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How to Fight a Giant: Militant Labor Organizers Catch PepsiCo Off Guard

Laid-off workers’ struggle at PepsiCo in Buenos Aires has become iconic worldwide.

PepsiCo's decision to relocate one of its production sites in Buenos Aires, leaving over 600 people jobless without prior warning, ushered in an iconic struggle with unexpected consequences. (Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

“If there is no bread for our children, there will be no peace for the bosses,” says worker-activist Camilo Mones in front of the PepsiCo plant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The facility was shut down by the company at a moment’s notice, leaving 691 workers on the streets. Mones’ words sound daring. After all, what can a few hundred workers do in the face of a multinational behemoth that enjoys the loyal support of the Argentinian government?

Portrait of a Giant

PepsiCo is the world’s second-largest snacks producer. It makes Frito-Lay, Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana products in more than 200 countries, and holds at No. 84 on Forbes’s World’s Largest Public Companies, right behind Amazon. In 2016, it made $62.8 billion in sales, had a market value of $159.4 billion and employed an estimated 264,000 workers. The company headquarters are located on a sprawling campus in Purchase, New York, where the glittering seven-building complex is flanked by a country club and overlooks a sculpture garden containing the works of Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti.

Five thousand miles away in Zona Norte (the northern rim of Buenos Aires province in Argentina’s industrial heartland), PepsiCo ran a food-packaging factory until it slammed the doors in late June. The workers arrived at work one morning and found a note that read, “Due to the cessation of operations … and the relocation of production to another facility … employees are temporarily liberated from providing services.”

Swift factory closures and massive firings are far from unusual in Argentina’s recent history; many recall the 2001 crisis when the economy tanked and unemployment spiked to over 20 percent. Widespread protests shook the country during the tumultuous days of December 19-20 of 2001, eventually deposing President Fernando de la Rúa and grudgingly (with a sparse 23 percent vote) putting Néstor Kirchner into power a couple of years later.

Once in power, the Kirchners established close ties with human rights groups like the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo — mothers of the victims of the latest military dictatorship, known as “desaparecidos” — in order to maintain dialogue with (or claim to represent) sectors of the middle and popular classes that played a decisive role in the 2001 rebellion. This was combined with extensive welfare programs, notably the conditional cash transfers and the re-nationalization of the pension system by which the Kirchners secured a more solid electoral base. However, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner’s center-left “pink tide” governments (2003 to 2015) left a lot to be desired — particularly in terms of labor protections, national economic sovereignty and distribution of wealth.

Against the backdrop of a stumbling economy, President Mauricio Macri took office in 2016 with a zeal for austerity and anti-worker policies, cracking down on protests. A lifelong businessman, Macri packed his cabinet with CEOs of different stripes, in a pattern akin to the US president-elect a year later. Macri’s tough stance toward workers caused a major standoff earlier this year, when teachers walked out 16 times within a few months to push for a wage increase that kept up with inflation.

The deepening economic downturn has put pressure on several companies that are now announcing layoffs — over 200,000 since Macri took office — but it’s fine: the government has their back. The businesses won’t suffer.

Not content with vetoing an emergency bill that sought to temporarily hamper layoffs, Macri’s government is preparing a labor reform bill aimed at liquidating workers’ protections and allowing companies to outsource or fire employees on a whim. It is in this context that PepsiCo decided to close the plant in Buenos Aires.

Not So Fast

More than 600 workers — the majority of whom were women — produced snacks at the factory operated by PepsiCo in Buenos Aires. The plant to which the company plans to move its production processes is located about 250 miles south in Mar del Plata.

The PepsiCo workers in Buenos Aires are organized. A militant left shop-floor committee has led the union chapter since 2003 — the change of hands took place after a struggle against 100 layoffs that the previous leadership refused to fight. The militant slate was elected and, over the course of 14 years, gradually cultivated a combative and democratic local run by the rank-and-file. Tireless worker-activists Camilo Mones, Catalina Balaguer and the late Leonardo Norniella organized the factory from the ground up.

So, it should come as no surprise that when PepsiCo shut down on June 20, the workers did not just quietly go home. They held an assembly and voted to resist; a few hours later, they occupied. The battle of PepsiCo had begun.

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

In a sense, the PepsiCo struggle can be seen as an educational tool for rank-and-file workers’ militancy even as it is still in the process of formation. Or perhaps more significantly, the struggle can serve as an exemplar of socialists’ potential in the labor movement.

Immediately after occupying the factory, the workers went to the Food Industry Workers’ Union (STIA) headquarters and demanded that National Secretary Rodolfo Daer call a strike for their reinstatement and in defense of the occupation. He refused.

Daer’s 40-some-year tenure in union officialdom has been characterized by an uninterrupted alignment with every single ruling government dating back to the murderous military dictatorship of Rafael Videla of the late 1970s. As head of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) during the 1990s, he watched passively as the government rammed through labor flexibilization and passed neoliberal policies.

A few days after the occupation began, the union leader struck a deal with PepsiCo behind the workers’ backs, agreeing to the closure of the plant in exchange for severance pay and a year’s worth of health insurance.

But the radical comisión interna (the shop floor committee elected by the workers) continued the occupation despite Daer’s refusal and escalated the fight.

Since the company didn’t depend on the production at the closed plant, it could wait out the conflict until the workers ran out of resources, energy and morale. Aware of the perils of being effectively gagged by mainstream media and becoming isolated, the workers put their full efforts into blasting their fight into the public sphere.

In less than a month of struggle, the degree to which these workers have mobilized is incredible. Joined by the truck drivers’ union, they picketed the Tasa de Tortuguitas, a logistics center that distributes PepsiCo products. They put up roadblocks on the Panamerican Highway and blockaded July 9 Avenue in the center of Buenos Aires. They blockaded the Mar del Plata PepsiCo factory. They organized marches to the town hall, the Ministry of Labor and the Plaza de Mayo, and they held concerts at the gate of the factory.

