Inside the anti-union campaign of the former Argentinian government

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In December 2021, employees of Argentina’s Federal Intelligence Agency reported in a criminal complaint that they discovered a video on an old hard drive. Distorted around the edges, as if taken through a fisheye lens, the security camera-style footage showed a meeting between Buenos Aires province politicians, intelligence officers and businessmen in a hall meeting of a central bank in Buenos Aires in June 2017.

In the footage, the men are seen discussing how to send Juan Pablo Medina, head of the La Plata municipal branch of the Union of Construction Workers of Argentina (UOCRA), to jail. One comment in particular immediately made headlines across Argentina when the video became public: “Believe me, if I could have – and I’ll deny saying that if anyone asks me – if I could have a Gestapo, a shock force to end the unions, I would,” said Marcelo Villegas, labor minister of the province of Buenos Aires at the time, in the video.

The coordinated effort to imprison Medina is far from the only case where politicians and intelligence services collaborated during the presidency of Mauricio Macri, who ruled the country from 2015 to 2019. The country’s federal intelligence agency is currently the subject of a major investigation. after it was discovered that he had carried out a series of illegal operations against targets ranging from Argentina’s political elite and the families of the crew of the lost navy submarine ARA San Juan, to journalists who asked to cover the 2017 World Trade Organization conference in Buenos Aires and truckers union leader Pablo Moyano. Two intelligence officers in the video were also implicated in some of these cases. Macri himself has been charged in the submarine case, although he claims the case against him is politically motivated.

Macri is a right-wing former mayor of Buenos Aires who has positioned himself as a pro-business modernizer, pledging to open Argentina for business and end the country’s eternal struggles against inflation. These policies provoked clashes with the unions, which saw his initiatives as a neoliberal attack on the rights and living conditions of workers.

When the video became public, the leaders of Argentina’s main trade unions pledged to take legal action and alleged that the filmed meeting was not one-off, but part of a systematic plan to persecute trade unions, orchestrated by then President Macri and Buenos Aires Province Governor Maria Eugenia Vidal. “They weren’t acting on their own,” Hugo Yasky, general secretary of Argentina’s Central Workers’ union, said at a December 2021 press conference called to denounce Villegas’ remarks.

Not an isolated incident

A major investigation by a La Plata judge led in April to the prosecution of Villegas, the former labor minister, as well as senior officials and former intelligence service directors. They are accused of illegal intelligence activities and dereliction of duty.

Meeting other people to plan legal action against someone is not a criminal offense in Argentina.

However, intelligence officers are only authorized to conduct surveillance in matters relating to defense and national security, or if they have a court order, so the presence of senior intelligence agency officials at local labor dispute meeting points to possible illegal intelligence activity, says court source who spoke with Equal times on the background.

According to the judge’s decision to prosecute, which Equal times saw, the heads of the intelligence agencies had obtained information about Medina that would prove essential to a later lawsuit against him by searching databases without a court order.

Additionally, the judge’s ruling says the meeting was not an isolated incident, but rather part of a decision at “higher levels of national and provincial government” to push a “strategy geared around involving leaders.” of the La Plata branch of UOCRA in criminal cases”. .” It likely started with a meeting that took place in May 2017 at the Casa Rosada presidential palace, which then-president Mauricio Macri attended, according to the judge’s investigation.

A day after the board meeting, on June 16, complaints against Medina began to arrive at the provincial labor ministry. The president of a professional engineering association sent a letter to Villegas expressing “concern” about excess labor costs in a number of private and public works contracts, according to local media. Two months later, a business owners’ association reported to the Buenos Aires provincial labor minister that the construction workers’ union was demanding its members pay workers more than the nationally agreed rate. .

