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General Confederation of Labor (CGT)

For over 60 years, Peronists controlled the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which has had a virtual monopoly over worker representation since state-structured unionization was first introduced by Labor Minister and then-President Juan Domingo Peron in the mid-1940s. The CGT has approximately 3 million members, and represents over two-thirds of the unionized workforce. Approximately 40 percent of Argentina's workforce is unionized.

In Argentina, unions aggressively fight over membership, since the exclusive right to enter into collective bargaining with companies on behalf of all workers is granted to the union that can prove it has the largest membership roster. Recent examples of such union competition in the express courier industry have impacted U.S. companies operating here. Widespread distrust of official inflation data has already resulted in labor demands for wage increases 2-3 times above the official inflation rate.

The first labor organizations were mutual aid societies established along ethnic lines by Italian and Spanish immigrants in the early 1850s. The first formal labor union, the Buenos Aires Printers' Society (Sociedad Tipografica Bonaerense), was established in 1857. During the 1870s and 1880s a number of anarchists and socialists came to the country from Europe and soon formed a number of labor organizations that expressed a wide — often competing — variety of ideological currents.

The Argentine Regional Federation of Workers (FederaciOn Obrera Regional Argentina—FORA) was formed in 1890 by socialists but was taken over by anarchists in 1901. The anarchist FORA was the major federation during this early period, but after 1910, largely owing to government repression, the anarchists lost the labor movement to the syndicalists. At its ninth congress in 1915, FORA split into two factions, reflecting the division between anarchists and syndicalists.

The syndicalists remained in control of the labor movement until the mid-1930s. In 1930 the the General Confederation of Labor (Conferación General de Trabajo—CGT) was formed, and in 1935 socialists and communists took over the CGT. After 1935 the socialists and the communists competed for control of the CGT, leading to its bifurcation in 1942.

Under Peron's sponsorship, first from his position as secretary of labor and social welfare from 1943 to 1945 and then as president from 1946 to 1955, the socialists and the communists were largely eliminated from the CGT leadership, and the CGT became the only officially recognized labor confederation.

After the inauguration of Alfonsin in December 1983, relations between the CGT and the government were difficult. In 1984 the Alfonsmn government made an unsuccessful attempt to reorganize the labor movement, and there were numerous strikes and demonstrations organized by many of the constituent organizations of the CGT against the government's economic policies. In June 1985 the government recognized the CGT for the first time since 1976 and allowed it to return to its national headquarters building

Under Argentine law, the GOA recognizes two types of unions, each with a different set of rights: 1) unions that are simply registered with the MOL and have a limited scope of rights; and 2) unions that are not only registered with the MOL, but have also been officially recognized as the most representative union in a given sector. Legally recognized unions can exercise a wider range of privileges, such as calling for elections to appoint delegates, exercising the right to strike, negotiating bargaining agreements, appointing delegates to international organizations, and compelling employers to directly deduct union dues from unionized workers' salaries.

For years, the government only granted legal recognition to the CGT and its affiliates, although President Nestor Kirchner and his wife President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, flirted with the idea of granting legal recognition to a rival confederation known as the Argentine Workers Confederation (CTA) since 2003.

In 2003, the Public Employees' Association (ATE), a CTA-affiliated union, was prevented from holding elections by the CGT-affiliated Civil Servants of the Armed Forces Union (PECIFA). PECIFA cited Article 41 of the Trade Unions law which stipulates that only state-recognized unions are entitled to call elections to vote for delegates, and that these delegates must be members of that union. ATE filed a petition in protest that same year, and its petition was subsequently dismissed by both the Ministry of Labor and the Labor Court of Appeals.

On 11 November 2008, the Argentine Supreme Court deemed Article 41 to be in breach of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of association and union democracy, as well as of several international conventions adopted by Argentina, including the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize. Since 1989, the ILO had called on Argentina to reform its labor laws to bring it into compliance with Convention 87.

In their ruling, the judges said "by favoring or not favoring a given trade union with respect to others, governments can influence workers' decisions when they select a union to join." In addition, the ruling asserted that the MOL's "discretion" in awarding official union recognition "violates international treaties." The ruling, if broadly applied, would expand representation rights to labor delegates affiliated with unions that are simply registered with, but not legally recognized by, the Labor Ministry (MOL).

