Argentina: Killing shows the dark side of union bureaucracy

November 20, 2010

Twenty-three-year-old Mariano Ferreira, a Workers Party (PO) activist, was shot dead in Buenos Aires on October 8 when a mob violently attacked protesting railway workers.

The protesters, all of them labour hire workers, were demanding their reinstatement after being sacked.

The attack was similar those against other workers in comparable circumstances who have demanded rights denied by the bosses. Often the bosses’ have acted with local union support.

Seven people were arrested over the attack. One of those arrests was a delegate from the railway workers’ union; five were permanent workers on the railways.

Interestingly, one who was arrested was a member of a “barrabrava”, the name commonly used to refer to the violent hooligan gangs linked to various local football teams. He was nominally employed by the same contractor that sacked the workers.

The barrabravas are a product of social marginalisation and are mostly involved in inter-football rivalries or turf wars over drugs. More recently, however, they have begun appearing in other conflicts, including being used as thugs to attack workers and social movement activists.

In this case, they were used against some of the hardest hit victims of neoliberalism.

During the privatisation drive of the 1980s and ’90s, many state-owned companies were handed over to corporate interests.

Through this process, employees were sacked and then re-employed (in many cases with 50% less pay) by a phantom company. Such companies were usually created by former executives of the state company and members of the relevant union.

When workers fought to be reinstated on the permanent payroll, they were sacked.

In this case, the violent reaction can be explained by the fact that the protesting workers had not only begun to question the role of the labour hire company, but also the union leaders. The workers were questioning they were being denied the right to be members of the union and be protected by industrial law.

Moreover, the workers denounced the big cut that union leaders were receiving from the contractors. These payments were under threat if the workers regained permanency.

Argentine unionism dates back more than 100 years, with early forms of workers’ organisations established mostly by migrant anarchists from Europe and later by socialists and communists.

A new era in Argentine unionism was ushered in on October 17, 1945, when workers mobilised to help bring General Juan Peron to government. The next year, this support was ratified when the Labour Party, formed by leaders of the workers’ movement, ensured Peron was elected president with a healthy majority.

Peron’s dilemma was that he could not tolerate having a party based on unions forming the basis of his government. He dissolved it and issued a call to form a Peronist Party.

Those union leaders who accepted Peron’s call were allowed into the new party, but those who refused were attacked and arrested.

Under Peron, workers were for the first time granted full industrial rights, such as the eight-hour day, holiday pay, sick pay and collective industry-wide bargaining.

At the same time, Peron worked to create a layer of union leaders loyal to him that would help him maintain social and political control over the union movement.

Union autonomy, including the right to take strike action, was repressed.

The weight of the union bureaucracy grew. Its different wings, including criminal elements, acted as a cancer not only in the workers’ movement but national politics — while always maintaining its subservience to Peron

This bureaucracy played different roles under different governments, zigzagging from left to right. It was part of the Peronist resistance after the 1955 military coup. But it also helped create the Triple A, a fascist organisation that killed almost 500 activists during the second Peronist period between 1973-76.

Despised by some sections of the oligarchy and ruling class, this corrupt, venal, pro-boss union bureaucracy, with its relationship to successive Peronist leaderships, has been one of the most efficient guarantors of the system of super-exploitation, oppression and submission to imperialism.

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and again in the last decade, most challenges to this bureaucracy have been concentrated in local workplaces at the rank-and-file level.

In some cases, these have led to challenges to local union leaderships, but on many occasions they have finished in terrible repression.

At the national level, there have only been two significant challenges.

The first occurred in 1968, with the formation of the General Confederation of Labour of Argentine Workers. It was formed by union leaders who refused to go along with any pact with the Juan Carlos Ongania dictatorship and therefore broke with the existing General Confederation of Labour.

The other, the Argentine Workers Confederation (CTA), was formed 1991 after the devastation wrecked by neoliberalism.

The CTA proposed a more democratic organisation, through measures such as the direct election of office bearers.

It was mainly made up of public sector and municipal workers, teachers, health workers, transport drivers and others not covered by the traditional unions. They formed new unions and affiliated to the CTA.

The CTA also set out to cover unemployed workers, giving them a space within the organisations.

Nevertheless, the CTA has never been registered as an official union body. Pressure from traditional unions, and their connections with the governments of Nestor Kirchner (who had promised the CTA registration as part of his election campaign) and Cristina Fernandez, have blocked any progress on this front.

Earlier this year, the CTA held general elections. Disputes over the vote meant final results have not been released. This situation has hampered the possibility of the various groups within the CTA being involved in taking up the case of Ferreira.

Although only 23 when he was killed, Ferreira had already chalked up nine years of political activism. Moved by the events of the December 2001 Argentinazo uprising, he joined the PO at the age of 14.

From that day on, everything he did was with the aim of bringing the socialist revolution closer. Most kids his age were thinking about music and dreaming of travelling, but Ferreira had decided to dedicate his life to activism.

He was active in high school and then university, and maintained his convictions once in the workforce.

He is an example not just for young militants in Argentina but the world, because he died fighting in solidarity with workers in struggle.

As someone who knows first hand what it feels like to lose a comrade, I would like to express my solidarity to all the comrades of the PO, and more broadly, all left activists in Argentina.

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