[Marxism] WSJ Article on Kraft-Argentina
sartesian at earthlink.net
Wed Sep 30 22:50:46 MDT 2009
Labor Crisis in Argentina Fuels Economic Worries
Kraft Workers' Case Prompts Protests, and Puts Leftist Government in a
Dilemma as Ties to Unions Fail to Calm Demonstrations
By TAOS TURNER and MATT MOFFETT
BUENOS AIRES -- A labor battle at a Kraft Foods Inc. factory is causing
disruption on the streets here and raising concerns about further union
unrest at a time of economic distress.
Protesting what they call wrongful dismissals by the Northfield, Ill., food
company, a group of Kraft workers had occupied the plant in a suburb of the
Argentine capital for three weeks until they were forcibly removed by police
executing a court order this past Friday.
The expulsion of the workers has sparked a series of street protests in
recent days by the Kraft workers' union and its supporters. The protests
have snarled the capital's traffic, in an echo of the turmoil that racked
the city during Argentina's 2001-02 economic collapse.
The labor unrest is a big headache for leftist President Cristina Kirchner
at a time when Argentina's unemployment and poverty are rising because of
the global economic crisis. Official government statistics put unemployment
at 8.8%, but private economists say it is closer to 11%. While official data
put poverty at 13.9%, some economists say the true number easily surpasses
Street protests by unemployed workers -- albeit much larger than the current
demonstrations -- contributed to the downfall of several governments that
came before Mrs. Kirchner's and that of her husband and predecessor, Néstor.
But several years of economic growth, along with the Kirchners' political
adeptness, allowed the government to co-opt many union leaders, as well as
leaders of groups of unemployed workers known as piqueteros.
In the case of Kraft, the workers on the plant floor seem to have peeled
away from their pro-government union leaders. "Kraft is trapped
involuntarily in a political conflict between the traditional union
leadership and more radical, lower-level representatives," said Federico
Thomsen, an economic and political analyst in Buenos Aires.
That leaves Mrs. Kirchner's leftist government in a dilemma, because she
styles herself as a progressive and has been highly critical of the
repressive measures against demonstrators taken by previous governments.
"The government fears that if you call in the police you can end up with
deaths on your hands, so that fear prohibits the government from acting,"
Mr. Thomsen said.
The conflict started in July, when Kraft workers sought paid leave and
enhanced hygiene measures amid a burgeoning swine-flu epidemic, according to
a Kraft spokesman. The spokesman says there were never any cases of the H1N1
flu at the plant, and the company took added hygienic measures. On July 3,
workers surrounded Kraft's administrative building and blocked 70 of its
employees from leaving.
Kraft filed a criminal claim against the workers and eventually decided to
fire 156 employees it says were involved in the matter. The factory has a
total of 2,700 employees.
Union members say Kraft owed the employees severance packages, while the
company says it was legally justified in firing them without benefits. The
company has since offered severance packages to 70 of those workers. Workers
occupied and almost completely shut down Kraft's factory for three weeks
until police forced them out last week.
Argentine businesses are afraid other unions might follow the example of
those at Kraft. "We're worried about this," said Hector Mendez, head of the
Argentine Industrial Union, a business group, in a radio interview on
Tuesday. "These radical groups aren't doing any good for anybody. People are
extremely irritated and there's an enormous amount of tension."
The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires said it had been in touch with the
government on the matter, though it wasn't involved in negotiations.
In a statement, the embassy said it "supports the full application of labor
rights and protections, as well as respect for property rights. The embassy
is pleased that the Kraft plant is now operating again."
U.S. companies employ 155,000 Argentine workers, the embassy said
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