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LABOUR-ARGENTINA: Major Blow to Union Monopoly

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 13 2008 (IPS) - A Supreme Court ruling has thrown a spanner in the works of the monopolistic model of union representation in Argentina that has prevailed for over 60 years, by upholding the right of a workers’ union that lacks legal recognition to elect its own delegates.

“This is a landmark decision that goes to the heart of the absence of union democracy,” lawmaker Claudio Lozano, a member and adviser of the Central Federation of Argentine Workers (CTA), a centre-left union federation that is fighting for Labour Ministry recognition, told IPS.

The only officially recognised union in the country is the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), with ties to the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party (PJ).

“In Argentine, anyone can be elected president, governor, senator or parliamentary deputy, but you couldn’t be elected as a union delegate,” he said with irony.

Lozano was referring to a controversial law which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on Tuesday. It required a delegate negotiating on behalf of workers to be affiliated with a union officially recognised by the Labour Ministry and to be chosen in an election organised by that union.

The Labour Ministry would only recognise one union per sector, “the most representative one,” according to the law.

The Supreme Court deemed this requirement to be in breach of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of association and union democracy, as well as of several international conventions adopted by Argentina, including International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise.

In their ruling, the judges said that “by favouring or disfavouring a given trade union with respect to others, governments can influence workers’ decisions when they select a union to join.”

The Labour Ministry’s “discretionality” over awarding official union recognition “violates international treaties,” the ruling says.

The case ruled on by the Court was presented five years ago by the Public Employees’ Association (ATE), a union affiliated with the CTA that had been prevented from electing delegates among the workers it represents by another union, which argued that it had official recognition, and therefore claimed exclusive rights.

The Supreme Court verdict was celebrated by the CTA, a workers’ federation with 1.5 million members, which has been unsuccessfully demanding legal recognition by the Labour Ministry for 16 years. An autonomous, politially non-partisan organisation, its members are public and private employees, and unemployed and retired people.

In constrast, the ruling was rejected in harsh terms by the CGT, which has three million members, and has held the monopoly on worker representation since state structured unionisation was first introduced by then President Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955, 1973-1974) in the mid-1940s.

“This is a legal aberration,” said Antonio Caló, head of the metalworkers union, which is part of the CGT. “It threatens the single central union created by Perón, which has not done too badly by us, and which lets anyone be a delegate,” he said, defending the privileges that the Supreme Court struck down.

Congressman and CGT lawyer Héctor Recalde took issue with the ruling from another angle. He warned that allowing several trade unions the power to represent workers in the same company or line of work could “dilute the strength of unions, at a time when the economy is becoming increasingly concentrated.”

The idea that the labour movement could be fragmented was rejected by Horacio Meguira, a labour lawyer and legal counsel to the CTA. “What has really created fragmentation is the profit-centred model, which created precarious, part-time and outsourced workers for whom it does not pay social security contributions,” he told IPS.

The CTA in fact emerged in the context of the mid-1990s, when “neoliberal” free-market reforms, and in particular labour deregulation, thrust tens of thousands of state and private workers into unemployment or underemployment, that is, into the informal economy.

Meguira added that in the current labour environment there are many examples of the coexistence of different unions that negotiate jointly with employers, with no loss of power. He cited seven unions in commercial air transport, and 12 in the maritime and ports sector, for example.

Labour Minister Carlos Tomada, who has repeatedly admitted that granting the CTA legal recognition is a pending issue, played down the importance of Tuesday’s ruling, saying the measure would only affect two public sector unions.

But in the view of CTA’s lawyers, the verdict not only opens a crack in the monopoly on worker representation held by unions belonging to the CGT, but also lays the foundations for legal rulings in favour of union freedom and democracy in future cases.

According to Labour Ministry statistics, at present participation by workers on internal commissions, directly representing workers in the workplace, is very low. Only 12.8 percent of private establishments have workers’ delegates at all.

“This is due to a lack of democracy. The union bosses sign agreements with the companies on the implicit understanding that no delegates will be appointed,” Lozano said.

“When workers try to organise independently, they run the risk of being fired, or of being threatened by the union itself,” he said.

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