Organized Labor Established

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Organized Labor Established

Argentina 1875-1902


Argentina gained its independence from Spain in 1810. By the middle of the 1800s, workers had started organizing mutual aid societies. Beginning in the 1870s, the Argentine labor movement gradually established its presence with the development of important trade unions. As economic development spread across Argentina in the last half of the nineteenth century, trade unions had to change with the changing times. Most members of the labor movement had originated as immigrant workers from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and other European countries. Many of these workers had been affiliated both with trade unions and with radical political groups in their native countries. As a result, socialists and anarchist philosophies played important roles in the establishment of Argentina's first national congress of Argentinean trade unions and the founding of the Federación Obrera de la República Argentina (Workers' Federation of the Argentine Republic, or FORA), during 1901-1902.


  • 1860: South Carolina secedes from the Union.
  • 1866: Prussia defeats Austria in the Seven Weeks' War. In the next year, the dual monarchy is established in Austria Hungary.
  • 1867: Meiji Restoration in Japan ends 675 years of rule by the shoguns.
  • 1870: Beginning of Franco-Prussian War. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1871: Franco-Prussian War ends with France's surrender of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, which proclaims itself an empire under Prussian king Wilhelm, crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I.
  • 1873: The gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and eventually taken on by all major nations, spreads to Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. Though the United States does not officially base the value of its currency on gold until 1900, an unofficial gold standard dates from this period, even as a debate over "bimetallism" creates sharp divisions in American politics.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1894: Thousands of unemployed American workers—a group named "Coxey's Army" for their leader, Jacob S. Coxey—march on Washington, D.C. A number of such marches on the capital occurred during this period of economic challenges, but Coxey's march was the only one to actually reach its destination.
  • 1899: Polish-born German socialist Rosa Luxemburg rejects the argument that working conditions in Europe have improved and that change must come by reforming the existing system. Rather, she calls for an overthrow of the existing power structure by means of violent international revolution.
  • 1904: The 10-hour workday is established in France.

Event and Its Context

Between Europe and Argentina

The process of modernization in Argentina began during the second half of the nineteenth century. Probably one of the first events that helped to bring economic development to Argentina was the overthrow of dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852. After this time, Presidents BartoloméMitre (1862-1868) and Domingo F. Sarmiento (1868-1874) initiated processes to encourage the use of new techniques for farming and ranching, the development of education, the expansion of trade, the improvement of transportation such as the construction of railroads and ports, and the use of immigration to bolster the workforce. As the government made these improvements, the labor movement also grew in strength. Both developments occurred, for the most part, in response to what was happening in Europe at this time.

As the countries of Europe experienced the Industrial Revolution, they began to rely increasingly on the countries of Latin America for many products. Argentina was especially important for the export of wool, meats, and cereals to Europe. As a result, transportation facilities along with secondary industries emerged to support the major export industries. As the economy expanded, people from Europe immigrated to Argentina to fulfill the ever-growing need for labor. This often-uncontrollable migratory flow was a concern of the early labor movement, as employers had an excess of workers and often had little need to entertain the demands of labor. Buenos Aires, as the center of the industrial complex, experienced one of the greatest inflows of immigrants. In 1869 immigrants represented more than 49 percent of the city's inhabitants (which totaled 177,787 inhabitants); they increased to almost 53 percent of the total in 1887 (by that time, totaling 433,375 inhabitants). Between 1857 and 1914, and especially during the expansion decades of the 1880s and 1900s, more than two million immigrants permanently settled in Argentina.

1850s-1860s: The Protective Organizations

By the 1850s industrial workers—primarily Spanish and Italian immigrants but also English, German, Polish, and Swiss—had started to form protective organizations, such as mutual aid societies. One of the earliest such unions was the Printing Trades Workers' Union of Buenos Aires, which was founded in 1853. It was originally formed as a mutual-benefit society whose purpose was to provide social programs such as sick and death benefits for its members. Within a decade, however, the organization had evolved into a trade union, and it conducted negotiations with employers and led strikes against those same employers when negotiations failed.

In 1864 Argentine workers established the International Workingmen's Association to help coordinate activities among various workers' organizations. Unfortunately, hostile actions by the government and internal disputes between socialist and anarchist factions doomed the association's effectiveness. The limited successes of these organizations did not discourage the labor movement. By the end of the nineteenth century, records indicate that some 79 Italian and 57 Spanish mutual aid societies existed in Argentina.

1880s: The Decade of Development

The decade of the 1880s is considered to be the beginning of the first great period of economic development for Argentina. The majority of modernization in Argentina took place in the city of Buenos Aires (located on the western shore of the Río de la Plata, inland from the Atlantic Ocean). Two important events occurred during this time that helped to shape Argentina's future. One event was the establishment in 1880 of the stable government under General Julio A. Roca. During his presidency, the city of Buenos Aires was established as the Federal District and as the national capital; the eastern half of Tierra del Fuego (located at the southern tip of Argentina) was acquired from Chile; and about 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) of land bordering Brazil was awarded to Argentina. The other significant event was the development of the refrigerated ship, which permitted Argentina to sell its meats to the rapidly expanding European market.

