Wednesday, December 23
No Candu for Argentina
"It took the media coverage of the South Atlantic war for most people to learn about Argentina’s repressive military dictatorship. But many Canadian trade unionists already knew all about General Galtieri. They had, as Wayne Ellwood explains, been through a remarkable campaign for human rights in Argentina that brought together trade unions and action groups throughout Canada.
It started in 1977 as little more than a flurry of concern by Argentinian exiles in Toronto about human rights abuses in their homeland Two years later the ‘No Candu for Argentina’ campaign had become the single most dramatic example of Canadian trade union solidarity with workers in the Third World.
Before the South Atlantic war the Latin American nation had been portrayed as a staunch Western ally; the regime’s military junta had successfully subdued a pesky movement of revolutionary guerrillas and was fighting to keep a tottering economy on an even keel.
The reality, however, was far more ugly. Since March 24, 1976. Argentina has been ruled by a military dictatorship whose prime concern has been to rid the country of ‘subversives’ — anyone with vaguely liberal beliefs.
For the handful of Argentinians in Canada the natural point of contact was the Candu nuclear reactor that Ottawa had sold to Buenos Aires in 1973. The Candu, say its critics, is the ideal equipment for producing fissionable, bomb-quality plutonium under the guise of a domestic energy programme. It is estimated that one 600-megawatt Candu could produce enough plutonium for 35 Hiroshima-size bombs a year.
Stopping the Candu became both an organizing focus for the ‘No Candu Committee’ and a concrete demand that could be made of the Canadian government.
The deal should be suspended, the Committee argued, until a democratically-elected Argentine government signed the International NonProliferation Treaty: until trade union and civil rights were restored; until all political prisoners were released: and until the 20,000 ‘disappeared’ persons were accounted for.
Because of the junta’s strong-armed attempt to smother Argentina’s powerful union movement, organized labour in Canada was an obvious focus for the work of the No Candu Committee. Says Committee member and former Ontario Federation of Labour Human Rights Officer, Don Lee, ‘Trade unionists responded with an instinctive sense of fraternity even though the measures to restrict union rights in Argentina were unimaginable to most Canadian trade unionists.’
Committee members sweated long hours painstakingly documenting the Argentine military’s human rights abuses. They doggedly telephoned, wrote long letters and told their story to labour gatherings. The result was that more trade unions endorsed the campaign and helped fund the increasing workload of lobbying and education But labour was not the only source of support. Soon a variety of church, environmental and human rights groups had joined to pressure an implacable government to quash the reactor deal.
On a misty July morning in the Atlantic port city of Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1979, two years of careful organizing paid off. The last essential ingredient in the Argentine reactor $120 million worth of heavy water was due to be loaded for shipment to Cordoba After weeks of frenetic behind-the scenes work by the Committee —including a private meeting with Saint John longshoremen — the heavy water shipment was declared ‘Hot Cargo’. When the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the Saint John Labour Council set up an information picket at the container-port gate, longshoremen and other workers refused to cross it. For one day at least the shipment would stay where it was — a symbolic gesture perhaps, but an important one.
The ‘Hot Cargo’ protest, as it became known, had the support of 48 Canadian labour, church and environmental groups, including the 2.3 million member Canadian Labour Congress.
‘We can’t stop this shipment forever’, Saint John Labour Council President Larry Hanley admitted, ‘but we can draw attention to both the violations of human rights in Argentina and the danger that Argentina may build a nuclear bomb’.
The successful oneday protest stressed the goals of the No Candu Committee but the workers also demanded the release of 16 Argentine trade unionists jailed without charges. Within three days, six of the unionists were released. According to Larry Hanley this focus on individuals was critical ‘Suddenly, we were talking about real people; the issues were no longer vague and distant For us it was fundamentally a question of trade union solidarity. We are not simply isolated workers. The connections have to be made between trade unionists fighting for their rights in the Third World countries who are often employed by the same multinationals we are working for right here in Canada’
Despite growing public outrage at the Candu sale the Canadian government remained adamant in its commitment to honouring a contract signed ‘in good faith’.
