Union Battle Imperils Austerity


PRESIDENT Carlos Sa'ul Menem's imposition of a truce between warring factions of Argentine trade unionists has averted an imminent split in the union movement. But it has not resolved the underlying causes of the battle that threatens to play havoc with the government's economic reform plan. The president offered a ``suggestion'' - in reality a directive - that the two wings of the General Labor Confederation (CGT) should abandon their plans to hold separate congresses to elect parallel leaderships. But even this is no guarantee that the peace will hold, according to union leaders.

``There is a long way between calling a unified congress for Oct. 10 and actually holding it,'' said one union boss, responding to President Menem's proposal.

Menem's personal intervention in the tussle for control of the union movement between his own loyalists and CGT Secretary General Sa'ul Ubaldini, who has been critical of the Peronist government's neo-liberal economic policies, shows how worried the president was that the battle could run out of control.

With the ``Menemistas'' planning to hold a congress today, ignoring Mr. Ubaldini's planned CGT congress on Oct. 17, the prospect of two CGTs was not a happy one for the government.

``Who would the government talk to if it wanted a social pact?'' wonders one foreign labor analyst. ``It would create a very embarrassing situation for the government, and if two CGT's were competing for alliances and affiliates, they would both have to be more aggressive,'' just when the Menem is hoping for union cooperation with its austerity plan.

Ubaldini does not seem disposed to offer such cooperation. He has released a string of communiqu'es criticizing the authorities for their refusal to bend to demands for wage increases or to renegotiate the minimum wage. ``The problem with Ubaldini,'' complains one of the union leaders seeking to oust him from the CGT leadership, ``is that his union background was forged in struggle, confrontation, opposition, and demands.''

While that was the attitude required under military or Radical party governments, he agrees, ``it is not appropriate in the face of a Peronist government of which unionism is a part.''

Many of the new Peronist government's economic policies, however, such as government spending cuts and the privatization of state-owned companies are anathema to traditional Peronist trade unionists. And Ubaldini has drawn support from union leaders ideologically opposed to Menem's new-found alliance with big business.

He also enjoys backing from unionists afraid that their members will bear the brunt of the economic adjustments that the government's austerity plan demands, and from old-style union bosses who see in Menem's vision of the future a threat to their political clout.

THE union leaders who are fighting to remove Ubaldini are also a mixed bunch, ranging from outright supporters of the president to some who are more skeptical about his policy but see no alternative.

``What is at stake here is Menem's project for Argentina,'' argues one Ubaldini supporter committed to fighting the government's privatization plan. ``Unless we cut out the multinational companies there is no chance of changing the social and economic structure.''

Unless Menem can control that sort of challenge within the CGT he will have to fight every step of the way for his reforms, a battle made even harder by the fact that they will involve initial hardships for the workers.

``As the situation gets more difficult,'' says the foreign labor specialist, ``the government is afraid that Ubaldini could act as a lightning rod for dissent and unrest with the economic program.''

The debate over the CGT's role under a Peronist government, however, ``has unfortunately been obscured by the polarized argument about whether Ubaldini stays or goes,'' says one union leader who sees no point in confronting Menem. That question will be top of the agenda at the upcoming congress.

While the `Ubaldinistas' insist that their leader's continued tenure as CGT secretary general is not negotiable, their opponents are equally adamant that he must go. Both sides say they are confident they control the majority of the 1,600 delegates to the congress but an open vote is unlikely since CGT leaders traditionally arrange such questions in prior negotiations.

However, according to most independent observers, Ubaldini enjoys a narrow majority over his enemies, which would ensure he remains at the head of the union. Menem can only hope that his lieutenants can cut a deal that surrounds the secretary general with enough presidential loyalists on the CGT National Council to tie the controversial leader's hands.

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