Home / General / This Day in Labor History: October 17, 1945

This Day in Labor History: October 17, 1945

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On October 17, 1945, a huge demonstration of workers in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, came together to demand the release of Colonel Juan Perón, recently arrested by the generals in charge of the government. Today known as Loyalty Day, it was the key event in the development of the Peronist movement that created an unprecedented involvement of workers in the Argentine government over the next three decades, although Perón was most certainly not without his problems.

In 1943, a nationalist sect in the military led by General Arturo Rawson overthrew the extremely corrupt government of Ramon Castillo. Labor was mixed on the coup with some hopes that the new government would loosen labor laws. However, it quickly moved to repress labor. A series of strikes that fall led to the arrest of most of the nation’s labor leaders. As a response to this, the unions started working with a couple of colonels in the military government known to have pro-union positions. One of these was Domingo Mercante. The other was Juan Perón. The government did not know too much about this early on and had recently appointed Perón the head of the Department of Labor, which was an extremely minor position in a government that did not believe in labor rights. But Perón acted quickly and much to the surprise of the generals, significantly expanded labor rights on his own. He created employment tribunals, extended severance pay to all workers that included upwards of two million farmworkers. He created a hospital for railroad workers and began to work toward getting employers and worker to sign collective bargaining agreements.

In short, an anti-union government suddenly found itself being pro-labor against its will. Moreover, these unions began to grow in militancy. Many of them were openly in favor of Perón and would prove his power base in the future. Some moved further to the left. On July 12, 1945, they held a huge rally in Buenos Aires where they chanted Perón’s name and began to shout out their desire that he become president of the nation. This alarmed the military government. They began to mobilize the rich. On September 19, they countered with a giant march of their own, reaching down into the middle classes, in support of the military.

The government’s pressure to get rid of Perón grew too great and he was forced out on October 8. Labor rallied in his favor. The military, completely divided into factions, grew more desperate. They agreed elections were needed. They also placed Perón under arrest on October 12. This helped set off the workers. Now, support for Perón wasn’t universal in the labor movement. So the unions protesting against the military government took on other guises, while also being generally pro-Perón. They created a laundry list of issues that included releasing political prisoners (including of course Perón), free elections, and the respect of the contracts recently signed. Basically for workers, they saw this moment as the determining time over their future. Now, one reason that some of the unions were not really backers of Perón is because he was fascist-friendly, which was certainly true. He really liked Mussolini. They really felt uncomfortable with him and that would never end. But this was as good as it was going to get for workers, especially the unions, in this era. His view on workers was basically that of Mussolini, so his version of sorta fascism was one that brought workers into the state but also gave workers some concrete benefits.

On October 17, workers began to mobilize in favor of releasing Perón and the other demands. That started in the city’s southern industrial zones, especially the meatpacking plants. Given the Argentine love of beef, it was hardly surprising that several of the U.S. packers had established operations there and the Swift-Armour plant was one real center of the mobilization. This moved toward the city, with working class suburbs coming out and people just leaving their workplaces in the city and marching toward the center. The police tried to keep them out by raising bridges, but the workers just started using rafts so the cops gave up and lowered the bridges. Whatever the union leadership thought about Perón, there’s little question the rank and file workers cared more about him than they did about their union leaders. Their main demand was his freedom and him to lead a government .

The government could have responded with violence, but for military men, they really underestimated the power of these workers and found themselves very quickly overwhelmed. This forced them into talks with Perón. He appeared at 11:10 PM in front of 300,000 people, announced his decision to leave the government and support the rights of workers. The union leadership had called for a general strike the next day and he urged the workers to support it. The ability of the military to continue to govern completely collapsed at this point. The army came around to supporting Perón as well as the best way of retaining what power they could.

In the immediate aftermath of the rally, Peron married Eva Duarte, the minor actress that became a legendary institution in that nation. Despised by the elites and beloved by the poor, she became the symbol of Peronism for many people. This frustrated the unions too, as in many ways it depoliticized workers and turned them toward this cult of personality. But there wasn’t much they could do. It was in the protests leading up to October 17 that Evita moved toward icon status, which only continued through and after her early death in 1952 from cancer. In February 1946, the elections were held that ushered Perón into power.

Perhaps the most important part of this from the perspective of workers is that it announced their large-scale entry into Argentine national politics. Part of what the Argentine labor movement needed to do was prove it could be a transformative factor in a nation long dominated by its elite and middle classes. That so many of these workers came from rural Argentina was also important in a nation where the descendants of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europeans had come to dominate the nation, along with the old Spanish-descended elite. Peronism would never not be controversial in Argentina and it was often despised, especially by the elites. While Perón himself came and went and had more than his share of fascist tendencies himself, the biggest reason for the 1976 coup that placed the nation under a brutal dictatorship known for throwing people from airplanes was three decades of worker activism that continued to threaten elite control over the nation.

This is the 497th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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