From Conciliation To Confrontation: Government Opts To Do Battle With The Unions

The support received from the 1-A march boosted the government’s change in rhetoric towards unions, as the first general strike under the Macri administration looms large.

Last year, the Macri administration and the CGT umbrella union had a relationship that could be considered somewhat cordial, at least by the standards of Argentine politics.

Even though the workers’ whose interests the CGT represents were among the sectors who felt the negative effects of the economic measures taken by the Macri administration during 2016 the most, the demands of the usually combative unions were mostly limited to verbal jabs and a march to demand an law preventing layoffs. They showed themselves to be more prone to dialogue and even agreed to sit at a negotiation table — called “Table for Dialogue and Production” — with government representatives and business leaders to discuss their demands in exchange of not calling a general strike.

Photo via Jose Nizzo
Photo via Jose Nizzo

But that’s all part of the past now. The CGT triumvirate, pushed by members of the union, transitioned to a much more confrontational stance this year, which they finished cementing on March 15 with the announcement of the general strike that will take place this Thursday. And even though it took a bit longer to decide, the government adopted the same position.

In a speech given on Monday, Macri said he respected the unions’ decision to strike, but “didn’t understand it.” Using that thought as a starting point, he doubled down. “We can’t accept more mob-like behavior in Argentina…They can be seen in unions, in businesses, in politics, in the Judiciary. Luckily they are a minority, but we have to fight them because we can’t have anyone to think they own the country and our future and have the right to systematically throw wrenches into the gears whenever [they want]” Macri said.

An important reason for the government’s change in rhetoric was the morale boost it got from the “1-A” March that took place last Saturday, when hundreds of thousands of people in different cities showed they side with the Macri administration in its battles, especially the ones against the teachers’ and umbrella unions.

Macri used the march to continue marking a contrast with unions when he argued that it wasn’t called by an organization or political leader, but that the idea originated on social media: “I’m still very touched by what we lived. Thousands of Argentines took the streets to express themselves peacefully, without any organization. Only with the energy that comes from defending something you believe in. Starting with the defense of democracy,” he said.

Union leaders didn’t waste a second to answer. Making reference to the “mobs” commentary, CGT triumvirate Carlos Acuña, challenged the president to “call out those mobs, if there are any.”

“I believe that mobs exist in the business sector, that runs the country’s economy,” he added.

However, the government continued playing offense and released a report by the Ministry of Treasury and Finance, informing that the strike will cost have a cost the country’s economy AR $15 billion. The report includes a chart that dissects how much money 16 sectors of the economy will lose and points out that the impact will be felt the most by the manufacturing industry, the public administration and the real estate sector. It also informs whether each sector will be able to recuperate its losses: a restaurant or a kiosk, for example, won’t recuperate on Friday what it didn’t sell on Thursday, but the farming sector will.

CGT's triumvirate. Photo via El Destape
CGT’s triumvirate. Photo via El Destape

The strike’s perceived effectiveness will be key in determining the future of unions’ and government’s relationship. The transportation union (UTA) will play an important role in this, taking into account that it can get a large number of people not joining the strike to not be able to get to work by bringing public transportation to a halt. The leader of a taxi drivers union, Omar Viviani, threatened to flip the cabs of those who don’t strike. Whether businesses actually close their doors will be a likely metric for the public, especially considering that the strike doesn’t have a particular demand or rallying call other than general discontent with the Macri administration.

Taking advantage of the lack of a unified message, the government has begun to implement a divide an conquer strategy, negotiating production agreements with each particular sector of the economy, rather than the umbrella unions. It has already done it with the oil sector, announced one with the construction one yesterday and will follow suit today with the textile and shoe producing unions.

Thursday will serve as a good barometer in determining whether this strategy is proving to be effective or not.

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