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Contesting the Neoliberal Order through Legal Mobilisation: The Case of Chilean Unions

  • Francisca Gutiérrez Crocco (a1)


Scholars interested in labour in Latin America have traditionally paid little attention to trade unions’ legal mobilisation. However, the increasing number of legal complaints filed by workers with labour ministries and/or the courts in countries like Argentina, Brazil and Chile calls for a more serious debate on the role that trade unions play in this process. This article focuses on the Chilean case. Drawing on various sources, it shows that Chilean unions have turned legal complaints into a weapon to gain more rights and curb employers’ power. This process has involved the strongest and most combative unions, and is due to two historical conditions: (1) the obstacles placed in the way of successful resort to more disruptive tactics; (2) the increase in institutional opportunities to report infringements of the law. Overall, the article challenges the current image of the Chilean unions by foregrounding their agency and their achievements over the last decade.

Spanish abstract

Los académicos interesados en la fuerza de trabajo en Latinoamérica tradicionalmente han prestado poca atención a las movilizaciones legales de los sindicatos. Sin embargo, el creciente número de quejas legales interpuestas por trabajadores ante las oficinas del trabajo y/o juzgados en países como Argentina, Brasil y Chile llaman a un debate más serio sobre el papel que los sindicatos juegan en este proceso. Este artículo se enfoca en el caso chileno. A partir de fuentes diversas, se muestra que los sindicatos chilenos han convertido las quejas legales en armas para obtener mayores derechos y debilitar el poder de sus empleadores. En este proceso han estado involucrados los sindicatos más fuertes y combativos, lo que se explica por dos condiciones históricas: (1) los obstáculos para recurrir exitosamente a tácticas más disruptivas; (2) la expansión de oportunidades institucionales para denunciar infracciones legales. En general, el artículo desafía la imagen existente de los sindicatos chilenos al hacer más visible su agencia, así como sus logros, durante la última década.

Portuguese abstract

Os acadêmicos interessados em trabalho e mão de obra na América Latina deram, tradicionalmente, pouca atenção às mobilizações legais de sindicatos. No entanto, o crescente número de reclamações submetidas por trabalhadores a Fiscais de Trabalho ou tribunais em países como Argentina, Brasil e Chile exige um debate mais sério sobre o papel dos sindicatos neste processo. Este artigo analisa o caso chileno. Baseando-se em múltiplas fontes, o artigo mostra que os sindicatos do Chile têm transformado denúncias legais em instrumento para obter mais direitos para trabalhadores e restringir o poder dos empregadores. Este processo têm envolvido os sindicatos mais fortes e combativos e é explicado por duas condições históricas: (1) os obstáculos para a utilização bem sucedida de táticas mais disruptivas; (2) a expansão das oportunidades institucionais para denunciar infrações legais. Mais amplamente, este artigo contesta a imagem atual dos sindicatos chilenos ao fazer mais visíveis suas ações e suas conquistas ao longo da última década.


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1 Toledo, Enrique de la Garza (ed.), Tratado latinoamericano de sociología del trabajo (Mexico City: FLACSO, 2000, reprinted 2003); Francisco Zapata, ¿Crisis en el sindicalismo en América Latina?, Kellogg Institute Working Paper, 302 (2003); Cook, Maria Lorena, The Politics of Labor Reform in Latin America: Between Flexibility and Rights (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2008); Maria Lorena Cook and Joseph Bazler, Bringing Unions Back In: Labour and Left Governments in Latin America, Cornell ILR Working Paper, 2013; Murillo, María Victoria, Sindicalismo, coaliciones partidarias y reformas de mercado en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2005); Cató, Juan Montes and Dobrusin, Bruno, ‘El sindicalismo Latinoamericano ante una nueva encrucijada. De la centralidad del Estado al de las empresas multinacionales’, Trabajo y Sociedad, 27 (2016), pp. 722.

