'Clasismo' and the workers: 'Sindicalismo de Liberacion' in the Cordoban automobile industry, 1970-1975 - James P. Brennan

'Clasismo' and the workers: 'Sindicalismo de Liberacion' in the Cordoban automobile industry, 1970-1975 - James P. Brennan

An in-depth study of radicalism in the Cordoban car manufacturing industry, with focus on the activities and fortunes on the revolutionary clasismo movement.

'Clasismo' and the Workers: The Ideological-Cultural Context of 'Sindicalismo de Liberacion' in the Cordoban Automobile Industry, 1970-1975

Automobile workers in Latin America

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Latin American automobile workers' unions emerged as one of the leading sectors of the labour movements in the region's three most industrial economies, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The automobile workers' unions were perhaps the most active and effective of all the postwar industrial unions in protecting rank and file interests on issues of wages, job stability and working conditions. They also were leading advocates of democratisation of their national labour movements, demanding an end to state interference in organised labour and repudiating collaborative union bureaucracies, alternately attacking lcharrismo/'peleguismo' and the "burocracia sindical' in their countries. They thereby raised issues which ultimately had implications beyond the material conditions of the working class and embraced democratic reform and an end to nondemocratic rule, whether in party or military guise, as part of a comprehensive programme of political and social reform. Indeed, if there was one sector of the organised working class which seemed to represent the aspirations for change of their societies at large in these years, it was the automobile workers.1

The sources of the automobile workers' militancy were multiple and scholars have chosen to emphasise one or another variable which best seems to explain the particular case they are studying. Much attention has been given to sectoral factors. For example, one important influence was undoubtedly the nature of collective bargaining procedures in the industry. Unlike the case of many unions, there were no collective bargaining agreements in the Latin American automobile industry at the national level. Instead, such agreements, generally at the automobile multinationals' insistence, were worked out on a company by company basis. This practice put the union leadership and the rank and file in closer contact and undermined the tendency in modern industrial unionism for a distant and removed labour bureaucracy to cut deals and hammer out agreements that may have served more the interests ofthe union leadership than those ofthe workers. In Argentina, the notoriously anti-democratic practices of the metallurgical workers' union (Union Obrera Metalurgica) were undoubtedly facilitated by a secretive and almost inscrutable collective bargaining process which allowed minimal rank and file participation. This contrasted with the considerably more democratic and participatory procedures of the auto-mobile workers' union, the Sindicato de Mecdnicos y Afines del Transporte Automotor (SMATA), in which collective bargaining was decentralised with the local branches of the SMATA, not the national union, responsible for negotiations and final agreements.2

Another factor given considerable weight in the scholarship has been the specific character of the state's labour policies and their effects on the automobile workers' unions. In his study of the Mexican industry, Ian Roxborough (1984) directly links the Mexican auto workers' reform movement to President Echeverria's apertura democrdtica of the early 1970s and the encouragement given to the democratic tendencies in the labour move ment, in this and in other industries, to make the unions more responsive to rank and file interests. John Humphrey (1982) has argued that the inflexibly authoritarian treatment of the Brazilian labour movement by the military governments in the 1960s and 1970s and the militancy of the automobile workers at Sao Paulo's ABC district were closely related. For Argentina, I have argued that a similar sort of rule by military governments in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an important influence on the shop floor rebellions of the Cordoban automobile workers and emergence of the clasista movements there (Brennan, 1994).

An additional explanation offered has been the existence of a new kind of occupational commimity, highly homogeneous and concentrated in the new residential zones surrounding the automotive complexes. These new communities reputedly lacked the diversity and therefore competing loyalties of older working class communities. Living conditions in these new industrial neighbourhoods, it was argued, were precarious, lacking basic urban services such as ranning water and electricity and with housing itself over-crowded and often substandard. These factors; with workers concentrated in wretched living conditions yet sharing a similar work experience, thus had the effect of creating new sodalities, unique occupational communities, thereby fostering a heightened class consciousness and facilitating organisation and militancy among the 'new working class'.3

A final line of reasoning has stressed the importance of the nature of the automobile industry itself, the volatility and wild swings in demand which characterise it, as well as what might be generically grouped as workplace influences and their deleterious effects on the automotive proletariat, as primordial influences on the unions. Humphrey (1982) has suggested the wage policies of the military governments and the instability of work as catalysts for the mobilisation of the autoworkers in Brazil in the late 1970s. Kevin Middlebrook (1989, 1995) has argued that the extreme pressures that the automobile workers were subject to in Mexico, where labour costs were often the key variable between a company's profitability and survival, precipitated union activism. That is, worker discontent seethed and ultimately exploded in plants subject to frequent speed-ups, disregard for job classifications by management, hazardous working conditions, as well as to the hire and fire practices by the companies, all of which made automotive work unusually onerous and encouraged labour militancy.4

For Mexico, Middlebrook's analysis of conditions in the industry, and the greater sensitivity he shows to the relationship between the problems of production and working class politics, is a useful complement to Roxbor-ough's emphasis on strictly political and sectoral influences. In explaining the relationship between working conditions and union reform movements, he notes that the problems created in the workplace forced the autoworkers to begin to question established union practices in their industry, specifically the delegado de planta system in which professional union intermediaries assigned by the CTM, rather than chosen in honest union elections, served as the workers' sole link to management. The delegate system, a highly personal and paternalist style of union representation, could not work in the automobile plants with their huge labour forces and highly bureaucratised and impersonal labour relations systems. The unremitting dreariness of work on the line in automobile factories, and the anxieties caused by the instability of their industry, fuelled discontent with a perfunctory and ineffective union representation and sparked the democratic reform movements in the Mexican industry.

