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Union Federations Split Along Ideological Lines

Union Federations Split Along Ideological Lines

South America 1900-1920


By the late nineteenth century, workers in some South American countries had begun to organize. European ideologies such as anarchism, syndicalism, and socialism influenced the continent's labor movements. A growing number of trade unions appeared, particularly in countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. In most cases, union leaders attempted to unify their organizations into national confederations. However, in all cases, such countrywide organizations had a precarious existence and often split along ideological lines.


  • 1882: British forces invade, and take control of, Egypt.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates—and exacerbates—the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1899: Start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War.
  • 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.
  • 1899: Aspirin introduced.
  • 1900: Establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.
  • 1900: Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • 1900: German physicist Max Planck develops Planck's constant, a cornerstone of quantum theory.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in Sã o Toméand Principe.

Event and Its Context

The Formation of Working-class Organizations in Latin America

Workers in South American countries began to organize starting as early as the 1840s, when some formed mutual aid societies and others carried out utopian experiments. During this formative period, which lasted until World War I, the conditions in many of the region's countries produced a much larger working class. South America became increasingly integrated into the world economy as exports grew and foreign investment increased. In turn, urban populations increased, the service sector expanded, and some industry appeared. These conditions fostered a bigger and increasingly more organized working class.

Workers in a number of South American countries became more militant and began to organize on a larger scale in the late nineteenth century. Earlier forms of organization had not led to any real improvements in the conditions of the working classes, and these failures prompted the change in approach. In many cases, these early labor movements drew on the experiences and ideologies of the working classes in other countries as an increasing number of European immigrants brought their working-class ideologies with them. In countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, workers looked to European ideologies such as anarchism, syndicalism, and socialism. By the early twentieth century, many workers had formed unions, federations, and confederations.

Working-class Ideologies in Latin America

Several main European working-class ideologies appeared in South America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, syndicalism, and socialism all influenced labor movements throughout Latin America. Proponents of these ideologies agreed that capitalists exploited the laboring classes. However, they differed as to how to improve the condition of working-class people. In addition, the differences were sometimes blurred or strayed from their original positions.

Anarchists could be found throughout much of Latin American during this period, although there was a great deal of diversity among them. Some remained true to the anarchist ideology and thus viewed trade unions as merely reformist rather than revolutionary. Instead, these anarchists relied on small affinity groups to attract workers to a revolution that would destroy the state and private property, marking the start of a new society. Other anarchists became somewhat more pragmatic and joined trade unions in hopes of making their struggles more revolutionary.

As was the case elsewhere in the world, an anarchosyndicalist movement appeared in South America in the late 1800s and would play an even larger role than anarchism. Sometimes referred to as "revolutionary syndicalism," this current was a reaction to what many saw as a socialist movement that was too moderate and reformist, as well as to the perceived ineffectiveness of the anarchists. This ideology adapted a number of anarchist ideals to the realties of industrial capitalism. Like the anarchists, the anarcho-syndicalists were a diverse group. However, at the core of the ideology was the tenet of direct action. Trade unions would lead this struggle against the capitalist class, and anarcho-syndicalists would not allow for compromise with the bourgeois state. Workers would rely on tactics such as strikes, sabotage, and boycotts rather than seeking gains through the state and traditional politics. The main weapon of the anarcho-syndicalist was the general strike that would paralyze the economy. Anarcho-syndicalists opposed electoral politics and sought to take over the state. At the core of a new society would be the trade unions that brought down the state. In reality, however, some anarchist groups did allow workers to make short-term demands that would improve their immediate conditions.

A distinct syndicalist movement also developed, particularly in Argentina. Similar to anarcho-syndicalism in many ways, the key difference for syndicalists was their dedication to securing more immediate economic gains. In addition, the syndicalists were more willing to negotiate and collaborate with the state if they thought this approach would serve the interests of their union members.

Socialism also played a role in the South American labor movement, although on a limited basis. Most Latin American socialists were similar to European Social Democrats. Thus, although the Latin American socialists believed in long-term goals, they stressed immediate results within the existing system. They encouraged legal and peaceful means, such as electoral participation to effect reforms. They generally believed that trade unions should be subordinate to political parties. Socialists had difficulty making inroads in many Latin American countries because of the size and composition of the working class. The nature of the state and electoral politics in the region also served to limit the influence of socialism. In Argentina, where socialism played the most significant role, the socialists were largely reformist and had weak links to the labor movement. Elsewhere, particularly in northern Chile, socialists were less reformist.

The Labor Movement in Argentina

In 1890 Argentine labor leaders attempted to form the Federación Obrera Argentina (FOA), the country's first national labor confederation. Socialist leaders, mainly immigrants, were largely responsible for organizing the FOA. However, the confederation was often inactive, and on several occasions labor leaders attempted to revive the organization. Finally, in 1901 they permanently established the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA). This organization comprised 27 unions in the capital, Buenos Aires, as well as in the interior of the country. Although FORA still did not control the majority of Argentine unions, it was the largest such confederation in all of Latin America. However, ideological differences soon caused a split in the FORA. After the organization's 1902 congress, socialists and other nonanarchists withdrew from the organization, leaving the anarchists in control of the organization.