2 The Chilean Labour Office (Dirección del Trabajo, DT) is an administrative agency that reports to the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare; the courts report to the Judiciary. The Chilean system allows workers and unions to report infringements of labour law before either institution, though the two processes have different characteristics. When a worker files a complaint with the Labour Office, the agency is required to conduct an inspection and fine the company if the infringement is proven. The process does not require a lawyer and can be undertaken by a union on behalf of the affected workers, without their explicit participation. The Labour Office can also issue a ruling to clarify a specific regulation. Both the decisions and the pronouncements of the Labour Office can be opposed by any party in court, and the latter have the final word. The system allows workers to sue the company directly in the labour courts. Unions can do so on behalf of the affected parties when the complaint involves practices that go against individuals’ fundamental rights. Unlike the administrative procedure, the judicial route requires the sponsorship of a lawyer and aims to restore the violated right(s) to the affected.

3 The concept of ‘support structures’ for legal mobilisation was initially presented by in, Charles EppThe Rights Revolution: Lawyers, Activists, and Supreme Courts in Comparative Perspective (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

4 I found only 16 papers in the Web of Science database related to this topic. I used several sets of key words for this consultation, including ‘legal mobilisation’, ‘courts’, ‘legal action’, ‘labour office’ and ‘legal complaints’. Most of these 16 papers describe one-off campaigns. None of them focuses on Chile. My last consultation was made on 11 April 2019.

5 Bensusán, Gabriela, ‘La inspección del trabajo en América Latina: Teorías, contextos y evidencias’, Estudios Sociológicos, 27: 81 (2009), pp. 9891040; Cardoso, Adalberto M., ‘Neoliberalism, Unions, and Socio-Economic Insecurity in Brazil’, Labour, Capital and Society, 35: 2 (2002), pp. 282316; Patroni, Viviana, ‘Structural Reforms and the Labour Movement in Argentina’, Labour, Capital and Society, 35: 2 (2002), pp. 252–80.

6 José Piñera, the labour minister at the time, was responsible for the design of the plan. For details of the arguments in favour of this reform, see Piñera, José, La revolución laboral en Chile (Santiago: Zig-Zag, 1990).

7 The Acuerdo Marco was the result of three years of dialogue and was enshrined in a text entitled ‘Chile, una oportunidad histórica’ (‘Chile, a historic opportunity’). Rather than a concrete plan of reforms, this text laid out the general direction for future policy. It evinces a general acceptance of the market economy and the conviction that social problems would be resolved through economic activity and social peace.

8 See Sehnbruch, Kirsten, The Chilean Labor Market: A Key to Understanding Latin American Labor Markets (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Winn, Peter, ‘The Pinochet Era’, in Winn, Peter (ed.), Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973–2002 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 1470; Volker Frank, ‘Politics without Policy: The Failure of Social Concertation in Democratic Chile, 1990–2000’, in ibid., pp. 71–124; Barrett, Patrick S., ‘Labour Policy, Labour–Business Relations and the Transition to Democracy in Chile’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 33: 3 (2001), pp. 561–97; Haagh, Louis, ‘The Emperor's New Clothes: Labor Reform and Social Democratization in Chile’, Studies in Comparative International Development, 37: 1 (2002), pp. 86115.

9 Cook, The Politics of Labor Reform in Latin America.

10 Carrasco, Antonio Aravena and Núñez, Daniel, El renacer de la huelga obrera en Chile: El movimiento sindical en la primera década del siglo XXI (Santiago: Instituto de Ciencias Alejandro Lipschutz, 2009); Leiva, Fernando, ‘Flexible Workers, Gender, and Contending Strategies for Confronting the Crisis of Labor in Chile’, Latin American Perspectives, 39: 4 (2012), pp. 102–28; Palacios-Valladares, Indira, ‘From Militancy to Clientelism: Labor Union Strategies and Membership Trajectories in Contemporary Chile’, Latin American Politics and Society, 52: 2 (2010), pp. 73102.

11 This survey has been conducted by the Labour Office roughly every two to four years since 1998; the latest version, however, was published in 2014: DT, ENCLA: Informe de resultados, Octava encuesta laboral 2014 (Santiago: DT, 2015). To request the 2014 database, contact the Labour Office through its website,

12 Of these, 70.1 per cent filed charges with the Labour Office and/or the courts for violations of laws on health and safety, 51 per cent for problems in the calculation of wages, and 21 per cent for violations of female workers’ rights. Only 39.6 per cent of these unions denounced practices against unions or collective rights, which demonstrates that legal mobilisation is not reserved for defending the interests of the organisations. The total is over 100 per cent because unions can file charges more than once or in respect of more than one type of infringement of the law.

