The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Argentina:
The Unions Going in Circles

Nov 9, 1996

On October 8, an estimated 70,000 workers filled the main square in Argentina's capitol, Buenos Aires, as part of a nationwide 36-hour general strike. An estimated 60% of the workforce in Buenos Aires participated in the strike. The rate of participation was even higher in many of Argentina's other industrial centers – Córdoba, Santa Fe, Entre Ríos, Catamarca, Tucumán, Salta, Jujuy, Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Formosa, Misiones, Neuquén and Tierra del Fuego – where the strike was often 100% effective. Small shopkeepers also joined the strike, with 90% of Buenos Aires's stores closed.

This was a strike against the policies of President Carlos Saul Menem. Menem boasts of reducing inflation from its stratospheric levels. But under his administration, wages, pensions and benefits continue to plunge to below poverty levels and unemployment levels are up to 17% (according to the government) or 22% (according to the unions). Increasingly, workers are being forced to take jobs under the table, and work as day laborers.

If the Menem government gets its way, these conditions will continue to worsen. Menem is now proposing to give companies greater rights to lay off workers without having to make the severance payments that are now specified by law. Of course, Menem insists that this is necessary in order to encourage companies to hire people. The government has also announced plans to cut its contributions to health, vacation and pension funds. The government had already allowed private companies to cut their benefit payments.

The Menem government is also attacking the large union apparatuses. Menem is proposing "reforms" that would reduce the unions' rights to bargain and represent the work force, as well as cut the union apparatus's control of benefit funds.

The strike of October 8 was the second general strike called by the main union confederation, the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), in two months. The unions say they will follow up with a 48-hour general strike in the near future.

Peronist vs. Peronist

This confrontation is taking place between supposed political allies. The CGT forms the base of Menem's Judicialist Party (JP), which was created by the former dictator Juan Peron almost 50 years ago. The CGT not only loyally supported Menem in his 1989 election campaigns, but in his 1995 re-election campaign as well, despite the fact that from the very beginning of his administration he had carried out attack after attack against the workers... and the union apparatuses, themselves.

Clearly, the unions face mounting problems. Membership, which attained a high of almost 50% of the work force in the late 1940s, was at 31% when Menem took office, and has fallen steeply since then. In only a few short years, a key industrial union, the metallurgists, has had big losses in membership.

This has led to cracks and splits inside the CGT, which were often encouraged by Menem. Menem courted one section of the union apparatus. He appointed Luis Barrionueva, the head of the food workers union, to oversee the benefits in health, recreation and worker compensation fund, traditionally a bottomless well of slush money and graft. Menem later fired him, but only because he was foolish enough to boast on radio that he used his control of the funds to enrich himself. ("No Argentine makes money by working," Barrionueva said.) Menem also appointed Jorge Triaca of the plastic workers union, first as labor minister and then as the director of the giant state steel company, SOMISA, in order to prepare for its privatization. Triaca too was dumped after charges of corruption were brought up against him.

In the first years of the Menem government, the main CGT leadership went along with most government policies, agreeing to pacts that allowed companies to cut the work force, wages and benefits.

At the same time, some union apparatuses representing workers hit especially hard by Menem's austerity policies, such as public service workers and teachers, broke away from the CGT and formed the CTA (Congress of Argentine Workers). The transport sector formed the dissident MTA (Movement of Argentine Workers) which still formally continued to adhere to the CGT. However the demonstrations and strikes that these opposition union groups organized were weak and often divided, leading the press to declare that the years under Menem, the Peronist president, were surprisingly free of labor strife.

However, the CGT apparatus could not continue to go along with the increasing attacks by the Menem government forever – that is, not if it was not to become irrelevant. On August 8 of this year, it called the first general strike, a success supported by all the different factions of the union. This didn't mean it was ready to organize a much bigger confrontation with the regime. It was ready, however, to attack those militants who were proposing broader actions. At the CGT's August 20 meeting to decide the details of the second general strike, thugs shot at militants of the MTA to stop them from entering the meeting. Seven men were injured, two seriously. In fact, this attack backfired on the old leadership. Shortly after the attack, the head of the CGT, Martinez, was forced to resign in favor of Rudolfo Daer, the dissident who leads the MTA and transport workers. Thus, the CGT was united under a new, more confrontational leadership.

