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A Study in Capitalist Exploitation

Big Business Enslaves Bolivian Masses

(September 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 37, 13 September 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

By refusing to carry through any of the long promised labor reforms, President Penaranda and the Bolivian government revealed once again who the real bosses of that country are.

Early this year, Labor Action reported that about sixty thousand tin miners – producers of nearly one-half of the world’s supply of tin – had gone on strike against unbearably oppressive conditions and in order to get the government to act on the labor code, which had been pending for a long time. The government responded with a declaration of martial law and the arrest of more than forty Bolivian labor leaders, who are still imprisoned.

On December 21 the government authorities brutally massacred between two hundred and fifty and five hundred workers, including many wives and children of miners, when they tried to disperse a meeting called to protest the arrest of their (the workers’) leaders.

American Big Business Behind Scenes

Soon after the strike was broken and the miners, literally driven back into the mines (recalcitrant miners were escorted to the mines by heavily armed soldiers, instructed to fire at the first sign of opposition), Ernesto Galarza, then connected with the Pan American Union, revealed that the United States Ambassador, Pierre Boal, had told the Bolivian President that the passage of the labor code might displease the United States, since its application would undoubtedly raise the price of tin somewhat.

Despite strong denials by the United States State Department, it was clearly shown by newspaper reporters that Boal was acting in accordance with instructions from this department. Further, Mr. Boal’s siding with the mine owners is also explained by the fact that most of the mining industry is owned or controlled by United States financial interests, and Mr. Boal knows who his masters are.

The Life of the Miners

What are some of the conditions which the miners were seeking to alleviate by their strike actions and the passage of the labor code?

Tin mining in Bolivia is an extremely hazardous and difficult occupation. The mines are located in very high altitudes, which create severe hardships for Bolivia’s underfed and underclothed workers. There is no limit to the number of working hours, and in some mines the men work in thirty-six hour stretches!

Silicosis, the miners’ disease, is so prevalent that the span of life of the Bolivian tin worker is very short. Yet in Bolivia there are less than 425 doctors. Wages range from $5.00 to $10.00 a week, but the cost of living jumped 1,158 per cent from 1931 to the end of 1941. In 1943 there was a further increase in the cost of living of 60 per cent. Is it surprising, then, that the miners live in a perpetual state of hunger and privation, and chew cocoa [sic!] leaves, whose narcotic effects still the pangs of hunger?

The mines are situated far from the farm lands, and poor Bolivian peasants had to be virtually kidnapped to the mining regions and put to work. The bosses follow the practice of holding back wages, so that the tin miner is always in debt to the company store and cannot leave the mine. Even such an apologist for the big mining interests as Boal had to admit that this was the reason behind the withholding of wage payments.

The workers of Bolivia demanded the passage of a labor code which would at least guarantee them a minimum wage, payment of wages on time and the right of collective bargaining. The reply was brutal suppression of the miners’ strike and a hue and cry on the part of the mine owners that they could not afford any substantial improvements in the living conditions of their workers. But this is the standard answer given by the bosses every time there is a demand for higher wages: “We just can’t afford it.”

Actually, however, the price of tin has been rising steadily and tin profits, like the profits of big business in this country, are at their highest in history. And as in this country, despite the rising cost of living, workers’ wages remain frozen.

The Committee of Investigation

In the early part of this year a joint Bolivian-United States Labor Commission investigated conditions of the Bolivian tin miners. The report they brought back described these conditions as being so horrible that the International Labor Office refused for a long time to make it public.

Martin Kyne, vice-president of the United Retail and Wholesale Workers, CIO, who was a labor member of the commission, issued his own report in which he told of the conditions which led to the miners’ strike and of the strike itself. Many workers in this country were angered by the revelations in this report, and the CIO made representations to the government that something be done to improve the conditions of the Bolivian miners.

Bolivian President Penaranda was in the United States when the Kyne report was released. He spoke at a number of labor rallies, at which he promised that something would be done to alleviate the sufferings of the Bolivian miners. He promised that the labor code would be passed and enacted. The “good President” then returned to his native land.

Perpetuating the Slavery

In August came the report that the Bolivian government is not prepared to carry out any of the recommendations of the investigating commission, which in essence are the same as the provisions of the labor code. It is further revealed that the two largest mining interests, Patino Mines & Enterprises, Consoliated (incorporated in the state of Delaware and owned jointly by Simon Patino and the National Lead Company of New York) and the Hochschield interests, are strongly opposed to any labor legislation.

They are now in the process of negotiating new contracts with the United States government, in which they are seeking to raise the price of tin from sixty to seventy cents a pound.

The CIO, on the other hand, is demanding that any contracts which this government signs for Bolivian tin should include improvements in the wages and conditions of the Bolivian miners.

The United States government, by controlling the purse strings, is in a position to compel the Bolivian government to pass the labor code and to guarantee some improvements for the tin miners. But the whitewash of Ambassador Boal, who so openly sided with Patino and Hochschield; the long suppression of the report of the investigating commission; the firing of Galarza because he exposed Boal’s role in Bolivia – all these leave little to hope for from the United States government.

Unless Bolivian and American labor act unitedly “and independently of government agencies”, it is most certain that the new contracts will be signed, granting higher prices to the mine barons and leaving the Bolivian miners in the same desperate condition they have endured for years.

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