Buenos Aires Hardly five blocks from the ACORN Argentina office on Moreno are a couple of multi-story buildings that house FAECYS, the Federacion Argentina de Empleados de Comercio y Servicios, essentially the union of commerce and service workers. With 800,000 members nearly, FAECYS is perhaps the largest union in the largest federation of workers in the country. Tony Avirgan of the Economic Policy Institute’s Global Network had mentioned two of his companeros in Argentina when I met with him last week, so Ercilia Sahores, ACORN’s Latin American director, and I took the quick walk over to see Ruben Cortina, the head of International affairs for FAECYS and the new director of UNI for Latin America, and Alberto “Pepe” Robles, director of Mundo del Trabjo (Workers World).
I had a lot on my mind and a feeling that Ruben and Pepe might be able to fill in some pieces in the puzzle and point me in some better directions.
First, we talked about Wal-Mart and how FAECYS had found them as a unionized employer. The way Ruben told the story, Wal-Mart planned to enter Argentina and operate non-union as they did in the US and Canada, but quickly found that there was virtually no way under the laws and constitution of the country that they were going to legally be able to escape dealing with the union. FAECYS was able to organize them fairly quickly. The company was still small here though with only one store in the city of Buenos Aires proper and most in the suburbs in the province with a smattering elsewhere like Cordoba. There was only one unorganized Wal-Mart at this point, and Ruben believed this would also change soon. Even though there are legal advantages for labor in Argentina, these are still rough and tumble affairs. I asked them about the rallies and demonstrations at Wal-Mart just before my last visit to Argentina in February, when the issue of Sunday pay for the multi-nationals was being resolved (Carrefour is the BIG company in Argentina not Wal-Mart). They had pushed and shoved their way into the Wal-Mart stores from what I can tell, and unless I misunderstood they picketed in front of the cash registers inside the stores with their demonstrations. By the end of the day they had resolved the problem. Needless to say!
Next we talked about Ecuador and what countries in Latin America offered the best models for the protection of workers’ rights and union organization. Pepe and Ruben were very helpful here. Tony had suggested that the Argentine constitution might be the best model. Our friends believed that Paraguay might be better but only on paper and unfortunately was not enforced. Both settled on the fact that Brazil in their view was actually superior to the Argentine constitution, and for Argentines this is a huge admission.
In fact Argentina (and Brazil) is decisively countering the trend of union retraction and membership loss compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Ruben and Pepe believed that under Kirchner the country had added 3,000,000 jobs, and that Argentina stood out because here the formal economy was actually replacing the usual growth in the informal economy. The formal sector is extensively organized, so the growth in jobs here translates almost totally into a growth of union membership and support. Pepe mentioned construction unions that had more than doubled in size, adding 200,000 members as well as those in metal. FAECYS had also grown by more than 300,000 members. Similar growth was being experienced in Brazil.
Where the Argentine constitution seemed to excel is in the protection of the rights of union elected rank-and-file delegates. They are virtually impossible to fire and have a level of protection against employer retaliation, which is beyond belief to someone from the United States, where union stewards often walk around with a bull’s-eye on their backs. The Peronist corporatist compromise may have left a legacy of strength and protections for unions that teach a lot of lessons. Here unions provide health protection and recreation facilities. The “agency” shop is universal. The employee puts in 3% and the employer 5% of gross pay for these protections for all workers and they are administered by the unions. The fate of the union and the company is welded together, perhaps too closely, but the laws actually seem to strengthen unions and protect workers in Argentina, and that is unusual in itself.
We ended our visit lobbying Ruben, as the new UNI Americas director, to carry our case to the UNI meetings in October in Delhi to support our India FDI Watch Campaign and the efforts to meet Wal-Mart head to head in that country. Perhaps we will end up getting a helping hand from our brothers in the Southern Cone.