Argentina’s Unique Union Federation

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Guillermo Almeyra

THE UNIONS OF Argentina are divided into four federations. The biggest are the two versions of the Confederación General de Trabajo (CGT, General Labor Federation), the historical peronist federation. [“Peronist” refers to unions that were historically loyal to the longtime charismatic, dictatorial ruler Juan Peron–ed.]

The first has pursued a conciliatory line with the successive government administrations and is formed by the big industrial unions, which have become very weak and bureaucratized. The second, called “Combativa” (the Combative one), has followed a right-wing peronista line by means of pressure group politics. Its strength derives mainly from the truckers’ union which, as in every country, occupies a strategic position in the “just in time” economy.

The third federation, Corriente Clasista y Combativa (CCC, Combative and Class-Based Current), organizes small unions in the interior of the Republic (it is led by the head of the Municipales of the Province of Jujuy, on the border with Bolivia) and groups of the unemployed; it is the smallest federation.

Employed and Unemployed

The last federation and third in strength, is the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA, Federation of Argentinian Workers). The heir of the peronista unionist left, CTA’s main strength comes from the big public sector unions such as the teachers’ Confederación de los Trabajadores de la Educación de la República Argentina (CTERA, Federation of the Education Workers of the Republic of Argentina), and the sanitation workers’ Asociación de Trabajadores del Estado (ATE, Association of Public Servants, one of whose members, Victor De Genaro, is the leader of the federation).

There are many reasons why the CTA, the focus of this article, is such a peculiar federation in spite of some of its bureaucratic methods and its unfavorable disposition towards the socialist left.

In the first place, its members include employed workers as well as the unemployed who used to work in the same sector, the retirees and pensioners. In other words, it unites those who are still working with those scattered around in society, or working in other jobs, who are willing to abide by the union’s discipline.

The CTA’s unemployed members are not only organized in the unions to which they formerly belonged; they are also organized in neighborhood groups or in groups of unemployed workers of various trades, with their own delegates, bylaws, their own discipline and political and social activities.

These groups are reminiscent of the “Sindicatos de Oficios Varios” (multitrade unions) of the beginning of the 19th century in Argentina, when the newly arrived craftsmen and workers with diverse skills and different national origin and language got together for ideological, political and social reasons.

The White Tent

Some of the CTA’s unions, such as CTERA, have developed deep roots in society, not only because of the methods they employ to carry out their struggle, but also because of their creative organizing.

Thus, for example, the White Tent (Carpa Blanca) that CTERA planted for months in front of the National Congress became an urban focus of political agitation, with hunger strikes, conferences, political and cultural seminars, etc.

The best of the country’s intellectuals passed through that immense tent, which looked like the headquarters of an alternative legislature — except for the fact that this was a popular one — opposite to the discredited National Congress, and became part of the capital’s political and social landscape.

The other unions and the general public came to show their solidarity with a struggle that, beyond protecting the teachers’ rights and wages, was out to defend public education as a lay and free institution, the educational budget and other issues of profound concern to the Argentinian people.

In order to grasp the importance of that struggle one must realize that, in Argentina, the teachers have been historically held in high regard for their dedication to teach in chronically difficult conditions, in the most faraway places within a national territory of almost three million square kilometers.

The country is inhabited by fewer than 37 million people, half of whom are concentrated in the suburban neighborhoods of the capital and two other cities.

Teachers, Students and Parents

In addition to the White Tent — which also became a pilgrimage center for politicians and candidates for public office of the opposition parties, who did not want to be seen as enemies of public education — CTERA kept inventing new ways to develop ties with the population with every new movement that developed.

Thus, for example, the teachers realized that many children were not able to attend school because they did not have shoes or because they had to help their unemployed parents to pick up crates and cardboard to have something to sell.

They also realized that the low performance of the children who came to school was due to their lack of money for transportation, which forced them to walk long distances to get to school.

They became aware that these students arrived in school tired and often without having had breakfast, or were undernourished because of lack of food or the low nutrition value of the food available to them.

Part of the educators’ work became then to get acquainted with the lives of their students and their families and to learn the specific problems that affected each child. It was thus that they started to work with the parents, helping them to get organized, to obtain resources.

They also opened school cafeterias, with popular donations and donations from small merchants so that the children could eat, and took charge of dealing with the existing health problems.

This is how the students’ homes became part of the union’s realm of activity. While this involved social work and the delivery of services, it had an important political impact because of the teachers’ daily explanations, in each of their students’ homes, of how and why hunger existed in a country which, according to the FAO, had the capacity to feed over 800 million people and produced each year over two thousand tons of cereal per person.

