The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism

By Paul H. Lewis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Labor

Argentina's first labor unions arose from mutual aid societies organized in the 1850s by immigrant workers from Spain and Italy. People from the same homeland, often from the same towns, banded together in the New World to help one another. The first mutual aid societies were nonpolitical; their original purpose was to provide companionship and succor to their members. With the modest dues they charged they were able to offer some medical assistance, accident insurance, or at the very least, a decent burial. There were over 130 of these societies in Argentina by the end of the nineteenth century.1

Even before the end of the century, however, many mutual aid societies were being transformed into, or superseded by, more classconscious forms of labor organization. Immigrants who arrived during the later decades were more likely to have had some experience with European socialist or anarchist movements and hence were more militant in their outlook. The anarchists were more violent, believing that the world was on the verge of a great upheaval that would abolish all forms of authority, including private property, religion, and the state. The working masses needed only to be ignited through acts of terror, called "propaganda of the deed," against the ruling powers. The socialists, by contrast, were more inclined toward gradual, peaceful, and practical solutions to the workers' problems under capitalism.

The earliest union was the typographers', which grew out of a mutual aid society in 1877. It soon disbanded after losing its first strike for higher pay, but it would reappear in the next decade with many other unions representing workers as diverse as carpenters, bricklayers, railroad engineers, hotel employees, bakers, millers, and waiters. Forty-eight strikes were settled during the 1880s, nineteen of which ended with the workers winning all of their demands; twenty-three were complete defeats and six ended in compromises. Unions would fare worse later on, when the employers got better organized.2

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