of a factory, with other leaders, to tell the owners to do as the workers say. That kind of action.

Urgent Task, the newspaper of the industrial cordones.

Well, if we look at it in these times we have a very reduced union organization, it is not enough to be 10% of the entire working mass, unfortunately the industry of consciousness, which is the best working in Chile, is what has made many people feel that individualism at all costs is a manifestation of freedom, that naturally does not help solidarity. Now, in this era, the things that manifest themselves as important do not relate to the common good, it it relates to your own individuality, unfortunately this has been generated by the consciousness industry.

What can be rescued today, I will say it in a grotesque way, I think it is good that there are four trade union centers, because the difference between the four trade union centers at least shows that there is a debate about which of them can improve the conditions for the promotion of trade unionism. The promotion of trade unionism also happens because the trade union centers dialogue among themselves, even discuss, debate why one is better than the other. I am talking about the Central Autónoma de Trabajadores, I am talking about the Central Clasista, the Central General de Trabajadores, even the CUT.  But this dialogue, the fact that it does not exist, does not mean that there are no expressions of incipient trade unionism, with difficulty. Because if there is one massive achievement of the coup d’état, it is to have made the organization of the working class disappear completely. There are many modifications, different civil society organizations, neighborhood councils, NGOs, those you want, but unions, after the agreement to end the dictatorship, have been prevented. Gadgets that are absolutely counterproductive to trade unionism have been promoted, for example the unions of independent workers, what I know here, the unions of construction workers or fishermen, at heart, are micro enterprises disguised as trade unions. But this distortion is caused by the State because they are not interested in a unionism that promotes awareness about the fate of workers and that is what the new generations should understand, a union is not only an organization to achieve better collective bargaining or better pay, a union is a fraternity where people live for more than 8 hours a day with our peers, with other colleagues, with colleagues on the production line, with the people around us and that way of living is also part of trade unionism. Any effort to make a union is good, independently of that the distortions in its process, but in comparison to its non-existence, naturally it is better that something exists, despite the difficulties that trade unionism faces not having counterparts with which it could generate dialogues of how it is better to organize production for commonwealth or satisfying the most basic needs with a product  that someone created with their labor.

Maura Gálvez – Bernabé: thank you, comrade, for this information of such an important part of history to which the new generations are still clinging, having clarity that the emancipation of humanity will be the work of the workers and this impressive experience, not only for Chile, but worldwide, as you said at the beginning is tried to be overlapped, is not mentioned in any act in September, is not shown not told. At no time in history does the experience of the industrial cordones appear, something that we want to bring to the present, not only because of the experience of struggle of what it meant and the learning that it means for all of us, but also to see what we can take from that red thread of class organization in order to apply it today in a world in crisis, in a capitalism in crisis, where the organization of workers becomes fundamental. The creative and democratic development that the industrial cordones developed is undoubtedly an enormous experience for the new generations, so thank you very much for this space, we hope to continue in contact and continue digging in that source of history to bring it to the present, thank you very much comrade.Tomás Pizarro Meniconi: Thanks to you too, and I hope that this interest in rescuing the historical memory of the working class will increase, that these types of talks will abound, that new testimonies will abound and, by the way, that the documentation that arises today with much more force will also grow and abound, because it is precisely the way through which it can be transmitted to the new generations that this brief but very intense experience has been as one of the most valuable episodes of the Chilean working class, thanks to you.