Quiet labor leader stimulates militancy of Argentine unions
At a glance, Saul Ubaldini does not seem to be the kind of person capable of moving mountains, let alone the hearts and minds of the Argentine people. Short, with a tendency to wear oversized leather jackets, and a voice that during interviews trails off into an incomprehensible whisper, he cuts an unimpressive figure in a country accustomed to charismatic strongmen.Skip to next paragraph
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And yet, Mr. Ubaldini has emerged recently as President Ra'ul Alfons'in's public enemy No. 1. As leader of Argentina's largest trade union, Ubaldini is the undisputed, if yet unofficial, leader of the opposition bent on forcing a 180-degree turn around in the government's International Monetary Fund-backed economic program.
``You could say that Saul is the product of the times,'' says Carlos Aznarez, chief labor reporter of the usually progovernment paper La Razon.
During the former military regime, Ubaldini made a name for himself as a hard-liner. Although a member of the small and traditionally uninfluential Brewery Workers Union, he led the first labor offensive in support of better salaries, more jobs, and the reestablishment of trade-union rights. Argentina has produced many charismatic labor leaders within the last 40 years who have been in charge of larger unions. But many of them had either been killed by the armed forces or publicly discredited among their own rank and file for collaborating with the military.
With the return of democratic rule in December 1983, Ubaldini was elected to head the country's major trade union organization, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), by default rather than design. He became a compromise candidate capable of temporarily cooling the rival passions of the more ambitious union bosses. He has grown in stature because of his willingness to represent a growing groundswell of working-class disenchantment with the country's democratic authorities.
``The paradox of Ubaldini,'' says a close aide, ``is that he is best when surrounded by a huge crowd.'' The whisper of the interview, which springs from a deep mistrust of the press, transforms itself into rousing rhetoric capable of stimulating the growing militancy of the unions.
Argentina's lower income groups have lost faith in the effectiveness of the wage-and-price freeze imposed last June in a desperate bid by the government to bring down the 1,000 percent annual inflation rate.
Prices have dropped dramatically since June. Since last June, monthly inflation has dropped from more than 30 percent to 2.4 percent in November. This has brought relief to businessmen who were previously on the verge of bankruptcy since the government was unable to control many product prices, and there was a scarcity of other products.
Official statistics, however, have understated the increases in the cost of living and the accompanying fall in real salaries. While some prices have continued to increase, wages have been kept tightly controlled. At the same time the government has so far been unable to follow the attack on inflation with growth. Although there have been signs of recovery in areas of Argentine industry as a result of the greater financial stability, many companies have been unable to increase their labor force substantially.