13 Bensusán, ‘La inspección del trabajo en América Latina’; Cardoso, ‘Neoliberalism, Unions, and Socio-Economic Insecurity in Brazil’; Patroni, ‘Structural Reforms and the Labour Movement in Argentina’.

14 Anner, Mark, ‘Meeting the Challenges of Industrial Restructuring: Labor Reform and Enforcement in Latin America’, Latin American Politics and Society, 50: 2 (2008), pp. 3365.

15 See, for instance, how legal mobilisation is addressed in Cook, The Politics of Labor Reform in Latin America; Cardoso, ‘Neoliberalism, Unions, and Socio-Economic Insecurity in Brazil’; Ietswaart, Heleen F. P., ‘Labor Relations Litigation: Chile, 1970–1972’, Law & Society Review, 16: 4 (1982), pp. 625–68; Bensusán, ‘La inspección del trabajo en América Latina’; Patroni, ‘Structural Reforms and the Labour Movement in Argentina’.

16 Cardoso, ‘Neoliberalism, Unions, and Socio-Economic Insecurity in Brazil’, p. 310.

17 See Epp, The Rights Revolution; Burstein, Paul, ‘Legal Mobilization as a Social Movement Tactic: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity’, American Journal of Sociology, 96: 5 (1991), pp. 1201–25; McCann, Michael, Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

18 Sieder, Rachel, Schjolden, Line and Angell, Alan (eds.), The Judicialization of Politics in Latin America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Huneeus, Alexandra, Couso, Javier and Sieder, Rachel, ‘Cultures of Legality: Judicialization and Political Activism in Contemporary Latin America’, in Couso, Javier, Huneeus, Alexandra and Sieder, Rachel (eds.), Cultures of Legality: Judicialization and Political Activism in Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 323.

19 McCann, Michael, ‘Law and Social Movements: Contemporary Perspectives’, Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 2 (2006), pp. 1738.

20 Brown-Nagin, Tomiko, ‘Elites, Social Movements, and the Law: The Case of Affirmative Action’, Columbia Law Review, 105: 5 (2005), pp. 14361528.

21 McCann, Rights at Work, p. 70.

22 O'Brien, Kevin J., ‘Rightful Resistance’, World Politics, 49: 1 (1996), pp. 3155.

23 Chambarlhac, Vincent and Ubbiali, Georges (eds.), Épistémologie du syndicalisme: Construction disciplinaire de l'objet syndical (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2005).

24 See, for example, Roomkin, Myron, ‘A Quantitative Study of Unfair Labor Practice Cases’, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 34: 2 (1982), pp. 245–56 and Chappe, Vincent-Arnaud, ‘Dénoncer en justice les discriminations syndicales: Contribution à une sociologie des appuis conventionnels de l'action judiciaire’, Sociologie du Travail, 55: 3 (2013), pp. 302–21.

25 This argument is clearly developed in McCammon, Holly J., ‘Labor's Legal Mobilization: Why and When Do Workers File Unfair Labor Practices?’, Work and Occupations, 28: 2 (2001), pp. 143–75 and Roomkin, ‘A Quantitative Study of Unfair Labor Practice Cases’.

26 See for instance, Hebdon, Robert P. and Stern, Robert N., ‘Tradeoffs among Expressions of Industrial Conflict: Public Sector Strike Bans and Grievance Arbitrations’, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 51: 2 (1998), pp. 204–21; McCammon, ‘Labor's Legal Mobilization’; Roomkin, ‘A Quantitative Study of Unfair Labor Practice Cases’; Chen, Feng, ‘Legal Mobilization by Trade Unions: The Case of Shanghai’, The China Journal, 52 (2004), pp. 2745.

27 Cardoso, ‘Neoliberalism, Unions, and Socio-Economic Insecurity in Brazil’.

28 Chen, ‘Legal Mobilization by Trade Unions’.

29 Pélisse, Jérôme, ‘Judiciarisation ou juridicisation? Usages et réappropriations du droit dans les conflits du travail’, Politix, 89 (2009), pp. 7396.

30 Grounded theory is a methodology that helps to build theory and understand phenomena using inductive reasoning. Data are revised several times, in an iterative process, to identify and construct the concepts that guide the analysis.

