With the number of provinces advancing their elections already into double digits, 2019 looms as more an electoral year than ever yet the political arena may not prove the only battleground – the highly disruptive airport conflicts are likely to be the only the first chapter of a continuous tension on the labour front, producing the long hot summer yet to materialise in weather terms. A tension with an uncertain outcome, given that a minority government with more Neville Chamberlains than Winston Churchills is in two minds and likely to jump both ways. On one side some union-bashing grandstanding would not only obey the natural instincts of the Mauricio Macri administration but could also reap huge electoral dividends among vast sectors of the citizenry totally fed up with strikes and pickets. Yet in failing to stand up to the pilots’ union last week, the government seems more inclined to appeasement, mindful of the massive loss of purchasing-power suffered by millions of workers due to the gap between the 2018 inflation of 47.6 percent announced last Tuesday and wage increases usually in the 25-30 percent range.
If the government does confront the unions, it should choose its battles carefully and here the airports would seem to be the ideal choice – in these terms last week was a missed opportunity (and not the first since around the time of the G20 summit there was a similar episode of coming to the brink of confronting the airline unions before backing away). It is one thing to take a tough line against the pampered Aerolíneas Argentinas employees whose strikes and assemblies might strand thousands of passengers but hardly affect the great majority of people who do not fly anyway – quite another to battle (say) the underpaid teachers whose strikes leave millions of parents stuck with their offspring for large chunks of the year (which seems the main concern for all too many rather than actually schooling them).
The airline pilots cannot claim any of the moral high ground enjoyed by the teachers (even if the latter squander much of the potential public sympathy through the obtuse and politically motivated tactics of their union leadership) or any sectors of underpaid and exploited workers. So far are the pilots from being underpaid or overworked that this latest conflict is not even a pay dispute (foreign recruitment was the main issue). Any doubts that they are employing blackmail tactics should be removed by the cruel timing of their latest disruption – in the middle of the main holiday month just at the point of fortnightly turnover. In a longer term their agenda is clearly political – to restore for Aerolíneas the glory days of Kirchnerism when daily subsidies of up to US$ two million allowed employees to do what they liked.
Should government anxieties to reverse the massive loss of purchasing-power in an electoral year lead them to prefer appeasement to confrontation, they would leave the business world holding the baby – how to pay the compensatory wage increases in a recessive year in which the 0.5 percent negative growth of the 2019 budget has already been upped to 0.9 percent by most experts, alongside the hefty tax increases to achieve a zero deficit this year. The Macri administration is increasingly unable to take for granted the automatic support of a business community badly shaken by the “cuadernos” corruption crackdown.
With labour reform high on the agenda of Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro, whither Argentina on this front? The future of employment (challenged by robots, Internet, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, etc.) topped the G20 summit debates last year yet the biggest danger is not so much to jobs (technological innovations create as much as destroy work) as to the traditional patterns of formal employment which are the bedrock of both trade unionism and current social systems (when an ageing population is placing impossible strains on pension funding). The reaction of most trade unions is to regard outdated labour legislation as written in stone, defending dead-end jobs at the expense of modernisation and productivity. Yet rather than leaving everything at the mercy of the markets, the answer should be new labour norms which do meet modern needs.