Historical Cycles in the Formation of the Condition of the Mining Working-Class in Bolivia (1825–1999)

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Álvaro García Linera / October 16, 2021
Bolivia's former Vice President traces the material conditions that enabled the militancy its mining proletariat. 4377 words / 18 min read

Photo: Rally of the Revolutionary Workers Party (POR) in the mining centre of Oruro, August 1946, photo credit: Fernando Bravo James Archives

We are very happy to be able to republish this 2000 essay from Álvaro García Linera from Haymarket’s crucial selection of his historical, sociological and theoretical texts, Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class, and Popular Identities in Bolivia, edited and translated by Pablo Stefanoni.

Since the early days of the republic, the development of mine-production in Bolivia has been characterised by the coexistence of complex forms of labour- organisation, from basic manual labour engaged in extracting and refining ore, to small-scale handicraft semi-industrial labour-organisations, to modern systems of mass extraction without rails and the sophisticated computerised treatment of mineralised rocks. Similarly, the status of mineworkers has also always been complex and heterogeneous, with the coexistence of workers disciplined by the modern industrial régime alongside temporary workers associated with communal agricultural activities and artisan-labourers in family- or individual units. Likewise, class-subjectivity has been influenced by the collective cohesion afforded by the large mining centres, where two, three or five thousand workers would live and work together, along with the atomised subjectivity of the ‘cooperativist’ and the unsociable agricultural customs of the temporary worker.

Each of these technical and organisational qualities has conferred upon each historical period specific features that characterise the objective class-condition and the possibilities for class-organisation – that is, for the development of a class-identity able to effect political changes in the social structure. In general, the condition of the mineworker has gone through three major periods since the founding of the republic, corresponding to three main stages in the material and organisational development of mine-production.

The artisan manufacturing labourer

In the first period, from 1850 to 1900, the mining proletariat consisted primarily of artisan manufacturing labourers. These workers were grouped together in industrial centres that extracted on a large scale, like those in Huanchaca, Portugalete, Real Socavón, Chorolque and Antequera, but without a comprehensive hierarchical specialisation of labour. Instead, there was a large concentration of artisan-operators who individually possessed segmented productive skills. Although the workers started to concentrate in towns, they had not yet adopted industrial discipline as a custom or a collective preference, and as such were not prone to corporatist associations that would establish a permanent identity. They maintained strong ties to the communal-peasant productive structure, evident in their forms of resistance such as the riot, the party, the use of time and the cajcheo.1 During this period, despite the great technological renewal that mining was undergoing, close to 35 percent of production in ‘modern’ companies like Huanchacka depended on Cajcha labour and on the hard manual labour of the palliris2 who, like in Huanchaca, came to constitute 43 percent of the workforce.3 At this point, the formal subsumption of labour-power to capital had only taken the form of a large-scale aggregation of artisan-operators, who exerted their autonomous productivity within the industrial system, sustained by increasing processes of real subsumption4 to specific technical procedures, such as processing and transportation. The formal subsumption of the labour- process was, in this case, primary, and thus worker-subjectivity itself was moored in agricultural or traditional temporality, more than in the industry itself.

In the period 1850 to 1900 miners maintained strong ties to the communal-peasant productive structure, evident in their forms of resistance such as the riot, the party, the use of time and the cajcheo.

During this period, working-class organisation was characterised by territorially organised mutual-relief funds and mutual associations.5 These were basically company or town-structures of solidarity, with the power to make demands on behalf of a segmented labour-power market. In terms of their effects on the state, their practical and symbolic dispersion and their sporadic use of agricultural mechanisms of association allowed their collective representation to become diluted in the discursive constructions and the agitational appeals with which the parties and military caudillos addressed the ‘people’ in order to attain government posts.

The technical foundation underpinning this type of class-formation was the clearly segmented coexistence in each mine of the means of traditional and manual labour in the immediate labour process, on one hand; and, on the other hand, innovations in infrastructure, such as rails and metal-cars for ore extraction and transport, aqueducts and steam-powered machines for draining, smelting furnaces, magnetic ore-separation and steam-heated amalgamating vats,6 culminating in the definitive replacement of the old colonial ‘repasiris’ who amalgamated ore and quicksilver with their feet.7

Although it is true that in the late nineteenth century, dynamite and air- compressor machines were introduced, setting the stage for a revolution in the organisation of the labour-process inside the mine, it was a belated introduction, and of only limited effects, given the rapid debacle of silver-mining, and consequently, of the close to twenty thousand labour-groups that were tied to it.

