Labor, Nationalism, and Politics in Argentina is an excellent addition to the slowly expanding body of literature dealing with the Latin American labor movement. In this instance the author defines as his principal themes the impact of social mobilization in Argentina upon the emergence of trade unionism, the entrance of workers into politics, and the growth of a popular nationalist ideology among laborers.
For a backdrop to labor’s rise and decline during the era of Juan Perón, Baily deftly sketches the causes of developing trade unionism at the end of the last century and then quickly traces the struggles over doctrine and structure that brought fragmentation in the 1920s and reorganization in the 1930s. On the eve of Perón’s ascendancy to power the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) dominated organized labor and adhered to a straightforward doctrine of liberal, reformist nationalism implanted by the innumerable European immigrants who largely formed and ran the trade unions. Nevertheless, the CGT suffered from internal cleavages which inhibited its effective operation. Only about 10 percent of all the nation’s workers held union membership, and widespread frustration prevailed among the working classes.
The story of Perón’s seduction and later abandonment of labor has never before been told with as much insight as in this book. One of the Group of United Officers who seized government in 1943, Perón stood out as the only leader who was aware of the seething discontent among the Argentine working classes and who determined to make these disaffected millions his base of power. Perón’s early expression of friendship to labor soon led to countless specific pro-labor actions after political changes had raised him to power in governmental councils.
Of course, Perón’s efforts on behalf of labor were not quite selfless. In line with his plan to make a base of labor supporters, he first undermined the socialist and communist trade unionists by branding them slaves of foreign ideologies, “the worst sickness of the working mass” (p. 78). Such strategy, along with his popular nationalism and prolabor program, won Perón the loyalty of a large section of organized labor. At the same time, he began to appeal to unorganized workers, mostly immigrants from the Argentine interior, who comprised a large and growing segment of the working force in the urban areas and who carried a criollo value system which set them apart from the foreign immigrants. Perón helped them to associate in unions, stimulated their criollo ideals, and easily attracted them into his camp.
A significant turning point in Perón’s and labor’s fortunes grew out of the cuartelazo of October 1945 that dumped Perón from office and then jailed him. His workers responded with a general strike on the 17th, the upshot of which demonstrated to labor that they possessed enormous political power. It also enabled Perón to augment his influence among the workers and ultimately swept him into the presidency.
Perón’s first presidency was a remarkable period for labor. Trade unionists attained high governmental positions for the first time in history; workers enjoyed unprecedented economic returns; and Eva Perón showered them with countless other benefits. At the same time labor fell more and more into the government’s grasp; unauthorized strikes were outlawed; and both democratic and independent unions were destroyed, while the CGT slipped almost totally into Peronist hands. These developments presaged Perón’s second presidency, when he abandoned his erstwhile labor friends, antagonized many other powerful groups, and brought on his own political demise.
Baily analyzes the forces and events of the Perón years with clarity and depth. His book profits greatly from original research carried out during 1963 in Argentina, where he availed himself of previously unused original sources and interviews with many prominent political and labor leaders. He ends his study with 1957, at a time when the most important issues regarding labor, nationalism, and political life had been established. He concludes that the present badly divided Argentina cannot be reunited, enjoy any true national consciousness, or find political stability unless it represents “in some fundamental manner the ideals and aspirations of the popular nationalists” and unless it also permits “the workers to participate as equals in the institutional structure of the country” (p. 192). Undoubtedly the extent to which the dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía has violated this dictum raises important questions for Argentina’s future.