31 Cases without valid information in response to the question about legal mobilisation or with extreme values in the variable ‘average wage’ (<180,000 and >4,000,000 Chilean pesos) were not considered in the analysis.

32 It is plausible that small companies are more likely to break the labour law given the nature of the links between the workers and the employer in these contexts. The face-to-face relationship and ‘familiarity’ that tends to develop in these spaces may favour greater tolerance of legal abuses on the part of the workers.

33 A preliminary calculation of union density showed that there were problems with the data (e.g. union density over 100 per cent in at least five cases). It is plausible that this problem comes from the fact that the information about the size of the company and the size of unions comes from different sources (managers in the first case, and union officials in the second case). For this reason, I opted to forgo calculating union density to work only with the data collected from the union officials.

34 Interview with federation leader in the waste management sector conducted in Oct. 2009.

35 Interview with federation leader in the transport sector conducted in Aug. 2014.

36 The Chilean Labour Code (see note 43) prohibits strikes in ‘strategic’ companies providing public health, security or infrastructure services. These companies are listed by the government every two years, after evaluation at the request of the companies concerned. For the list of companies that were declared strategic in 2017, see (last accessed 3 March 2020). For details on the unions’ legal campaign, see Karen Peña, ‘CUT prepara ofensiva para llegar a tribunales por empresas estratégicas’, Diario Financiero (Santiago), 9 Aug. 2017; or Rodrigo Fuentes, ‘Sindicatos de empresas estratégicas inician camino judicial para recuperar el derecho a huelga’, Diario UChile (Santiago), 19 Aug. 2017.

37 Epp, The Rights Revolution.

38 See Ruling No. 3938/33 dated 27 July 2018.

39 Law No. 20,087 (3 Jan. 2006). These fundamental rights include the protection of private life, freedom of expression and the guarantee against discrimination.

40 See, for example, Ruling No. 4842/300, 15 Sept. 1993 about the limits on the right of employers to implement a system of surveillance and control at the workplace. For a further discussion on the Labour Office's jurisprudence on fundamental rights, see Rojo, Eduardo Caamaño, ‘La eficacia de los derechos fundamentales en las relaciones laborales y su reconocimiento por la dirección del trabajo’, Revista de Derecho de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, 27: 1 (2006), p. 22.

41 The RUT is a number that identifies the firm for all legal purposes. The concept of ‘multirut’ is used to refer to firms which belong to the same owner or group but have different identification numbers.

42 For details on the pronouncements that support this interpretation, see Miño, Irene Rojas, ‘La evolución de los grupos de empresas en el derecho del trabajo en Chile: Desde su irrelevancia hasta la Ley No. 20.760 de 2014’, Revista Chilena de Derecho, 43: 1 (2016), pp. 148–50.

43 The bill, intended to ‘modernise the system of labour relations’, was presented to Congress on 29 Dec. 2014 and was finally promulgated as Law No. 20, 940 on 29 Aug. 2016. For details, see (last accessed 3 March 2020). The current Labour Code was promulgated in 1994 (replacing the Code of 1987), and was restructured in 2003. See ‘Código del Trabajo’, (last accessed 3 March 2020).

44 For instance, see Case No. 28919–2015, ‘Unificación de la Jurisprudencia’ (‘Unification of Jurisprudence’).

45 Interview with union leader of company in telecommunications sector conducted in Oct. 2009.

46 See, for example, Zincke, Claudio Ramos, La transformación de la empresa chilena: Una modernización desbalanceada (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Alberto Hurtado, 2009), pp. 365–90.

47 Interview with a lawyer, Aug. 2014.

48 Ietswaart, ‘Labor Relations Litigation’, p. 634.

49 Ibid., p. 641.

50 Winn, ‘The Pinochet Era’, p. 36.

51 Ugarte, José Luis, ‘Inspección del trabajo en Chile: Vicisitudes y desafíos’, Revista Latinoamericana de Derecho Social, 6 (2008), pp. 187204; here p. 193.

52 Bensusán, ‘La inspección del trabajo en América Latina’, p. 1021.

53 For instance, the ratio of Labour Office inspectors per 10,000 workers in Chile is higher than in developed countries such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom (1.6 versus 0.1, 0.8 and 0.5 respectively in 2013). See International Labour Organization (ILO) dataset ‘Inspectors per 10’000 employed persons - Annual’ at (last accessed 4 March 2020).

