If you are a political wonk, you probably have noticed that since the early days of January, practically the conversation has revolved around one thing and one thing only: unions.
But the enormous coverage that these labor organizations (and their leaders) are getting is not the result of a single story but four explosive, game-changing revelations that, while advancing at their own pace seem to be intertwined nonetheless.
Here they are in a nutshell, so you can understand:
- There seems to be an implicit crusade coming from the justice system against union leaders such as SOEME union leader Marcelo Balcedo and the former leaders of the Bahía Blanca chapter of the construction workers union (UOCRA), arrested in the past weeks following accusations of illegal activities within the organizations they used to lead, such as money laundering, blackmail and unlawful association.
- The ongoing power struggle between Hugo Moyano (aka the the most powerful union leader in Argentina in the last 30 years despite not currently having an official post) and President Mauricio Macri. Both have exchanged accusations over the media in the past few days and it doesn’t seem like the feud will finish any time soon.
- The ongoing feud between unionists themselves which, even though it’s always been there, has recently deepened as a result of differences in the position they should take against the government over points 1 and 2. The fracture between the two camps is best illustrated by the “civil war” currently taking place inside the CGT umbrella union over whether to support a demonstration against the government’s policies called by Moyano for February 22.
- Last but not lest, the big issue that has unions on edge: upcoming wage negotiations. Same as it has always been, the first months of the year are being marked by their struggle with government and business leaders over how big the annual salary increase for workers should be. The Macri administration intends to keep increases below 15 percent to avoid contributing to a higher inflation rate (one of the biggest – if not the biggest – economic concerns of the year.)
The outcome of these very public fights will very likely shape the union world and its relationship with the government for years to come, considering the administration’s intention of reforming the country’s labor laws to, according to Casa Rosada, increase productivity in Argentina and attract foreign and national investment.
So now that you know the basics, let’s take a closer look at what’s happening.
1. THE JUSTICE SYSTEM VS. UNION LEADERS
An implicit crusade coming from the Judiciary against crooked union leaders seems to have picked up steam. The first chip fell in September of 2016, when Omar “Caballo” (yes, people called him “horse”) Suárez, then head of the SOMU (Union of United Maritime Workers) was indicted and preemptively arrested, following an order made by Federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral.
Suárez was accused of leading an unlawful association which blackmailed business leaders of the maritime trade sector, as well as embezzling money from the union’s coffers.
Same as Suárez, the other leaders who have “fallen from grace” – they were not really considered to be very graceful before – have been preemptively put behind bars as the charges against them are still being investigated. They are Juan Manuel “Pata” Medina (the head of the La Plata chapter of the UOCRA, the massive construction workers’ union) and the same union’s heads of the Bahía Blanca section. But especially Marcelo Balcedo, head of the SOEME union (the union that represents workers and employees who execute tasks related to education and in direct contact with minors), who was arrested in Uruguay on January 4, after being accused of money laundering.
Police found more than US $6 million in several safe deposit boxes belonging to Balcedo in Uruguayan banks. Prosecutor Jorge Díaz said it was the largest seizing of cash in the country’s history. As days went by, more details of Balcedo’s life in the neighboring country surfaced. Namely, that he employed 24 people in his estate – among them several babysitters, a chef and a personal trainer, who he paid US $5,800 a month in cash and joined them in trips to Aruba, the US, Mexico and Tahiti.
However, even though these arrested unionists were the leaders of the labor organizations they belonged to, they were far from being high profile players in the union world. This means that putting them behind bars didn’t really send shockwaves throughout the political arena. However, in the past few months, the justice system has also laid eyes on the most powerful unionist in Argentina: Hugo Moyano (and his son Pablo too).
And as their legal situation seems to go from bad to worse, their pushback is already threatening to severely affect the world of domestic politics.
Which takes us to the second point.
2. MOYANO VS. MACRI
Hugo Moyano is the former leader of the teamsters union and current president of the Independiente football club. He is now facing growing legal accusations against him regarding alleged unlawful activities in both institutions. Namely, mismanagement, money laundering, deviating funds from the teamsters union – currently led by Pablo – to use them in Independiente, as well as being involved in shady business conducted by the club’s barrabravas – an organized group of hooligans who conduct illegal businesses related to a football club, such as scalping.
Moyano came out to address the accusations about two weeks ago, arguing that it is the Macri administration – not the Judiciary – that is actually behind his legal problems. Just like the other union leaders that I mentioned before, he argues that the government has instructed judges to go after them in retaliation for opposing the administration’s policies, especially the President’s plan to reform the country’s labor laws.
Government officials and representatives, however, claim they have nothing to do with this but nonetheless celebrate that the justice system is moving on what they call the “union mobs.”
In the last few days, Macri and Moyano have crossed accusations in the media. Moyano said that if he were to end up in prison, he would want to be put “in the cell next to [President Mauricio] Macri’s father.” We can only speculate he is making reference to potential shady deals conducted by Macri’s father, Franco, in the past. Macri answered by saying that Moyano needed to be calm and answer the questions that judges might have about his activities.
The verbal feud reached its boiling point this weekend when, in an interview with Crónica TV, Moyano said the government is picking up a fight with him in an attempt to deflect attention from actual pressing matters, such as the dire economic situation the country is going through. And, more importantly, that it doesn’t “have a lot of time left”.
His statement sparked widespread condemnation from government representatives, who didn’t hesitate to call him a “coup-monger.”
Amid this quilombo, the teamsters union announced a march for February 22, theoretically to protest against the administration’s economic policies.
But some dare speculate that this may be a show of force from Moyano, aimed at sending a clear message: that the government will pay a high price if it tries to take him down.
Besides, given his influence on the union, he has the power to instruct its members to go on strike – or protest in another way – and virtually paralyze the country.
However, Moyano’s situation and his reaction have also caused rifts within the union world itself.
Which leads us to the third point.
3. UNION LEADERS VS. UNION LEADERS
The decision of whether to join the march or not has split the union world into two, and this rift has even managed to make it all the way to the top of the CGT umbrella union’s executive council.
Two out of the three members of the CGT triumvirate, Carlos Acuña and Juan Carlos Schmid, are prone to rally behind Moyano’s initiative.
Héctor Daer, in contrast, has distanced himself from it, arguing that it will just be a “march of the teamsters union.” This has predictably left the CGT on the brink of civil war, with Acuña even saying that his colleague is siding with employers instead of employees.
Moyano supported these views, saying that he “was not surprised by Daer’s statements.”
“He is wrong by saying he will not support the Moyanos. Because he is actually not supporting the workers. They [the side he represents] are supporters of the government,” he said.
While the conflict continues to intensify, another battlefront between the government and the unions looms large: the wage negotiations. Which brings us to the fourth point.
4. SALARY NEGOTIATIONS
February has begun, and with it come the first battles of the war over salary negotiations. The most salient one is the conflict between the Buenos Aires Province’s teachers unions and the administration of governor María Eugenia Vidal.
Both sides are coming to the table in what can already be described as a tense mood, as the Macri administration once again determined not to hold salary negotiations on a national level, a decision that goes against what the union wants.
There are still not many developments in this area, but expect this issue to hijack the national conversation and, as the beginning of the school year approaches, other unions discuss their decision to hold marches and strikes to influence the negotiations.
These four conflicts have the government’s intentions of reforming the country’s labor laws in the background. Since the initiative to do it all at once did not really prosper, the administration intends to break it down in parts. Its success in dealing with these conflicts will be a key indicator to determine whether it will be able to fulfill this long-term goal.
None of these battles have a clear a winner, but one thing is for sure: No side is willing to go down without putting up a fight.