The Supreme Court's decision surprised government officials and CGT and CTA representatives alike. The CTA, which had been unsuccessfully demanding legal recognition by the MOL for 16 years, celebrated the decision. The CTA is an autonomous, politically non-partisan organization, with an estimated 1.5 million members, including public and private employees, as well as unemployed and retired people. The CTA and other labor groups not affiliated with the CGT had long contended that the Trade Unions Law guaranteed the CGT and its affiliated unions a virtual monopoly over unionized labor. They argued that this contravened ILO Convention 87 and prevented the CTA and CTA-affiliates from obtaining full legal standing.

Although the Supreme Court's decision refered specifically to Article 41 of the Trade Unions Law, several labor experts considered this a landmark decision as it upheld the supremacy of international treaties over domestic labor law. CTA legal representative Horacio Meguira asserted that the decision will compel the Congress to amend the current Trade Unions Law in order to honor Argentina's international obligation to guarantee the right to freely organize.

The GOA had considered the possibility of granting legal recognition to the CTA since Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003, and had relaxed some labor regulations to allow the CTA to gain extra rights in recent years, such as a seat on the Wage Council and on the Board of the National Institute of Social Services for Retirees and Pensioners (PAMI). CTA lawyers said they believed the verdict not only cracks open the CGT's monopoly on worker representation, but also sets a precedent for legal rulings in favor of union freedom and democracy in future cases.

GOA officials swiftly sought to minimize the ruling's impact. Labor Minister Carlos Tomada stated that the ruling would only apply to ATE, and indicated that unions that wanted similar treatment would have to go through the courts. He dismissed outright the possibility of amending the Trade Unions Law. Justice Minister Anibal Fernandez opined that the Supreme Court had resolved an abstract case between two unions in the public sector, and Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo stated that the decision was limited to civil servants in the public sector.

CGT representatives strongly criticized the decision. Hugo Moyano, CGT Secretary General and Vice President of the Peronist Party (PJ), called the ruling "a mistake." CGT spokesman Hector Daer said the confederation would accept the decision, but would urge the government to make a "political decision regarding the issue." CGT Human Rights Secretary and leader of the Judicial Workers' Union Julio Piumato called it "a provocation that would cloud the social climate." CGT Assistant Secretary Juan Belen characterized the decision as "crazy" and said it "lacks common sense."

Representatives of commercial and industrial chambers also expressed concern over the ruling, but for diametrically opposed reasons. They predicted that competition among labor unions would result in tougher labor demands. The President of the Argentine Industrial Chamber (UIA) Juan Carlos Lascurain said the chamber's legal team was analyzing the ruling, but opined that freedom of association is always a "complicated" issue. The President of the General Economic Confederation (CGE) Guillermo Gonzalez Galicia said the decision would mean that industry would have to negotiate with more than one representative, each with different labor demands, making it even more difficult for industry to reach agreements with labor.

The law allows unions to register without prior authorization, and registered trade union organizations may engage in certain activities to represent their members, including petitioning the government and employers. The law grants official trade union status to only one union deemed the “most representative” per industrial sector within a specific geographical region. Only unions with such official recognition receive trade union immunity for their officials, are permitted to deduct union dues directly, and may bargain collectively with recourse to conciliation and arbitration. The most representative union bargains on behalf of all workers, and collective agreements cover both union members and nonmembers in the sector. The law requires the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security to ratify collective bargaining agreements.

The Argentine Workers Central (CTA) and other labor groups not affiliated with the General Confederation of Labor continued to contend that the legal recognition of only one union per sector conflicted with international standards and prevented these unions from obtaining full legal standing. In June the Supreme Court decided a case reaffirming the need for more than one official union per sector and for amendments to the legislation.

The Supreme Court's 2008 ruling demonstrated that judicial independence still has a pulse in Argentina. The ruling attacked the core of this country's Peronist-corporatist Model, seeking to check the previously unchallenged power of the CGT. If applied broadly, the ruling not only threatened CGT hegemony over labor relations, but also the very foundation upon which Peronism is based. Argentina's trade union system has long been the central pillar of the corporatist model put in place by Peron 60 years ago, and it has successfully resisted reform efforts by military and democratic governments seeking a more pluralistic system for over half a century. It is not surprising that the CGT and, the current neo-Peronist government will seek to limit the ruling's applicability, but the Court's decision could be a positive step if it helps introduce greater competition, democracy, and transparency into Argentina's labor movement.

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