The teachers provided a basic description of how the national budget was being spent, and an explanation that there was no money available for education because of the loss of funds caused by the non-payment of taxes by the big corporations and stealing by corrupt public officers. At the same time, they justified the demands of the teachers’ struggle.

In this way, the union vindicated the role of the unions in general (the unions had lost a lot of prestige due to the high level of bureaucratization of the CGT and the corruption of its leaders) and also helped to organize the unattached workers and to develop ideas and hope.

Contradictions of Subsidies

The CTA has also organized the unemployed through the struggle to develop plans to create new jobs. The government was forced to provide a minimal subsidy for public construction employees similar to the plan enforced in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The subsidy is equivalent to less than the minimal income above the poverty level. For those who have nothing, this represents the possibility of eating, poorly and only once per day, instead of dying of hunger.

By receiving thousands of subsidies in exchange for performing public work, the union has created the conditions for the emergence of clientelism, where those getting the subsidies become beholden to the union leaders for being able to feed themselves.

At the same time, however, it also allows demoralized people with no future prospects to struggle for the creation of a real national program for jobs, to discuss how the program could be created and where the necessary funds could be obtained.

It also provides a context in which to discuss why there is unemployment and misery in a country where labor supply had always been scarce and real salaries high; the reason for the layoffs throughout a national industrial sector unable to compete with imported goods because of the official monetary policy; and why the country is being deindustrialized while, at the same time, rural property is becoming concentrated in a few hands (such as in the case of George Soros who owns 80,000 hectares of excellent land, or Jane Fonda who owns 350,000 in Patagonia).

Thus the organization of movements of the unemployed has prolonged the union activity of those who used to have a job, of former militants and union leaders, and has prevented the loss of that rich accumulation of political and social experience and the descent of thousands of people into total hopelessness.

Program to Resist NAFTA/FTAA

The CTA also has developed a national political and social program that includes, for example, stopping the payment of the unbearable national debt, reinforcing Mercosur [the trade alliance of Southern Cone states–ed.] and opposing the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

FTAA is a version of NAFTA made worse by the total submission of the Latin American countries to the big transnational American corporations, and the resulting fall of their already low salaries and living conditions and the destruction of their civil and union conquests.

It is no accident that Washington’s efforts to impose FTAA are being preceded by attempts by the International Monetary Fund (the State Department’s and the Treasury’s hand abroad) to impose the so-called policy of union flexibility in the shape of the brutal and anti-union modifications of the federal laws of employment (Leyes Federales del Trabajo).

From this standpoint, by combining its union activity with its political proposals, the CTA has become a popular axis around which to develop an alternative to the policies of international financial capital, and its local officers and members such as the corrupt Argentinian rulers who, as exemplary followers of Washington’s policies, have brought havoc to their country.

The CTA has reinforced its political role in other ways. For some time, the CTA’s leadership has been part of the center-left opposition front and has been promoting mobilizations. The CTA has already carried out three general strikes that were followed and supported by the popular assemblies of the neighborhoods in the big cities and by the piqueteros (the organized unemployed who block streets and national roads).

It also organized a Consulta Popular (National Consultation) with the Frente Nacional Contra la Pobreza (National Front Against Poverty) against hunger and unemployment shortly prior to the popular explosions at the end of December 2001 that overthrew two presidents successively. In this Consulta, carried out with extremely few resources and in the face of a silent media intent on sabotaging it, three million persons (approximately ten percent of the population) cast their votes.

A Social Electoral Front

Recently, the CTA formed a social electoral front with the Agrupación
por una República de Iguales (ARI, Assembly for a Republic of Equals) made up by several socialist parties and presided by the social-christian deputy Elisa Carrio, and with Autoderminación y Libertad (Self-Determination and Freedom), presided by Luis Zamora, a congressman of Trotskyist origin and a political prisoner during the dictatorship.

This alliance is seeking to present a social movement candidacy in opposition to peronismo at the next presidential elections in March 2003. Above all the alliance is trying to push, through popular mobilizations, for the elections for provincial governor, local legislatures, the chamber of deputies and the senate, to democratize the country from the bottom up and to get rid of the corrupt and anti-democratic people who sank it.

In particular, it is also trying to call, with or without Parliament’s consent, for a Constituent Assembly to decide the kind of country the citizens want to have and how to achieve it.

Thus the CTA is not tailing any party to gain institutional influence. Instead, it is seeking to reform those institutions by means of democratic action based on popular mobilization.

That is why, along with its center left allies, it organized in many cities a national general mobilization on August 30. This mobilization was particularly successful in Buenos Aires where 80,000 people demonstrated. This will be followed by several general strikes planned for October against the IMF and the government’s policies.

–Mexico, September 5, 2002

ATC 101, November-December 2002