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.

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.

The success of a general strike last month -- the fourth to be staged since President Alfons'in's election in October 1983 -- has confirmed the CGT's reputation as the best organized and most politicized trade-union organization in Latin America. The CGT claimed the strike was a success since industry was brought to a standstill for the day, and the majority of the population did not go to work because of a virtual paralysis of the transport sector.

The Argentine working class found a voice, thanks to the populist policies pursued after World War II by the late Gen. Juan Per'on. On the back of a postwar domestic industrial boom, the lower classes were geared to high consumption while the CGT was made the backbone of a corporate state, which took over the traditional political influence of the rich landowning classes.

Today, the majority of Argentines thank Alfons'in for reestablishing civil liberties after the repression of the juntas following the coup in 1976. But the working classes still remember the golden years of the Per'on era as a period when income was substantially redistributed in their favor and when their trade union organzation was integrated into the political system.

By contrast, Alfons'in, by putting emphasis on austerity as an unavoidable first step toward eventual recovery, has alienated many Per'onists who voted for him in the last election.

As a committed defender of Congress, as the legitimate voice of the people, Alfons'in has never allowed himself to be distracted by the unions. His consistent rejection of their demands has clashed with the CGT's image of itself as the most powerful institution in the country equaled only by the military and the Roman Catholic Church.

Ubaldini warned after the general strike that this was a referendum: Either the government changes course or there will be more strikes and demonstrations. The warning came against the background of widespread stoppages in the state sector that have seriously disrupted public life in Argentina since before Christmas.

The government, however, has rejected the CGT's call for a moratorium on the country's $50 billion foreign debt and continues to insist that to increase salaries substantially would plunge the country into hyperinflation again.

Meanwhile, the government is speeding up its plans for tax reform and new incentives for foreign investors and export-oriented Argentine companies, pri-vatization of areas of the lossmaking state sector, as part of its long-awaited second stage aimed at bringing the country out of its current recession.

It is gambling that despite the recent general strike time is essentially still on its side.

Opinion polls show Ubaldini trailing behind Alfons'in in the popularity stakes largely because of the government's continuing support among the middle classes. At the same time, many Argentine workers are apparently frightened that an all-out offensive against the democratic authorities will not only lose them their jobs but also risk the return of the military to power. The recent strike was an awkward reminder of union might.

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