Late-century modern silver-mining, with its mining towns and labour agglomerations, would disappear as quickly as it arose, curtailing the processes of organisational and subjective accumulation of the mining proletariat, who would once again turn to the haciendas, to their communities or to self-employment. It is in this sense that we refer to a type of working-class condition and to a period of slowly accumulated experience that came to an end after only thirty years. This experience could not be maintained or transmitted in an organic, systematic fashion to a new contingent of workers able to take and use it as an inheritance upon which to erect new formations particular to their identity.

Skilled workers in larger companies

The second phase of mineworker-status started at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, with the upturn in tin-mining and the appearance of the skilled worker in large companies. In technical terms, these workers were heirs of the former workers’ traditional expertise, but with the difference that their bodily skill, upon which production depended, was now situated in a new technological reality, organised around the personal competence of the skilled worker.

Labour-expertise (skill, aptitude) was no longer of a simple or routine nature, as had been the case with the artisan-worker; the personal skill deposited in the body’s movements was complex, as it combined several simultaneous functions, and it also articulated the effectiveness of a vast technological system that worked as a function of this new worker’s professional knowledge. These workers no longer worked with traditional handicraft-techniques, but with industrial ones, though the techniques were subordinated to the skilfulness of the workers’ bodies, their movements, and their personalised knowledge – a subordination that the movement of machines has been unable to take away. The paradigmatic model of this type of worker is the master drill-runner who, surrounded by a set of machinery and a technified work-system, unleashes the productivity of this mechanised setting with the set of corporal skills and personal knowledge acquired with experience, and without which all the technological means would be useless, unproductive. Something similar occurs with the mechanics, the carpenters and the people tasked with prospecting.

As a result of the new technical framework in the workplace that the main tin-companies began to implement in the 1920s, thus eradicating the irregular artisan-worker, the skilled worker came to have enormous power over the means of work, as only the workers and their skills could fulfil the considerable productivity promised by the machines.8

The workers’ power over the productive capacity of the industrial means of labour not only enabled a broad exercise of autonomy in extraction and refining, but also allowed workers to see themselves as protagonists in the world: the company, with its monstrous machines, its gigantic investments, its fantastic profits, had at the core of its existence the skilled worker. It was the skilled worker, and the skilled worker alone, who could bring to life the mechanical system that covered the mine; only the skilled worker knew how to make the machine produce high yields, how to follow a seam, how to distribute tasks and knowledge. The productive and specifically technical self-esteem of labour in the labour-process gave rise, over time, to the centrality of class, which would appear to be the means by which the mineworker’s productive and objective position in the mine transferred to the realm of the state and politics.

The specifically technical self-esteem of labour in the labour-process gave rise to the centrality of class, which would appear to be how the mineworker’s productive position transferred to the realm of the state and politics.

In a similar manner, the consolidation of this type of worker as the core of the labour-system created a procedure of promotions and advancement within the company based on seniority, practical apprenticeship with the master-tradesman, and industrial labour-discipline, legitimised by access to monetary, cognitive and symbolic rewards, hierarchically distributed between segments of the workforce.

The great corporatist spirit of Bolivian unionism was born from the cohesion and leadership of a core consisting of the master-tradesman, whose position reproduced a chain of commands and worker-loyalties centred around him, by means of the accumulation of experiences over time and practical apprenticeships, which were then transmitted to newcomers by means of a rigid structure of worker-discipline whose rewards included the ‘secret’ of the trade and compensation based on seniority. This mindset in the workplace meant that workers could combine a double social narrative. In the first place, they had a narrative of historical time, going from the past to the future. This was possible because the future was foreseeable as a result of the fixed contract, continuity in the company, and life in the work-camp or town. In the second place, they had a narrative of class-continuity, in which apprentices saw their futures as masters of the trade, and the ‘old ones’, who occupied the highest ranks, would, little-by-little, share their ‘secrets’ with the younger ones, who would do the same with subsequent newcomers, in a chain of cultural and symbolic inheritances that assured the accumulation of a class-experience of unions.

The need to anchor this ‘human capital’ in the company – since a large part of the measures of mechanical productivity depended on it, and since it embodied the knowledge indispensable to production – pushed the owners to consolidate the definitive bind of the worker to waged labour by institutionalising promotions based on seniority. This, undoubtedly, demanded the breakdown of the workers’ strong ties to the agricultural world, achieved by expanding the market-spaces for the reproduction of the workforce and by changing dietary customs, lifestyles and work-ethics, in what could be considered a violent process of sedentarising the working-class and the progressive eradication of behavioural structures and understandings of social time tied to the rhythms of agricultural work. Today, we know that these transformations were never fully completed; they even continue now, as companies struggle to deny workers time for pijcheo.9 Rather, these transformations gave way to the birth of hybrid mental structures, combining assembly-forms of deliberation and agricultural rationalities, such as the symbolic interaction with ritualised nature at parties, wajitas10 and pijcheos, with behaviours specific to industrial rationality, such as workplace-association, labour-discipline, the patriarchal family-unit and the commodification of the conditions of social reproduction.

