Argentina’s third way – defending journalism in Latin America

Casa Rosada - government house in Buenos AiresIt was on my first visit to Buenos Aires that I commented on the distinctive red colour of the stone used for Government House in the centre of the city. “Ah,” said my guide, “that is because it is reconstituted stone, and during the making it was mixed with the blood of the revolutionaries.”

I stared at him, until he smiled and admitted that this wasn’t quite true. So, a story it may be, but it is one that gives a good indication of the sometimes complex history of Argentina, and why the prevailing governments tend to be distinctly redistributive in nature.

Argentina’s history of coups and counter-coups is still fairly recent, and while I was there a national two-day holiday took place to commemorate the 35,000 people, predominantly trade unionists, journalists and left-wing activists, who were kidnapped over a 30-year period until the mid-1980s and never seen again. Memories of “the disappeared”, as they are known, are still strong.

Yet a visitor to Buenos Aires today could well fail to notice this recent past, except perhaps for some slightly more unusual sculptures such as the Monument to the Workers on Ave 9 July. The capital today has the feel of a modern westernised city that could be anywhere in Europe, albeit with a distinctly Spanish feel.

A history of agreement structuresMonument to the Workers, Buenos Aires
I was visiting Argentina’s national journalists’ union, FATPREN. What interested me in particular was Argentina’s structured system of recognition and negotiation between the government, employers and the press unions.

“It all goes back to the 12908 law established by General Peron,” says Josė Insaurralde, deputy general secretary of FATPREN. “In 1946 he created the Statute for Professional Journalists, which established a range of working conditions, salaries, pensions, etc., for the press in Argentina.

A subsequent law in 1947 established a similar structure for administrative staff, including roles such as media booking and secretarial support. “Those early laws were crucial,” says Insaurralde, “ because they laid the framework for the rights we enjoy today. Most media organisations observe these conditions for their staff.”

Similar hierarchies were established for many other unions at that time, which is why so many Argentine unionists today still refer to themselves as “Peronistas”. By 1975, there were some 38 collective agreements in place across the country for the press unions; one per province and several within Buenos Aires.

Since that time, FATPREN and its filials have spent years working towards a single national agreement for the press, in order to simplify the process of negotiation between the unions and the media owners. This objective was finally reached in 2008.

“That year was important because we managed to establish the first national collective agreement for our industry in fifty years,” says Gustavo Granero, FATPREN’s general secretary. “In the process, we found out that some 41% of journalists, predominantly those in the provinces, had been working in conditions considered below the poverty line. In 2008, those journalists were lifted above that line at a stroke.”

Bar Seddon, Buenos AiresWhile this was a huge achievement for the union, he admits to a lingering disappointment that journalists working for the Clarin group, the largest privately owned media group in Argentina, are not included. “The problem is that the management of this group has a simplistic mind-set and is, without further thought or consideration, anti-union. They deliberately target trade unionists, and will sack any members or representatives immediately.”

Unions manage the social benefits
One of the key reasons why pay in Argentina’s press sector is so highly structured is that the unions are responsible for administering many social benefits, including sick leave, health insurance and social security. This is why each union operates its own registered charity, which acts as the funding source for such commitments.

The government pays the amounts required to the union charity, which then has to budget and control all payments made under the scheme. For the union, this brings advantages in budgetary power and recruiting, and the ability to negotiate the health plan that best suits its members’ needs. The government gains from not having to maintain a huge swathe of administration activities, with all the costs involved.

La TangoIndividual journalists in Argentina pay their membership fees to one of the local FATPREN-affiliated unions in the country. Basic membership fees, which are deducted at source, start at around 3% of salary (some US$ 10 – 12 a month), with higher membership grades costing more.

Health coverage is probably the central feature of the benefits provided by Argentine unions to their members. It is funded by a tax on the media owners, which have to pay 6% of the salaries of all their staff into the union charity. That coverage includes members and their families, who can enjoy preventative medicine as well as regular treatment, and 100% of dental costs for dependants aged twelve to seventeen, a level above the minimum required by law.

Some things don’t change
Some aspects of journalism in Argentina will be familiar to practitioners in other countries. Employers will still try to make use of freelance journalists rather than hiring staff; freelancers being easier to hire and fire without comeback.

However in Argentina, journalists are helped by a law that stipulates if a freelancer carries out more than 24 projects for a client during a year, then that journalist can be considered as staff rather than freelance, with all the benefits that ensue. This stipulation acts as something of a magnet for journalists working in neighbouring countries; they tend to gravitate towards Argentina because of its clearer employment laws.

Legal support is another critical feature of the union´s offer – even Argentina’s star journalists come to the union for support when they have a dispute with their employer, says Granero. In some cases, winning a court case has meant an award of thousands of dollars.

Enjoying yourself is dangerous
Entertaining the crowd at Plaza San Domingo marketIn case you start to become envious of your counterparts in Argentina, it is worth remembering that they face other challenges. FATPREN’s office in Buenos Aires was shut down briefly in May 2011 during a dramatic police raid, because of an “illegal party”.

The raid was overseen by the mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, who claimed that FATPREN ‘s (fairly small) celebration was not in accordance with the law for business premises. That mayor Macri has a history in the construction industry and Citibank, and was collared in 2010 for involvement in tapping the telephones of trade unionists, government opposition and his own political opponents, is obviously not relevant.

The closure caused an international outcry, and with support from the NUJ as well as the IFJ and press unions around the world the office re-opened the following week. Perhaps a good reminder, if any were needed, of the importance of international solidarity even in the 21st century.

© Philip Hunt, 2011.

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