But this change in leadership and strategy did not at all mean a change in the basic politics of the CGT. At the huge demonstration on October 8 in Buenos Aires, strung above Daer at the speakers' platform was a giant banner, decorated with the images of Juan Peron and his wife, Eva, symbols not only of the unions' nationalism and anti-communism, but also of their ties to Peronism, and through that to a policy which seeks a basic and permanent collaboration with the Argentinian ruling class despite the constant attacks this ruling class carries out against the working class ... and its organizations.

The Birth of the Argentine Unions

The major Argentine unions were born out of the great struggles of the Argentine working class in the 1930s and 40s.

Argentine industry – including meatpacking, tanning, railroads and construction – was based on the processing and transport of agricultural products – especially grains and meat for export. These industries had grown relatively quickly, feeding Europe, especially Great Britain.

Most of the working class had migrated from Italy and Spain, and with them came the political traditions of the time. In the early part of the century, the anarchists had tried to organize unions, but they had been crushed. In the 1920s, the socialists and syndicalist had succeeded in organizing moderate and defensive unions of the more skilled workers. In 1930, they brought these unions together into the new CGT.

The big hurdle for the union movement were the meatpacking plants, the heart of the Argentine economy. These plants, owned by British and American companies like Armour and Swift, located in Buenos Aires and its outlying suburbs, were strictly non-union. The last big organizing drive in 1917-1918 had ended in a massacre, known as the Tragic Week (Semana Tragica).

The task of trying once again to organize them fell to the militants of the Communist Party. In 1932, Communist militants led a strike that shut down the largest and most modern meatpacking plant in the world, owned by a British company. The strike briefly spread to other plants in the area, but it collapsed after two weeks, and with its collapse, the organizing drive foundered.

This defeat did not stop CP unions from organizing in other industries. In December 1935, the CP directed a major strike in the construction industry of Buenos Aires. Supported by a general strike that paralyzed the city for two days in early 1936, the strike succeeded. The Communists, like their counterparts in the CIO in the U.S., adopted a policy of aggressive industrial unionism. They concentrated their efforts on food, textile and metallurgy workers. Communists organized and led virtually all the strikes in Argentina between 1936 and 1943. The results of their organizing efforts were impressive. Overall membership in labor organizations grew by about 18% between 1936 and 1941; among industrial workers, union membership almost doubled. Communist-led organizations accounted for nearly all of this advance. Despite harsh conditions, government repression and rising unemployment, between 1939 and 1942 the number of strikes and strikers doubled.

These victories in turn aided efforts to unionize the meatpacking plants. With the outbreak of World War II, managers of meat packing plants wanted to avoid any work stoppages, as demand and profits from Allied contracts took off. Suddenly they became more conciliatory toward labor, and began to accede to some demands of unions led by the Communist Party.

In June 1943, the military carried out a coup obviously aimed at crushing the labor movement. Within days after taking power, the army closed the halls of the Communist-led unions and arrested and jailed the major Communist labor activists. But this repression failed to stop the mobilization of the workers and the ability of the labor organizations to stage massive and costly strikes.

Peronism and the Unions

It was under these conditions that the junta's new labor minister, Colonel Juan Peron, began to emerge. Peron spelled out his intentions in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce on August 25, 1943. Said Peron, "The people themselves have no leaders. And I ask you gentlemen to reflect on the issue of whose hands the mass of Argentine workers were in, and on what would be the future for that mass of workers that in large part found itself in the hands of communists." Peron went on to say that the state faced the possibility of civil war, and the only way to avoid it was for the state to organize the masses and follow a program of "social justice." That meant, not to give the workers too much, which would cause an economic cataclysm, nor too little, which would cause a social cataclysm. State authority could then control the masses "so that once they are in their place no one can escape it, because the state organism has the instrument that by force if necessary can put things in their rightful place and not permit them to get out of hand..." Peron concluded, "It has been said, gentlemen that I am an enemy of capital, but if you look into what I have just said you will find no defender, we would say, more committed than I..." A week later Peron read the same speech to a meeting of delegates from labor unions. He added that if capitalists opposed him, as they were doing, he would not retreat an inch from his social program.

