Argentine union boss plans big show of strength

AP News
Posted: Apr 28, 2011 6:28 PM
Argentine union boss plans big show of strength

Argentina's top labor leader is calling a half-million members into the capital's streets Friday in a show of support for President Cristina Fernandez _ and as a warming that unions must be taken care of to avoid unrest that could make the country ungovernable.

Not content with this year's pay raises of 24 percent or more for his truckers and other union members, Hugo Moyano wants union loyalists installed in key government posts and even corporate boardrooms. His main goal is to push private companies to open their books and share 10 percent of their profits with workers.

Moyano's many critics see another, darker motive behind the huge rally: He's sending a message that protecting union leaders from corruption investigations is the price of their loyalty to the president.

Moyano is signaling that union support "will continue as long as the government supports him politically, judicially and economically," said Mariano Martin, author of "The Trucker," a biography that describes the rise of the truckers union leader from humble origins to a position where his political power rivals that of Argentina's president.

As leader of Argentina's biggest union confederation, known by its initials CGT, Moyano is a target of investigative judges examining allegations of illegal enrichment and money laundering as well as a scandal involving union-run medical plans that provided diluted, expired and stolen drugs to cancer and AIDS patients.

Only weeks ago, Moyano threatened to shut down Argentina's economy with a national strike if the government even responded to a request from Switzerland's money laundering watchdog for information about his family's financial activities. The request was prompted by suspicious transactions in a Swiss bank account involving a Buenos Aires garbage company linked in local media reports to Moyano and his sons.

Moyano later "suspended" the threat amid widespread criticism, but Friday's demonstration is intended to show how easily he can act if threatened.

The CGT's 4 million members can cause paralyzing strikes at a moment's notice, closing down highways, airlines, trains, garbage collection and other essential services in this country of 40 million people.

Moyano's support for Fernandez is built on an alliance forged by her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner. His pact with Moyano freed Argentina from social protests that brought down a series of presidents before Kirchner took office in 2003 and ensured that unions would achieve many of their demands as the government pursues what it calls a more egalitarian society.

But Fernandez has tried to establish some distance from Moyano recently, including turning down repeated invitations to speak at Friday's rally. She said she would be in Patagonia with her children, honoring the six-month anniversary of Kirchner's death from a heart attack.

Opponents of Moyano within the CGT _ and there are a variety of them _ dismissed the rally as an expression of Moyano's personal ambitions rather than the labor movement's needs.

"It's a maneuver to pressure the government and show how much power he has in its internal decisions," said Armando Cavalieri, head of the commercial workers union.

Polls suggest Fernandez could easily win re-election Oct. 23 if she commits to running again against a weak and divided opposition.

But union support is essential for avoiding social unrest, and no other labor leader can mobilize as many workers as Moyano. He also is vice president of the governing Peronist party in sprawling Buenos Aires province, where most of Argentina's voters live, and a dozen members of congress answer to the CGT.

During the administrations of Kirchner and Fernandez, Moyano's truckers union has captured members from weaker rivals, and Argentina's unions now have direct control over the contributions that every unionized worker must make toward health care. That money, in turn, has built networks of medical clinics and other institutions, among other investments.

Moyano hopes to expand union gains by supporting Fernandez and pressing for direct union representation in executive branch positions _ and in corporate boardrooms, so they can study corporate ledgers and share in the profits.

"It's a matter of common sense that the men who really understand the company participate in its decisions," Moyano told Radio Milenio on Thursday.