Grassroots Unionism Under Attack in Argentina: Killing of Activist Sparks Protests

Wherever union representation is democratic, combative or revolutionary, we must defend it.  Wherever rank and file are attacked by the union bureaucracy we must defend them. Union bureaucracy is the use of union posts with the objective of curtailing unionist activity. Union bureaucracy seeks to squash any insubordination, even the most just of strikes.

– Augustin Tosco, general secretary of Luz y Fuerza, combative labor organizer who fought for democratic union practices. He died in hiding, for fear he would be killed, after the Luz y Fuerza labor union was abolished in 1974.

The killing of a 23-year old labor activist has sparked massive protests in Argentina. Argentina’s rich labor history has been plagued with violent episodes: massacres against striking workers at the turn of the 20th century, the systematic disappearance of 30,000 activists under the dictatorship, the 38 deaths during Argentina’s 2001 popular rebellion, the 2002 police shooting of two unemployed activists Maximiliano Kosteki and Dario Santillan, and the death caused by a tear gas canister to the head of public school teacher Carlos Fuentealba in 2004. Mariano Ferreyra, an activist and student who was recently killed, sends an ominous reminder of the legacy of union bureaucracy and violence against workers.

Mariano Ferreyra was shot dead on October 20 in Argentina in a union dispute along Buenos Aires train lines. He was marching in solidarity with subcontracted train workers fired as part of cutbacks. Unionists from the main railway workers union broke up the protest against low wages and firings of subcontracted employees. As the protestors were ending the action, a group of unionists and other men began throwing rocks and running after the protestors. Television cameras showed a group of 40 men chasing after the protestors.

“The thugs from the green slate, guarded by the provincial police, were waiting for us along the train lines since early in the morning,” says Ariel Pintos, a subcontracted train employee shot in the leg at the protest. He told Pagina/12, “They chased us, yelling you’re going to pay for this, we’re going to kill you.”

Then, according to witnesses, as police stood by at least one man opened fired. Marcelo Adrian, a friend of the victim, says the corrupt union structure favors business interests.  “The state is responsible, the bureaucratic unions… And the police that acted as accomplices. A group of 40 thugs from the Train Transport Union, Green list attacked us. It was a planned attack and there have been incidents of attacks against the subcontracted employees.” Three men have been arrested in connection to the shooting.

Mariano Ferreyra

The death of Mariano Ferreyra has opened wounds of the pain and preventable death which was the result of corrupt union practices. Ferreyra’s commitment as an activist was celebrated at the massive march to repudiate his death. More than 25,000 protestors came out to repudiate the death of Ferreyra, demand an end to undemocratic union practices and demand justice for the death of the activist.

The victim was a member of Argentina’s Workers Party. He began his activist activity at the age of 14 in a neighborhood branch of the Trotskyist organization shortly after the popular rebellion of 2001. The young Ferreyra participated in the 2002 road blockade in the suburb of Avellaneda where two activists lost their lives. Police shot members of the movement of unemployed workers Maximiliano Kosteki and Dario Santillan inside the Avellenada train station. This event would mark the life of Ferreyra in his commitment to activism and later tie him to the fate of the two victims. Eight years later, Ferryra was killed only a few blocks away from where Kosteki and Santillan died.

A cameraman present at the events said that after Mariano was shot he heard a person cheer: “one less lefty.” No one has been arrested in connection with the killing.

Labor practices

The workers protesting along the train lines wanted to draw attention to a common labor practice called outsourcing. The firing of 140 workers sparked the protest on October 20. The temporary workers demanding that laid-off workers get permanent employment with the Roca Railroad.

Subcontracting, synonymous with neoliberal capitalism, has become a common practice in public as well as private companies in Argentina. Workers, are hired temporarily by outsource companies that provide service along the train lines. “Subcontracted workers are paid half as much as formal workers. They do not have the right to unionize or to make demands,” says Ruben Sobrero, president of the body of delegates from the Sarmiento train line.

Argentina’s train system was dismantled during the mass privatization of public services in the 1990’s. “Menem with the participation of the current union leadership privatized the train system and more than 90,000 workers were laid off,” explains Sobrero. Today concessionaries subsidized by the state run the train system which provides services for millions of passengers who ride from the surrounding suburbs to the nation’s capital. Dozens of fatal accidents occur each year as a result of passengers falling off of overcrowded trains.