There were great differences from company to company and even from plant to plant in these movements. The Volkswagen plants in Puebla, for example, were centres of militancy and even political radicalism whereas the Nissan plants in Cuernavaca or the Ford plants in Mexico City were much less so. The GM plants in Toluca and the Federal District barely were touched at all by the reformist currents. Some accounting of these differences must be made beyond the explanations Middlebrook offers of the labour process and the inadequacies ofthe plant delegate system to ameliorate poor working conditions. A deeper, more culturally and historically-nuanced understanding of the productive process, management practices, and the concrete workplace environment in the various automotive factories, placed firmly in a regional cultural context, could well offer additional insights and help account for some of the differences.

Certainly in the Argentine automobile industry, the influences of work and production in the IKA-Renault (IKA) and Fiat plants in Cordoba and the workplace cultures they helped created are profoundly important in explaining the differences in the histories of the Cordoban automobile companies from those in Buenos Aires and in the emergence of revolu tionary trade unionism, the so-called clasista movements in the Cordoban plants. That is, the conflicts between labour and capital which are always latent in this industry have had, especially in Latin America in these particular years, specific dynamics of their own which must be understood if we are to account for different histories in the same industry. Why were the Cordoba-based companies centres of militancy and progenitors of a new working class ideology, clasismo, whereas the Buenos Aires-based firms Chrysler, GM, Ford, Citroen and Peugeot saw labour activism emerge at a later date and with a very different character. Much of the explanation certainly has to do with the particular characteristics and dynamics of Cordoban society in these years, as well as political changes occurring at the national level, specifically the emergence of a revolutionary left and the efforts it undertook in Cordoba to win a foilowing in the city's most strategic industrial unions. Questions of production, the very different worlds of work in the IKA-Renault and Fiat plants, were also influences and have been studied by the author elsewhere.5

The clasista movements were thus firmly rooted in workplace struggles and the local political culture. The history of clasismo is undoubtedly inseparable from the history of Cordoba in these years. The local labour movement had certain characteristics which made it unique in Argentina and which permitted the emergence of a dissident union movement in the city. One was the lateness of Cordoban industrialisation and the creation of a new working class concentrated in three sectors: automobiles, the metal-trades and electric power. This new working class was comprised largely of first generation workers whose entry into city's factories and workshops coincided with the Peronist Resistance of the late 1950s, the moment when the bureaucratisation of the Peronist labour movement was the weakest in its history. The combative leadership which emerged in key unions remained closer to the militant traditions of this Peronism rather than to its bureaucratic one; and the new bureaucratisation, vandorismo, failed utterly in its attempt to bring Cordoba within the verticalist fold in the 1960s. When to this was added a suspicion and the barely disguised hostility of local unions to porteno encroachments on Cordoban union autonomy, as well as such miscellaneous factors as the independence in collective bargaining negotia tions enjoyed by the local automobile workers' unions or the control over union monies exercised by federal unions such as the light and power workers' union (Luz y Fuerza de Cordoba), it is possible to understand how a maverick labour tradition managed to take hold in the city, a tradition which made possible an independence and political protagonism on the part of the unions greater than that found anywhere else in the country.

Clasismo thus had deep regional cultural underpinnings. The revolutionary trade union movement in Argentina, though it was a national phenomenon, was particularly strong in the provinces and had its epicentre in Cordoba. The clasista movements in the interior of the country had certain things in common, especially the anti-bureaucratic sentiment and a certain degree of political radicalisation which characterised them. But they were also very much influenced by distinct regional contexts and local political cultures. The clasista movements of the Salta sugarworkers or that found in the steel plants in a factory town like Villa Constitution showed some marked differences from that of a large urban centre such as Cordoba, an old city with a long political tradition and established trade union movement. Indeed, there was arguably not a clasismo but clasismos in Argentina in this period, the militant trade union movement emerging in response to conditions shared in general by the Argentine working class but with its precise expression rooted in local cultural contexts. This article will consider clasismo in one of its regional contexts, the industrial city of Cordoba.