As has happened repeatedly in other lands and cultures, in the midst of an industrial revolution, the capitalists in Argentina frequently exploited its workers and failed to provide a safe and healthy working environment. Such was the case when Adolfo Dorfman reported in the newspaper La Nación on 28 August 1887 that when "the first industrial machines began operating" they were "in general, primitive, inadequate, and dangerous." Accidents were frequent, working hours long, and penalties and fines numerous when workers disobeyed.

The Modern Labor Movement

Argentine labor historians generally agree that the period between the last third of the 1870s and 1900 was a time of transformation of a primitive labor movement into a modern one. Because Buenos Aires was the center of growth for industrialization, it also was the area where most of the progress of the labor movement occurred. The foreign-born immigrants who arrived in Argentina primarily from Europe in large measure headed the labor movement. Although native Argentine workers joined the labor unions, they did so as a minority to the immigrant workers, and were for the most part participating in nonleadership roles. The typical immigrant was a Spanish or Italian farmer or a skilled or semiskilled laborer who was employed in a small factory or shop. Most of the immigrants were located in the eastern provinces of Argentina, especially in the cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario (located northwest of Buenos Aires).

As industrial progress unfurled in the decade of the 1880s, some of the oldest unions of present-day Argentina were starting to become established, such as unions for shipbuilding craftsmen, building trades workers, and hotel and restaurant employees. One such union was organized in 1885 with the help of a railroad delegation from the United States. Because of the efforts of this delegation, a union of locomotive engineers, firemen, and washers, known as La Fraternidad (the Brotherhood), was established.

In 1889 the working-class organizations of Buenos Aires cooperated in the establishment of the International Working Committee (ComitéInternacional Obrero, or CIO). This organization was a revolutionary-type group with socialist leadership. The CIO was able to organize what is generally considered the country's first labor federation, the Federation of Workers of the Argentina Region (Federación de Trabajadores de la Región Argentina, FTRA). The FTRA dissolved after little more than a year of operations after being weakened by a lack of support from the anarchists and an economic downturn in the country. The socialists organized other labor organizations during the 1890s, including the International Socialist Workers' Party, which was renamed the Argentine Socialist Party in 1895.

Between 1877 and 1887 there were only 15 recorded strikes in Argentina. The most frequent worker demands concerned wage increases, along with back pay, the length of the workday, and general working conditions. However, the situation changed in 1888 when an economic recession prompted a reduction in wages. This resulted in a series of strikes that continued midway through 1890. More than 30 strikes took place during this two-year period, which doubled the total number of strikes that occurred in the previous 10 years. The strikes during this time, along with the early process of trade union formation, formed the basis of Argentine labor's giant advances during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century.

The Long Route to Permanence for the FORA: 1890 to 1902

During the late 1880s, both the socialists and the anarchists were weakened by the economic downturn that took place in Argentina. Although rivals during the previous several decades, the socialists and the anarchists joined forces in 1890 to establish the Argentine Workers' Federation (Federación Obrera Argentina, FOA), which was the precursor to the Workers' Federation of the Argentine Republic (Federación Obrera de la República Argentina, FORA) and the first national congress of Argentinean trade unions.

The FOA was first organized following a meeting on the first annual celebration of May Day in Buenos Aires in 1890. The FOA was later officially established in mid-1891 by five unions that were based in Buenos Aires and a few federations from the interior provinces of Argentina. The organization's objectives were to seize political power and place it in the hands of the working class; to socialize all means of production in the country; and to achieve social and political equality for all. However, the FOA failed to survive the economic depression. One legacy of the FOA began in 1890 when it founded Argentina's first labor journal, called El Obrero (The Worker). The journal was expressly written to help workers understand the complex social and political situation in Argentina. In 1894 the FOA was revived, but it soon disappeared again.

The Argentine economy began to recover in 1895. This coincided with an increase the number of strikes and with the formation of new trade unions. Between 1895 and 1896 more than 40 strikes occurred. These were generally staged to support wage demands but also centered on a reduction of working hours. In 1896 several trade union organizations collaborated to form the Convención Obrera (Workers' Convention). The joint effort ended up being only a fairly loose agreement among various unions. The anarchists, who established the Workers' Convention, did not participate in another attempt to establish the FOA in 1897. The upsurge in strike activity did not last beyond 1897, as unemployment increased in the country. The situation reversed itself by 1899, however, as trade unions began to spread widely across Argentina and as workers began their first attempts at broad-scale strike actions.