54 DT, Compendio estadístico de 1990 a 2014 (Santiago: DT, 2015).

55 Law No. 11,183, 10 July 1953.

56 Ietswaart, ‘Labor Relations Litigation’, p. 657.

57 Ibid., p. 658.

58 Gazmuri, Consuelo, ‘La reforma a la justicia laboral. Contenidos, implicancias y perspectivas para una modernización de las relaciones laborales’, in Ensignia, Jaime (ed.), Mitos y realidades del mercado laboral en Chile (Santiago: Fundación Friedrich Ebert, 2005), p. 63.

59 The package included Law No. 20,022 (30 May 2005) which created labour courts, wage deductions and social security payments courts in several municipalities; Law No. 20,023 (31 May 2005) which modified Law No. 17,322, the Labour Code, and Decree No. D.L. 3,500 from 1980, enacting a new system of implementation of social security entitlements; and Law No. 20,087 (3 Jan. 2006), which replaced the labour procedure included in Chapter V of the Labour Code.

60 The length of proceedings in labour court averaged 76 days in 2013. Ministerio de Justicia, Anuario Estadístico Justicia Laboral (Santiago: Ministerio de Justicia, 2013), p. 18.

61 Interviews with judges and lawyers, 2014.

62 Carlos Cerda Fernández replaced Patricio Valdés, who was known for his connections to business world (see Marcela Jiménez, ‘El hombre clave del mundo empresarial en la Corte Suprema’, El Mostrador, 6 Nov. 2013:, last accessed 12 Feb. 2020).

63 See Díaz, Luis I. Díaz García et al. ., ‘La Corte Suprema, ¿un tribunal para los empleadores?: Estudio empírico del recurso de unificación de jurisprudencia laboral’, Revista de Derecho, 28: 1 (2015), pp. 101–22; Malú Urzua, ‘Corte Suprema se distancia de fallos “pro empresa” en materia laboral’, La Segunda, 14 June 2014; Sandra Radic, ‘Suprema favorece la huelga sin derecho a reemplazo, ni siquiera con trabajadores internos’, El Mostrador, 5 Dec. 2014.

64 Interview with a leader of an inter-company union in the transportation sector, Oct. 2014.

65 These numbers are extracted from the 2016 annual report on the justice system published by the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas (National Institute of Statistics, INE). See (last accessed 3 March 2020).

66 Law No. 19,069, ‘Normas sobre organizaciones sindicales y negociación colectiva’ (‘Rules on Trade Union Organisations and Collective Bargaining’).

67 Labour Code Article No. 381.

68 Labour Code Article No. 161.

69 See note 43.

70 Mario Garcés and Pedro Milos, FOCH CTCH CUT: Las centrales unitarias en la historia del sindicalismo chileno (Santiago: ECO, 1988), p. 127.

71 All the measures for the democratic period are extracted from DT, Compendio Estadístico de 1990 a 2014.

72 Less than a third of the Chilean company unions belonged to the top three levels of union (federation, confederation or central [congress]) in 2014. See DT, ENCLA 2014.

73 The first important schism took place in 1995 when a sector of the CUT founded the Central Autónoma de Trabajadores (Autonomous Workers’ Union, CAT). A similar process took place in 2004 when members of the CUT formed the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (National Workers’ Union, UNT). For details on these divisions, see Fernández, Patricio Frías, Los desafíos del sindicalismo en los inicios del siglo XXI (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2008).

74 All measures of the number of strikes include legal and illegal conflicts. They are taken from the strikes database created by the OHL.

75 The number of the voted-for strikes has been registered from 1997 by the Labour Office. It has slightly increased between then and 2005, from 401 to 444. The annual variation of this indicator during this period was, however, much wider than that of the number of strikes actually carried out. DT, Compendio estadístico de 1990 a 2014.

76 The number of the voted-for strikes has been recorded by the Labour Office since 1997. It has slightly increased between then and 2005, from 401 to 444. The annual variation of this indicator during this period was, however, much greater than that of the number of strikes actually carried out. DT, Compendio estadístico de 1990 a 2014.


Contesting the Neoliberal Order through Legal Mobilisation: The Case of Chilean Unions

  • Francisca Gutiérrez Crocco (a1)


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