In September 2017, Medina was charged with money laundering, extortion and criminal association following an incident in which a group linked to UOCRA La Plata allegedly violently confronted a group of one another UOCRA branch at the railroad works site near La Plata. On learning of his imminent arrest, the head of the union blocked himself in the offices of UOCRA. During this time, he gave a TV interview in which he said the charges against him were orchestrated by Macri, then head of state. “I think there is a political line that comes, unfortunately, from the president of the nation,” Medina said, saying there was a meeting to coordinate the charges. He was arrested on September 26 and spent two and a half years in prison before being placed under house arrest due to his age and poor health.

State hostility towards unions

In December last year, UOCRA denounced the Argentine state to the International Labor Organization for violating the right to freedom of association. “The statements of ex-minister Villegas imply the orchestration of an operation to persecute trade unionism and initiate legal proceedings,” UOCRA secretary general Gerardo Martínez wrote in the complaint. “This new evidence confirms what the Argentine labor movement already suspected in part: the previous administration set up illegal spy bases to persecute and prosecute labor leaders.” If the complaint is upheld, the ILO can make recommendations to remedy the violations of the right to freedom of association and ask the Argentine State to implement these recommendations. It is not yet clear whether the ILO will take up the complaint.

UOCRA did not respond to requests for comment. After Medina’s arrest, the UOCRA national secretariat sought to distance itself from the leader of the local union branch, issuing a statement saying it did not condone illegal activities or violence, and appointed a new leader to normalize union operations in La Plata.

It is unclear whether the prosecution of Villegas and the others will impact the legal proceedings against Medina. But it shows that the labor complaints against him were at least partly the result of deliberately coordinated action taken by high-level officials in conjunction with the business community and information obtained illegally from the intelligence agency.

The hostility of the state towards trade unions during the Macri presidency was also felt by the teachers’ union SUTEBA, according to Roberto Baradel, its general secretary as well as the general secretary of the Buenos Aires provincial branch of the Argentinian central trade union federation. workers.

In 2018, Baradel received anonymous emails threatening to kill his children if he did not end the salary negotiations he was leading. He reported the threats to the police. “The emails came from an account in Panama, but [the police] did not investigate further; I don’t think there was the political will to push it forward,” he said. Equal times.

Although the perpetrators of the threats were never identified, they went hand in hand with union-busting tactics by the state. In 2017, Governor Vidal announced she would recruit volunteers to teach children when educators announced a pay strike. Ahead of the 2018 annual pay negotiations, the Buenos Aires provincial government posted ads and banners on its website suggesting teachers quit their unions. In March 2018, a local court ordered the Vidal administration to remove the documents on the grounds that they violated freedom of association. Despite these tactics, more than 50 percent of education workers in the province of Buenos Aires are unionized, according to Baradel.

Imposing top-down reforms on workers

While it’s rare for union busters to be caught red-handed as in the video, the speech and accusations used follow the organizers’ playbook of persecution, according to Dr. Joaquin Aldao, a sociologist who studies Argentina’s labor movement at the Institute. National Technical and Scientific Research Council. This often involves associating traditional union protest tactics such as blocking roads and picketing businesses with illegal activities, and union organizers themselves with brutal violence.

“Unionist practice ends up being challenged in advance,” he says. “This social imaginary is created that connects unionism to illegal and unethical practices – that they are gangsters, that they carry guns, that they extort employers.”

For Baradel, the coordinated case against Medina, the union-busting tactics his organization faced, and the illegal surveillance of leaders such as truckers’ union leader Pablo Moyano reflected a neoliberal drive to impose top-down reforms on workers. “[The aim was] unions would not have such power to defend rights,” he said, adding that they wanted to “impose the flexibilization of work, cuts in wages and, in the case of schooling, move towards the privatization of education in Argentina”.

As of this writing, politicians and intelligence officials are filing appeals and no date has been set for the trial. But whatever happens to the lawsuits, in a country whose last dictatorship ended in 1983, a politician saying he would like to have a Gestapo pointed to the link between an aggressive “business-friendly” policy and the violation of the right to freedom of association.

“He appeals to a personality that has nothing to do with democracy,” says Dr Aldao.

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