About 175,000 people across Chile on Thursday marched and rallied in dozens of towns and cities in support of a two-day general strike called by Chile’s union confederation, the Workers Unity Center (CUT, the Spanish acronym). The general strike, which was scheduled for August 24 and 25, was called to support students who for the last three months have been engaged in a struggle with the government for education reform and to demand economic democracy.
Unions and students who supported the general strike are demanding improved health care, an end to Chile’s privatized social security system, a new labor code that gives workers more rights, and replacing Chile’s for-profit education system with free public education and higher education, which students have been demanding since June.
Before the general strike began, CUT President Arturo Martínez told theSantiago Times that the strike “will express the demands of all sectors of society for the respect of social and civil rights and will reiterate the need for a new economic model, a new constitutional policy, and a new labor code in this country.”
Many of the changes that unions and students are demanding are directed at policies that have their origins with the deposed dictator Augusto Pinochet. For example, Pinochet in 1981 began privatizing education by creating a voucher system that encouraged the creation of for-profit schools. By 2009, 44 percent of Chile’s students were enrolled in either for-profit voucher schools or for-profit non-voucher schools.
The best schools cost the most, which means that only the very wealthy can afford to enroll their children in them. Students in the highest quality for-proft schools have an easy track to admission in Chile’s highest quality universities, a degree from which pretty much guarantees a good paying job. Chile’s universities are also very expensive, which makes them inaccessible for many working-class students.
Back in June, members of the Chilean Student Federation and the Teachers’ Association began a campaign to end Chile’s for-profit, elitist education system and to replace it with one that provides free public education and higher education. The campaign has shut down schools and universities across the country.
Chile’s for-profit education system isn’t the only institution that helps channel the nation’s wealth into the hands of a privileged few. The current labor code also gives employers an unfair advantage, and Chile’s health care system is badly stratified. For those who work for a living, retirement security is difficult because Chile privatized its social security system during the Pinochet regime.
All of these things have caused union and student leaders to demand a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth. “It’s time to change the political system, the economic system, so there is a fairer redistribution of power and of wealth,” said student leader Camila Vallejo to the BBC. “All this (market-oriented) development model has done is make a few grossly rich.”
Raul de la Puente, president of National Association of Public Employees told Morning Star that Chile’s current constitution should be replaced by a new one that is “more democratic, social, and redistributive.”
On Thursday about 50,000 people marched through the streets of Santiago to support the genral strike. For the most part, the march was peaceful, but near its end violence erupted between police and some marchers leaving one student dead.
Maria Eugenia Puelma, president of the Santiago public workers association, compared the two-day general strike to one that took place near the end of Pinochet’s rule. “What is happening today is very similar to the first protests against the dictatorship,” said Puelma to the Buenos Aries Herald. “The government has not been able to respond to the demands of social movements in Chile. It’s time for a change in the constitution and better distribution of wealth.”