The sedentarisation of workers, as an objective condition of large-scale capitalist production, thus resulted in the mining camps no longer being merely temporary dormitories for an itinerant workforce, as they had been until then. Indeed, it allowed them to become centres for the long-term construction of working-class culture, where the collective memory of class was accumulated.

The so-called ‘accumulation in the heart of the class’11 is, therefore, not merely discursive. It is, above all, a collective mental structure, embedded as general culture, which can be accumulated and extended. The possibility of what we have termed an internal class-narrative and the presence of a physical space for the continuity and sedimentation of collective experience were conditions of symbolic and physical possibility that, with time, allowed for the constitution of these transcendent forms of workers’ collective political identity. These forms were the basis for the construction of long-lasting periods of political identity for the mining proletariat, including the 1952 Revolution, resistance to military dictatorships and the restoration of parliamentary democracy.

In addition, the open-ended contract enabled the retention of an itinerant workforce. This contractual form, so characteristic of the Bolivian proletariat in general – and the mining proletariat in particular – from the 1940s, was made into law in the 1950s.

The open-ended contract ensured the retention of skilled workers, their knowledge, their occupational continuity and their affiliation with the company for long periods. Indeed, this was a necessity for the companies, allowing the effective implementation of technological and organisational changes in capitalist mining investments. But, in addition, it allowed the creation of a social representation of homogenous time and cumulative practices that culminated in a worker’s life-cycle ending with retirement and the support of new generations. The open-ended contract allowed the future of the individual to be seen as part of a long-lasting collective evolution, and, therefore, it allowed workers to commit to this future and to this collective, because their achievements could be appropriated over time. We are speaking of the construction of a class-time characterised by predictability, a sense of assured destiny and geographic roots that allowed long-term commitments and virtuous risk-taking in pursuit of an attainable future – a future that was worth fighting for, since it existed, it was tangible. Nobody struggles without at least a little confidence that they can win, nor do they fight without at least a little conviction that they will be able to take advantage of the rewards over time. The skilled worker’s open-ended contract positively established the belief in a future worth fighting for, because, after all, a future can only be fought for when it is certain that there is a future.

We are speaking of the construction of a class-time. The skilled worker’s open-ended contract established the belief in a future worth fighting for, because a future can only be fought for when it is certain that there is a future.

Thus, this modern skilled worker appears in history as a condensed subject, bearer of a specific social temporality and a long-lasting narrative power that form the basis of the mining proletariat’s most important class-affirming actions over the last century. The historic virtue of these workers lies precisely in their ability to have used these conditions of material and symbolic possibility for their own ends. From here emerged the great narrative with which these generous workers would infuse and dignify the history of this small country.

This form of proletarianisation of the mining workforce was technically grounded in the gradual replacement of diesel- and coal-generators with electricity as the motive power for the machines and with the use of railways and trucks for ore-transport, which increased the technical division of labour and radically replaced the motive power for transportation and hauling. In the refineries, the ‘sink and float’ system of pre-concentration was introduced,12 which ultimately replaced the work of the palliris. Meanwhile, in extraction-processes, whether by the traditional method or the new one, called block-caving, electrical drive and the use of electric or compressed-air bores reconfigured labour-processes and firmly established the importance of skilled workers in mine-production.

Of course, it is not the case that this revolution in the technological and organisational foundations of capitalist labour alone created the qualities of the industrial mining proletariat; such a mechanistic view ignores the fact that similar technical systems can give rise to radically different social and subjective responses from one country, town or company to another. What matters, in any case, is what Zavaleta calls the ‘mode of reception of technical structures’; that is, the way in which they are elaborated, signified, circumvented, utilised and exploited by social groups. In this act, workers come with their own unique experiences and memories, work-related customs and specific knowledge, families and local environments, and with this unique baggage, which cannot be replicated elsewhere, they give new cultural meaning to the changed technical foundations of their activity. The characteristics of this interpretation and assimilation are the result of previous cultural frameworks being applied to the new materiality, with a subsequent predominance of the past over the present, of inherited mental frameworks and learned practices over mechanical qualities.

