Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile's El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951

Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile's El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951

by Thomas Miller Klubock

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In Contested Communities Thomas Miller Klubock analyzes the experiences of the El Teniente copper miners during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Describing the everyday life and culture of the mining community, its impact on Chilean politics and national events, and the sense of self and identity working-class men and women developed in the foreign-owned enclave, Klubock provides important insights into the cultural and social history of Chile.
Klubock shows how a militant working-class community was established through the interplay between capitalist development, state formation, and the ideologies of gender. In describing how the North American copper company attempted to reconfigure and reform the work and social-cultural lives of men and women who migrated to the mine, Klubock demonstrates how struggles between labor and capital took place on a gendered field of power and reconstituted social constructions of masculinity and femininity. As a result, Contested Communities describes more accurately than any previous study the nature of grassroots labor militancy, working-class culture, and everyday politics of gender relations during crucial years of the Chilean Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822378099
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/06/1998
Series: Comparative and international working-class history
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Thomas Miller Klubock is Associate Professor of History, SUNY Stony Brook.

Read an Excerpt

Contested Communities

Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile's El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951

By Thomas Miller Klubock

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7809-9


The Formation of a Modern Mining Enterprise

Capital, Labor Migration, and Early Forms of Worker Resistance

In 1920, at the age of forty-eight, Carmen Aceituno began work in the El Teniente copper mine as a day laborer. The mining company was experiencing an explosive period of growth as a result of expanding international markets for copper and had sent agents (enganchadores) into the countryside to recruit workers with promises of high wages and pay advances. Aceituno came to the mine from the nearby agricultural town of Coinco and labored in El Teniente off and on for the next eighteen years. After working a short stint in 1920, he left El Teniente, only returning in 1923 to work for seven months. Aceituno went back to work in the mine in 1924, 1925, 1926, and 1928 for short stretches and then worked four straight years between 1934 and 1938. His work in the mine was punctuated by periodic absences and dismissals. Aceituno was fired on three occasions during his intermittent career for absenteeism, lack of productivity, and drunkenness.

Aceituno's experience of work in the mine is characteristic of El Teniente's early labor force. Most workers who migrated to the mine had participated in a transient labor force that traveled the Chilean countryside working on rural estates according to seasonal demand for labor, in the many small, labor-intensive copper mines that dotted Chile's Andean mountain range, in ports and cities, and in the nitrate mines of the northern Atacama Desert since the middle of the nineteenth century. These workers resisted pressures to settle in El Teniente and frequently abandoned their jobs in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Miners also refused to accommodate to the company's demands for work discipline. Drinking on the job, low productivity, and absenteeism posed an endemic problem for company supervisors.

The development of the El Teniente mine represented a shift in the Chilean mining industry from the small, undercapitalized, rudimentary, domestically owned mines of the nineteenth century to large, capital-intensive, vertically integrated, foreign-owned industrial enterprises employing sophisticated technology for the extraction, smelting, and processing of copper ore. By the end of the First World War, El Teniente employed over five thousand workers, and its demand for trained labor grew as it expanded production during the 1920s. The itinerant mining labor force of workers like Aceituno presented a major obstacle to the company's growth. Throughout the 1920s, the company found its efforts to increase production hampered by a population of workers that displayed little conformity to the new rhythms of work and discipline in the modern mining enterprise. These male workers were joined by an equally transient group of single women workers who migrated to the mine's camps, informal settlements on El Teniente's outskirts, and the nearby city of Rancagua in search of work as domestic servants and in petty commerce. Women participated with men in a turbulent popular culture of drinking and fluid romantic and sexual relationships that undermined the North American copper company's efforts to discipline and settle its labor force.