Anarchism first appeared in Argentina in the 1880s among Italian and Spanish immigrants. The ideology became especially strong after 1899 when the resumption of the gold standard in the country ended increases in real wages and caused rents to rise. Argentine anarchists renounced their traditional individualism and began organizing unions. Anarchism had a great appeal to many Argentine workers, and some 20,000 workers in Buenos Aires belonged to the federation, representing about 5 percent of the city's total working class. Anarchism's simple conflict ideology and philosophy of action attracted many workers; others favored the utopian and even millenarian aspects of the ideology. On a number of occasions during the first decade of the twentieth century, there were great anarchist struggles, often taking the form of a general strike. Massive demonstrations and street battles with police were often the result. This situation sometimes prompted government crack-downs, which ranged from declaring a state of siege to laws such as the Law of Residence (1902) and the Law of Social Defense (1910). In 1910 anarchists threatened to sabotage Argentina's centennial celebrations. This threat led to attacks on anarchists and their organizations. The anarchists never fully recovered from this repression, nor did they succeed in implementing their social revolution.

In 1903 many of socialists who had left the FORA formed a new group known as the Unión General de Trabajo (UGT). Early Argentine socialists were the best organized in Latin America. Led by Juan B. Justo, they had formed the Socialist Party in the 1890s and were at first active among the working classes. Increasingly, however, many workers felt that the socialists were too reformist and did not represent their interests. Therefore, the UGT soon took on a syndicalist bent. By the time of the UGT's third congress in 1905, syndicalists clearly dominated the organization, and Argentine socialists deemphasized their role among the working classes.

In 1909 the syndicalists formed yet another new organization known as the Confederación Obrera Regional Argentina (CORA). They were unhappy with other organizations as they felt that the socialists were too moderate and the anarchists were ineffective. The syndicalists were particularly strong among the port workers of Buenos Aires. They gained influence by staging limited strikes that resulted in immediate economic gains.

In 1914 the FORA and the CORA united. By the following year, the syndicalists had taken control of the new group, which would be known as FORA IX, after the ninth congress. This caused the anarchists to withdraw from the newly combined organization. Instead, the anarchists formed the FORA V, so named because they adhered the anarchist ideals of the fifth congress of 1905.

During the government of Hipolito Yrigoyen (1916-1923), the syndicalists and the state engaged in some cooperative efforts. The syndicalists supported Yirgoyen's Radical Party, and in exchange, the government withheld police action against certain strikes. By 1918 the syndicalist-led FORA had some 80,000 members in the capital of Buenos Aires, about 20 to 25 percent of the city's workers. There were also violent confrontations in this period, most notably the "Tragic Week" massacre in January 1919.

The Labor Movement in Chile

There was no national labor federation in Chile until just before World War I, despite at least five attempts to create one. Members of certain trades managed to create their own federations, such as typographers, breadmakers, and shoemakers. There was also a certain level of provincial organization. For example, workers in Santiago and Tarapacácreated federations.

Despite the lack of a national labor organization, the first decade of the twentieth century did see a series of labor conflicts in Chile. In 1903 a maritime workers strike in Valparaíso resulted in rioting, and the government brought in the navy to suppress the movement. There were also walkouts in the northern nitrate fields. In 1907 government troops massacred miners in Iquique.

Although a national federation came late in Chile, other forms of working-class organization existed earlier. During the early twentieth century resistance societies appeared in certain trades, particularly in the cities of Santiago and Valparaíso. Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism influenced these societies. Among the most significant actions taken by such groups was the 1903 Valparaíso maritime strike, which encountered violence that resulted in some 100 deaths. Between 1905 and 1907 many new societies appeared in the two cities and there were more than 75 strikes.

In the northern mining region of the country, there appeared organizations known as mancomunales. These groups combined the functions of mutual aid societies and trade unions. They were based on geography rather than trade, joining skilled and unskilled workers in the nitrate and transport industries. The mancomunales were well organized and militant. Yet by 1907 heavy repression and economic crisis virtually ended both the mancomunales and the resistance societies until World War I.

Chile's first national labor organization appeared in 1909. Known as the Gran Federación Obrera de Chile (GFOCh), the federation was conservative in its early years. The GFOCh collaborated with the government and sought reforms such as security against sickness, death, and unemployment. It also fought for a minimum wage and eight-hour workday. At first the federation was organized along a loose federal structure, with national, departmental, and local councils. Later the organization became more centralized. After 1917 it was known simply as FOCh.

If anarchist and anarcho-sydicalist ideology dominated the early resistance societies in Chile, socialism also made inroads in the labor movement. In 1912 Luis Emilio Recabarren founded the Partido Oberero Socialista (POS), which was much less reformist than its Argentine counterpart. The POS had a significant working-class following, especially in the North. However, the POS had minimal success in elections.

Socialists also played an important role in the changing focus of the FOCh. At the 1919 FOCh convention, the socialists had clearly come to dominate the organization. No longer a reformist federation that largely served as a mutual aid society, the FOCh had become a revolutionary group that opposed capitalism. Indeed, in 1921 the FOCh joined the Red International of Labor Unions.