For Peron, the first problem was to eliminate all opposition inside the labor movement. He first targeted the CP unions. Peron first tried bribing the CP unions with money and a luxurious building for their headquarters in exchange for their cooperation with government plans. When they turned Peron down, he unleashed severe repression. The headquarters were raided, the leaders imprisoned, the union funds were transferred to those of small dissident unions. This did not stop the meatworkers struggle. But a violent struggle of many years began between Communists, non-Marxist unionists and Peronists for control of the meatworkers unions.

In that struggle non-Marxist unionists agreed to accept an alliance with Peron, that is, de facto government control. In return, Peron gave them the help of the state machinery to gain control of the unionized workers. This state aid was substantial. For it was the state which, in deciding which union to recognize, granted legal status and therefore conferred on the apparatuses and members important legal and financial benefits. Legal unions qualified for dues checkoff, subsidies for union buildings and government mediation of industrial conflicts. For their members, legal status gave access to social security programs, pensions and severance pay. The government sanctioned strikes and paid the wages of lost days due to strikes. It also compensated laid-off workers.

A new showdown occurred in the meatpacking plants in March 1945. The companies, tired of making concessions to their workers, planned to lay off 17,000 meatworkers, about one-third the total, as a way to bring down their labor costs and get rid of militants. The unions responded with a series of strikes, job actions, legal and illegal that lasted from April to September. Many of these actions were carried out against the efforts of both the anti- communist unionists and the Peronists in the government, who were always trying to coax the workers to go back to work, promising new agreements. When the unions and government failed to deliver, the workers walked out again and again and marched on the government by the thousands. It was through these mobilizations that the workers gained their victory.

Yet it was the alliance of "independent" unionists and Peronists that was set up as the official union. Through that apparatus, the meatworkers won a collective bargaining agreement and legal union recognition for the first time. The state also paid for the days lost in the strike and unemployment insurance for those workers laid off.

The Communist unionists were left out of the arrangement; they continued to face repression. In this way, the alliance of anti-communist unionists and Peronists was able to slowly erode Communist influence.

The bourgeoisie and non-Peronist military blamed Peron for the growing workers' movement and the victorious organizing drives and strikes. So on October 9, the army placed Peron under arrest and forced his resignation. Peron did not resist. But on October 17, meatworkers in Buenos Aires and the suburbs left the plants and converged on the main square. By nightfall, a quarter of a million people were demonstrating, literally shaking the walls of power. Peron was released.

Peron, was elected president the next year. He set out to consolidate his control over the labor movement, granting concessions to the workers who accepted Peronist-controlled unions and repression against those who didn't. The more pliant CGT was gradually "Peronized."

Trade union membership soared from 520,000 in 1946 to 2.3 million in 1951. Wages rose by over 81%. But the economic concessions were only temporary. As long as export prices for Argentine goods rose, the state and corporations could afford these concessions. But by 1949, agriculture in Europe had begun to recover from World War II and demand and market prices for Argentina's agricultural exports turned down. Argentina was shaken by a grave new economic crisis. The government began to institute austerity budgets. Corporations began to go on the offensive. As real wages declined after 1950, the CGT held its members in check, pushing greater productivity and labor discipline for the capitalists.

By 1955, as the economy continued its disastrous decline, the bourgeoisie supported a military coup to remove Peron from power. This time, the working class did not move to defend Peron.

The Golden Age of Peronism – Over Before It Started

For the next two decades a series of short-lived civilian and military governments succeeded each other. Each had to deal with the question of what to do with the avowedly Peronist labor movement. Some tried the forceful elimination of the Peronist union leaders. Others tried negotiation and co-optation.