Constructing a Foreign Enclave: The El Teniente Mine and the Braden Copper Company

Beginning in 1873, Chile confronted a series of economic crises. The expansive growth of the previous four decades based on the export of mineral and agricultural primary commodities to world markets had begun to slow. In the mining sector, Chilean producers had exhausted the high-grade copper ore in their small, labor-intensive mines. At the same time, large bodies of copper ore were found in the United States, and by the 1880s North American mines began to supply a large portion of the world's copper, eliminating markets for Chilean exports. Whereas in 1876 Chile produced 62 percent of the total world copper supply, by 1900 its share of international copper production had dropped to 5 percent. The agricultural export economy encountered a similar decline as demand for Chilean wheat diminished as a result of the loss of markets in the United States and Australia and the limits to production on large estates. Further expansion in both the agricultural and mining sectors required reform of antiquated systems of labor relations and investment in new methods of production.

Chilean mining entrepreneurs, however, failed to develop high levels of productive capital in the mining sector or to invest in the modernization of mining and processing techniques. Nineteenth-century copper mines were small enterprises, often discovered and developed by independent prospectors who lacked capital, struggled with chronic debt, and depended on financing from merchants to run their operations and market their ore. Mine owners and producers continued, as during the colonial period, to be subordinated financially to large —and often foreign-owned— commercial houses. Chilean mine owners turned to cheap labor and subcontracting to independent miners rather than mechanization to increase production. Throughout the nineteenth century various foreign writers commented favorably on the ways in which Chilean mine owners combined colonial methods of production with cheap labor. One British writer noted, for example, that mining in Chile was a bad business that was made viable only through the use of "the least expensive labor force imaginable." Similarly, Charles Darwin wrote that "it is now well known that the Chilean method of mining is the cheapest." Most foreign critics were quick to observe that the only profitable mining business lay in financing and commerce, rather than production.

Confronted with continuing cycles of debt to commercial houses, mining producers intensified their exploitation of mine workers (peones and apires). Labor in the copper mines of the nineteenth century was harshly disciplined, intense, and brutal. Mine workers who stole rocks of ore were legally beaten by mine owners and police, mining camps were rigidly controlled by armed guards, and miners were forced to carry identification cards. Work itself was performed almost entirely through physical labor. Miners used hammers and chisels to break off pieces of rock and dig tunnels, while other workers carried leather sacks of rock, weighing as much as two hundred pounds, on their backs as they climbed up ladders on the sides of tunnel walls to the surface above. Charles Darwin was struck by the devastating labor performed by workers in the small copper mines near the port of Coquimbo:

Captain Head has described the wonderful load which the "Apires" [mine workers], truly beasts of burden, carry up from the deepest mines. I confess I thought the account exaggerated, so that I was glad to take an opportunity of weighing one of the loads.... The load was considered under weight when found to be 190 pounds. The apire had carried this up eighty perpendicular yards—part of the way by a steep passage, but the greater part up notched poles, placed in a zigzag line up the shaft. According to the general regulation, the apire is not allowed to halt for breath, except the mine is six hundred feet deep. The average load is considered as rather more than 200 pounds.... At this time the apires were bringing up the usual load twelve times in the day; that is, 2400 pounds from eighty yards deep; and they were employed in the intervals in breaking and picking ore....

... it was quite revolting to see the state in which they reached the mouth of the mine; their bodies bent forward, leaning with their arms on the steps, their legs bowed, their muscles quivering, the perspiration streaming from their faces over their breasts, their nostrils distended, the corners of their mouth forcibly drawn back, and the expulsion of their breath most laborious.

In the copper mines of Jajuel, Darwin noted that "the labouring men work very hard. They have little time allowed for their meals, and during the summer and winter they begin when it is light, and leave off at dark."

By the end of the nineteenth century, Chilean copper mining consisted of a number of small mines employing antiquated methods of production that had changed little since colonial times. Only the richest veins with ores of over 10 percent content were mined, and tailings and sulfide ores were discarded because Chilean miners lacked the technology for extracting, concentrating, and smelting low-grade ores. In 1900, of 748 small copper mines in Chile, only 50 employed any kind of mechanization. In addition, while the Chilean mining industry employed the modern reverberatory furnace beginning in the 1830s, two-thirds of Chile's fifty foundries for processing ore in 1878 were still of "colonial design" and were fueled by wood. In 1889, a North American observer noted that most Chilean mines were operated without machinery, that water and ore were still removed from the mines on the backs of peones, and that "in many Chilean mines copper is milled with hammers and washed by hand."

