Trade Unions

Having worked on collective politics from a more social-movements perspective in Bolivia, I became interested in trade unionism. My work in Bolivia emphasised collective mobilisation and collective politics based on residence and on occupation, with part of my book (El Alto, Rebel City) focussing on the Federation of Street Vendors of the city of El Alto. I see this as an excellent example of a ‘new’, or at least unexpected kind of trade unionism, namely that of workers in the informal sector. Picking up on that interest in collective organisation based on occupation, I subsequently switched field site, to explore unions in a highly formalised sector of the economy, in Argentina.

Argentine trade unions are a fascinating field, in part because of a history of (often contested) support for the Peronist movement from the 1940s onwards. In a world where – the story goes – structural adjustment irrevocably weakened classic trade unions and new forms of social movements emerged in their stead, the persistence and even recent resurgence of trade unions in Argentina is noteworthy, if not actually as unusual as some think. For more details about my trade union project, see here.

State employees are a really interesting group of workers when it comes to trade unionism: lots of questions, such as how to negotiate when the state is employer – because the triangle capital–labour–state (as mediator) collapses explicitly. Also, self-identification as a worker is complex, when state employees can range from atomic engineers to those in more classically working class occupations such as miners. How does a single organisation represent all these people?

ATE produced a calendar in 2010 to celebrate their 85th anniversary; the images of different kinds of state workers are very striking.

One thought on “Trade Unions

  1. I just read your excellent new article in PoLAR–I am very curious about how the “verticalist” styles of organization at the UPCN might also play a role in party politics. I know next to nothing about politics in Argentina, but you seem to indicate that something like this same verticalist thinking was still important for the authority wielded by Menem’s PJ. Did Menem, and have other parties, explicitly invoked the kind of discipline that is inherent in unions to justify their national economic policies? That would certainly be interesting, although it seems there could still be a connection there even if it is not an explicit one.

    Overall, this makes me think there is an important relationship between verticalism as a set of relatively practical techniques used specifically for the political organization of work and workers and verticalism as a form of state reason. I’ve argued, also in PoLAR, that there is something like an ongoing genealogy of “organizationalist” thinking in Europe (especially in the former East Germany, where I do my research), such that people still look for a political organization of work even after the project of creating a workers’ state has collapsed. Would you say that “verticalism” remains an important part of state reason in Argentina, even if this term isn’t used explicitly?

    It would be interesting to know what kind of ideal state is imagined by your informants within the union, especially how the UPCN might defend the PJ after the neoliberal turn. Have they really defended efforts to undermine unions in the name of some larger political discipline? You seem to perhaps be indicating that this is the case, although it is hard to tell.

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