Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lessons of the Chilean miners...

It was thrilling for me as I am sure it was for all of you to witness the successful rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped deep underground for 69 days following a collapse at the San Jose copper and gold mine on August 5th. Much of the Spanish language press here in Chicago turned over their entire broadcast yesterday to coverage of the rescue. But amidst all the media attention on the “miracle” in Chile, what has not been given as extensive coverage was the host of issues that this near tragedy raises.

For one, there are the dangerous working conditions faced by miners world wide and by Latin American miners in particular. Chile is much safer than a place like China were hundreds of miners die ever year, or closer neighbors like Mexico or Colombia, were dozens have died in the last couple years. But the life of a Chilean miner still carries great risk. And by most reports the situation is getting worse. The San Jose mine, owned by Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera, has racked up some 42 safety violations in recent years and some 16 miners have been killed at the mine in the last decade. Miners union leaders have regularly complained about working conditions at the mine and charged mine owners with ignoring worker’s safety concerns. One of the safety violations behind the miners entrapment at San Jose was the lack of a escape tunnel as required by law. And while the world has focused on the fate of the 33 miners trapped under ground, some 300 other employees of the San Jose mine have been struggling without any paychecks after the was mine shut down. The miners have complained of company and government insensitive to there fate.

Chile’s mines are the cornerstone of the Chilean economy and provided 40% of the governments revenues. Miners have a long history of struggle in Chile and were the backbone of Allende’s Socialist government which was overthrown by a coup in 1973 ushering in a brutal military dictatorship under August Pinochet. Indeed many believe Allende’s decision to disarm the miners who had seized control of the country’s mines after his election, was one of the major factors that allowed the right wing to successfully carry out their military coup. Today Chile’s mining sector includes private mines like Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera, and the state owned mining company Codelco. Within days of the August 5th disaster, Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera was discussing bankruptcy and crying out to the government for aid claiming it could not afford to rescue the miners. In the end it was the expertise of Codelco the state owned mining company and funds provided by the Chilean government who spared no expense, that lead to the miners rescue. This should stand as a powerful lesson on the bankruptcy of the private sector in general. It is also interesting that Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, a billonaire media mogul right winger with family ties to the Pinochet regime, has nonetheless been steadfast in demanding that Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera reimburse the government for its expenses, bankruptcy or not, and has restructured the governments mine regulation ministry in the face of its failures to ensure mine safety. President Pinera is even supporting legislation that hikes taxes on foreign mining companies operating in the country. All of this has increased the president’s popularity, whether warranted or not. Indeed, despite President Pinera being a right winger, it appears President Obama, allegedly a progressive, could learn a thing or two from Pinera about standing up to corporate interests in favor of the public good. At the same time, it was distributing and perhaps revealing the other day when Pinera declared that now perhaps the world, when they think of Chile, won’t think of the coup or the dictatorship but will think of this rescue effort.

Much is being made of the showering of gifts on the miners from wealthy benefactors around the world, including free trips to Europe. Indeed, for the moment, they are deservedly instant celebrities. The 33 freed miners will each receive roughly $10,000 through a mix of donations from the government, the state mining company and private donations. For workers who earn roughly $1,600 a month, that amounts to a little more than 6 months pay. But than they will need to find other jobs in a country in which miner’s wages are considered high in compassion to most workers. But the miners are likely to suffer for years from the psychological if not physiological effects of their two months of confinement underground.

But in the end it is worker solidarity and resilience that is the most ennobling element of this story. In the words of blogger Lucian E. Marin of “The way in which the 33 organized themselves underground, especially during the initial 17 days before they were found – a period they survived on only 48 hours of rations between them – was truly exemplary, reflecting humanity at its best.” Or in the words of Partha Banerjee of… “What courage, what resilience, what organization and optimism even against the most extreme adversities! Miracle? Sure, we all know that; we'd say the same thing if one of our family members had experienced the situation. But it's also much more than that. It's the fighting spirit of the working people. It's their solidarity.” And international miners solidarity has been evident throughout, from support in the rescue effort, to vacation time in Greece at the expense of a Greek mining company (an idea put forward by Greek miners), to invitations to visit England from Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton, the son of a miner. Like in so many other recent tragedies around the world, it is workers solidarity that provides the bright light amidst the darkness.

Here are some links that can help shed light on the lessons of the Chilean miners...

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