Argentine socialists again revived the FOA in 1900, but the effort was not supported by the anarchists and therefore failed. However, important strikes protesting unemployment in the country, along with further organization and consolidation of trade unions, brought together the socialists and the anarchists. This unity reestablished the FOA once again. On 25 May 1901 the journal La Organización and a group of trade unions launched the FOA. The congress, the first national congress of Argentinean trade unions, was attended by 27 socialist-led resistance societies including 15 from Buenos Aires and 12 from the provinces. After the continuing labor struggles of the workers of Argentina over the previous few decades, the anarchists finally accepted the objectives of the FOA. Anarchist leaders Pedro Gori and Antonio Pellicer Paraire and socialist leader Adrian Padroni played a prominent role in the founding of the FOA. During the first congress the delegation discussed the use of strikes, arbitration of industrial disputes, the viewpoints of labor legislation, and the types of union organizations. Much compromise was needed as anarchists and socialists were together for one of the first times. For a year the FOA remained an active and effective organization without being crippled by too many disputes.

However, at the FOA's second congress in April 1902, the organization's members argued over the seating of the delegates. The socialist delegates walked out of the congress. The anarchists immediately took over control and converted it into a political organization called the Federación Obrera de la República Argentina or Workers' Federation of the Argentine Republic, FORA). The anarchists who led the FORA adopted a program based on the partisan ideas of Pellicer Paraire and by 1905 supported the political philosophy of anarchist communism. They eliminated all nonanarchists members of FORA.


In the 50 years following 1880, Argentina made remarkable economic and social progress. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Argentina emerged as one of the leading nations of South America. At the first congress of the FOA in 1901, the leaders and delegates identified and discussed many topics that were important to the labor movement. However, with the takeover of the FOA by the very militant anarchists and the subsequent founding of the FORA, the labor movement in 1902 adopted a revolutionary stand and maintained that attitude for the rest of the 1900s. The anarchists' labor organizations favored liberal use of the general strike. From 1902 to 1910 the anarchists dominated the labor movement of Argentina. Rather than negotiating through collective bargaining, anarchist labor organizations commonly used direct action to reach their goals. These actions often involved sabotage, solidarity strikes, and general walkouts.

Key Players

Gori, Pietro (1865-1911): Gori was an internationally knownItalian anarchist, as well as a poet, lawyer, and criminologist. Gori encouraged anarchist participation in the early Argentina labor movement.

Mitre, Bartolomé (1821-1906): Mitre was an Argentine statesman, military leader, and historian. After being exiled in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, Mitre returned to Argentina in 1852 and participated in the overthrow of President Juan Manual Rosas by General Justo JoséUrquiza. In 1853 Mitre was appointed minister of war in the Buenos Aires provincial government. Mitre was made governor of Buenos Aires Province in 1860 and defeated Urquiza at the Battle of Pavon in 1861. In 1862 Mitre was elected to a six-year term as president of the republic. He was defeated for the presidency in 1874 and again in 1891. Mitre founded the influential newspaper La Nación (The Nation) in 1870. His writings include histories of South America and Argentina.

Paraire, Antonio Pellicer (1851-1916): Paraire was a Spanish printer who immigrated to Argentina in 1891. In 1900 Paraire published a series of articles on labor organizations in which he put forward the basic principles for a labor federation.

Roca, Julio Argentino (1843-1914): Roca was Argentine general and president from 1880 to 1886 and 1898 to 1904. He left school to fight with the Argentine Confederation and, later, in the Paraguayan War. President Roca introduced a single legal currency throughout Argentina, settled boundary disputes with Brazil and Chile, and in later years served as minister of the interior and as ambassador to Brazil and France.

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino (1811-1888): Sarmiento was Argentine president from 1868 to 1874. In 1835 he went into exile in Chile. At that time, he worked in journalism and education and in 1845 published Facundo: Civilizacióno Barbarie, a discussion of barbarism and civilization as a regular theme in Latin American literature. In 1842 Sarmiento was appointed director of a new teacher-training institution in Santiago, Chile. Three years later, the Chilean government sent him to Europe and the United States to study educational systems. Sarmiento was Argentine minister to the United States from 1864 to 1868. After his presidential years, Sarmiento became director of schools in Buenos Aires, where he reorganized the school system.

See also: Anarchists Lead Argentine Labor Movement.



Alexander, Robert Jackson. An Introduction to Argentina.New York: Praeger, 1969.

——. Organized Labor in Latin America. New York: The Free Press, 1965.

Baily, Samuel L. Labor, Nationalism, and Politics in Argentina. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1967.

Munck, Ronaldo. Argentina from Anarchism to Peronism:Workers, Unions and Politics, 1855-1985. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1987.


Oved, Yaacov. "The Uniqueness of Anarchism in Argentina." Tel Aviv University [cited 4 December 2002].


—William Arthur Atkins

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Organized Labor Established

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