A Restaurant Bill and a Libel Suit

A check for 600,000 Chilean pesos, or about $1,300, to pay for lunch for Chilean labor leaders.

A $1,300 bill at an upscale restaurant might not be too unreasonable if you’re buying lunch for 36 people, but spend the same amount on only six diners and you’ve got some explaining to do –especially if you’re a trade unionist trying to get the government to raise the minimum wage. The president of Chile’s largest labor organization has announced a lawsuit against the online newspaper El Mostrador for a story that he and five other union leaders treated themselves to a lavish lunch at a restaurant in Valparaiso  (http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2011/06/10/la-nueva-forma-de-protestar-el-festin-de-arturo-martinez-el-21-de-mayo/) during  antigovernment protests on May 21.

Arturo Martinez, head of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), has said there were 36 trade unionists at the lunch, not six as the newspaper reported and charged that the story was an attempt to undermine the union’s demands for an increase in the minimum wage.

The CUT wants the current minimum monthly wage of about $368 raised to $406, or about 10.5 percent, while the Pinera government has offered an increase of about five percent. The trade union joined several student, environmental and civic organizations on May 21 for a protest during Pinera’s speech before the Chilean congress in Valparaiso. Some fringe groups also joined in; witnesses reported seeing gangs of youths wearing masks throwing bottles at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.  There were 70 arrests and 22 people were injured.

But Martinez and other CUT leaders left the scene early to have lunch at the Zamba y Canuta restaurant, located in the city’s redeveloped port area.  El Mostrador published a picture of a check for 600,000 pesos–or about $1,300–written by another CUT leader, as well as a picture of the restaurant bill. One assumes the paper had some credible sources among the restaurant’s staff, but before publishing the article the paper made several attempts to contact Martinez by phone and by text, but were told he was not available. In response, the CUT issued a statement acknowledging the cost of the lunch, but said it had been for 36 people, not six as the newspaper reported.  El Mostrador then published another article quoting a witness who said he saw Martinez arrive at the restaurant with four or five other people. The witness, Alan Espinoza, is vicepresident of the Chilean Socialist Party’s youth wing. He said he and a companion had gone to the restaurant, located on the upper floor of a restored building and saw that all the tables were empty. Looking over the menu, they found prices were too high for their budget, and as they were leaving saw Martinez and his small group enter.  Espinoza and his companion took the elevator to the ground floor and waited at the building’s entrance for approximately ten minutes while a group of marchers passed. He said he saw no one else enter the building during this time.http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2011/06/13/vi-a-arturo-martinez-y-unas-cuatro-a-cinco-personas-mas-en-el-restaurante-zambacanuta/

The owner of Zamba y Canuta–who also happens to be a Socialist Party member–has come forth to say that Martinez had lunch with 35 other Chilean trade unionists that day. Meanwhile, the Chilean labor ministry wants to investigate whether the lunch in question was paid for out of union funds.

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