The history of El Teniente followed the general trajectory of Chilean copper mining. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the mine had been worked by native Andean communities, which produced copper tools and jewelry. Following the conquest, the mine was granted to Andrés de Torquemada for his role in the Spanish conquest of Chile. Torquemada left the mine, with many of his lands, to the Jesuit order. The Jesuits worked the mine as part of their Compañía hacienda in the rich agricultural valleys that surrounded the town of Rancagua, a center of regional commerce. The religious order contracted the extraction of copper ore and the manufacture of copper utensils and tools to private miners.

When the Jesuits were expelled from Chile in 1767, the mine was auctioned off along with the rest of their property and was purchased with the entire hacienda by Don Mateo Toro y Zambrano, a merchant, count of the conquest, and first president of Chile's governing junta when independence was declared on 18 September 1810. Toro y Zambrano's vast lands stretched from the Chilean coast to the cordillera de los Andes that separates Chile and Argentina. The mine was passed down to Toro y Zambrano's grandaughter, Doña Nicolasa Correa y Toro, who married a fellow aristocrat, Carlos Yrarrázaval Correa. These families extracted high-grade copper ore (of 5 percent or more copper content) from the mine during the nineteenth century in small amounts, using hand sorting of rocks and the "chicken ladder method." Rocks containing copper ore were removed with hammer and chisel from rich veins, hauled up ladders scaling the sides of mine tunnels, and carried down the side of the mountain by mule. The copper was processed according to techniques that had changed little since colonial days.

The aristocratic families mining El Teniente did not consider the development of ore of smaller copper content to be commercially practicable. Instead, they concentrated their economic activities in agricultural production and commerce. Access to the mine was difficult. Located fifty miles southeast of Santiago in the province of O'Higgins on the western slope of the Andes, the mine lay at an altitude of nearly ten thousand feet above sea level in barren, uninhabited, mountainous terrain. The slopes of the mountain surrounding the mine entrance were steep (most grades were at least 30 percent) and free of vegetation because the mine was located around the sides of a former volcanic crater. Volcanic boulders, rocks, and ash covered the mountainsides. Rancagua, the nearest town, lay roughly thirty miles away at the foot of the mountains and served as a commercial center for agricultural production in the surrounding valleys. Transportation to the mine from Rancagua by mule took three or four days. In addition, work could be carried out only from the beginning of spring at the end of September to the beginning of autumn in early April because of heavy snowfalls during winter months. But the most important limitation on copper production in the El Teniente mine, as in copper mines around the world throughout the nineteenth century, was the lack of techniques and methods for mining and processing low-grade copper ore. During a century of mining, owners of El Teniente extracted only fifty thousand tons of high-grade copper ore and succeeded in sinking a mine shaft only 500 feet deep.

Meanwhile, in the United States during the 1870s, the copper industry experienced high rates of growth. As domestic and international demand for copper grew with the development of the electrical industry, miners, mining engineers, and financiers became interested in the recovery of exhausted silver and gold mines and the exploration of new territories rich in copper ore. They were aided by the expansion of railroad systems throughout the western United States, which provided the essential transportation infrastructure. The expansion of copper markets spawned new techniques of mining low-grade, nonvein ore in huge open-pit mines and through block-caving techniques in underground mines. The most momentous developments in North American copper mining occurred with the development of porphyry copper mines, mines with low-grade copper content (2 percent or less of the ore body), that had been previously thought to be uneconomical. During the 1890s, mining engineers introduced techniques employed in gold mining in order to mine copper porphyries on a mass scale.