The 'burocracia sindical' as image

Until the early 1970s, the Peronist loyalties of the Argentine working class stood as one of the few trustworthy variables in the country's otherwise inconstant political life. The complex history of Peronism's relationship with the workers and the workers' movement, in particular genius in both articulating and fashioning workers' aspirations and ultimately garaering their political loyalties, has stimulated a rich scholarly literature, with particular significant contributions from sociologists and political scientists. Due largely to the relative poverty of archival sources, historical scholar-ship's contributions lagged behind those of other disciplines, though in recent years historians have begun to produce broad interpretive studies which will serve as the points of reference and debate for the specialised historical studies of Peronism and the working class which are sure to follow.6

Despite the controversies surrounding the subject and the conflicting interpretations of Peronism which scholars have offered, there does appear to be consensus on at least one issue: that after Peron's emergence as a figure of national importance in 1943, the working class was inexorably won over, through a mix of economic, cultural and institutional influences, to a Peronist identity. The anti-capitalist, internationalist tradition of the Argentine working classes, represented early in the century in the history of its vibrant anarchist movement, the growth of the Communist Party after the first world war and, perhaps most meaningfully for an immigrant and largely unorganised working class, in the informal traditions of solidarity and resistance in the neighbourhood and workplace, that tradition was replaced by another which inculcated a sense of argentinidad and national identity, stressed the struggle of nations rather than classes, and supported integration of the working class in society under state tutelage and through the institutions of the state, rather than through autonomous working class organisations, whether in the form of community and ethnic organisations, trade unions or political parties. Defying the predictions of the Argentine left, this new Peronist identity would prove to be resilient to whatever changes occurred in Argentine society as a whole and, in fact, only seemed to grow stronger with the persecutions and proscriptions which followed Peron's fall from power in 1955.

Only once in the past half century has either Peronism's hold on working class loyalties or its ideological presumptions apparently been seriously challenged by Argentine workers. The clasista movements in Argentina in the early 1970s stand as an enigma in recent Argentine labour history, an apparent aberration from what is the historically more significant relationship between Peronism and the working class. clasismo has appeared as no more than an interesting and exceptional chapter in modern Argentine working class history in this light, and, indeed, in some ways it is no more than that. Certainly as a political movement, clasismo failed to create an alternative to Peronism and has almost no resonance in the contemporary Argentine workers' movement. Nevertheless, as a subject to trace the sources of working class politics generally, and specifically to understand the quotidian reality of the Argentine labour movement and the influences of ideology on the country's working class in the early 1970s, its importance remains considerable.

Clasismo strictly defined was a movement confined to those sectors of the working class which in the early 1970s adopted a Marxist ideology of class struggle and identified with a revolutionary programme demanding the abolition of capitalism and establishment of socialism in Argentina. The leadership role clasismo assigned to the working class in the revolutionary struggle obviously suggested Marxist-Leninist influences, but the diversity in the political affiliations of the clasista activists make it impossible to assign any meaningful political or ideological predisposition to them. There was never any unanimity, for example, on the need to form a revolutionary party and Maoist, Guevarist, Peronist left and Trotskyist influences existed among their ranks. Generally, the slogan of the Fiat clasista unions, ¡Ni golpe, ni election, revolucion!', has bequeathed clasismo an image of an ultra-leftist, utopic even chiliastic movement, at odds with the general tenor of Argentine working class history after 1945, a fact which has caused some to see in it, not the product ofthe workers' movement at all, but of leftist ideologues and perhaps even of infiltrators from one of the myriad revolutionary organisations of the early 1970s, while even sympathetic critics have lamented its reputed ideological and political intransigence.7

The question of the attraction which clasismo exercised as a revolutionary ideology on a minority of workers who often, though not always, came to positions of union leadership remains unexplored. To analyse this issue, we can rely on little else than oral history, despite the enormous problems the popular memory presents in reconstructing and deciphering any ideology. The pamphletary literature and union publications of the period are notoriously unreliable. The manipulation of working class discourse by leftist organisations and party militants in these years, who often independently published 'union' tracts in the unions' name and in a few instances actually managed to get control of union publications or at least a heavy influence in the editing, make any direct connection between the printed word and working class ideology, to say the very least, problematic. The workers themselves recognise the limited utility of such sources in reconstructing their history. Among the workers of the former Fiat clasista unions, SITRAC-SITRAM, the influence exercised by the left in such publications remains an issue of considerable contention:

Because of our inexperience and their wilhngness to help in our struggle, the left from an early date got a considerable amount of influence in the SITRAC union newspaper. A lot of times the news-paper used a language, an intellectual langauge, that we workers didn't understand. This was very different from the SITRAM newspaper which never fell into the left's hands. The person in charge of the SITRAM newspaper was the daughter of the union president and it used a plain, straightforward language that the workers could relate to. As a result, the workers in the Matefer factory read their newspaper. Very few workers in the Concord factory read ours (Masera).8

Despite the obstacles that union publications and broadsides present in deciphering workers' world view, a reconstruction of their ideology is not impossible and there are certain recurring images which do come through in oral testimony. Carlos Masera, the president of the clasista SITRAC union, Domingo Bizzi, a clasista member of the SITRAC union executive commit-tee, and Roberto Nagera, a clasista SMATA shop steward in the Ford Transax plant, were three of the many individuals with whom I had multiple interviews, indeed had an ongoing dialogue, during almost a decade of research on this history and whose testimonies I believe are representative and give a glimpse of the mentalities of other clasista workers in the early 1970s. All three had been ordinary workers who reached positions of union leadership in the upheavals ofthe early 1970s.

