Leveraging Strategic Position, Argentine Vegetable Oil Workers Win Big Raises with Coordinated Strike
Argentina’s vegetable oil workers ended 2020 on a high note, with a triumphant 21-day national strike for higher wages. They were pushing to make the minimum wage a living wage, as the constitution mandates.
It was the country’s longest national strike of the year, and it ended in total victory: the unions won a 35 percent increase in wages for all of the workers, not just those earning the minimum. More than 20,000 working-class families won a decent wage for 2021. (In Argentina wages are negotiated in annual rounds of collective bargaining.)
Vegetable oil workers mainly work in factories and on docks, processing, classifying, and storing seeds and making oil. They work hand in hand with grain receivers—the technicians who check the quality of seeds and their conditions of conservation and storage before they are sold or shipped.
The unions used their strategic position to coordinate actions that seriously hit agribusiness exports, the core of Argentina’s international trade. Their victory reinforces the importance of democratic organization, of militant action, and of coordinating actions along supply chains.
Wages in Argentina have plummeted after seven years of rising inflation. Yet employers have been refusing wage increases, using the pandemic as an excuse. The strike victory marks a significant step forward in worker resistance.
WORLD’S LARGEST AGROINDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
In the last two decades, Argentina has secured its place as a major supplier of vegetable oil and seeds—mainly to the United States, China, and Brazil. The largest agroindustrial complex in the world is located in the Rosario Industrial Belt in central Argentina. The private docks of gigantic factories, mainly owned by multinational corporations, export grain and oil products in ships using the Paraná River waterway. Many large ships then finish loading their cargo in the deep-water docks in Buenos Aires Province. These docks are privately owned by the same corporations: Cargill, Bunge, Glencore, ADM, Louis Dreyfus, COFCO, Aceitera General Deheza, Vicentin, and Molinos Río de la Plata.
In 2018, soybean, corn, and sunflower products made up almost 20 percent of Argentine exports. Consequently, the manufacturing and logistics complex—the interconnecting docks, shipping companies, trade offices, and factories—associated with soybean oil production and circulation became a central gear of the national economy, and one of the country’s main sources of much-needed foreign currency.
The global economic downturn triggered by the Covid pandemic deepened Argentina’s external debt crisis and its need for dollars. As a result, the whole agribusiness sector was deemed “essential,” and work never stopped in the plants, fields, docks, and ships. Corporations pressed the government for tax concessions, which they finally achieved on October 20. At the same time, they delayed mid-year wage bargaining that they had agreed to with unions in April.
In October, the Chamber of Vegetable Oil Processors refused to increase wages, and the grain receivers union (URGARA) joined the vegetable oil workers federation (FTCIODyARA) in a one-day strike. The labor ministry set up a negotiation process, but this ended in the beginning of December without a resolution. SOEA San Lorenzo, a local vegetable oil union outside the federation, also met the employers’ intransigence with industrial action. In the following days, the three organizations would coordinate their actions and demands.
$100 MILLION A DAY
At 6 a.m. on December 9, the vegetable oil workers federation and the grain receivers union began their strike, paralyzing the oilseed facilities along the Paraná River and the coasts of Buenos Aires Province. In the afternoon, SOEA San Lorenzo, which had been on a three-day strike between December 3 and 6, joined the federation and the grain receivers, paralyzing the remaining parts of the complex.
At the peak of the strike, more than 170 cargo ships waited to load grain on the Paraná River. Business associations and corporations denounced the paralysis, which cost $100 million (U.S.) per day. Workers countered that the money employers lost each day of the strike surpassed the total cost of the wage increase demanded by the unions.
Workers and activists picketed access points to the docks and oil plants, especially in the regions of Rosario and San Lorenzo and in the large port complex of Bahía Blanca. Teachers and public employee unions joined the pickets in solidarity in addition to rank-and-file metalworkers, journalists, and members of organizations of informal sector workers. Leaders of human rights and feminist organizations expressed their solidarity through social media campaigns.
