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When British Workers Stood Against the Pinochet Coup

When Chile’s generals overthrew Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, Britain’s Tories welcomed the coup as good news for investors. But British trade unions worked to block trade with the newly empowered Chilean fascists.

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A rally organized by the Chile Solidarity Campaign, addressed by the widow of Salvador Allende, in Trafalgar Square, London, September 1974., PA Images via Getty Images

For British interests . . . there is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect than Allende’s chaotic road to socialism, [and] our investments should do better.” Writing ten days after the military coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile, UK foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home provided an optimistic assessment of general Augusto Pinochet’s putsch and the bloody reassertion of capitalist hegemony. But if Douglas-Home spoke for many in the British ruling class, his country’s labor movement did not share his attitude toward the new junta. As organized labor saw things, its “interests” were aligned not with investors but with the working-class Popular Unity supporters who now faced torture and murder in the Pinochet regime’s prisons.

Indeed, the coup d’état of September 11, 1973, and its aftermath, as the new US-backed regime acted upon its declared intent to “eradicate” the “Marxist cancer,” horrified many in Britain’s trade-union movement — helping to stir a campaign of practical solidarity with the people of Chile. The reaction was all the more heartfelt because Allende’s government had pursued a democratic socialist program, and many of those persecuted following the military takeover were fellow activists in left-wing parties and trade unions. Labour MP Eric Heffer, who had met Allende on a 1972 delegation to Chile, “wept unashamedly” upon receiving news that the attempt he had witnessed “to achieve socialism through the Parliamentary process” had been “murdered.”

Trade unionists who engaged with the CSC throughout the 1970s and 1980s helped build an impassioned culture of international solidarity. This also meant practical demonstrations of support for the Chilean people: rallies and conferences, boycotts of Chilean goods and work on Chilean equipment, support for refugee resettlement, and union delegations to the country. The campaign’s organization among the labor movement worked to associate the contemporary struggle against Pinochet’s dictatorship with the proudly claimed traditions of British socialism, notably transnational working-class solidarity and struggles against fascism.

The effect was a highly emotive discourse around the Chilean cause that resonated with trade unionists in Britain — and inspired them to take collective action in support of a people thousands of miles away.

Class Feeling

The CSC was founded shortly following the coup, amid the alarm and condemnation of news from Santiago that echoed throughout the British left. From the outset, it was conceived as an overtly political organization. It was differentiated from the contemporarily established NGO-run Chile Committee for Human Rights by its espousal of socialist, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist perspectives, speaking in the language of solidarity and struggle.

Trade unions were involved with the CSC from the beginning, with trade unionists holding leading positions on the campaign’s executive committee, and many labor movement branches coordinating with CSC organizers locally. By its fifth year, the campaign boasted thirty national trade union affiliates, and counted union leaders including Jack Jones, Joseph Gormley, and Hugh Scanlon among its sponsors. The ten-thousand-strong demonstration in London to mark the first anniversary of the coup was one significant mobilization: featuring over two hundred union banners and headed by a vanguard of labor leaders, the march was described by the Morning Star as “like a roll call of the British labour movement.”

The plethora of both local and national demonstrations of solidarity with Chile throughout the following years can be seen as a product of the feeling of working-class internationalism that CSC-attached trade unionists helped encourage throughout the labor movement.

Jimmy Symes — a representative for a combative group of workers in his role as chairman of the Merseyside Docks Shop Stewards’ Committee — addressed the CSC’s 1975 trade-union conference in fiery tones:

The torch of socialism, once having been ignited, will never die. But it is the responsibility of us, as a labor movement, as socialists, as internationalists, to support the people of Chile in their struggle.

