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5 5 yrigoyen and the limitations of obrerismo, 1916–1922 When Yrigoyen assumed office in October 1916, his victory in the electoral college had been uncomfortably close, and he felt a need to widen his popular base. In part, this represented a politician’s typical lust for votes, but it also reflected the Radicals’ perception of themselves as the true representative of Argentine popular will.1 In addition, the Socialists had strong support in the city of Buenos Aires and appeared to present a real challenge to Radical dominance. A principal political target for Yrigoyen were the native-born popular classes, including the sons of immigrants. The symbolic acceptance of workers as citizens was critical. It enabled Yrigoyen to stand with the people against—in many cases—foreign-owned business. Yrigoyen’s use of Syndicalist unions as a bridge to the working class was a critical element in his strategy for building a wider political base, part of obrerismo. The unions enabled Yrigoyen to achieve a personal connection to the popular classes. Although this foreshadows the tactics used by Juan Perón in the 1940s, it differed in that Yrigoyen never tried to formalize the relationship or extend it to all workers. He preferred informal relationships, as did the Syndicalists, making them an ideal target. The Syndicalists understood that given the harsh realities of labor relations, unions, which obtained government neutrality or better yet favor, did much better than those that did not. From Yrigoyen’s perspective the Syndicalists had several advantages . They could offer an entree to the popular class; they welcomed the 1. See Chapter 2 for examples. PAGE 115 ................. 16996$ $CH5 10-03-08 08:39:18 PS 116 argentina’s radical party and popular mobilization, 1916–1930 informal relationship that the Radicals desired because anything else would have challenged their basic ideology. Given their apoliticism, Syndicalists were also free to vote Radical. In addition, they were extremely antagonistic to the Socialists, and their growth would prevent the expansion of the Radicals’ primary competition in the capital. It is important to remember that even though unions in this era were small, they tended to influence large numbers of workers. Why did not more workers join? Salaries were low and therefore dues were a burden; moreover, no system of dues checkoff existed. Members faced retaliation from employers and little immediate benefits existed for joining. Despite the small number of members, however, strikes were frequently large and many attended demonstrations. Clearly unions had influence far beyond their limited membership. Prior to mid-1921, a crucial tactic of Yrigoyen was supporting or at least tolerating the strike activity of certain unions. Support for strikes is tricky. Strike waves cannot be controlled and labor unrest tends to snowball; this was especially so because of the elation created among many workers by the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing political and labor turmoil in both Europe and the Americas. Many among the elites and the middle classes feared the revolution’s impact, at least as much as some were excited by it. All this took place in a new political landscape in which the rules were unclear. Despite the ultimate rejection of this tactic, Yrigoyen achieved important relationships that had political ramifications as late as his second term. Yrigoyen’s approach to strikes was never systematic. Moved by political considerations as well as a general belief in public welfare, Yrigoyen operated on a case-by-case basis. He preferred to intervene personally or through trusted aides, especially the police chief of Buenos Aires. He intervened in a favorable manner in industries in which strikes would be visible even to those not directly involved and when a considerable number of workers were Argentine citizens or the political ramifications were large for other reasons. Yrigoyen favored Syndicalist union leaders and displayed hostility to those who had ties to political organizations that were rivals of the Radicals. As Ernesto Garguin has pointed out, however, he was willing to help La Fraternidad, the railroad engineers’ union, despite the prominent role that the Socialists played in that union.2 He did so 2. Ernesto Garguin, ‘‘Mediaciones corporativas entre estado y sindicatos, Argentina (1916–1930)’’ (paper delivered at the Latin American Studies Association Congress, 1998), 20–21. PAGE 116 ................. 16996$ $CH5 10-03-08 08:39:19 PS yrigoyen and the limitations of obrerismo, 1916–1922 117 largely because the leadership subordinated politics to what they perceived as the union’s interest...


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