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Organizing Workers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico: The Authoritarian-Corporatist Legacy and Old Institutional Designs in a New Context

  • Graciela Bensusán

In what way do the corporatist and authoritarian legacies that modelled some Latin American labor institutions influence the opportunities for and restrictions on organizing workers in a new context? To what extent did institutional designs, together with other economic and political factors, influence the characteristics that currently distinguish the union organizations in the countries of the region? Taking into consideration the existence of a broader debate about the consequences of globalization and political democratization for unions, the contribution of historical institutionalism and previous research, in this Article I compare the institutional and organizational dynamics of unions in four countries with authoritarian legacies and corporatist traditions (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico). The Article argues that in spite of these shared traditions, the differences in the institutional designs — which have scarcely been considered in the specialized literature — have historically imposed distinctive features on the associational power of workers and unions. These features not only persist to the present day, but also translate into dissimilar trajectories of the labor movement and opportunities for organizing workers in the last decade.


General Confederation of Labour


Employers′ Confederation of the Mexican Republic (Confederación Patronal de la República Mexicana)


Revolutionary Confederation of Peasants and Workers (Confederación Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos)


Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación Regional de Obreros Mexicanos)


Argentinean Workers Center (Central de Trabajadores Argentinos)


Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos)

CUT (Chile) CUT (Brazil)

The Workers’ United Center of Chile (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores)) Unified Workers’ Central ( Central Única dos Trabalhadores)


International Labour Organization (Organización internacional del trabajo)


Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional)


Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare (Secretaría del Trabajo y Previsión Social)


National Workers’ Union (Unión Nacional de Trabajadores)


Table 1

Latin America Rates[59]

Unionization ratesCollective bargaining rates
YearWage Employees (%)Total Employees (%)YearWage Employees (%)Total employees (%)
Table 2

Earnings Participation in GDP[60]

Around 1990 (a)Around 2000 (b)Around 2009 (c)

Theoretical Inquiries in Law [Vol. 16:131

Table 3

Similarities and Differences in Associational Power[61]

Union regimeBrazil (“soft corporatism”)Chile (from autonomy to microcorporatism post-transition)Argentina (“strong corporatism”)Mexico (“rigid corporatism”)
Ratification ILO Convention9887 and 9887 and 9887
Critical aspectsCompulsory union tax and unity in each jurisdictionSevere restrictions on collective bargaining and right to strikeRestrictions on unions with recognition but without “personería gremial”Discretional choice of union partner in collective bargaining by employer
Union unity vs pluralismCompulsory unity (industry or professional level in each jurisdiction: local, state or country) but highly fragmented and competitive in practicePluralism but highly fragmented in practiceCompulsory unity at the industrial levelFormally pluralism but with monopoly of representation via closed-shop
Union registration authorityCivil authorities but Labor Ministry determines which union has the monopoly of representation and obtains the compulsory union tax.Labor InspectionMinistry of Labor. Monopoly of collective bargaining is recognized for the most representative union.Ministry of Labor (federal jurisdiction) or Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (local jurisdiction)
Protection against antiunion practicesYesYesYesNo
Collective bargainingDecentralized at firm level or collective convention for compulsory jurisdiction (different categories at local level )Decentralized at firm level and informal collectives conventions without right to strikeCentralized at industry or sector level; firm level.Decentralized at firm level and few law-contracts (industry or sector).
Right to access to information before collective bargainingNoNoNoNo
Other negotiators (different unions)No; if no unions, federation or confederation can negotiateYes, bargaining groups supported by the firmNoNo
Dispute resolution by the StateJudicial power can intervene in collective conflictsYesYesOnly if both parties agree
Scope of right to strikeWide, arbitration on request of one partyLimited, with replacement of strikersWide, arbitration on request of one partyWider than the others. Unlimited duration. Arbitration only on request of both parties
Union ResourcesCollective bargaining effectsErga omnesUnionized workers. Benefits can extend to nonunionized workers if the employer decides and they pay 75% of union’s fees,Erga omnes Non-members could be obligated to pay fees to the union with a monopoly of representation.Erga omnes.
Union workplace representation (strong resource for unionization)Must be negotiated with the employer.NoBy law in places with ten or more workers, and by collective bargainingExceptional by law and collective bargaining
Sources of fundingCompulsory union tax for all waged workersUnion’s feesUnion’s fees and employer contributions stipulated in collective agreements. Union-managed scheme of healthcare provision for all waged workersCompulsory fees and employer contributions stipulated in collective agreements
Affiliation and Incentives to recruit membersVoluntary; Positives;Voluntary; Positives but scarceVoluntary; Union-managed healthcare provision for waged workers, and services (tourism, sports, legal advice and others)Compulsory and negatives (closed shop)
Political activitiesPermittedProhibitedPermittedPermitted
Tripartite instances of participationYes Example: National Labor Forum, 2003, to discuss a new labor codeYesYes (Example: Wages Councils)Yes (Administrative, like CNSM and Labor justice)
Table 4

Strength of Union Regimes (Regulation of Collective Rights)[62]

Union Power0.600.800.601
Collective autonomy0.670.500.830.5
Internal democracy0.751.001.000.25
Scope of right to strike0.420.330.330.50
Union representatives at the shop floor level1.
Figure 1 Labor Productivity and Minimum Wage in Latin America, 2010Source: Juan C. Moreno Brid et al., Salario Mínimo en México [Minimum Wage in Mexico], 11 REV. ECO. 33, 78-89 (2014).
Figure 1

Labor Productivity and Minimum Wage in Latin America, 2010[63]

Figure 2 Evolution of the Real Minimum Wage (Index, Base 2000=100)Source: Bensusán & Moreno Brid, supra note 23.
Figure 2

Evolution of the Real Minimum Wage (Index, Base 2000=100)[64]

Published Online: 2016-2-14
Published in Print: 2016-2-1

© 2016 by Theoretical Inquiries in Law

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