They also set up a strike fund that has garnered contributions from hundreds of schools and workplaces. A high-profile boycott campaign has gathered momentum and a petition for the workers’ reinstatement has gotten the support of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, figures from the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, daughters of desaparecidos, and thousands of activists from human rights, student and worker organizations. Internationally, the petition received hundreds of signatures from figures like socialist film director Ken Loach, author/activist Kate Evans and labor author Kim Moody, as well as the Industrial Workers of the World and numerous union locals.

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

War Zone

On July 13, a judge ordered the eviction of the PepsiCo workers’ occupation at the company’s request. The actual eviction — violent and described as a “war zone” by those present — was broadcast live by major news outlets in Argentina and covered by international newspapers such as the Spanish paper El País and covered by mainstream US papers via reprints from major wire services such as The Associated Press.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both previously had working links to stories on the strike, though these links have since gone dead. A Google search still pulls up The Washington Post title “Police clash with ex-workers at Argentine PepsiCo plant” from July 13, 2017, though the story URL is now broken.

The night before the eviction, more than 500 supporters congregated at the plant’s entrance to block the police offensive. Residents living near the factory also joined, banging pots and pans in a manner reminiscent of the 2001 uprising. After several hours of tension and scuffles, the police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to pummel the workers’ resistance and force them out of the factory.

A private consulting firm has estimated that the eviction of PepsiCo was livestreamed, tweeted and read about by upwards of 20 million people — nearly half the total population of Argentina. Clarín, the largest newspaper in the country, ran a piece on July 17 entitled, “With PepsiCo, the government faces an unexpected storm.”

The consequences for the ruling Cambiemos party in the upcoming October elections are uncertain. What is certain is that the conflict broke onto the national scene and called into question the government’s plain subservience to foreign capital. Furthermore, it has become a major example of resistance and could provide a united front platform with thousands of workers who are facing layoffs and want to fight back despite union leaderships’ quiescence.

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

A Militant Workers’ Current

The shop floor committee at PepsiCo is part of a larger oppositional caucus, with insertion in different unions, known as Lista Bordó. The Bordó caucus is composed of militant rank-and-file workers, some linked to the Socialist Worker Party (PTS), some independent.

They spearheaded a heroic struggle at the Lear auto parts plant in 2014, they were at the head of the Donnelley factory occupation that same year, and they belong to a tradition of revolutionary workers that goes back to the Zanon factory takeover featured in Naomi Klein’s The Take. Particularly strong in the food industry, the Bordó caucus got 40 percent of the vote in the 2012 national election for the STIA union.

The structure of unions in Argentina was in large part shaped by a bill that Juan D. Perón designed in the early 1940s. The legislation granted important rights to workers and their unions but brought them under the government’s grip. Ever since, the ministry of labor has been legally entitled to recognize or disavow a union, manage its funding, oversee elections and intervene in them whenever deemed necessary.

Over time, a caste of union bureaucrats crystallized from this marriage of state and labor. Much like their counterparts in other countries, these leaderships showed more interest in keeping their perks as managers of the workers’ mass organizations than class struggle in search for long-lasting reforms.

While national leaders (with almost no exceptions) carry a dismal record for corruption and genuflexion before bosses and the state, the comisiones internas (shop floor committees) have always been more vulnerable to rank-and-file rebellions.

This was the case during Argentina’s revolutionary uprising in the late ’60s and early ’70s when militant rank-and-file union members took over hundreds of comisiones internas and defied the holy trinity — the bosses, the state and the union bureaucracy. It was only through an iron-fist military dictatorship and 30,000 lives taken by state terrorism that this workers’ militant backbone could be broken.

Since the Bordó took over the comisión interna at PepsiCo, initiatives by women workers have gained some of the more outstanding victories. The PepsiCo factory is the only factory in the food industry in Argentina to have won pay parity for men and women and entry-level wages higher than those set by the industry-wide bargaining agreement. As the comisión interna grew stronger, it increasingly imposed checks on working hours and production rhythms.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day this year, the women in the factory proposed to the assembly that all workers, men and women, take to the streets to fight for women’s rights and against femicides. No other factory in the food industry went on strike that day.

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)(Photo: Enfoque Rojo)

A Change in the Tide?

Only two hours after the eviction, a Labor Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the workers and ordered the company to reinstate them immediately. However, the government defended the closure of the plant and the eviction, and PepsiCo has yet to comply with the court’s decision.

But then the tide seemed to change. On July 18, 30,000 people marched to the National Congress representing hundreds of combative union locals, student organizations, human rights activists, the globally known #NiUnaMenos feminist collective, political organizations and the dissident labor federation CTA. The hashtag #TodosConPepsicoEnLucha (Everyone with Pepsico in struggle) was a trending topic for six hours. Of course, the union bureaucracy flaked again: Rodolfo Daer and the heads of the CGT were nowhere to be seen.

At the end of the massive demonstration, the workers started an occupation in front of the Congress with the aim of not just keeping the fight alive and visible, but also serving as a point of convergence and solidarity for other workers’ struggles. In the words of Camilo Mones, “If all unions decided to fight the bosses and the government like we are doing, we could stop the layoffs today.”

Within three weeks, the struggle at PepsiCo went from a contained workplace conflict to an iconic struggle. PepsiCo messed with the wrong workers, and both the company and the government are now trying to find a way to put out the fire. Whether the workers win or not is still an open question, but what the events prove thus far is that a militant group of workers willing to go all-out against the bosses, with the support of a larger socialist current inserted in the labor movement, can fight the good fight and lead the way for workers to strike back.

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