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Previous Miner Disputes

The National Federation of Cooperative Miners of Bolivia [FENCOMIN] has the ability to protest in a way that the government hears - street blockades and dynamite.

The tin boom boom of the late 19th Century contributed to increased social tensions. Indian peasants, who provided most of the labor for the mines, moved from their rural communities to the rapidly growing mining towns, where they lived and worked in precarious situations. An ideology rooted in the shared struggle for improved conditions united organized workers. Railroad workers began union organizing early in the twentieth century; miners organized in the 1910s.

Bolivia's First National Congress of Workers met in La Paz in 1912, and in the following years the mining centers witnessed an increasing number of strikes. During the 1920s, Bolivia faced growing social turmoil. Labor unrest, such as the miners' strike in Uncia in 1923, was brutally suppressed. But the unrest reached new heights of violence after the drastic reduction of the work force during the Great Depression.

In 1946 the workers endorsed the Thesis of Pulacayo, in which the miners called for permanent revolution and violent armed struggle for the working class. As the labor sector became more radical, the government resorted more and more to oppression, and confrontations increased. The dismissal of 7,000 miners and the brutal suppression of yet another uprising in Catavi in 1949 made any cooperation between the government and the workers impossible. Armed miners marched on La Paz and blocked troops on their way to reinforce the city. After three days of fighting and the loss of 600 lives, the army completely surrendered; Paz Estenssoro assumed the presidency on April 16, 1952.

During the first years of the revolution, miners wielded extraordinary influence within the government. In part, this influence was based on the miners' decisive role in the fighting of April 1952. In addition, however, armed militias of miners formed by the government to counterbalance the military had become a powerful force in their own right. Miners immediately organized the Bolivian Labor Federation (Central Obrera Boliviana — COB), which demanded radical change as well as participation in the government and benefits for its members.

During the presidency of Siles Zuazo (1956-60) the conflict between the government and the miners' militias continued as the militias constantly challenged the government's authority. Siles Zuazo faced not only labor unrest in the mines but also discontent in the countryside, where peasant leaders were competing for power. In an effort to quell the unrest, he decided to rebuild the armed forces.

On 04 November 1964, General Rene Barrientos staged a military coup. Barrientos took away most of the gains miners previously achieved. He placed Comibol under the control of a military director and abolished the veto power of union leaders in management decisions. The president also cut the pay of the miners to the equivalent of US$0.80 a day and reduced the mining work force and the enormous Comibol bureaucracy by 10 percent. Finally, he destroyed the COB and the mine workers' union, suppressed all strike activity, disarmed the miners' militias, and exiled union leaders. Military troops again occupied the mines, and in 1967 they massacred miners and their families at the Catavi-Siglo XX mines.

By the 1980s the most powerful labor organisation was traditionally the Trade Union Federation of Bolivian Mineworkers (Federacion Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia—FSTMB). Despite the power of organized labor in the mining industry, working conditions in the mines remained deplorable, and the average miner died of silicosis after ten years of working underground. Government policies, particularly the Comibol layoffs, weakened the FSTMB. As a result, the General Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (Confederation Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia—CSUTCB) was challenging the FSTMB's traditional dominance in the late 1980s. The National Federation of Mining Cooperatives of Bolivia (Federacion Nacional de Cooperativas Mineras de Bolivia) served as an umbrella organization for the country's 434 mining cooperatives, 82 percent of which mined gold.

Various estimates suggest that up to 100,000 miners work in cooperatives, semi-socialist organizations that are viewed as "social groups" under the 2007 constitution and are given special tax breaks under the 2007 mining tax law. The miners' special status under the draft constitution was granted in response to threats of street violence against the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) government, a sign of the miners' power. Cooperative mines are generally understood to avoid most if not all applicable taxes, and they are not effectively regulated, leading to miserable safety conditions and high death rates.

Cooperative mines are some of Bolivia's most dangerous places to work: there is no effective safety regulation, conditions are dreadful, and many miners wear no safety equipment or buy fake safety equipment that offers no actual protection. Miners work with little ventilation and usually no respiratory protection: silicosis is one of the leading non-accident causes of death in the Bolivian mining sector. According to non-official police and NGO estimates, on average twenty miners a month in Potosi die from mine related accidents and illnesses such as silicosis.

On 25 June 2004, the US company Golden Eagle International temporarily ceased mining operations at the Cangalli mine and plant as a result of road blockades by local citizens protesting various government policies in Caranavi, Bolivia, a town half way between La Paz and Golden Eagle's Cangalli mine. The roadblocks prevented the delivery of needed supplies and materials to the mine for operations. The same blockade, approximately 80 miles from Cangalli, also hampered operations of the power sub-station in Guanay, Bolivia. This sub-station provides electricity to Cangalli operations, and the power failures halted all mining and processing activities.

After the 5-6 October 2006 clashes between cooperative miners and state mining employees in Huanuni, President Morales promised 12 October to cover funeral expenses for the 16 dead; provide medical attention to the 81 wounded; ensure financial support for affected families; and reconstruct an estimated 150 homes. National Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN) President Pascual Huarachi accepted the proposal but accused the GOB of lacking concrete solutions to the miners' larger demand: the reactivation of Bolivia's mining sector.

Miners' cooperatives in Huanuni later rejected the GOB's October 13 offer to convert the town's 4,000 cooperative miners into salaried employees of Empresa Minera Huanuni, the firm overseeing the site's tin mining operations. FENCOMIN leaders called the proposal a "joke" and demanded a comprehensive solution to ongoing conflicts between cooperative miners and state mining employees. While FENCOMIN later agreed to reconsider the offer - after the Morales administration revealed it would pay newly converted miners approximately $412 per month, an amount close to miners' average income - the situation remained tense.

By 2007 FENCOMEN had grown disillusioned with the policies of President Morales's Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. The MAS "militarized" the conflict between FENCOMIN and salaried miners, leading to violence, and the MAS seemed to be trying to eliminate the cooperatives completely. On a national level, the cooperative miner associations had extensive political power, partially thanks to their willingness to engage in mass street-blockades armed with dynamite.

In May-June 2012, what began as a mine occupation by a local mining cooperative quickly took on a national dimension when the Trade Union Federation of Mineworkers of Bolivia (FSTMB) and the National Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN) took up the cause of their respective local affiliates (the former demand the expulsion of the occupiers, affiliate to the latter).

The local cooperative refused the offer, and instead signed a deal with the private mine owner, Glencore, that would see them work part of the mine in return for handing over what they extracted back to the company. With support for nationalization growing among the mineworkers, local communities and even some cooperative miners, the government finally ordered COMIBOL to take complete control over operations at Colquiri, while granting the 26 de Febrero cooperative access to the Rosario vein. In return, the cooperative had to sell what it extracted to COMIBOL and was barred from associating with transnationals.





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Page last modified: 27-08-2016 15:33:00 ZULU