Perhaps the most common element in their reconstruction ofthe history is the idea of clasismo emerging as a response to the burocracia sindical, as a spontaneous, grass roots reaction to the abuse of power by an ensconced Peronist trade union leadership:

The workers in SITRAC remained Peronists, but these same Peronist workers came to realize that within Peronism there were people who were betraying them . . . or people who jumped on the Peronist bandwagon just to build union careers for themselves (Masera).
The comrades saw that we clasistas were not sell-outs, that we were going to fight for them on the shop floor, something that they had seen the peronista bureaucrats were not going to (Nagera).
Our bureaucracy was the worst since we had plant unions and the union was completely controlled by the company. But it was still a Peronist trade union bureaucracy since the UOM and Fiat had worked out a deal giving the UOM effective control of the union in return for a formal representation of the workers (Bizzi).

This image of a traitorous labour bureaucracy admittedly was not strictly a working class construction and the left played a major part in constnicting and disseminating the idea. But the Cordoban auto workers were also able to draw on their own traditions, both the linea dura, anti-bureaucratic practices and discourse which characterised the Cordoban unions and had been revitalised within Peronist trade unionism in the form of the Confed-eracion General del Trabajo de los Argentinos (CGTA) as well as the specific history of the IKA-Renault and Fiat plants which had given the workers ample reason to believe that a traitorous labour bureaucracy was not just part of the revolutionary left's revolutionary praxis.9 The negative image of the Peronist trade union leader, of the deal-cutter who remained entrenched in power and failed to represent honestly and effectively the workers' interests, especially on the shop floor and in questions related to production, is universal among former clasista militants and is their own favourite explanation for the rank and file support they enjoyed in these years. Indeed, their belief is echoed in the testimonies of auto workers who did not come to positions of leadership and who frequently used such adjectives as 'honest', 'upright' and 'good comrades' to describe clasista leaders, though admittedly here the interpretation of the movement elaborated from positions of state power during the military governments from 1976 to 1983 and the current Peronist government has had its effects and a minority of auto workers assotiate clasismo, and to a lesser extent specific clasista leaders, with 'subversion' and 'terrorism'.

The left, the 'Cordobazo' and the 'via armada'

This latter point raises another issue of crutial significance for the later emergence of clasismo: the presence sustained by the Marxist left in the local labour movement. Marxist labour activists in Cordoba enjoyed the unofficial blessing of the state and business in Cordoba, as they did throughout the country, during the anti-Peronist hysteria of the late 1950s. In IKA, for example, the first union elections held in 1956 were won by a Communist slate, thanks largely to the proscription of the Peronists by General Pedro Aramburu's government (1955-1958) and the willingness of Kaiser to accept a Marxist leadership as union interlocutors. Marxists with varying political affiliations were found in many other unions in the city, most notably in Luz y Fuerza, and managed to survive the Peronist purges of the early 1960s, in no small part due to the protection local Peronists afforded them. After the 1966 coup, Cordoban Peronists often proved far more hostile to Vandor and the porteno labour bureaucracy than to the local Marxists in the labour movement, individuals who were generally friends, neighbours and compa-neros with whom they shared a daily contact. In the case of the SMATA especially, this pluralism made possible the survival of a group of young union activists with various leftwing ties, hardened in the struggles between 1966 and 1969, some of whom would emerge as clasista militants after the Cordobazo.

The result was the most politically and ideologically pluralist labour movement in the country, one in which the historic animosities between Peronism and Marxism were at least less acrimonious and obstructive than elsewhere. Such diversity allowed a core of highly disciplined and committed Marxist trade unionists, most notably in the IKA factories and in Luz y Fuerza, to prevent a monopoly on working class loyalties by the Peronists and to compete respectably with the Peronists in union elections, indeed in Luz y Fuerza through the figure of Agustin Tosco, to control the union presidency uninterruptedly until 1974, thereby keeping alive an alternative working class tradition that was largely moribund elsewhere in the country.

The strength of the political left in the city, underground but active since 1966, was also an important factor in the emergence of clasismo. The ability of the left to appropriate and claim credit for the May 1969 Cordobazo, a complex popular rebellion which, with regard to the political identity of the local working class would have to be said to have had a far greater Peronist than Marxist participation, the Cordoban left's success in transforming the uprising into its own legitimising epic event, as powerful for the clasistas as the 17-18 October 1945 working class protests were for the Peronists, attests to the powerful presence the left maintained in Cordoba.10 As a result of the strength of this Marxist left in the city in both the unions and political organisations, the very idea of 'socialism' retained a prestige within the local working class that was unusual elsewhere in the country. Among other consequences, this probably permitted a greater receptivity to the left-wing currents which emerged within Peronism in the form of the Peronist left in the early 1970s than was the case for the Argentine working class generally.