But, at the same time, these necessary mental frameworks can only be awoken from dormancy or from a state of potentiality by this new technological foundation. What is more, they take on an objective dimension: they become embedded, devalued or broadened to the same degree as the existence of these technical structures. In this sense, the technical-material composition is a determinant of the symbolic organisational composition of the worker. The historical interaction of these levels of determination is what gives us the formation of the class-condition.

Thus, it is not by chance that the groups that most contributed to creating a vigorous working-class subjectivity, with the ability to influence politics and the state, were those that were concentrated in large companies, in which these qualities of the material composition of class were fully instituted. Patiño Mines, Llallagua, Oploca, Unificada, Colquiri and Araca are the workplaces where, from very early on, forms of workers’ organisation were built, starting with mutual-relief funds and mutual associations and quickly moving to places of study and territorially-based leagues and federations able to bring together people with different occupations located in the same geographic area. Proletarians, employees, shopkeepers and tailors participate in the same organisation, thereby strengthening its capacity for local social mobilisation, albeit with a greater possibility of the specific interests of the wage-earners becoming diluted amidst the interests of other sectors with more organising experience and a better command of the codes of legitimate language.

The passage to the union-form in these large mining centres was not an instant process. The unions of miscellaneous trades came first, emerging in the 1920s and continuing the tradition of territorial groupings. Eventually, following the Chaco War, workplace-unions, which became the dominant form of labour-organisation in mining, were created.

Starting from these organisational nodes such as unions and cultural associations, over time a network came to be organised, giving way to the most important corporatist class-identity in Bolivian society, first based around the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (‘Union-Federation of Bolivian Mineworkers’, FSTMB), and later, after the April 1952 Revolution, with the Central Obrera Boliviana (‘Bolivian Workers’ Central’, COB). Prior to 1952, supported by the institutional form of the union as a site of accumulation of class-experience, an entire worker-narrative had been elaborated, founded on the drama of the massacres of barechested workers, women wrapped in tricolour flags and a self-made perception maintaining that the country existed thanks to their work. The other mental frameworks with which the workers imagined their future were founded upon the absolute certainty that so much suffering would earn their collective redemption. This is why, since the 1952 Revolution, mineworkers have seen themselves as a collective body of torment, bearers of an attainable future that, precisely because it is viable, can be worth taking risks for and fighting for in a sustained manner. There is a specific productive subjectivity13 that links occupational and street-sacrifices to a future historical reward. These organisational, material and symbolic qualities of the mining proletariat began in the 1930s, were at their peak in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and declined in the 1980s. They met their end in a non-heroic and largely miserable fashion in the late 1980s, with the dismantling of the large mining centres, the progressive death of the skilled worker, and the development of a new type of working-class condition in the mines.

An entire worker-narrative had been elaborated, founded on the drama of the massacres of barechested workers, women wrapped in tricolour flags and a self-made perception maintaining that the country existed thanks to their work.

The mineworker with flexible industrial specialisation

The end of the tin-based cycle in Bolivian mining has also been the end of state-run mining, of the major mineworkers’ fortresses, of unions as mediators between state and society and as a mechanism for social mobility. It has also been the end of the industrial skilled worker and of the class-identity constructed around all these technical, political and cultural elements. Nothing, to date, has completely replaced the old mineworkers’ condition; in small and isolated companies, some of the characteristics of the old form of organising the labour-process subsist, centred around the master drill-runner; in others, there has been a return to even older forms of manual and handicraft-work; but in the companies that started to fulfil what is increasingly the most important role in mine-production – the so-called mid-size mining operation – a type of worker is emerging that is technically and organisationally posed as the replacement of the worker that prevailed for sixty years.

This new worker is no longer assembled in large groups. Today, no company has more than seven hundred workers, and the internal systems for the division of labour, rotation, promotion and technical qualifications have been restructured. The new worker, unlike the old one, who performed a trade and held a position commensurate with a practical apprenticeship in a rigidly established order of rank, is today multifunctional, trained to perform various functions depending on the company’s needs, among which the role of the drill-runner either does not exist, as in open-pit operations (Inti Raymi), or is just one more interchangeable procedure that can be performed following brief courses in the manipulation of levers and buttons that steer the drilling (Mina Bolívar). For the rest, this activity no longer holds the supreme rank that it did previously, and it is no longer the peak of accumulated knowledge, transmitted through a hierarchy of trades that guaranteed a continuity of class-knowledge between older and younger workers.

