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With Claudio Urrutia


Unilever Federation joins IUF




On occasion of a Study Circle organized by the IUF’s Latin American Regional Office, Rel-UITA, under the title “Trade Unions and Crisis,” held in Santiago, Chile, on May 6, 7 and 8 with the participation of workers from several transnational corporations, Sirel spoke with Claudio Urrutia, president of the National Federation of Trade Unions of Unilever Chile (FENASIUN).


-How is the relationship with the company?

-We have an open and smooth relationship, which is not without its problems, but in general there is a willingness on the part of the company to dialog with the union. Still, we don’t lose sight of the fact that Unilever is constantly generating strategies to implement a certain logic and include even negotiations with trade unions within that logic. What we’re demanding is for Unilever’s general manager, Silvio Savoldi, to be present whenever the bargaining table meets.


-How many unions are there in Unilever Chile?

-Eight unions -representing a total of 900 workers-, and of these eight unions, four are federated.


-How many workers does the Federation represent?

-A little over 600 out of a total of 1,300 workers employed by Unilever in Chile under permanent contract schemes, that is, not counting outsourced labor.


-What was the last Collective Bargaining Agreement signed with the company?

-The last agreement was signed in 2007, for a three-year term. When we negotiated that agreement we applied what we call ‘dynamic collective bargaining.’ We established criteria based on economic studies, hired specialists in economics and made a diagnosis that enabled us to draw up hypotheses for possible outcomes. We found that radicalizing collective bargaining agreements based on single growths for a year or two is not the most appropriate approach for us today. We then presented a proposal based on the company’s own regulations and its wage and benefit structures. That has given collective bargaining a certain dynamics that I suspect Unilever wants to abandon.


-How are the transnational corporation’s plants distributed in Chile?

-Right now it has five plants, all in Santiago, but they’re going to cut them down to two. There’s one in Carrascal, which is a liquid and powdered detergent plant, and there are currently two food product plants, one of which is located in San Joaquín -in the metropolitan area- and will be relocated to Panamericana Norte to form part of a single multipurpose plant that will concentrate manufacturing and packaging activities for food products.


-How are workers living this process of centralization that Unilever is carrying out, combining five plants into two?

-We need to clarify that this has nothing to do with plant closures. What’s happening here is nothing like what’s happening in Europe, which is going through what’s been termed ‘corporate delocalization,’ a process whereby companies take their investments from one country to another or from one region to another. In our case, Unilever purchased property in a locality of Santiago and is planning to unify two food production plants there: the oil and margarine production plants and the Lipton tea plant. This is going to be done within the structure of what Unilever calls ‘clusters’; the San Miguel plant -which currently employs some 600 workers- will become part of a multipurpose plant, a ‘world-class’ plant.


-How would you define this form of organization in multipurpose plants?

-According to the logic of Unilever, it entails turning a basic plant that is divided into different levels of efficiency into a multipurpose plant that enables different levels of investment. The company claims that with these restructures it is opening up opportunities for growth in the region, and that that will mean more jobs.


-How many unions are there in the Lipton plant?

-That plant has two unions, one is the specialists’ union, which is a member of the Federation and is formed by 200 workers out of a total of 400.


-How long do you think this process could take?

-This process should be completed by the end of the year. It’s a very different process than the one that in 2003 led to the closing of the Carrascal plant, the toothpaste factory. In that case there was no prior warning, Unilever imposed some 12 conditions that had to do with layoffs, retirements and voluntary incentives leave, a 20% wage reduction for all remaining employees and loss of benefits.


Now, Lilian Hersing, Assistant Human Resource Manager, who has a harsh antiunion policy, has created management teams to organize the relocation. These teams are called ‘participatory teams’ and are formed by a technical specialist, human resource officers, and workers, but with the excuse that they’re technical teams, they don’t include union leaders. We disagree with this, because we see it as a measure to weaken the union, which is why we’re voicing our opposition. Moreover, we consider it a serious problem that Unilever ha not been clear with respect to the number of people it will be relocating. We want to know how many people are going to be transferred.


-What actions are you planning to take?

-We have an agreement with the company aimed at minimizing as much as possible the social impact. The Federation implemented a process for the relocation of the San Miguel plant, in which Technical Management, Human Resource Management and union leaders from the base organization must all somehow be involved in the process of change. It also entails guaranteeing the observance of the collective bargaining agreement and the minimization of layoffs.


Unilever for its part proposes a voluntary retirement plan that applies to any workers who are willing to leave the company. In any case, the conditions under which such retirements will be implemented are being negotiated with the union.


-How did the Federation decide to join the IUF?

-We had been considering the possibility of an affiliation to an international organization for a long time, and that is how the idea of joining the IUF came up. The reason we chose the IUF is that it is one of the most important international workers’ organizations in the world and it has the greatest capacity for coordinating the actions of the trade unions of transnational corporations. Most of the trade unions of Unilever workers worldwide are IUF affiliates.


And what’s more, this organization is not only concerned with labor issues, it’s also involved in a range of other issues, including the defense of human rights, the environment, and gender issues. That was decisive in the unions voting in favor of joining the IUF as our international reference point, and now union leaders and workers together are going to have to learn to work at that level.


Just as Unilever implements a regional corporate policy, we, as workers, must see the advantage of forming a Latin American Federation of Unilever Workers as an instrument that will enable us to set floors for salaries at the regional level, and in that way, together with the IUF, become involved in a more global labor movement.



From Montevideo, Daniel García


May 22, 2009



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