Sympathy or at least tolerance for the left and Marxist ideas of class struggle, however, only remained latent in the city. It would take a profound disruption in convention for such feelings to crystallise into active support Such a disruption was provided by the Cordobazo. For Masera, Bizzi and Nagera, indeed for every clasista militant I interviewed, the Cordobazo was the genesis of their increasing involvement in politics and a clasista identity:

The Cordobazo shook up everything in the (Concord) plant, even though we Fiat workers had not really participated in it. In the months that followed, the union bureaucrats who ran SITRAC started to get nervous. There was more grumbling, we workers started to think differently (Masera).
There was an electric atmosphere in the city after the Cordobazo, both politically and at the trade union level. We (the clasista organizers ofthe lista marron union slate which runs for union elections for the first time in 1970) woke up with the Cordobazo, we started asking ourselves what the hell was going on? This explosion that was the Cordobazo affected us deeply . . . it made us look for explanations and then to believe in utopias (Nagera).
After the Cordobazo, a lot of us started to believe that a revolution was about to take place in the country and that we were going to be an important part of it (Bizzi).

The Cordobazo, however, was also the start of an entirely new phenomenon: the insertion of the guerrilla left into local trade union politics. This remains the most sensitive issue in the entire history of clasismo and a full reconstruction of the history and accurate assessment of its extent probably is impossible. While willing to recognise the support and even tutelage by certain leftwing organisations and parties in their unions, the former clasista militants adamantly deny any connection to guerrilla organisations such as the Montoneros and the Ejercito Revolucionario Popular (ERP). Though it is clear that the image perpretated by the Peronist labour bureaucracy and the right of clasismo as merely the trade union appendage of the guerrilla is a gross distortion, there is nonetheless reason to believe that the organisations which supported the via armada did have some influence in clasista movements, even if indirectly.

My research uncovered few organic links between the clasista unions and the guerrilla organisations. Though some clasista militants drifted over to guerrilla organisations after the intervention of their unions and especially after the 1976 coup d'etat, during the length of clasista experience (1970-1975), the clasista trade unionists had only fleeting contacts with guerrilla organisations. Rather, the influence exerted by the latter was in terms of ideology. That is, the combined influence of the Cordobazo and the revolutionary utopias of the guerrilla left, led to a certain apocalyptic vision and sympathy for revolutionary solutions on the part of some clasista militants, particularly those who were not exercising the greatest authority as members of the union executive committees. Clasista shop stewards, members of the cuerpo de delegados, were those most influenced by the idea of a revolutionary struggle and who accepted a certain degree of violence as a legitimate tool in the union struggle. The maximalist tactics adopted by the clasista SMATA and SITRAC-SITRAM, the taking of hostages during strikes and the violent confrontations with police and security forces, responded to such influences. Such sentiments ran counter to the Peronist sensibilities of the vast majority of workers, however, and ultimately cost clasismo much of its hard-won prestige.

The hostility of at least the Marxist left to mainstream Peronism had another baleful influence on the clasistas' dealing with the Peronist rank and file:

... our vision of things became too dialectic, we interpreted Peronism as something that the oligarchy had created, something it promoted to prevent the Argentine working class from becoming revolutionary and we were therefore unable to see that it was their movement, that they held a deep belief in it. . . . for those of us clasistas who reached positions of union leadership in those years, we were treated with great respect by the Peronist workers. That is, because we were honest leaders, they respected our ideas. I'm not so sure we had the same respect for theirs (Nagera).

The gender factor: wives, 'militantes' and 'guerrilleras'

I have argued elsewhere that, at least in the case of Cordoba, the importance generally given to the community as an explanation for the militancy of the new working class in Latin America has been greatly overstated. My argument goes against the prevailing wisdom in labour and working class history which stresses the influences of culture and community over those related to production and power politics. Similarly, the virtual absence of women among the Cordoban automobile proletariat has led to a study in which gender issues barely appear. Though they were, I believe, of far less importance than other influences, there was a 'gender politics' which certainly was a part of the history of Cordoban working class militancy and political radicalism in these years.

One such influence has more to do with the ability of the local trade union movement to maintain a high degree of militancy rather than the elaboration of any radical political project in the form of clasismo. Oral testimony reveals over and over again the importance of the solidarity of workers' wives in the great union struggles and social protests of these years, of the succour of their companeras in difficult moments, of their establishment of soup kitchens during the prolonged strikes, of wives' participation and sometimes leadership in support networks for imprisoned labour leaders, even their presence in demonstrations and at the barricades.

It is tempting to look for some kind of political awakening or proto-feminist sensibility in these women's participation in the political and union struggles of these years, but oral testimony reveals more traditional motivations. These women, like their husbands, were predominantly migrants from the countryside and small provincial towns who brought with them some very conservative ideas about the family and women's role in society. Moreover, and in this unlike their husbands, many were very religious and frequent attenders of Church where, the existence of radical tercermundista priests in some neighbourhood churches notwithstanding, these traditional attitudes were reinforced all the more. The solidarity of these women was the result of some very basic values brought with them from the countryside about 'fairness', 'honesty', and, to put it crudely, standing by their man. It was also certainly, inevitably, the result of their position as the adminis-trators of the household economy.

Moreover, the utter absence of any sensibility on the part of either the Marxist or Peronist left to the woman's condition, the framing of the political struggle strictly in class or anti-imperialist terms without the slightest reference to gender issues, gave these women nowhere to go, even if they had been interested in looking for one, which I would argue few were. Thus, these women's participation in the struggles of these years was not the result of a break with their traditional attitudes and conservatism, much less did it encourage a critique of capitalism as it effected the gendered divisions of society or women's exploitation. It did, perhaps, have some effect, both on themselves and their husbands, in reevaluating women's traditional roles and perhaps weakening the appeal of the heavily patriarchical mainstream Peronist ideology. But these influences should not be exaggerated. Working class' women's presence in the labour struggles of these years was due overwhelmingly to their crucial role in maintaining the household economy and to some traditional values; and those very values served as a break on labour militancy developing into an alternative, radical political project.