Given the increasing importance of efficiency in assigned tasks, competence in quickly-learnt procedures and the capacity to adapt to innovations determined by management, the entire worker’s career of promotions, privileges and benefits based on seniority and, to a certain extent, the workers’ self-control of their histories within the company, begins to be replaced with a competition for benefits and credits based on training courses (‘certificates’), rules about obedience, productivity and multifunctionality, and other demands established by management.

Thus, a type of worker is being born with a very different material foundation from that which characterised the worker in Patiño or the Corporación Minera de Bolivia (‘Mining Corporation of Bolivia’, COMIBOL). Given that the productive knowledge that is indispensable for ensuring mechanical productivity lies less with the individual worker than with automated systems and investments in fixed capital, the open-ended contract is no longer an indispensable requirement; nor is maintaining staff in relation to their seniority, a process previously used to hierarchically organise the accumulation of skills and their productive importance in the company.

In other cases, labour multifunctionality, which destroys the previous system of promotion and discipline, goes hand-in-hand not so much with technological renewal, as with restructuring the organisation of the labour-process and the form of payment (Caracoles, Sayaquira, Avicaya, Amayapampa, and so on). Instead of the previous division of labour, clearly defined in internal sections and ranks, the new occupational architecture has become elastic, forcing workers to perform, according to their own pay-aspirations, the trade of ‘drill-runner’, ‘assistant’, ‘rail-worker’, ‘timberman’, etc., and even going into the refinery to process the ore. The payment-system, too, has changed, from one based on the role performed or the volume of rock extracted, to payment based on the quantity of processed and refined ore delivered to the company. This shift has, in several companies, created a multifunctionality still rooted in the old technological base, though with the same diluting effects on old labour-organisation and subjectivity.

Objectively, all the conditions of material possibility that sustained the organisational practices of cohesion, discipline, autonomous leadership and self-made perceptions of the future have been overturned by new ones, which have not yet been fully elaborated, creating new structures of class-identity. The material structures that sustained the mining proletariat’s old mental, political and cultural structures have been reconfigured, and the new mental and self-unifying structures, consequences of the incorporation of the new material structures, have not yet been consolidated. They are very weak and would seem to need a long process of consolidation before taking shape in a new class-identity with political effects for the state.

Objectively, all the conditions of material possibility that sustained the organisational practices of cohesion, discipline, autonomous leadership and self-made perceptions of the future have been overturned by new ones.

Thus emerges this shocked, uncertain and ambiguous spirit that characterises the collective actions that, from time to time, burst forth from young workers who are starting to generate and to experience the new class-condition of the mining proletariat.

  1. A practice of native workers who, from Saturday to Sunday, would extract and collect minerals without any type of control (editor’s note). In this respect, see Gustavo Rodríguez. 1986. ‘Vida, trabajo y luchas sociales de los trabajadores mineros de la serranía Corocoro-Chacarilla’. Historia y Cultura, 9

  2. From the Quechua pallay (‘to collect’). During the colonial period and in the early days of the republic, the term referred to the people who sorted through the ore. Over time, this activity became feminised, and today the term refers to the women who sort through and gather ore from the waste produced by mining (editor’s note). 

  3. Antonio Mitre. 1981. Los patriarcas de la plata. Lima: Insituto de Estudios Peruano. 

  4. Karl Marx. [1864]. 1990. “Results of the Immediate Process of Production”. Appendix to Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London. Penguin. Available online 

  5. Marx. “Results of the Immediate Process of Production”. 

  6. Mitre. Los patriarcas de la plata

  7. Peter Bakewell. 1984. Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian labour in Potosi. Albuquerque. University of New Mexico Press. 

  8. On the skilled worker in industry, see Benjamin Coriat. 1979. L’atelier Et La Chronomètre: Essai Sur Le Taylorisme, Le Fordisme Et La Production De Masse. Paris: Christian Bourgeois. 

  9. Chewing coca or, more precisely, sucking on a ball of coca-leaves mixed with saliva, kept in the mouth as a mild and non-addictive stimulant (editor’s note). 

  10. Offerings to the Earth when sowing commences (editor’s note). 

  11. René Zavaleta. 1985. Las masas en noviembre. La Paz. Juventud. 

  12. Manuel Contreas. 1994. Tecnología moderna en los Andes. La Paz. ILDIS. 

  13. Antonio Negri. 1992. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. Translated by Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan and Maurizio Viano. London. Pluto Press. 1992. Available online 


Álvaro García Linera

Álvaro García Linera was vice president of Bolivia between 2006 and 2019. He has written extensively on the Indigenous question, class, and communal politics in Bolivia, including Horizontes y y límites del estado y el poder (2005) and Forma valor y forma communidad (1995, 2010).