Wednesday, February 28, 2018

 

 

 

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On February 21, an estimated 90,000-140,000 demonstrators occupied the Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires. Organizers said the protest was in opposition to the government’s rigid stance on wage negotiations, and its proposed labor reforms. The sense of grievance was real. Since the October midterms, there has been a ten-percentage point increase in the number of Argentines saying the economy is getting worse. Meanwhile, high inflation is eroding real wages; the average salary is below 2015 levels. Going forward, the government wants to keep raises to 15 percent, though inflation is expected to reach 20 percent this year. 

However, government officials had reasons to question the motives of the union bosses. They portrayed the march as a defense of Hugo Moyano—the powerful, though unpopular, truckers union boss—from his mounting legal troubles. As Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio argued, “This is a march that has as its motive a personal issue of a union leader that does not feel that he should be treated equally under the law.” Indeed, thanks to President Mauricio Macri’s campaign against “union mafias,” prosecutors feel liberated to pursue the once untouchable Mr. Moyano, who has found himself entangled in a range of criminal investigations. The investigations into Mr. Moyano’s empire strike at the heart of the country’s most powerful union. 

If Mr. Moyano hoped the demonstration would ease his legal troubles, it might have backfired. Mr. Macri has argued that, “There isn’t a persecution against union bosses; what there is in Argentina today is a judiciary that is awake and acts independently.” Meanwhile, most of Mr. Moyano’s fellow union bosses in the CGT were unconvinced by his strategy, and distanced themselves from the march (see graphic below). Lacking the CGT’s support, Mr. Moyano was forced to build bridges to left-leaning unions, social movements and the Kirchneristas, though backing from the Kirchneristas scared off more traditional union allies. (The alliance with the Kirchneristas demonstrated Mr. Moyano’s isolation. After all, he and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had been bitter enemies, after a public falling out in 2011. During her second term, Mr. Moyano led five general strikes.)

At the march, Mr. Moyano did not even pretend to separate his personal troubles from the broader union cause. Though most demonstrators were presumably more interested in pocketbook worries, in his speech, Mr. Moyano focused on what he considers his political persecution. “I am not afraid to go to jail. I am prepared to go to jail, if the courts decide. I’m not afraid that they’ll kill me. I am prepared to give my life for the workers.”

That approach, and the alliance with the Kirchneristas, weakened Mr. Moyano. Downplaying the significance of the massive protest, Mr. Macri’s chief of staff, Marcos Peña, linked Mr. Moyano to Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, a similarly divisive and unpopular figure. “The only person missing on the stage was Cristina Kirchner,” he said. Still, Mr. Moyano’s coalition does threaten to complicate labor reforms. Even before the march, the government had decided to split up, and delay, labor reform legislation, after pension reforms in December sparked violent protests. Now, the president’s hardline opponents appear more organized, and the government risks violent street clashes if it moves too quickly or pushes too hard on its labor agenda.