The influence of women party militants and even guerrilleras is a rather more complex question. In interviews conducted in the workers' homes, with wives present, often listening to the conversation, naturally no worker was going to acknowledge a past relationship with a student girlfriend. In private conversations, however, it was striking the number of times former clasistas, particularly those who became more politicised and active in leftist organisations, mentioned the importance of relationships with women, usually students drawn from the city's large university community, in creating a political consciousness. These women were apparently overwhelmingly of middle class origins and 'tutored' their working class boyfriends politically. They frequently introduced such workers to anti-capitalist ideologies and to the debates taking place within the left and probably played at least as great a role as the formal party organisations in constructing clasismo as a minority ideological current within the local trade union movement.

The 'moral economy' of the Cordoban autoworker

Even in searching for 'cultural' explanations for clasismo, the workers' own testimonies inevitably lead us back to the factory. Time and again, workers stressed work place relationships as the most important ones in their lives, greatly overshadowing even those of family and community. This is perhaps not surprising among a labour force with a large percentage of workers in their early twenties and unmarried, but it did lead to a working class with some unique characteristics which allowed clasismo to have greater reso-nance than it would elsewhere in the country. A moral economy in the Thompsonian sense existed in the work place, a lens through which social relations, the labour process, and politics were all evaluated. This moral economy was comprised in good measure of mainstream Peronist nationalism and anti-imperialism:

All the workers knew that the imperialist companies, the multina-tionals, paid the highest wages. But we all were also aware that the price for working for one of those companies was that while the worker was making out better, they were gobbling up (morfandose) the country's riches (Masera).

As this testimony indicates, there is often very little to distinguish the clasistas' ideology from what one could have expected from their Peronist counterparts in these years. The two exceptions are their insistence on a radical, grass roots union democracy and a greater receptivity to socialism than was characteristic of the average Peronist worker nationally. The insistence on a participatory union democracy, the rejection of a strictly pragmatic, results-oriented Peronism or unquestioning fealty to the Peronist hierarchy, or verticalismo, remain powerful components of the clasista workers' popular memory:

We had a real union democracy in the SMATA. There was none of the intimidation and corruption that the Peronists practised. We not only had honest union elections, we tried to get all the workers involved in running their union, instead of just letting things being decided by some union boss (Nagera).

The other component of clasista ideology which apparently sets it apart from mainstream Peronism is that of the former's unambiguous identification with a socialist project. Cordoba's unique regional context, specifically the strength of the Marxist left in the city, as well as changes taking place nationally in Argentina's political culture, especially the increasing weight of leftist ideas within Peronism, allowed the local working class in general to reconcile its Peronist identity with a socialist project. This question holds the key to establishing the extent and depth of the Cordoban working class' identification with clasismo. My interviews with workers indicate to me that, except for an admittedly not-negligible number of workers who became clasista militants, the vast majority of workers retained an essentially Peronist ideology, rejecting for example the idea of the abolition of all private property and sotialisation of the means of production. Among the former clasista militants, their testimony reveals the recollection of a kind of classic Marxist, workplace alienation, class consciousness-raising process:

As a result of our lives in the factory, we came to realize that society was divided into two classes, the exploited and the exploiters, and that there was only one class without which the other classes couldn't survive, and that was the working class. We became convinced of the need to establish socialism to put an end to this exploitation (Bizzi).

However accurate this reconstruction of his own personal ideological development is, the testimonies of this same clasista militant, and those of other workers, reveal, nonetheless, that the same process was not at work among the auto workers in general:

The Fiat workers in general never really had a clear idea of what clasismo was in ideological terms . . . when we spoke in the assemblies about being members of a certain social class, that is the working class, with certain characteristics and our own problems, that the workers understood instinctively ... and when we were able to illustrate the idea of social classes with a problem like the 'premio de production' (a work incentive productivity prize) this sense of class grew . . . on the other hand, we took another problem like the 'acople de maquina' (the 'machine yoke') and gave it a political, even an ideological interpretation, and that hit home with the workers, but not necessarily the way we wanted. It didn't necessarily turn them into socialists. They tended to see this as something the bosses would not get away with if Peron were back (Bizzi).

Indeed, the political message which the vast majority of workers took away from such exhortatory tactics seems precisely to have been to reinforce longstanding grievances and to have intensified the demand for lifting the proscription weighing against the Peronist movement and especially to return Peron from exile. With the old caudillo himself extolling the Cuban Revolution and the socialist struggle, these same workers may have had more sympathy for socialist solutions at the time than a reconstruction of their ideology ten years post facto would indicate. As Daniel James (1988) has noted, there was a strong obrerista component in Argentine workers' traditional Peronist ideology which included a latent anti-capitalist content. This point needs further analysis and, again, holds the key to weighing the real possibilities which existed for establishing a revolutionary trade union movement in the conjuncture of the early 1970s. My research on Cordoba indicates that it was limited, but there is also some reason to believe that it may have developed further than is generally thought. That is, the various discourses of the left intersected with certain facets of the workers' Peronist ideology, an ideology itself in a state of redefinition, and permitted some degree of political evolution in the direction of clasismo. In Cordoba, this process was cut short by the restoration of Peronist rule in 1973 and especially with Peron's return to power later that same year.