CONSTITUTION MANDATES A LIVING WAGE
After a long meeting on December 14, the three unions that began the strike unified their claims under a single demand: “For a decent wage, as the national constitution mandates.” This was a longtime demand of the vegetable oil workers federation and the political core of a 25-day strike in 2015 that shined a spotlight on the federation’s strategy and its then-new leadership.
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Argentine unions normally set wage demands with reference to the “basic basket”—a smaller, shrinking set of consumer goods defined by the state with reference to basic nutritional indicators. But the vegetable oil workers demanded that other costs should be included in setting the minimum wage, including “decent housing, education, health care, clothing, recreation, transport, holidays, and retirement,” as outlined in the country’s Employment Contract Law (Ley de Contrato de Trabajo).
Since new leadership took over the vegetable oil workers federation national board, a group of advisors and activists from Rosario University has engaged in the technical work of translating this notion of a “decent wage” to a list of goods and then to money. This has become the basis for the federation’s yearly wage demands.
This strategy introduces an important debate within the labor movement: whether union demands should be shaped by working-class families’ needs, rather than employers’ estimates of costs and profits. For the first time, the main unions in the agribusiness export complex all agreed to demand the equivalent of the “decent wage” as determined by the federation, strengthening their position in bargaining.
“Our claim is not based on inflation nor on the extraordinary profits of our employers,” read a statement from the vegetable oil workers federation during the strike. “Our claim arises from our needs and what the National Constitution establishes as our right to decent lives.”
SOLIDARITY STRIKE BY PORT UNIONS
On December 22, ten unions from San Lorenzo, organized in the Maritime Port and Related Interunion, struck in solidarity with the vegetable oil unions. For 36 hours, tugboat workers, sailors, and other technicians involved in docking and shipping operations paralyzed the little remaining activity that the ongoing strike had not already stopped. This was not merely a solidarity strike: all of them were involved in wage bargaining too, facing employers’ refusal to grant meaningful increases. The coordinated strike strengthened the position of all the unions even as they bargained independently.
Finally on December 29, the three unions that began the strike arrived at an agreement with the employer associations for a wage increase of 35 percent. Minimum salaries will be set at 93,000 Argentine pesos, or about $1,060 per month. Within three days, the other unions reached their own agreements.
A COORDINATED STRATEGY
Rank-and-file mobilization and unity of action with other unions in the agribusiness chain were two highlights of the vegetable oil workers federation’s strategy. The federation elected a new leadership a few years ago after a fierce dispute within its ranks over union strategy, its relationship with political parties and the state, and internal democracy.
The new leadership, forged in local struggles against subcontracting and job insecurity, adopted democratic principles to run the union. Assemblies and meetings can now decide direct action in workplaces. Every year, the union organizes at least two plenary sessions with delegates, activists, and local leaders to discuss the economic and political situation and to set tactics around collective bargaining.
Each local union may also organize assemblies and meetings to discuss local issues, always promoting member participation. As a consequence, a vigorous union has developed, able to organize and support long-lasting conflicts through the mobilization of members, delegates, and leaders. Over the course of the strike, the federation promoted local assemblies at each plant and joint assemblies with the other unions involved in the strike. These were held to inform leaders about member sentiments and to discuss the continuation of the strike.
The federation has sought to strengthen its position by taking coordinated action with workers and other unions in sectors along the supply chain, such as retail, security, and docks. In the past few years, coordination among unions has resulted in significant minimum wage increases through regional agreements in San Lorenzo, Villa Gobernador Gálvez, and Punta Alvear.
This time, unity of action reached new levels. First, it took advantage of the strategic position of the agroexport facilities, paralyzing the whole supply chain even though some occupations like truck drivers and farmworkers didn’t join the strike. Second, it brought formerly local tactics to the national level. Third, through the joint strike, every union strengthened its position. These are important lessons for a labor movement trapped in branch or sectoral tactics, where unions have become accustomed to fighting on their own.
Julia Soul is a researcher at the TEL labor studies workshop and the CEIL labor research center, and a collaborator in the independent news agency ANRed (Agencia de Noticias RedAcción). Ernesto Torres is a journalist with Indymedia.