Meanwhile the main sticking point of the No Candu campaign that Canada shouldn’t be involved with a regime bent on the wholesale destruction of both trade union and civil rights was attracting more attention amongst Canadian trade unionists. And, surprisingly, many of the unions supporting the campaign had an important stake in the nuclear industry.
Mike Rygus, Canadian vice-president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, put the case bluntly. ‘The production of the Candu equipment in several Canadian cities, some under our jurisdiction, means jobs. However, we must not allow our negligent government to blackmail us into supporting barbarous governments that trample over basic human and trade union rights in such a ruthless manner’.
The 150,000 Canadian members of the United Steel Workers (USW) were also heavily committed to the No Candu campaign Like the Machinists many steelworkers depend on the nuclear industry. Says USW Canadian Education Director D’Arcy Martin, ‘It was always the approach of our union that the purpose of the campaign was not to displace jobs but to emphasize the question of human rights. This moral commitment to international solidarity was the strongest reason for our involvement. ‘The fact that hundreds of metal workers in Argentina were directly affected by the repression there was a solid point of identification for steelworkers here.’
Many unions, in the Amnesty International style, ‘adopted’ individual Argentinian trade unionists in an attempt to have them released from prison. According to D’Arcy Martin it took almost a year of constant pressure through diplomatic channels to pressure the Canadian government to convince the junta to release former Argentine Steelworkers Union Leader Alberto Piccinini. When Piccinini was finally allowed to visit Canada and speak to the Canadian Steelworkers national policy conference the event was a moving display of both solidarity and pride, says Mr Martin.
‘Unity,’ Alberto Piccinini told the hushed audience of Steelworkers, ‘is the unity of all of us; and it must go beyond national boundaries. I am very clear that I am free today because of the struggle first of the people in my country and second because of workers elsewhere — especially in this beautiful country. This creates a commitment that will last for the rest of my life.’
While individual unions continued to press the case of imprisoned and missing fellow workers in Argentina. it was the longshoremen of Saint John who once more put their jobs and income on the line this past June —almost three years after the original ‘Hot Cargo’ protest.
With the Argentinian nuclear fuels fabrication plant behind schedule, the junta decided to purchase 3,000 more fuel bundles from Canada. Details of the shipment were leaked to the public in the height of the Anglo- Argentine conflict Once again the ‘Hot Cargo’ boycott shifted into gear. The Saint John longshoremen voted to refuse to handle any nuclear equipment intended for Argentina. And they were backed by every labour federation in the country including the Canadian Labour Congress. The basic demands of the 1979 protest were unchanged But the union was clear that the boycott was strictly divorced from the patriotic jingoism about the war in the South Atlantic.
‘The military dictatorship of General Galtien is exploiting this dramatic fight to divert attention from the more fundamental fight of Argentina’s people for sovereignty,’ said Larry Hanley. ‘We are acting in solidarity on behalf of the people of Argentina for freedom in their country and peace in our hemisphere.’
Undaunted, the government quickly shunted the fuel rods to Montreal where they were flown by special cargo aircraft to Argentina.
The Candu reactor at Rio Tercero has yet to be commissioned and there are still 1,000 fuel rods on order. But, for the short term at least, Canada’s nuclear dealings with the junta have finished As a result the No Candu Committee has also decided to wind up its work.
‘ We no longer have the opportunity for independent action that would seriously disrupt the junta’s plans,’ says Committee spokesman Don Lee. ‘The question is now exclusively in the hands of the Western governments concerned’.
Committee members will continue to raise questions about human rights abuses in Argentina through a sister organization, the Group for the Defense of Civil Rights in Argentina. And Canadian trade unions will continue to press for the release of political prisoners and the whereabouts of the ‘disappeared’.
But just as important is the example the No Candu campaign has created for future cooperation between Canadian trade unions and other organizations involved with Third World solidarity and support work.
‘The No Candu Committee,’ says Steelworker D’Arcy Martin, ‘had both a sophisticated understanding of Canadian labour and a strong pro-labour bias. And that made all the difference. It is our hope that many more such alliances can be made. Because, after all, it’s in the best interest of both trade unions and other groups to work together.’