Argentina: State Workers Reject Forced Campaigning

It’s election season in Argentina, and Florencia Rodríguez is expected to go the extra mile campaigning for the ruling coalition Juntos por el Cambio. In her inbox is a detailed timetable of activities. Some days, she is expected to head to the suburbs and hand out campaign leaflets for the ruling government of Mauricio Macri. Other days, she’s meant to go door to door, ringing the bell and asking people how they’re planning to vote in Argentina’s October 27 general election.

What Rodríguez describes might sound like standard party activism during an election campaign. The problem is, she isn’t a party activist. She is one of many state workers in Argentina whose bosses are asking them to campaign for the ruling coalition. Rodríguez is refusing, and now, she’s worried for her job.

During a July staff meeting of the Buenos Aires city government, workers in her department were told they would have to start campaigning for Macri. The meeting was followed by an email from their employer’s official account with the subject “Campaign activity.” The email detailed who had to do what for the Juntos por el Cambio on what day.

“It was super explicit,” Lucía Sánchez told Toward Freedom in an interview at a café facing out over the landscaped lawns of Buenos Aires’ Plaza del Congreso. Sánchez works together with Rodríguez for the city of Buenos Aires. “It wasn’t a request, it wasn’t an invitation, it wasn’t a suggestion. It was another work activity that had to be done.”

When Rodríguez and Sánchez responded that campaigning for the ruling coalition wasn’t their job, management summoned them to meetings. It was made clear that those who didn’t participate in campaign activities would lose their jobs.

Argentina’s electoral campaign is heating up, as incumbent centre-right president Macri battles it out against center left Peronist rival Alberto Fernández for the top job.

An image from Your Campaign is Not My Job. The text on the mouth says “The government is making me.”

Disgusted at being obliged to campaign for a coalition they didn’t support, Sánchez and Rodríguez decided to take action. They knew many of their colleagues in Buenos Aires City Government were in the same boat, so they launched the website Tu Campaña No es mi Trabajo (Your Campaign is not my Job) to collect testimonials, ensuring workers could speak out in safety.

In Argentina it is illegal for public employees and bureaucrats to use the power and prerogatives of their positions for political activities. Sánchez and Rodríguez make a strong case that this is misappropriation of public funds, since their wages are paid by taxpayers.

At first the two women ran the website anonymously, later, with the support of the State Workers Association, they took legal action, which  meant going public. In August, Prosecutor Jorge Di Lello began investigating the practice of forced campaigning as a potential breach of Argentina’s electoral code. On September 26, Sánchez and Rodríguez gave statements before the court.

Juntos por el Cambio spokeswoman Belén Cersosimo told Toward Freedom that the issue depended on the individual workplaces, not the coalition itself. “I am not aware of people who are working in that modality,” she said. The city government of Buenos Aires refused to comment.

Macri, who has been in power since 2015, presents himself as a modern, business-friendly politician aiming to mark a change from the corruption and cronyism of previous administrations. Despite his business-friendly discourse, Macri’s presidency has been plagued by severe economic difficulties.

Inflation for 2019 is forecast at 55 pecent, one of the highest inflation rates in the world. During his campaign, Macri had promised to reduce inflation to single digits. Two peso notes were withdrawn from circulation in May 2018 after their value plummeted to the equivalent of nine cents. In the nineties, those same notes were worth $2. Today, they adorn bar counters and shop windows, a sad nod to the effects of runaway inflation.

Shopkeepers and street vendors grimace as they tell customers their latest prices, conscious that workers’ salaries are falling far behind. Unemployment is at 10.6 percent with a further 13.1 percent of people underemployed, 35 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Macri’s opponent Fernández is a lawyer who served as Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers during the presidencies of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He broke with Kirchnerism amid a series of rural protests in 2008, but the two sides reconciled in 2018.

Fernández is seen as a more moderate and less controversial candidate than Fernández de Kirchner, who was widely expected to run for president but has ultimately ended up running as his VP.

Fernández de Kirchner maintains a loyal base of support from those who credit her and her late husband Néstor with helping the poor and turning the country around after severe financial crises in 2001 and 2002. Today, however, Fernández de Kirchner’s image has been tarnished by a slew of court cases alleging corruption.

Macri lost to Fernández by nearly 16 percentage points in August primaries. Observers believe he is unlikely to claw back the lead. As rising inflation and a grim economic outlook erodes his support, it appears Macri’s party machinery has turned to illegal tactics in an attempt to turn out votes.

To date, Sánchez and Rodríguez have received more than 130 testimonials. Some workers have given permission for their stories to be published anonymously. Others have asked for their stories to be kept confidential, fearful of repercussions. Most of the testimonies are from people working in the city government in Buenos Aires, others are from workers in the province of Buenos Aires and in the national government.

Workers’ testimonials explain that they are forced to hand out flyers, go canvassing, make phone calls to residents, and do other political activities in support of Macri’s coalition. The activities often happen after work or on Saturdays. Sometimes, campaigning activities take place a long way from workers’ homes, and they are not reimbursed for travel. Some workers noted that have been insulted in the street for campaigning for the unpopular coalition.

Many government workers in Argentina are independent contractors rather than employees. Sánchez and Rodríguez say this makes it easier for bosses to put pressure on workers, as they can simply discontinue their contracts without having to follow the protocols necessary to dismiss an employee.

Silvina Hernández is one of the few workers willing to go on the record about her experiences. She isn’t worried about speaking up because she has no job to lose. In May 2018, Hernández was fired after she objected to participating in party political activity. She had worked for the city of Buenos Aires for five years.

At first, Hernández coordinated projects with community institutions such as school canteens and social centres. But when Macri’s government came to power, her role changed. Instead of going to different neighborhoods to work on community projects, her bosses would send her to a call centre to promote the city government’s latest projects and hand out political flyers.

The demands became untenable when Hernández was told to go door knocking after work with three hours’ notice. She couldn’t get childcare, so she refused.

“Things started to get more tense from there,” Hernández told Toward Freedom in an interview in the garden of her home in Buenos Aires. “My colleagues said, ‘They’re putting you on the blacklist,’ I said, ‘Fine, let them blacklist me.’” She has been unable to find another job, and has started legal proceedings against her former employer.

“My desk was full of diplomas and acknowledgements from places where I’d worked, thanking me for the good work,” said Hernández. “They didn’t dismiss me because I didn’t know how to do my job, they dismissed me because of these things I’m telling you, because I didn’t want to campaign for them.”

Dr Ariadna Gallo, an adjunct researcher in political science with Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, described the practice of forcing state workers to campaign as “completely questionable.” As a relatively new force in Argentine politics, Juntos por el Cambio doesn’t count with the established grassroots support of its rivals, she said.

Forcing state employees to campaign for the ruling coalition could also be interpreted as clientelism in the broadest sense, says Gallo, because people’s employment is made conditional on them taking action to gain votes for the coalition.

Since Your Campaign is not my Job has made these experiences public, Sánchez and Rodríguez are waiting anxiously to see what will happen with the prosecutor’s investigation. They’re also fearing that they’ll lose their jobs when their contracts come up for renewal in December. “It’s outrageous on a political level,” Rodríguez said. “They’re playing with people’s jobs.”

Author Bio

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. She mostly covers society, politics, and human rights in Argentina and Bolivia.