Conclusion: 'clasismo' and consciousness

I have argued in my recent book (Brennan, 1994) that clasismo must be understood above all as an ideology and revolutionary praxis elaborated by non-working class elements that found resonance in the Cordoban auto plants, partly because of an established militant union tradition, the specific case of the IKA-Renault workers, and partly because of the concrete shop floor conditions in the local automobile industry generally, problems which existed in the peculiar local context and historical conjuncture foilowing the Cordobazo. Clasismo was never printipally a working class ideology and the Cordoban working class overwhelmingly retained its Peronist identity. The lived experience of the city's Peronist auto workers allowed them to sympathise with certain elements of clasista discourse, such as the widespread image of the traitorous (porteno) burocracia sindical or of inalienable shop floor rights, because such things were either already a part of traditional Cordoban Peronist ideology or had emerged as important components of the reified Peronist ideology of the early 1970s. Nevertheless, it is true that small groups of workers in both the IKA-Renault and Fiat plants did renounce altogether their Peronist loyalties and embrace clasista ideas of revolutionary trade unionism, an historically significant development which merits explanation and which this essay has attempted to address.

Clasismo's influence as an ideology, albeit a distinctly secondary one, within the Cordoban working class is best analysed through oral testimony. Since the published clasista discourse was in large measure written by intellectuals and non-working class party militants for the consumption of their similars, the 'working class' press and pamphletary literature is of limited use in deciphering workers' consciousness. Oral testimony also has its problems. Significantly, few workers in Cordoba have recollections of anything called clasismo, despite the fact that their memories are quite sharp and detailed when relating other aspects of working class life in those years: the great working class protests in 1969 and 1971 or shop floor problems, to mention just two examples. Most important, the past is always reconstructed in light of the needs of the present and historical memory can therefore only ever be the approximation of any ideology. Those problems aside, consciousness can really be detiphered for this history only through oral testimony, most fruitfully, I believe, through the handful of individuals who became clasistas and who retained this ideology in something approaching its original state at the time the interviews were conducted, in the mid to late 1980s.

My previous writings on clasismo were not intended to argue for the primacy of structural factors over cultural influences, or in Thompsonian terms (or better-said, neo-Thompsonian terms), over the subjective experience of workers in interpreting their reality and developing their own modes of organisation and political mobilisation. I have suggested, it is true, that determined industrial sectors do exhibit certain structural characteristics which establish the objective conditions for certain kinds of political behaviour. In the Latin American automobile industry, such sectoral characteristics as oligopoly and autonomous industrial relations systems are certainly of relevance in explaining the history of these workers there. But even more important were the influences of distinct corporate and workplace cultures and management practices. I believe that studies of the sources of working class politics need to return to the labour process and to reevaluate the importance of the workplace as another social arena and important influence in shaping class consciousness and determining political behaviour in distinct historical and cultural contexts. Similarly, accounting for divergent political behaviour in the Latin American automobile industry, and even within the same industry of the same country, seems illuminated by attention to workplace issues. In Argentina, the history of the Cordoban automobile workers' unions is poorly explained without some understand-ing of the question of production and the factory regimes in the local auto industry.

But, undoubtedly, other factors help explain clasismo. One already mentioned, related more to clasismo's ideological expression, were the changes in Argentina's political culture and the particular conditions exist-ing in the Cordoban labour movement in these years. In Cordoba, the legacy of the Resistance and the Cordobazo also profoundly influenced this history. Other factors not discussed may also have contributed to the shop floor rebellions of the early 1970s. The relatively high incidence of labour stability in the Cordoban automobile industry, for example, may have led to a deeper questioning of the relations of production in the plants by both workers and activists alike. The fact that this was a sexually and ethnically homogeneous labour force may also have made the capital-labour conflict more direct and kept it from moving onto other tracks that complicated and redefined labour-management conflicts in other automobile industries. A recognition of the multiplicity of explanations for Cordoban clasismo, among them the specific influences of the workplace, will help to dispel its image as something foreign to the development of the Argentine working class and will place clasismo's history firmly within the lived experiences, at work and elsewhere, of those who led and supported its struggles.