The class feeling which had animated Liverpool dockers in their mass strikes for improved pay and an end to casual conditions was also evidenced in the repeated actions that they, along with other working-class communities, took in solidarity with Chileans. Many trade unionists identified the imprisonment, torture, and murder of union representatives, the abolition of collective bargaining rights, and the undermining of wages, conditions, and employment by Pinochet’s junta as oppressions faced by Chilean workers as workers — a class offensive against labor, which traditions of internationalism and obligations of class solidarity demanded the British trade-union movement oppose. Such was the case of veteran trade unionist Jack Jones, the left-wing general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Having recently returned from a union delegation to Chile where he had met with families of executed trade unionists, he impressed upon the 1974 Labour Party conference the British labor movement’s “personal responsibility” to the Chilean working class.

British trade unionists’ solidarity efforts often found expression in their own workplaces — with the Chilean military’s reliance upon British engineering to maintain much of its equipment offering workers an opportunity to throw a wrench in Pinochet’s death machine. Famous among such interventions was the “blacking” of Chile-bound fighter-jet engines by shop stewards at an East Kilbride Rolls-Royce factory. They held back the engines from Pinochet’s air force for five years in a display of trade union internationalism characterized by one of its protagonists as “one of the greatest episodes in the history of Scottish socialism.” Engineering workers in Newcastle, Rosyth, Glasgow, and elsewhere also refused work on Chilean warships, while dockworkers in Liverpool, Newhaven, and Hull variously boycotted handling goods from or for Chile. The decision of six hundred unemployed Liverpool seamen to forgo work aboard a freighter bound for Chile, in order to uphold their national union’s policy, was celebrated throughout the solidarity movement.

Their Problems Are Our Problems

A clandestine National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) delegation to Chile in 1977 was explicitly conceived in terms of working-class internationalism. Entering Chile from Peru posing as private tourists, the NUM delegates moved between safe houses, meeting with mineworkers and representatives of proscribed unions under cover of night to gather information on their social conditions under the junta’s systematic anti-union terror. In a foreword to the widely circulated report of the mission’s findings, the NUM Executive wrote that “the solidarity and internationalism of the miners is a byword in the British Labour Movement” and stressed the class commonalities between Chilean and British miners: “Their problems should be our problems . . . their achievements will be our achievements.” The union’s representative to the CSC asserted that it was the NUM’s “working-class duty to make sure that the nightmare” that “these people are living through” was ended.

The sense of closeness with the Chileans was also inverted in some settings — with Chilean exiles’ experiences of the 1973 assault against their movement also providing a way of understanding events in Britain. This was powerfully demonstrated during Thatcher’s 1984–85 war on the NUM — an assault on the power of organized labor informed by the same Friedmanite program piloted under Pinochet. Chilean exiles “helped shape the political imaginations” of mining communities in understanding the state’s attack upon the labor movement in light of what had happened in Chile. Many exiles became involved in strike support groups, sometimes addressing CSC solidarity meetings in mining communities to “make the links” and emphasize what campaign executive member Sue Lukes described as “the continuity between what Thatcher was doing and what Pinochet had done.” Consciousness of the links between the Chilean experience and their own proliferated through British mining communities. Linda King of the Ollerton Colliery Women’s Support Group insisted: “The Chilean people have been great to us. You see, they know what it’s like to go through this, better than we know ourselves.”

Anti-Fascism

Feelings of solidarity with workers under siege in Chile also drew on another source — the British labor movement’s anti-fascist traditions, dating back even before World War II.

Perceptions of the Chilean junta as a fascist regime were informed by an understanding of fascism as an ideology and practice with a core violent drive to destroy the working-class movement. The CSC characterized the Chilean coup, launched by “Fascist Generals,” as “the most savage attack on the International Labour Movement since the dark days of Nazi Germany.” Likening Pinochet’s dictatorship to Hitler’s was routine throughout the solidarity movement — a comparison that not only condemned the junta but also associated it with an enemy which many older workers had themselves fought during World War II, which continued to have emotional resonance. Following the arrival of a Chilean warship at the Portsmouth docks, the district secretary of the engineering workers’ union reportedly commented that his members, who had voted to “black” (refuse to work on) the vessel, “felt like sinking the ship, which was, after all, what they had done to the fascists’ ships during the Second World War.”

