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Title: Organised labour in Argentina : the railway unions to 1922
Author: Thompson, Ruth Mary
ISNI:       0000 0001 3530 9532
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1979
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The origins of the labour movement in Argentina have received little detailed attention from historians, who have generally neglected the years before 1930 in favour of developments associated with Perón and Peronism. Such secondary literature as does exist consists largely of personal memoirs. Moreover, most studies have examined these early years from a general standpoint, regarding the period as a prelude to Peronism instead of treating it in its own right. Detailed analysis of the subject is still in its early stages. The origins of Argentine labour organisation date from the period of rapid economic expansion and mass immigration before 1914. The footplatemen's union was founded in 1887, and a relative wealth of documentary material testifies to the durable and stable growth of organisation in this sector; the vicissitudes of organisation in other railway trades can also be traced from the various working class journals. The railway sector was crucial to the export economy and the growth of the beef and wheat markets, as has been emphasised in economic histories of Argentina. By contrast, the history of railway trade unions and the development of industrial relations on the railways have been neglected. This thesis sets out to fulfil two necessary functions. No adequate basic account of the origins and development of Argentine railway unions exists outside the official union histories. These provide a somewhat tendentious picture, responding to policy needs at the time of writing and relying heavily on hindsight. Thus the first part of my thesis provides a narrative outline of the struggles between 1887, when the footplate union La Fraternidad was founded, and 1922, when the general rail union was consolidated in its present form as Unión Ferroviaria. These chapters trace the steady growth of La Fraternidad from its original, inward-looking base to its eventual standing as an influential and effective craft union. This development contrasts with the difficulties attendant on the organisation of a lasting general rail union for other trades. The initial success and ultimate collapse of the Railwaymen's Confederation (1902-1908), and the transformation of the Railway Workers' Federation (FOF) into a solid counterpart to La Fraternidad in 1922 illustrate the practical problems and ideological dilemmas faced by unions and their organisers in the period. At the same time, particular attention is given to the history of the large-scale strike movements on the railways of 1896, 1907-1908, 1912 and 1917, which are discussed with lesser railway disputes in the context of other contemporary labour unrest. The second purpose of this thesis is to examine the broad themes which emerge consistently from the narrative account. In this way, the particular development of organised railway labour provides a framework for consideration of more general aspects of the early Argentine labour movement. The ideological formation of the union movement is considered with reference to the railwayman's case. This entails discussion of the nature of the immigrant influence in unions and the reasons why political parties (Socialists, Communists and Radicals) failed to dominate labour organisation. Anarchism, generally accepted as a dominant union ideology in Argentina, is reassessed and shown to have been considerably tempered by practical considerations. It was largely superseded by syndicalism, whose growth is explained in terms of changes in union structure and aspirations, which in turn responded to the development of the economy. Large and successful unions dominated a syndicalist movement which between 1915 and 1921 - years of many important industrial conflicts - was exceptionally reformist. Syndicalist unions controlled a greater proportion of the organised working class in Argentina than anywhere else in the world at this time; for this reason their successful anti-political but reformist attitudes and organisation deserve extensive examination. Closely connected with the nature of Argentine union ideology is the question of the relationship between unions and the government; the development of this relationship is a key to the understanding of the union movement to this day. It emerges from this study that the government was concerned with the 'social question' and its possible political implications from the turn of the century. Moreover, despite repressive legislation and revolutionary union rhetoric, there was extensive contact between labour leaders and government officials from an early date. The railwaymen, consistently regarded as a special case, were increasingly protected by legislation on pensions and conditions of work, but in spite of government pressure they resisted efforts to restrict freedom of union action. While exceptional because of their strategic economic role, railway workers still qualify as pioneers of the use by unions of legal remedies and state institutions for their own benefit. The subordination of ideological to practical considerations caused the railway unions to adopt centralised organisation, contrary to anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist theory and unlike many smaller, more local, but active components of the union federations. However, it took the general rail unions the thirty-five years spanned in this study to arrive at the degree of centralisation established by La Fraternidad in 1887. The story of this change involves consideration of the railway unions' place in relation to other unions; by the 1920s, it is clear that successful national unions in large-scale capitalist enterprises were adopting similar modes of organisation, though the only comparable group at the time was the Maritime Workers' Federation (FOM), another transport sector. Argentine railway unions had many structural similarities with their successful European counterparts. Since railwaymen formed a higher proportion of unionised workers in Argentina than in more diverse and developed capitalist economies, their influence in the general union movement was even greater than elsewhere.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: History ; Labor movement ; Railroads ; Employees ; Argentina