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Argentina's rich tradition of working-class struggle

By Lance Selfa | January 11, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

ARGENTINA IS a country rich in natural resources. One hundred years ago, it was one of the wealthiest nations in the world, supplying huge quantities of meat and grain to Europe and the U.S.

But Argentina is also rich in another way--in its traditions of working-class struggle.

Until 1930, the trade union movement remained weak and divided between unions representing dozens of trades. Socialists and syndicalists pushed for formation of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) in 1930, the first national labor federation.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War spurred Argentine industry, creating an industrial working class. An upsurge of strikes and union organization from 1935 to 1943 helped to displace craft-union traditions in the labor movement. Communist and socialist influence increased, pulling the labor movement away from its earlier "non-political" stance.

The CGT increasingly allied itself with Gen. Juan Domingo Perón, who became the country's labor and social security minister following a 1943 coup by nationalist military officers.

Perón used his government position to repress communists and socialists in the unions. But at the same time, he looked to build links with unions willing to accept his idea of "justicialismo" ("social justice"), which promised pro-labor reforms that encouraged union organizing and collective bargaining.

The employers hated the reforms. On October 17, 1945, they issued a manifesto condemning them. Immediately, unions around the country took to the streets in defense of the reforms and Perón.

With widespread labor support, Perón won the 1946 election in a landslide. In office, he created the Justicialista Party as his personal electoral machine. He also placed government loyalists throughout the CGT in order to dominate the federation.

For the next 10 years of Perón's presidency, the unions grew to organize almost half of the Argentine working class. Wages rose for most workers. This "golden era" cemented workers' loyalties to Peronism, which was nevertheless an authoritarian and pro-capitalist ideology.

When rival military officers overthrew Perón in 1956, they set out to "de-Peronize" the trade union movement. This opened a period of 20 years of struggle by workers to preserve their gains against a ruling class--under both civilian and military rule--determined to roll them back.

The high point of the period was the 1969 "Cordobazo," where workers in the auto industry led an insurrection against the military. Meanwhile, some young student radicals turned to urban guerrilla warfare.

The military brought Perón back from exile, and he won election as president again in 1972. But Perón and his wife Isabel, who took over after Juan died in 1973, used their term to attack the left and to tame the unions.

Workers fought back with the first-ever general strike against a Peronist government in 1975. The CGT began to lose control of the situation, as elected delegates of workers took over the running of the strike.

Still unable to curtail working-class militancy, the military carried out a 1976 coup aimed at destroying the left and the working-class movement. The generals seven-year "dirty war" led to the deaths of tens of thousands of union activists and left-wingers. More than 30,000 people "disappeared."

By the early 1980s, the military again faced a growing working-class movement. Partly as a means to divert attention from its own unpopularity, the generals seized the British-controlled Malvinas (Falklands) Islands. When Britain dealt the junta a humiliating military defeat, the dictatorship's days were numbered.

In October 1983 elections, the bourgeois Radical Party of President Raul Alfonsin swept to power. While welcoming the return to democracy, the unions continued their offensive as Alfonsin tried to push through free-market austerity policies.

When Peronist Carlos Menem won election in 1989, he promised to end corruption and boost workers' living standards. He did exactly the opposite--carrying through instead an "orthodox" free-market austerity plan that made him a darling of the International Monetary Fund. During Menem's second term in the late 1990s, the Argentine economy fell into a deep recession.

The electoral alliance coalition of social democrats and the Radical Party, led by Fernando de la Rúa, took advantage of the hatred of Menem and won elections in 1999. But de la Rúa continued Menem's policies almost without change. He even hired back Domingo Cavallo, the despised architect of Menem's economic policies.

The two years of de la Rúa's reign saw seven general strikes--and the rapid growth and development of the unemployed movement. These battles set the stage for the last month's "Argentinazo" uprising, when toppled de la Rúa and Cavallo.

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