Other workers joined a Chilean affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) of the United States. Following the anarcho-syndicalist model, the Chilean IWW opposed the government and capitalism. It favored direct action such as strikes, boycotts, and sabotage. Some 9,000 workers joined the IWW, mainly in Santiago and in several port cities. The IWW was especially strong among maritime, bakery, masonry, and leatherworkers.

The Labor Movement in Brazil

In Brazil, the labor movement grew in the 1890s, and by the first decade of the twentieth century workers in major cities had become active. The first citywide general strike took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1905. Some 40,000 strikers shut down the city for 20 days and gained some concessions. There was a general strike in Sã o Paulo in 1906, although authorities brutally put it down. Workers in Sã o Paulo struck again in 1907, with some acquiring an eight-hour day. These gains did not last, however, as many unions disappeared in an economic downturn that affected the country.

The first workers' congress in Brazil met in 1906, with representatives from 28 organizations. The delegates passed resolutions that generally represented the anarcho-syndicalist position. They agreed to form the Confederacão Operária Brasileira (COB). Led by the Edgard Leuenroth, the COB lived a precarious existence. Although the COB helped to exchange information and coordinate labor activities, it did not play a major role. Furthermore, the early anarcho-syndicalist movement in Brazil was less extreme than its Argentine counterpart, using the general strike less often and allowing for collective bargaining with management. In 1913 delegates to the second workers' congress reaffirmed the anarcho-syndicalist position of the COB.

The anarcho-syndicalists in Brazil continued to play a role over the next several years, exemplified by their participation in the 1917 general strike in Sã o Paulo. The strike started as a work stoppage at a large textile factory where workers demanded higher wages. The strike soon spread to other factories, especially after the police killed one demonstrator. The dead worker's funeral procession sparked a general strike in the city that involved some 45,000 workers. Indeed, civil authorities lost control of the city for a time and some looting took place. Anarcho-syndicalists workers formed the Comitê de Defesa Proletária (CDP). The group composed a list of relatively moderate demands that in general were not consistent with anarchosyndicalist ideology, which paved the way for some middle-class support. The committee used a group of supporters to conduct negotiations with the government. The CDP obtained a 20 percent increase in wages and the promise of other reforms. This victory for labor led to even more organizing. Labor agitation spread to the interior of the state and to Rio de Janeiro. At the same time, it led to increased oppression, as the government closed unions, arrested and deported many leaders, and declared a state of siege in 1918. In turn, this situation produced internal divisions in Brazilian labor over strategy and tactics. By 1920 the period of labor expansion had largely come to an end.

A growing split in the Brazilian labor movement occurred in the 1920s. Some reformist unions appeared, especially in Rio de Janeiro and often encouraged by the government. At the same time, many anarcho-syndicalists changed their earlier strategy and came to reject all political participation and strikes for short-term gains. Greatly influenced by the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, the anarcho-syndicalists remained dominant in Sã o Paulo. However, their influence greatly declined elsewhere in the country.

Although there was no significant socialist party in Brazil during the early twentieth century, the Brazilian Communist Party was founded in 1922. It was formed by many former anarcho-syndicalists and had some influence in many unions in Rio de Janeiro. Soon a struggle for control of the labor movement developed between the anarcho-syndicalists and the communists. In 1926 the communists created an electoral front known as the Bloco Operário e Camponê s (BOC), which elected several candidates. The communists also created a short-lived national trade union confederation in 1929 called the Confederacã o Geral do Trabalhadores do Brazil. By the end of the 1920s, communists dominated the Brazilian labor movement.

Key Players

Justo, Juan B. (1865-1928): Argentine doctor and politician.Justo was the founder of the Argentine Socialist Party, the best organized in the region. In its early years, the Socialist Party played an active role among Argentine workers. Justo founded the socialist worker newspaper La Vanguardia in 1894. He served as both a deputy and senator in Argentina's national legislature.

Leuenroth, Edgard (1881-1968): A Brazilian labor leader who was instrumental in organizing the country's first labor confederation, the Confederacão Operária Brasileira (COB). An anarcho-syndicalist, Leuenroth also edited a number of working-class newspapers in Brazil. He was jailed several times for his participation in labor activities.

Recabarren, Luis Emilio (1876-1924): Chilean typographer and labor leader. Recabarren edited several working-class newspapers in the northern nitrate mining region of the country. He was a leading figure in the Partido Democático and was elected to the Chilean congress in 1906. He later felt that the Partido Democrático was too conservative and formed the Partido Obrero Socilaista (POS) in 1912. Recabarren was exiled in Argentina from 1916 to 1918. Upon his return to Chile, he gained control of the country's main labor confederation. In 1924 he committed suicide.

See also: Anarchists Lead Argentine Labor Movement; Longshoremen and Miners Strikes; Organized Labor Established; Tragic Week, Argentina.



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Hall, Michael, and Hobart Spalding. "The Urban Working Class and Early Latin American Labour Movements, 1880-1930." In The Cambridge History of Latin America, 1870-1930, edited by Leslie Bethell. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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—Ronald Young

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