“They make us to three times the amount of work as formal employees. Many young workers have permanently injured their lower backs and when they come back from medical leave they are fired. They don’t provide us with work boots or protective uniforms. They don’t even provide us with water when we are working along the train tracks,” said Ariel Pintos.

The Train Workers Union benefits from this system because they get a percentage of ticket sales and gain from supporting business interests. At least 600 workers have been fired by the private company that is government subsidized to run the train lines that lead from the capital to the suburbs. The “violet list,” as the opposition group in the Train Workers Union is called, have organized a campaign for the formal contracting of workers and an end to subcontracting along the train lines. “The leadership of the UF doesn’t want workers to block the railways because they’ll lose part of ticket sales. They also don’t want to see salary increases for workers because that would cut into the union funds from union dues,” says Alfredo Esteban de Lucas who is a metallurgical worker that constructs trains.

Union bureaucracy

“This incident marks a rise in union violence on part of what is called union bureaucracy, which use these tactics to stop workers from organizing independently,” says Sobrero as an elected representative of an opposition slate has been the target of union violence. These incidents of violence form part of the long tradition of the union structure in Argentina, where trade unionists use tactics to pressure workers not to vote for opposition slates.

In the past year alone, representatives from the growing movement of grassroots labor organizing have been victim to threats and physical attacks. Subway workers have organized an independent union since 2006. They have held a number of protests to demand that the Labor Ministry grant legal recognition of a democratically voted independent union, breaking from the UTA transport union. The ex-wife and children of Nestor Segovia, an elected subway union representative, were attacked by police and affiliates of the UTA transport union in their home during an alleged eviction notice in November, 2009. “Union bureaucracy is strong right now because the nation’s main union CGT and the government support the apparatus. When there’s a growing movement of workers that the apparatus can’t control, the bureaucracy reacts,” said Segovia, at the national day of protest.

The International Labor Rights Forum listed the Kraft Corporation in Argentina as one of the worst companies for the right to association. The Food and Beverage Union did not support the Kraft workers’ demands or intervene when 140 workers were fired from the plant, many of whom were elected representatives from an opposition slate. Last year casino workers have also had to fight violent attacks from the formal unions in their union organizing efforts to create an independent union organization.

The nation’s main train union (UF) had threatened to stop workers from protesting on October 20. Pablo Diaz, a representative from the UF who is now under arrest for the killing of Ferreyra, publicly stated on the day of the protest “We are not going to allow the train lines to be blockaded.” In September, the subcontracted train workers organized a press conference in the Constitution train station to report the firing of 140 workers. A group from the UF’s Green slate from interrupted the press conference, shouting and pushing subcontracted workers while the police watched.

Human rights groups, journalists and academics have called for reflections and reforms in union representation. “The events demand a reflection about the significance of the struggle to democratize union representation, which forms part of a transition from the model of neoliberal deregulation of worker protection toward protection for workers,” said the Center for Social and Legal studies in a public statement about the killing of Ferreyra.

Grassroots labor organizing

At the march the day after Ferreyra’s death, dozens of groups from opposition slates marched in their work uniforms.  “Most of us here are from opposition slates, we are a large movement that is proposing a new way of organizing workers, where workers have participation in assemblies,” says Segovia. This movement, called grassroots unionism, has challenged the verticality and corruption of the formal structures which groups say tries to curtail workers’ protests. Segovia adds that the government and industrial leaders worry that workers may demand better salaries and working conditions as the Argentine economy has boomed since 2003. “Union democracy implies that rank and file workers have a voice to debate. A union delegate should represent the workers, as a union delegate I was voted to reflect what rank and file workers propose.”

The death of Mariano Ferreyra reflects Peronisms’s (of the ex-president Juan Peron) tradition of union bureaucracy and attacks against workers which has reared its ugly head, despite a government that has made progressive measures. However, the diversity of opposition slates and delegates assembly fighting for democratic union representation reflects a growing grassroots labor movement, which continues to grow despite corrupt and violence practices on the part of official union leadership.

Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and translator based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog,