Underground Changes: Argentine Subway Workers Fight for a New Union

More than 8 years ago subway workers in Buenos Aires began to organize for improvements in working conditions. However, the Union Tranviario Automotor (UTA), to which the workers belong, has not only fought against these changes, but also threatened and persecuted subway worker delegates. Workers are now engaged in a fight against the UTA and the Ministry of Labor for the right to create their own union.

ImageTranslated by Mat Goldín and April Howard

More than 8 years ago delegates of the internal commission of subways in Buenos Aires began a fight that resulted in improvements in working conditions: ten years without personnel dismissal, a six hour work day, the creation of new working places and the incorporation of workers from external companies who were also providing services in the subways. These campaigns, which were always supported by the majority of the workers, resulted in a clash with the management of Union Tranviario Automotor (UTA), to which the the workers belong. This turned into threats, persecution and physical aggression toward the delegates of the subway workers.

These confrontations gave subway workers the idea of creating their own union. In August, the delegates of the subway presented a request of inscription in the Ministry of Labor, for which the UTA management tried all the means to expel them from the union. Finally, the General Secretary of UTA, Roberto Fernandez, was forced to make a modification in the union statute that made it possible to organize elections modifying the method of voting. At that time, the subway delegates denounced the idea, stating that if these elections were to take place, they would be fraudulent, because the voter list was created by the union and not by the subway branch, breaking a method of voting used for more than 14 years. The election did not guarantee a corresponding number of representatives, according to the minimum proportion of workers, which means that it reduced the number of delegates and limited the representation of the delegates among other things.

On December 12, the chosen day  for the elections organized by the UTA’s executive management, the workers of the subway held assemblies in their work places, repudiating the elections. At this time, Taborda, a delegate said: "The Company made an agreement with the bureaucracy to impose on us delegates who correspond to their interests, and with the complicity of the Ministry of Labor.” One week before, the delegates presented a challenging to the elections in the Department of Work, requesting a quick reply, but they did not receive any response.

In the elections organized by the union bureaucracy, only 8% of 2.500 registered workers voted. In this voting the delegates lost formal representation, so they then put all their energy toward creating a new union. The first step was holding a plebiscite for all the subway workers in order to find out if they were in favor. The proposal sought to create the new union by seeking protection through Law N° 23.551 of Union Associations, the recent mandate from the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation and of the Agreement N° 98 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), about the rights of unions and collective negotiation, which guarantees workers the right to create their own union organizations.

This was strongly rejected by the UTA and Hugo Moyano, General Secretary of the General Federation of the Work (CGT), a big ally of the national government of Cristina Krichner.

February 5, was the day chosen for the beginning of the plebescite. While it was taking place, a group of thugs from the UTA arrived at the Congreso de Tucuman station and attacked the people there. This occurred in full view of the mass media, members of social, human rights, and political organizations and passengers. In repudiation of this new act of violence, the workers decided to strike, which caused several hours of the total interruption of the subway service. The next day, Roberto Fernandez, president of UTA said: "Is important to clarify that those self-named delegates do not have union rights, because in the last elections they did not even appear as candidates… those who are supporting the plebiscite are stuck in an ideology of permanent revolution. The only people that they are hurting are passengers and the workers, who don’t want to play their game."

Meanwhile the referendum continued, finishing on February 12 at 7 PM. More than 70% of the registered workers voted in the plebiscite, and 98,8% declared themselves in favor of creating a new union. All polls were monitored by public notaries, as well as being observed by social, political and human rights activists.

However, this is only a first step in the fight for the creation of a new union. Still needed is the union’s inscription and legal status, which must be granted and approved by the Ministry of Labor, which has not supported the idea. When discussing the issue, Minister of Labor, Carlos Tomada, said that the creation of the new union "is not provided for in the union laws… From the point view of legal efficiency, it doesn’t have a chance of success."

The subway workers’ fight for their own union, is n important beginning, in order that other workers who are tied to unions that do not answer to their demands, can break with union bureaucracy, which historically has been allied with political and economic powers of the moment at the cost of the needs of the hard-working class. Hopefully this struggle marks the beginning of the end of the power of the ‘CGT fat cats.’