If Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, Argentina’s CGT umbrella grouping would seem to be slow learners – their 5th general strike against the Mauricio Macri administration last Wednesday was every bit as futile as the previous four. The denial of transport gives such stoppages an appearance of success and popular support which are wholly illusory. A day lost to work simply means 40 billion less pesos (according to government estimates) for an economy suffering from a seemingly endless recession which is devouring jobs at an accelerating rate – 47,000 destroyed in March alone, it was revealed last Thursday. As for public opinion, what goes down better – Wednesday’s total transport paralysis or the Paseo del Bajo inauguration by President Macri himself only two days previously, reducing the link-up between city ring highways to a matter of minutes?
The strike was even illusory as an index of labour militancy. This always tends to be lower in times of recession when the defence of jobs invariably takes priority over wage claims. If single-digit unemployment until now seems a minor miracle given both the length and severity of this recession, this is because management and labour are almost equally averse to job losses, being willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid them – workers for obvious reasons and their employers to avoid prohibitive severance costs (at least in the case of registered employment). One recent example is the deal reached by Renault and SMATA auto workers union in Córdoba within the stricken car industry whereby the assembly line works shorttime for 70 percent of wages in order to save all 1,500 jobs. This is far from being an isolated case – the Vaca Muerta shale productivity pact negotiated with the oil workers’ union would be a leading example. All of which goes to belie the confrontational atmosphere generated by Wednesday’s strike, whatever the bellicose tones used by the Moyano clan and others.
Union bluster and the cyclical problems of recession prevent the workforce in particular and the country in general from facing the much more profound structural challenges posed by the rapid technological changes in today’s world (even if the future of labour topped the agenda of the G20 summit here only six months ago). Collective bargaining agreements dating back almost half a century make meeting these challenges a mission impossible – trade unions see no alternative to the blind defence of dead-end jobs since even a more competitive industry modernised by labour reform runs the risk of being overtaken by technological transformation. But in that half-century the unionised workers whose masses were the “backbone” of the early Peronist movement have become a privileged minority partly responsible for one third of the population being impoverished and over a third of the workforce being precariously employed.
Instead of resisting change, organised labour needs to be part of moving forward to a new matrix by making the necessary adjustments. Exporting the harvest worked fine for the eight million Argentines of over a century ago while import substitution industries aimed at a protected domestic market sufficed for the 17 million of mid-century, giving two-thirds of the population a middle-class standard of living. But neither model meets the needs nor answers the problems of today’s 44-45 million. Argentina needs to play to its strengths – some of these strengths in the areas of natural resources and human capital have a chance of being competitive via the necessary modernisation with that Vaca Muerta productivity pact showing the way.