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Over 160 dockworkers face dismissal in the Port of Buenos Aires

Around 160 dockworkers in the Port of Buenos Aires, Argentina have been handed telegrams advising them of their impending dismissal from Terminales Río de la Plata (TRP). In response, workers have established a protest camp outside the terminal gates, and a process of government-mediated compulsory conciliation has begun.

Sean Robertson

July 27, 2018
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Photo by Notitrans

In July, over 160 dockworkers from the Port of Buenos Aires received notices from their employer, Terminales Río de la Plata (TRP), telling them that the company plans to sack them. The workers responded by establishing a protest camp and picket on July 14, which has now entered its third week.

The workers facing the layoffs are members of the Federación Marítima, Portuaria y de la Industria Naval (Maritime, Port and Naval Industry Federation, or FeMPINRA). Most of them are veterans on the waterfront, having served many years in stressful and demanding jobs as gruistas (crane operators), portuarios (stevedores) and apuntadores (clerks).

TRP operates Argentina’s largest container terminal. It is also a subsidiary of the giant stevedoring multinational DP World, which owns a 55.62% majority stake in TRP. In recent months, TRP has seen a fall in shipping volume. According to company CEO Gustavo Figuerola, “Activity has fallen by 33 percent and could fall by a further 27 percent” (El Cronista, July 3). This appears to have happened because TRP’s competitors have gotten the upper hand in the last year, as the shipping industry moves toward monopolization. In 2017, Maersk Line, a part of the Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk group, bought German shipping company Hamburg Süd. This buyout allowed the new Maersk-Hamburg Süd company to consolidate cargo volumes onto fewer vessels after it established joint-services agreements with two other companies. By early August, all Maersk-aligned ships will stop calling in to TRP and start going to Terminal 4 S.A, which is owned by APM Terminals, yet another part of A.P. Moller-Maersk.

Meanwhile, TRP will likely lose its lease in the Port of Buenos Aires next year thanks to a “modernization plan” drawn up by the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri. Launched in April by the Ministry of Transport and the government ports authority, the plan calls for all five terminals in the Puerto Nuevo (New Port) of Buenos Aires to be placed under the control of a single stevedoring operator by 2020.

Currently, the five New Port terminals are operated by three international companies: terminals 1, 2, and 3 by TRP; terminal 4 by Terminal 4 S.A.; and terminal 5 by Buenos Aires Container Terminal Services S.A. All three leases will expire in 2019, and insiders expect all five terminal leases to be handed to APM Terminals, which would give it a monopoly over the port.

Responding to these problems, TRP approached the Argentine Ministry of Labor for what is known as a Procedimiento Preventivo de Crisis (Crisis Prevention Procedure, or PPC). Under this process, TRP needs to apply to the ministry for legal approval of its planned layoffs. The ministry then declares a 15-day period of compulsory conciliation (which it did for TRP on July 4), during which the company cannot legally dismiss workers and unions cannot legally stop work. Even though the ministry has not deliberated on TRP’s request for layoffs and the law clearly states that a PPC “must be processed prior to the communication of dismissals or suspensions,” the company nonetheless sent the workers dismissal notices.

In the face of TRP’s threatened job losses, FeMPINRA General Secretary Juan Carlos Schmid declared on June 29 that the union federation had entered a “state of alert, mobilization and permanent assembly.” July 5 saw the federation hold its first asamblea (mass meeting) on the Buenos Aires docks, where FeMPINRA leaders made it clear that they would comply with the Ministry of Labor’s compulsory conciliation. The lively protest camp and picket established on July 14 outside the terminal gates continues to block most truck movements in and out of the terminal. While the protest outside the terminal moves into its third week, FeMPINRA members continue to load and unload all ships docking at the TRP terminal.

For decades the labor movement in Argentina has been dominated by Peronism and its politics of populism, nationalism, Catholic social justice and class conciliation. FeMPINRA and its leader Schmid are no exception to this. Schmid admires former Argentine president Juan Perón and Pope Francis, and he has tried unsuccessfully to enter parliament as part of the Peronist government of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Schmid is also one of the most powerful union leaders in Argentina. He is the general secretary of FeMPINRA, the president of the Confederación Argentina de Trabajadores del Transporte (Transport Workers’ Federation of Argentina) and one of the three leaders who represent each of the three wings of the recently reunited Confederación General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labor, or CGT), the main union federation in Argentina.

As with Peronism in general, the FeMPINRA leader’s role in the labor movement is a contradictory one. Peronist union leaders will sometimes exercise their industrial muscle. As recently as May 24, FeMPINRA called a 24-hour industry-wide strike in opposition to government austerity, the “modernization” of the Buenos Aires port and lack of government shipbuilding investment. The country’s docks, ports and shipyards were shut down as a result. Just one month later, FeMPINRA took part in the CGT federation’s nationwide general strike on June 25—a strike that was hastily called after the right-wing Macri government pulled out of a meeting with CGT leaders (including Schmid) earlier that month. (This relative union militancy contrasts with the many Peronist politicians who regularly vote with Macri to help him pass antiworker legislation and austerity measures.)

In this current dispute with TRP, the Peronist tendency toward class conciliation has come to the fore. A lively dockside protest camp and picket has been established, and truck movements in and out of the terminal have all but stopped. But FeMPINRA leaders have also complied with the Ministry of Labor’s compulsory conciliation. More importantly, these leaders have so far refused to call a stoppage at TRP or a port-wide strike, or to outline any plans to fight for the reinstatement of the 160 soon-to-be-sacked dockworkers.

If the dockworkers of Buenos Aires want to fight to keep their jobs, they cannot rely on Schmid and other FeMPINRA leaders to lead them into battle.

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