Workers in Argentina stage general strike
Oppose government drive against social wage, union rights
Airline workers join August protest in Buenos Aires against government antilabor moves.
BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
AND MARTÍN KOPPEL
Factories, airports, railroads and buses, banks, schools, and government offices were shut down in Argentina November 23-24 as millions of workers took part in a 36-hour general strike. The protest was in response to the latest round of austerity measures the government is imposing to meet the conditions demanded by the International Monetary Fund for a new loan needed to cover the interest payments due on the country's $123 billion foreign debt.
The action was led by Argentina's three major trade union bodies, which organize half the nation's 14 million workers--the two wings of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) and the Argentine Workers Federation (CTA).
This was the second nationwide strike involving all the major union federations since President Fernando de la Rúa took office last December, and the third and largest strike that has been called in less than a year in South America's second-largest nation.
De la Rúa's latest assault, announced November 10, includes a five-year freeze on federal, provincial, and municipal spending, while providing tax cuts to domestic capitalists and imperialist investors; moves to dismantle the state-run pension system, forcing workers to seek individual retirement funds from private companies; raising the retirement age for women workers from 60 to 65 years; and allowing private companies to compete with state health-care systems, which are currently administered by the unions.
The president is also promoting a bill, already approved by the lower house of Congress, that would end industry-wide contract bargaining, a gain won through battles to organize unions following World War II. The bill, which is awaiting Senate approval, would allow bosses to negotiate labor agreements plant by plant.
All of these measures are part of an escalating attack by the capitalist rulers on the social conquests won by the working class over previous decades.
The Argentine government is carrying out these moves in order to reach agreement with the IMF for an emergency loan that could total more than $20 billion--a huge new debt to pay interests on the existing debt to U.S. and other international banks. The concern of imperialist financial institutions is that the Argentine government might default on the debt. According to an article in the Financial Times of London, "Argentina accounts for up to a quarter of tradeable emerging market debt and there are fears over possible contagion if it were pushed into default."
Recession devastates working people
The government's austerity measures come in the midst of a two-year recession, which has had the biggest impact on working people as growing numbers have lost their jobs. Argentina's unemployment rate is now officially at 15.4 percent.
In the 1990s the Peronist administration of Carlos Menem sold off most state-owned industries, from the oil company to the railroads and utilities, resulting in massive layoffs, including many workers in union jobs that were considered relatively stable.
At the same time, the peso was pegged to the U.S. dollar, which has led to the virtual dollarization of the Argentine economy, resulting in high prices and the devastation of workers' living standards.
In carrying out this offensive, the Menem government took advantage of the fact that the labor bureaucracy in Argentina has subordinated the unions politically to the Peronist party since it was founded in the mid-1940s by bourgeois nationalist leader Juan Perón. During the years of Perón's rule, the Argentine working class wrested an expanded social wage and organized powerful trade unions.
It is these social conquests that the imperialists are pressing the government to take on more directly. When Menem used up his political capital after years of brutal assaults and economic crisis, the bourgeoisie turned to de la Rúa, who took office in December, to continue the assault.
Roadblocks throughout the country
The national strike was originally called by the CTA and the "dissident" wing of the CGT, led by truckers union chief Hugo Moyano, to protest the death of Aníbal Verón, a laid-off bus worker who was killed when cops attacked 100 protesting unemployed workers blocking a road in the northern province of Salta.
The strike began November 23 when workers around the country walked out of factories and offices, and proceeded to set up road blockades--a method of struggle borrowed from the piqueteros, the unemployed workers in the provinces who have set up pickets on highways over the past half decade to draw attention to their critical situation.
The following day, the main wing of the CGT joined the strike, as workers from hospitals, trains, gas stations, banks, and garbage collection services, among others, took to the streets. Schools were also shut down tight. Union officials report that more than 90 percent of the country's labor force walked off the job.
In Buenos Aires, the country's capital, bus traffic ground to a halt. Workers set up a soup kitchen in front of the government house at the Plaza de Mayo, while others banged pots and pans at the parliament building.
"We just can't go on like this anymore," said José Martínez, a laid-off textile worker and father of four, on his way to the rally at the Congress Plaza. "My children are suffering because I can't find work, and this government isn't doing anything to help me."
Provinces are seething
Unionists blocked bridges and roads in all 23 provinces. About 700 workers successfully blocked the highway connecting Buenos Aires with La Plata. In the south, 500 workers blocked traffic on one of the bridges that connects the provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro.
In Córdoba, a major industrial center, the government deployed 2,500 cops as unionists held marches, blocked roads, and rallied in the city center. Metalworkers organized pickets in the industrial belt outside the city, as 150 auto workers blocked the road in front of the Volkswagen plant with burning tires. Truckers, electrical workers, and municipal employees also organized actions.
While the international big-business media gave coverage to the general strike, it has virtually blacked out the eruptions of protest throughout the provinces, where social conditions are most critical (see accompanying article). Jobless workers have repeatedly blocked roads in cities around the country demanding jobs, not just the make-work programs offered by the government.
In mid-November, more than 3,000 unemployed workers blocked National Highway 3 in La Matanza, an industrial district in Buenos Aires province--and historically a center of the meat-packing industry--where today some 476,000 people live below the official poverty line. The action was led by the CTA and another union organization. Protesters demanded food, jobs, and improved social services. In Argentina barely 5 percent of jobless workers are covered by unemployment insurance.
Concerned about a bigger social explosion, the government quickly promised to distribute 20,000 kilos of dry food per month for six months, build five schools and repair the existing ones, three "mobile hospitals," and 5,500 make-work jobs.
In General Pacheco, also in Buenos Aires province, workers blocked the road and set up a soup kitchen for local residents. "We don't want charity, we want jobs," they chanted.
Northwest of Buenos Aires, in Henderson, a town of 8,000, more than 1,000 farmers and other working people stormed City Hall to protest the lack of aid to victims of recent flooding. "The politicians leave us to the mercy of God. They do nothing. No one takes charge of the situation, while the people face ruin," said an angry farmer, Héctor Mateos, whose land is under water.
In the southern province of Chaco, farmers used trucks to block national highways 9 and 16. They demanded credit, lower fuel prices, and government assistance to plant their crops.
One of the most devastated regions is the north of Argentina, especially Salta, where the privatization of the oil industry in 1991 led to mass layoffs and official unemployment today is 25 percent. On November 10, cops assaulted unemployed workers blocking highway 34, killing one protester, Aníbal Verón, a bus worker who had been laid off a year ago and had not been paid his last seven paychecks.
The killing set off a wave of angry protests throughout Salta, and eventually led to the calling of the general strike.
Meanwhile, Indalecio Calermo, a bilingual schoolteacher and Wichí Indian chief led 200 Indians in another blockade of the highway in Salta province. The Indians, who belong to the Chorote, Wichí, Toba, Chulupí, Tapiete, Guaraní, and Chané tribes, demanded land and 1,200 jobs for their community.