Argentina’s Labor Unions: Moyano’s Heavy Mantle

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As if reflecting the comparable divisive events now afflicting the U.S. labor movement, Hugo Moyano was officially installed on July 14 as the Secretary General of Argentina’s largest trade union conglomerate, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT). This broke the leadership troika agreed upon when the CGT was reunited in 2004. The crowning of Moyano as the de facto leader of Argentina’s labor movement marked the culmination of a power struggle with fellow CGT titan Susana Rueda. In retaliation, Rueda has threatened to pull the eight unions loyal to her leadership out of the CGT. Moyano must also deal with a liberalized labor market in which high unemployment is a volatile component.

Moyano insists he will fight for increased labor protections, but his close relationship with President Nestor Kirchner indicates that he will most likely follow the same corporatist path that characterized union leadership in the 1990s when the movement acquiesced to former President Carlos Menem’s damaging reforms. In order for unions to remain influential, Moyano must take bold steps to unite the CGT under his firm leadership, without the seemingly intrusive help from the nation’s president.

A History of Influence
Recently, the percentage of workers in the formal sector affiliated with a union has dropped steeply from the Peronist period’s high of approximately fifty percent, to the present 35 percent. The decline is primarily due to Menem’s neoliberal reforms, which ended up causing widespread layoffs and instability in the labor market. Menem privatized large, state-owned industries, such as the utilities, telephone and steel companies, and in the transition from the public to the private sector, many jobs were lost. He also initiated trade liberalization, which, as Columbia professor Maria Murillo explains in her book, Labor Unions, Partisan Coalitions, and Market Reforms in Latin America, “increases differences among workers across and within sectors, making it harder to organize labor unions based on horizontal solidarity.” In addition, Menem opened up the country to increased foreign direct investment, which was intended to increase Argentina’s productivity and foster job creation.

However, much of the new money coming into the country was speculative and would be at risk at the first sign of inflation. The traditional union structure could not handle Menem’s reforms because policy customarily had been created in the presence of a relatively stable working populace, which was no longer a fact. The labor market’s structural changes, combined with Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis, caused a sharp rise in unemployment and a decline in worker solidarity.

In the following 2003 presidential elections, unions broke from their tradition of voting as a bloc, splitting their votes between various Peronist Party factions. A little-known governor Nestor Kirchner, won that election, but essentially without the support of the labor lobby.

Kirchner and the Unions
Kirchner’s election incited worried speculation within labor circles, which questioned whether he would work constructively with a movement that recently had failed to exercise meaningful clout. However, as Murillo explained in an interview with COHA, Kirchner realizes that, “labor unions are essential for industrial relations.” The administration is now nurturing close ties to union elites such as Moyano and maintains labor laws allowing one officially-sanctioned union to monopolize an entire business sector.

The close personal relationship between Kirchner and Moyano clearlyprovides evidence that Argentina’s corporatist era is far from over. Kirchner supported Moyano when he was struggling to consolidate the CGT under his leadership, through a declaration by his labor minister Carlos Tomada. In addition, shortly after the executive committee of the CGT named Moyano as the federation’s leader, one of Moyano’s closest advisors, Héctor Recalde, was nominated as a Buenos Aires candidate for the national Congress from Kirchner’s subsection of the Peronist party, Frente para la Victoria. It also has been suggested that Kirchner personally negotiated with Moyano to install last June’s 180 peso monthly minimum pay increase. By cultivating close ties to Moyano, Kirchner is looking for union support in October’s midterm elections in which he and former president Eduardo Duhalde, are running opposing slates of candidates in a battle over control of the Peronist Party. As Página 12, the left-leaning Argentine daily has said, “Moyano will look to the entire union to coalesce behind Kirchner.”

Argentina’s close, if not co-opted labor-government relations may seem ideal, especially to neighboring countries that experience frequent union-initiated work stoppages. However, the Argentine government historically has taken advantage of its labor partners. For example, in the 1990s, then President Menem warned the unions of an impending economic crisis should they ignore the need for labor reform, causing them to acquiesce to damaging labor give-backs. Regardless, the economy crashed later in the decade, and the labor market was hit particularly hard. Since then, workers have been suspicious of the central government’s labor agenda. Therefore, although the partnership between Kirchner and Moyano appears to be mutually beneficial so far, Moyano has to approach government intervention in the labor sector with skepticism, as his close ties to Kirchner could still backfire among CGT members.

“Superunions” and their Internal Problems
Moyano needs to not only deal with a changing labor market and avoid the traps of corporatism, but he must also quell an incipient opposition from within. In 2004, the CGT reunited after a temporary split, and the leaders of the new conglomerate instituted a troika model of governance, granting equal power to the leaders of the three most influential unions: Moyano, José Luis Lingeri and Susana Rueda. On July 14, after bitter infighting, Moyano was named the sole head of the CGT by the union’s executive committee. However, Rueda’s coalition, Los Gordos, is still vocalizing its opposition to Moyano’s consolidation of power. Rueda did not attend Moyano’s inauguration, commenting to the Buenos Aires Herald that “obviously we don’t have to be there [at the CGT gathering] because Moyano doesn’t represent us.”

“Superunions” have experienced problems with renegade factions under their ostensible jurisdiction in the past; Moyano himself rose to prominence in 2000 when he led the truckers in a protest against a state labor measure, negatively affecting the CGT’s leverage. However, the disagreements between the Moyano and Rueda factions run deeper than small-scale politicking. Los Gordos was the dominant union faction of the 1990s and many workers still blame its leaders for Menem’s being able to institutionalize his destructive anti-labor reforms. Moyano and his allies are relatively new to leadership; they rose to power after the dissident and main factions of the CGT merged in 2004. The struggle between Rueda and Moyano is a battle between the old and the new. Without some measure of reconciliation, the CGT could break up, or worse, remain in a constant state of gridlock.

Moyano’s Heavy Mantle
Moyano now faces a double challenge in trying to internally unite the beleaguered CGT and to externally deal with a radically different labor market than his forebearers have known. On June 20th, Moyano refuted the claim that he is too close to Kirchner, saying, “I only say the things I like of the Kirchner administration, but that does not make me a staunch Kirchner supporter.” However, it will take more than Moyano’s rhetoric to convince CGT members–especially Rueda’s coalition–that he is more than merely Kirchner’s choice to lead the powerful labor lobby. Moyano attacks his enemies behind the shield of a governmental mandate. He must step out of Kirchner’s shadow and engage Rueda and her rebellious constituents on their own turf if the CGT is to remain a force worth respecting in the Casa Rosada.