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Argentine transport unions show their strength during a month of scattered strikes

In three separate cases, a national strike by grain transporters demanded higher rates while a separate 2-day strike halted waste collection after the arrest of two union leaders.

(CN) — Rolling transport strikes across Argentina during April have applied pressure on the government to respond to surging inflation, as trade unions and federations demonstrate their power to hit the economy as wages struggle to keep pace with yearly inflation of 55.1%.

On Apr. 26, the public transport workers union UTA carried out a national strike in short- and medium-distance bus services — except for the capital of Buenos Aires and surrounding areas.

“We will not allow wages below inflation or lower salaries in the interior of the country than those of the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires,” said Roberto Carlos Fernández, the union’s general secretary.

Earlier in the month, grain truck drivers squeezed the arteries of the national economy during a 4-day strike, while a separate 2-day stoppage led to local waste collection services halted after the arrest of two union leaders.

Between Apr. 11 to 14, truck drivers carrying soy and corn halted the delivery of key crops that feed the national economy to export hubs. Argentina is the global leader in soy derivatives and the second-largest exporter of corn, both of which are reaching the height of harvest season.

The Federation of Argentine Transporters (FETRA) called the strike, demanding higher freight rates to offset rising fuel prices.

“None of the conditions that we have asked for in order to continue working have been met, so we have been forced to cease activities,” said Valeria Pardo, the legal secretary of the union, before they reached an agreement of a 20% increase in freight service rates with the transport and energy ministers on Apr 15. 

Exporters who were affected by the 4-day strike reported losses of around $1 billion. 

Across much of the world, the power and authority of trade unions have been sliding for decades. In Argentina, they continue to hold a political force, where 27.7% of workers are unionized, the highest level in Latin America — compared to 16% in Brazil and Chile and 12% in Mexico. In the U.S., just 10.3% of workers are unionized, sliding from its peak of 35% in the 1950s, according to OECD data.

With the decline and dismantlement of the national train network, trucker unions have inherited potent political power through their monopoly on freight transport — particularly unions under the leadership of Hugo Moyano, the most powerful union leader in Argentina.

The 78-year-old has been in the union movement for six decades and has consolidated control as secretary-general of the National Federation of Truck Drivers as well as of the Truck Drivers Union, which he has led since 1987. 

Parallels to the powerful and corrupt Teamsters union leader of the 1960s, Jimmy Hoffa, are often invoked — even by Moyano, who once described himself as “the Argentine Jimmy Hoffa.” Covering trucks, toll roads, national borders, gasoline distribution, and garbage collection, Moyano can mobilize around 240,000 members.

On Apr. 9 and 10, the Truck Drivers Union carried out a strike in San Nicolás, a city in the province of Buenos Aires, where waste collection services were paralyzed. The day before, a judge ordered the arrest of two trucker union leaders, Maximiliano Cabaleyro and Fernando Espíndola, accused of extortion and coercion. Moyano traveled to the city to support the unionists.

Moyano declared that his union was “on alert” due to the arrests. The leader’s influence and tactics have led to his workers’ wages rising alongside chronic inflation. Last year, truckers received an increase of 45% plus bonuses while inflation ran at 50.9%. Today, an agreement between Moyano, the government, and businesses wielded a 31% increase in wages for six months for truck drivers.

“Throughout the 1990s and onwards, the Truck Drivers Union has gained weight and achieved strong sectoral demands,” said Nicolás Carrera, a historian specializing in Argentina’s labor movement, who added that “it has also promoted the demands of workers as a whole.”

The Truck Drivers Union is part of the broader General Confederation of Labor (CGT), one of the largest labor confederations in the world, which Moyano once led. But its 98-year history has been punctuated by rifts and ruptures, with different unions positioning for power. 

The spread of national influence varies.

“Some unions find themselves in strategic positions, as is the case of truck drivers, bankers, and workers in the electric power industry,” added Carrera. “Other unions hold influence due to the number of its members, such as commercial workers, or for the political links of their leaders, such as the gastronomy workers union and public sector workers union.”

In Argentina, the possession of power is often wrapped in corrupt practices.

“In all societies where money mediates social relations, the link between economic power and the political system has one of its bases in corruption,” said Carrera. 

“With an administrative apparatus and a civil service specialized in the negotiation of labor-management conflicts, it led to a bureaucracy governed by established norms,” he added, “within which a hierarchy has tended to maintain itself. While its interests intertwine with the workers, in certain cases it is accompanied by corruption fed by businessmen and state officials.”

Argentines are well aware of how entrenched corruption is within the bones of its society. One survey found that 80.9% of citizens believed that trade unions were the most corrupt institution in the country, higher than businesses (77.5%), the courts (74.8%), the media (67.4%) and Congress (64.5%).

While the country’s militant union tradition has benefited workers for decades, it has cemented some leaders to the top of the bureaucracy, deepening the growth of corrupt networks and practices.

“There is no competition in Argentine trade unionism, which is organized in a monopolistic manner, leading to the accumulation of power and corruption,” said Luisa Montuschi, economist and director of the Department of Business Sciences at the University of CEMA.

“Some leaders have been running their unions for decades and managing fortunes that nobody controls,” added Montuschi, “they receive salaries that they set themselves and, if the opportunity arises, they use the union as a springboard for a political career and for their personal enrichment.”

Moyano has long been accused of heading a network of corruption that benefits him and his family. There is a stack of ongoing investigations into Moyano related to fraud and tax evasion as well as money laundering through Independiente, one of the country’s biggest soccer teams of which Moyano is the current president.

Courts in Argentina, however, are notoriously slow-moving. The average duration of a corruption case lasts 14 years, which serves as deepening the sense of impunity given to powerful officials that are accused of, and under investigation for, corruption.

For state institutes and organizations that are fighting against corruption in trade unions, they must contend with a monopolistic structure where leaders have accumulated power and union workers who have generally benefited from the current union structure through improved working conditions and pay.

“The union leadership wouldn’t survive if it ceases to express the interests of its workers,” Carrera acknowledged.

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