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U.S. Ambassador in Bolivia Sides with Tin Bosses vs. Striking Workers

(January 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 1, 4 January 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Bolivian government answered the strike action, of some 60,000 tin miners by arresting labor leaders, declaring martial law and charging that the strikers were engaged in a pro-Nazi plot to overthrow the regime. The New York Times was quick to report the story of the alleged plot and the statement of the Minister of the Interior, but failed to mention the causes of the strike.

Bolivia ranks as the world’s third great tin producing country. Before the war all of its tin was sent to England for smelting, but since then the United States has been buying about 81,000 tons yearly. When Japan occupied Malaya, the Netherlands Indies and Siam (the other great producers of tin), Bolivian tin became of crucial importance to England and the United States. This tin comprises about 70 per cent of Bolivian exports.

Patino – Tin Tycoon

About half of Bolivia’s tin mines are owned by one man, Simon Patino, whose wealth is estimated at about $100,000,000. Since 1922 he has run his great tin empire by remote control, spending most of his time abroad as minister to Spain and France. In 1940 he settled down to a most modest existence at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. His three magnificent, but unoccupied, palaces in Bolivia stand as a symbol of this absentee-owner relationship.

Last week, Indian workers at Patino’s Catavi mines went out on strike, demanding a 100 per cent wage increase, a Christmas bonus of a month’s pay and the passage of the labor code which was to have been approved by the Bolivian Congress on December 8. Although this revolt was labelled as a Nazi plot, the truth is obvious. The conditions of life of the Bolivian miners have always been sub-standard. Their wages have averaged about $5.00 to $10.00 a week, with no limit to the number of hours. There has been no social legislation protecting the workers, no health regulations, no safeguard requirements, so that most of the miners suffer from one of the most destructive occupational diseases, silicosis.

For years these miners have waited patiently for the passage of some sort of labor code which would give them, at least, the elementary protection of getting their wages on time, establish minimum wage rates, give them the right to organize and the right to bargain collectively. These were included in the code which was before the Congress early last month.

Cost of Living Mounts

In the last two years the cost of living has been mounting steadily, so that food costs are now about twice what they had been in 1940. Wages, however, have been frozen for that entire period.

In the meantime tin has been bringing higher prices, the profits on which have filled the pockets of the mine owners. The dissatisfactions and discontent have been accumulating, and the refusal of the Congress to pass the labor code was the last straw. The miners struck.

The institution of martial law, the arrests and suspension of all civil and constitutional rights have brought forth a statement from Ernesto Galarza, chief of the division of labor and social information of the Pan American Union, to the effect that the strike is the result of the long exploitation and failure to pass the labor code, a failure for which U.S. Ambassador Boal is at least partly responsible.

In a most interesting paragraph, Galarza points out:

“The code was to have been approved by the Bolivian Congress on December 8. On the days immediately preceding that date, the Ambassador of the United States in Bolivia, Pierre Boal, communicated to the President of Bolivia the viewpoint of the big mine operators and presented arguments and suggestions, the object of which was to delay or prevent the improvement of working conditions as set forth in the code.”

In this manner, the pressure and control of the United States makes itself felt – not by the force of arms, but by ambassadorial presence and intervention. The major arguments against the code chow which side the U.S. ambassador is on.

Boal and the mine operators were afraid that the payment of wages on time (the code calls for payments not later than fifteen days after performance of work) would encourage workers to leave their jobs. Conditions and wages in the mines have been so bad that many workers have left to seek work elsewhere, or have emigrated to Chile. By withholding their wages, the mine operators seek to keep the workers chained to their jobs.

Collective bargaining, minimum wage rates and the right to mediation and arbitration were opposed on the ground that if the cost of production went up, the United States would have to pay more for tin. This is entirely false, since the United’ State HAS been paying higher prices for tin without wage increases. (Tin is now sixty cents a pound as compared with fifty-two cents a pound previously.) Wage increases can easily be met out of the profits of the tin barons.

The Pan American Union states further that, “the conduct of Ambassador Boal is a clear example of how the foreign policy of the United States it operating to prevent raising of working standards and improving the living conditions of the masses of the people.” The Bolivian workers have just been given another taste of good neighborliness.

The AFL and CIO are preparing protests with the State Department and a demand to investigate Boal’s activities. American workers – your Bolivian brothers have risen in defense of their rights and to protect their living conditions. They are being arrested and slandered. You must help them. Demand the end of American intervention in Bolivia!

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