The first military junta after Peron was led by General Eduardo Lonardi, who sought a deal with the unions to undermine loyalty to Peron. But his inability to quell spreading strikes led to his downfall. The next junta of General Pedro Aramburu tried to take the opposite tack. It carried out a direct assault on trade union rights and the privileges of the bureaucratic leaders, including placing the CGT under direct government control, which is called "intervening." But this only gave an opening for more radical union leaders, including Communists, to fill the vacuum, a real disaster from the point of view of the government.

Aramburu then gave way to a short-lived parliamentary restoration under Arturo Frondizi, which encouraged the old Peronists to return to power in the unions. However, Peronist expectations of smooth sailing were dashed soon enough when Frondizi imposed an across-the-board wage freeze and ordered a state of siege to break a strike of oil workers. In response, strikes rapidly increased. The Frondizi government then "intervened" a number of unions. Frondizi then tried to reach secret agreements with individual Peronist union leaders, using as bait the end of intervention in particular unions and the restoration to union control of the long-intervened CGT. A CGT normalizing congress was put off until after Frondizi's ouster by the military.

Going into the 1960s, divisions began to appear inside the CGT based on the different unions' degree of collaboration with the regime. Some called for "participation", that is, support for all government policies; others called for selective "participation", based on the issues; a much smaller number of unions, headed by Social-Christians, refused any sort of collaboration. Several of these intransigent unions were "intervened."

Once again, by 1968 the economy was in a crisis, with levels of real income of all workers depressed and growing unemployment in selective industries. With growing unrest in the workforce, the CGT structure split. However, while the union structures bickered, in Cordoba, a relatively new center of auto manufacturing, street rioting broke out. This was followed by outbreaks in Rosario, when railroad workers resisted restructuring of rail yards. The government encouraged the two rival CGT's to unite once again in order to control the rank-and-file.

Three military juntas succeeded each other over the next five years. None were able to quell the unrest among workers, as well as among students. Eventually, the way was opened for a united CGT to call for a return for Peron. Peron's electoral victory in March 1973 found a labor movement as heavily pro-Peron as in 1955, despite all the efforts of the various anti-Peronist regimes to break the alliance.

1976-82: Military Dictatorship

Peron died a year after he took power. He was succeeded for a short period by his last wife, Isabel, who was used as a figurehead for the military. The Perons' rule served only

as a prelude to a new, more brutal military dictatorship, whose goal was to cleanse the country of any opposition.

The union bureaucracy willingly accepted the military coup. In fact, this reaction was no different than its initial stance to any new government: the unions were ready to cooperate. But besides that, the union bureaucracy had particular reasons for supporting the military dictatorship. In the period between 1969 and 1976 it had been threatened by a broad popular movement. The Peronist Youth challenged its political positions; rank-and-file tendencies, called clasismo, challenged its hegemony within the labor unions; and Marxist ideas were once again gaining currency among the young. The union bureaucracy was perfectly willing to let the military dictatorship wipe these problems away.

So the union leadership was ready to work with the generals. The problem was that the generals were not ready to work with the union leaders. Instead, the generals took over the structure of the CGT, along with the separate unions. Several of the main leaders were jailed. The general secretary of the CGT was sent into exile. In fact, the new regime acted as if labor unions had ceased to exist.

This was one of the bloodiest periods in Argentine history. In the military's "Dirty War," it murdered and "disappeared" an estimated 30,000 people. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned and tortured. About half of these were estimated to be workers, mainly blue collar.

At the same time, the economic situation continued to deteriorate. In real terms, wages dropped about 50% between 1976 and 1980. In addition there was a high rate of hidden underemployment and unemployment. Increasing numbers of Argentine workers could find only casual labor.

This led to strikes right from the beginning. The Light and Power of Buenos Aires Union led a series of long and militant conflicts throughout 1976 and early 1977. In response, the regime's death squads killed several leaders of the union. But this did not end the strike conflicts.