  • BRENNAN, J. P. (1994), The Labor Wars in Cordoba, 1955-1976. Ideology, Work and Labor Politics in an Argentine Industrial City, Harvard University Press (Cambridge).
  • BRENNAN, J. P. (1992), 'El clasismo y los obreros. El contexto fabril del sindicalismo de liberacion en la industria automotriz cordobesa, 1970-1975', Desarrollo Economico 125 (abril-junio).
  • BRENNAN, J. P. and GORDILLO, M. B. (1994), 'Working class protest, popular revolt, and urban insurrection in Argentina: the 1969 Cordobazo', Journal of Social History 27 (Spring): 477-498.
  • DURAND, V. M. (1987), Crisis y movimiento obrero en Brasil. Las huelgas metalurgicas, 1978- 1980, UNAM (Mexico).
  • HUMPHREY, J. (1982), Capitalist Control and Workers' Struggle in the Brazilian Auto Industry, Princeton University Press (Princeton). JAMES, D. (1988), Resistance and Integration. Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge).
  • KRONISH, R. and MERICLE, K. S. (1984), The Political Economy of the Latin American Motor Vehicle Industry, MIT Press (Cambridge).
  • MIDDLEBROOK, K. J. (1989), 'Union democratization in the Mexican automobile industry: a reappraisal', Latin American Research Review 24 (Spring): 69-94.
  • MIDDLEBROOK, K. J. (1995), The Paradox of Revolution. Labor, the State and Authoritarianism in Mexico, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore). ROXBOROUGH, I. (1984), Unions and Politics in Mexico. The Case of the Automobile Industry, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge).
  • ROXBOROUGH, I. and BIZBERG, I. (1983), 'Union locals in Mexico: the "new unionism" in steel and automobiles', Journal of Latin American Studies 15 (May): 117-135.
  • 1. The best general study of the Latin American automobile industry and its workers is Kronish, R. and Mericle, K. S. (eds) (1984), The Political Economy ofthe Latin American Motor Vehicle Industry, MIT Press (Cambridge). There is a growing literature for the Brazilian and Mexican automobile workers. The most important studies for Brazil remain Humphrey, J. (1982), Capitalist Control and Workers' Struggle in the Brazilian Auto Industry, Princeton University Press (Princeton) and Tavares De Almeida M. H. (1978), 'Desarrollo capitalista y accion sindical', Revista Mexicana de Sociologia 2 (April-June). For Mexico, Ian Roxborough (1984), Unions and Politics in Mexico: The Case of the Automobile Industry, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge) and Kevin J. Middlebrook (1995), The Paradox of Revolution. Labor, the State and Authoritarianism in Mexico, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore) are the leading scholars. The Argentine automobile workers have been much less studied than their Brazilian or Mexican counterparts. There is a good but general treatment in Judith Evans, Paul Heath Hoeffel and Daniel James, 'Reflections on Argentine Auto workers and Their Unions' in Kronish and Mericle (1984). The Cordoban automobile workers have been studied by the author in, The Labor Wars in Cordoba, 1955-1976. Ideology, Work, and Labor Politics in an Argentine Industrial City, Harvard University Press, 1994. There is still no study of the workers in the Buenos Aires-based companies.
  • 2. An example ofthe sectoral argument can be found in Roxborough, I. and Bizberg I. (1983), 'Union Locals in Mexico: The "New Unionism" in Steel and Automobiles', Journal ofLatin American Studies 15 (May): 117-135.
  • 3. This has been a favourite explanation for the Brazilian autoworkers' recent history especially. See, for example, Durand, V. M. (1987), Crisis y movimiento obrero en Brasil. Las huelgas metalurgicas de 1978-1980, p. 211, UNAM (Mexico).
  • 4. Middlebrook's arguments are summarized in Middlebrook, K. J. (1989), 'Union Democratization in the Mexican Automobile Industry: a Reappraisal', Latin American Research Review 24 (Spring): 69-94. For a fuller discussion, see his, The Paradox of Revolution. Labor, the State and Authoritarianism in Mexico.
  • 5. See Brennan, J. P. (1992), 'El clasismo y los obreros. El contexto fabril del 'sindicalismo de liberaciori en la industria automotriz cordobesa, 1970-75', Desarrollo Economico 32 (abril-junio) and (1994), The Labor Wars in Cordoba, 1955-1976. Ideology, Work, and Labor Politics in an Argentine Industrial City, Harvard University Press (Cambridge). In these studies, I concentrated on the political, regional, and industrial influences which contributed to the formation of a militant trade union movement in Cordoba, emphasising the constraints on translating that labor militancy into a radical political project. In this article I will consider the ideological and cultural underpinnings of clasismo and the possibilities which existed for the development of a revolutionary trade union movement.
  • 6. The outstanding contribution by an historian is, of course, James, D. (1988), Resistance and Integration. Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge).
  • 7. Reyna, R. (1988), 'La izquierda cordobesa', Crisis (septiembre): 44-45. See the reply to Reyna's criticisms by former SITRAC secretary general, Carlos Masera, 'SITRAC y SITRAM: la autonomia obrera', Crisis 79: 78-79.
  • 8. Unfortunately, no copies of the SITRAM union newspaper have been preserved.
  • 9. See Brennan, J. P. (1994), The Labor Wars in Cordoba, 1955-1976. Ideology, Work, and Labor Politics in an Argentina Industrial City, pp. 171-205, Harvard University Press (Cambridge).
  • 10. On the Cordobazo, see Brennan, J. P. and Gordillo, M. B. (1994), 'Working Class Protest, Popular Revolt, and Urban Insurrection in Argentina: The 1969 Cordobazo1, Journal of Social History 27 (Spring): 477-498.