Labor unions have been a force in Chilean society since the 1930s, and large increases in unionization occurred through the 1960s. Organized labor was suppressed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90). After Chile's return to democracy, mining, industrial, and professional unions gained ground, supported by Chile's moderate-left political parties. Mining is the most organized sector, and agricultural workers have become more organized in recent years. Chilean law allows workers to join and form unions without prior authorization, and this right is observed in practice. Unions operate without government interference. Approximately 13 percent of the formal workforce is unionized.
The right to assemble peacefully is largely respected, and the constitution guarantees the right of association and collective bargaining, which the government has also upheld. Collective-bargaining rights are only guaranteed if they are "voluntary," meaning the employer agrees to negotiate with the unions. Both public and private employers have been criticized for failing to respect trade union rights. Antiunion practices – including violence against union leaders, unfair dismissal of these leaders, and replacement of striking workers – continue to occur. It is not specifically illegal to fire strikers; instead, the law aims to make it prohibitively expensive to do so. Legal protection of collective-bargaining rights remains inadequate.
Public-sector employees do not have the right to strike, and police and military personnel do not have the right to unionize. However, a massive strike in November 2008 that included government-employed teachers and health workers affected 70 percent of public-sector workers. The strike was deemed successful, resulting in negotiation of salary increases. There are limitations on the right of private-sector workers to strike. Agricultural workers may not strike during harvest season, and employees of private-sector providers of water and electricity are prohibited from striking. The law mandates compulsory arbitration to resolve disputes in these companies.
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