The new technologies and large scales of production required for mining low-grade ore required considerable amounts of capital investment and long periods of time before profits could be realized. Companies that could afford extensive investments in mines and that could wait years for their investments to pay off were large and vertically integrated; they combined the mining of the ore with refining, processing, transportation, and marketing of copper. By linking these different, often geographically separated activities, companies could provide large amounts of capital for themselves, control all phases of the production process, dominate the copper market, and thus reduce overall risks. By 1900, the U.S. copper industry had been transformed from a small-scale industry based on the production of a number of labor-intensive mines extracting only high-grade copper ore into a large-scale, capital-intensive industry controlled by a limited number of corporations that maintained an oligopolistic hold on the production, processing, and marketing of low-grade copper ore.

In Chile, the revitalization of copper mining at the turn of the century required similar scales of investment in new techniques for mining, concentrating, and smelting low-grade copper ore. In addition, significant investment in transportation was a necessary prerequisite for producing copper in the geographically isolated and topographically rugged mining regions of the Andes and the northern Atacama Desert where Chile's major copper deposits lay. Chilean miners did not, however, make the move to the extraction and fabrication of low-grade ore and were unable to overcome the bottlenecks presented by a chronic lack of capital, mechanization, railroads, and a dependable labor supply. As North American companies began to explore the possibilities for acquiring Chilean mines, they were welcomed both by the Chilean state and mine owners willing to rid themselves of defunct mines that had fallen out of production during the late 1870s and 1880s.

Chilean copper producers confronted a number of unfavorable conditions that hampered their capacity to compete with their North American counterparts. In the United States, mining entrepreneurs could count on support from the state, whereas in Chile, the state, dominated by traditional agricultural and commercial interests, displayed little interest in protecting or promoting investment in the copper industry. Chilean copper producers encountered the protectionist economic policies of the United States, just as North American markets for Chilean copper were expanding after the 1870s. In addition, Chilean mine owners faced competition for the U.S. copper market with North American companies which possessed an oligopolistic hold on both copper production and fabrication and which dominated the North American copper market. Finally, the constant indebtedness of small copper producers led to the undercapitalization of the industry and restricted the possibilities for investment in new production techniques.

The War of the Pacific (1879-1884) and Chile's acquisition of the nitrate fields of the Atacama Desert provided an easy way out of the economic crisis of the late 1870s. Nitrates quickly became the new engine of the Chilean export economy, providing revenues for the state and the possibility for Chilean elites to reconsolidate their social and economic position without implementing political, social, or economic reforms, in either the agricultural or the mining sector. For Chilean capitalists, short-term investments in nitrates, agriculture, commerce, and finance were more secure and immediately profitable than was investment in the rejuvenation of the copper industry.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the El Teniente mine was jointly owned by a group whose members came from some of Chile's wealthiest families. The mine had fallen out of production when it filled with water during the winter of 1889 and had been abandoned by its caretakers. The mine's owners claimed that they lacked the money to pump the water out of the mine shaft or to invest in sophisticated forms of copper production and processing of the mine's low-grade porphyry copper and therefore entrusted an Italian engineer, Marco Chiapponi, to search for buyers for the mine in Europe and the United States.


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Table of Contents

Introduction i Part I Gender and the Process of Proletarianization, 1904-1938 17 1 The Formation of a Modern Mining Enterprise 19 Capital, Labor Migration, and Early Forms of Worker Resistance 2 Labor Strife, Social Welfare, and the Regulation of Working-Class Sexuality 49 3 Community, Politics, and the Invention of a Labor Tradition 81 Part II Gender, Culture, and the Politics of Everyday Life 101 4 Miners and Citizens 103 The State, the Popular Front, and Labor Politics 5 Conflict and Accommodation at Work 127 Masculinity and the Labor Process inside the Mine 6 "Rotos Macanudos" and Football Stars 155 Popular Culture, Working-Class Masculinity, and Opposition in the Mining Camps 7 Women, Marriage, and the Organization of Sexuality 188 Part III Men and Women on Strike: The Mining Community and the Demise of Populism, 1942-1948 223 8 Workers' Movements, Women's Mobilization, and Labor Politics 225 * The Radicalization of Working-Class Politics 254 United States Intervention, Miners' Strikes, and the Crisis of Populism Conclusion 282

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