Such invocations of historical fascisms framed contemporary opposition to Pinochet’s dictatorship as a working-class duty, following in the British labor movement tradition. This link to the past was also apparent in parallels between the Chile solidarity movement the 1936–39 war in defense of the Spanish Republic, in which thousands of British socialists had volunteered. Such ties were personified by Jack Jones, who had himself been wounded in Spain and wrote in Tribune immediately following the 1973 coup that “we are at the beginning of another Spanish war situation.” John Keenan of the Rolls-Royce East Kilbride Works Committee, interviewed for the 2018 documentary Nae Pasaran, drew

parallels between the Franco and Pinochet regimes, both composed of fascists who had overthrown democratic governments, and situated the East Kilbride action within the historical heritage of the Scottish volunteers in the International Brigades. These analogies were encouraged by the CSC, describing the international campaigning around Chile as “a world-wide movement of solidarity . . . unequalled since the Spanish Civil War.”

The popular likening of the junta to hated fascist enemies, and of the struggle against it to proud anti-fascist traditions, imbued the Chile solidarity movement with deep meaning for many British trade unionists. Ted McKay of the NUM praised the delegation to Chile as a moment “when the NUM joined, with one voice, to face the common enemy of fascism” and “showed the world what the union stands for.” However, conceptions of Pinochet’s regime as fascistic also gave solidarity with Chile a practical urgency, due to the terror which the prospect of fascist ascendancy inspired — especially against the contemporary backdrop of the rise of the National Front in Britain. Trade unionists involved with the CSC felt that fascism in Chile represented a genuine danger to socialists in Britain — as expressed in the declaration of the campaign’s trade-union conference that “in attacking the resort to fascist methods in Chile, the British labour movement is contributing to its own defense against any similar attempt in Britain.”

International Solidarity Today

British trade-union solidarity with Chilean workers helped to morally and politically isolate Pinochet’s coup regime. It persuaded the 1974–79 Labour government to sanction and eventually sever most relations with Chile, and applied sufficient social pressure to keep even Margaret Thatcher’s ministry from establishing as close and public a relationship with the junta as it would have liked. Grace Livingstone, a historian of Britain’s relations with Pinochet’s Chile, suggests that due to the activism of the CSC and other groups, “for many people in Britain, General Pinochet came to epitomize the image of a brutal dictator, one of the few tyrants in the world whom the average member of the public could name.”

The campaign was able to build its influential platform in British society through the efforts of affiliated trade unionists to stir the development of a heartfelt consciousness of common interest with the Chilean working class among the wider labor movement. The coup in the South American country was recognized throughout the solidarity movement as a counterrevolutionary challenge to the international organized left, which necessitated a comparably internationalist response.

In this sense, recent displays of labor movement internationalism — like the refusal of Italian dockers to load arms for Saudi Arabia and Israel in solidarity with the people of Yemen and Gaza — provide examples to follow. They show the possibility of resisting the fissiparous forces of neoliberal atomization and insular nationalism by instead building a popular consciousness based on working-class internationalism and a proud embrace of solidarity as a social duty.

In its day, the Chile Solidarity Campaign represented British workers’ stand with Chileans as a measure in their own interests, against the social forces which had supported Pinochet’s coup, and as the inheritance of an honorable struggle which their forebears had waged against fascism and tyranny. Efforts to develop popular social support for transnational campaigns today — for climate justice, worker power across supply chains, an end to racist police violence, or a free Palestine — should follow this example. This means foregrounding the commonalities between working-class communities resisting dispossession, exploitation, and domination around the world, and linkages between their oppressions, as tangible bases upon which to build solidarity.

In this vital undertaking, socialists should take inspiration from the trade unionists who extended proletarian hands across the Atlantic to the people of Chile, in whose struggles they saw their own.

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