Instead, the year 1977 was characterized by sabotage and slow-downs. In November, a strike wave paralyzed some twenty-two sectors of the economy. The strikes were well organized from the base up. And the strikers won wage increases. Terror in its crudest conception was being overcome.

These strikes began to weaken the military government, while strengthening the hand of the labor leadership. The junta began to recognize the usefulness of the bureaucracy to put a brake on labor struggles. As their old functions as bargaining agents were returned to them, the labor leaders willingly did the military's bidding inside the labor movement.

But the labor leaders still felt the pressure of the rank-and-file. One section of the unions settled on a symbolic protest, calling for a National Day of Protest on April 27, 1979, basically a general strike protesting the economic policies of the regime. Between 30 and 40% of the work force responded, a huge success. It put pressure on the military junta to find the way to enlist the aid of the union bureaucracy once again. Within the year, the junta had returned control of the CGT to union officials.

Two years later, on March 30, 1982, the CGT called for another general strike, declaring that the junta "is in disintegration and retreat." But only 3 days after the CGT initiated the call, the military played its last card, by invading the Malvinas, beginning the Falklands War with Thatcher's Great Britain, as a way to divert attention from its own collapse. The CGT did a complete turn around. It retracted its call for a general strike and instead supported the war. The same leaders then found themselves traveling all over the world speaking in support of the regime. Few union leaders maintained their opposition to the regime during this time. Once again, the union leaders had demonstrated their underlying subservience – and value – to the Argentine bourgeois government, whatever that government was.

Under Electoral Rule

The military defeat in the Malvinas signified the end of military rule. Politicians and trade union leaders launched themselves into a feverish activity to try to control the coming elections. Not only did trade union leaders try to determine the way the elections would be held, they once again campaigned for the Peronist Judicialist Party.

By 1982, economic conditions took another turn for the worse. Argentina succumbed to the same debt crisis as the rest of Latin America. Foreign debt soared to 45 billion dollars, or 80% of GDP. Much of this was actually private debt of Argentine corporations, a debt which the government took over. The government responded by printing up money. In 1983, inflation reached 350%. In 1984, it doubled. By 1985, inflation attained 1000%. By the late 1980s, there were food riots in the heart of one of the richest agricultural exporters in the world.

This economic crisis was managed by the new electoral government of Raul Alfonsin, the leader of the Civic Union of Radicals, the electoral rival to the Peronist Judicialist Party. Alfonsin had won the election in 1983 by blaming the CGT unions for making unreasonable wage demands that had set off the inflation. Once in office he tried to enact labor reform legislation that would dilute the political strength of the CGT, and their control over various social funds. He also instituted wage and benefit controls.

The CGT led 13 one-day general strikes in the six years of Alfonsin rule, strikes to defend the union apparatus from the attempt to enact "labor reform". But these strikes did not defend the workers from economic attacks, although they added to the sense of social unrest in the country. Alfonsin's rule collapsed under the weight of deepening economic crisis and bankruptcy, military opposition (supported by the CGT) to even token punishment for the murders of the "Dirty War," and a bourgeoisie in disarray. This set the stage for the 1989 election of Menem, marking the return to power of the Peronist Judicialist Party, the party supported by the CGT.

The Position of the Unions

The last seven years of Menem rule is something of a repeat of history. Like his predecessors, Menem repaid the CGT for its support in the election in the usual way: by immediately attacking both the working class and the CGT apparatus. During those seven years, the bureaucrats have carefully avoided initiating or proposing to the workers a real fight to defend the workers' interests. Instead, they have settled for a few symbolic gestures, a few short general strikes aimed at only safeguarding the bureaucracy's interests, its place in society.

The union apparatus depends, to a certain extent, on its working class base for its place in society – without it, the bourgeoisie would have had no reason ever to recognize it. It also cannot let that base go very far, or the bourgeoisie will try to crush not only the working class, but also the union apparatus. Thus the apparatus is always jockeying to defend its own position.

Over the last half century of existence, the Peronist union apparatus has always been tied to the state and the ruling class. Even when carrying out struggles, it's always been careful to do nothing to endanger those ties.