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Argentine workers resist impact of capitalist crisis
Unionists, unemployed protests spread across provinces
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 66/No.4January 28, 2002

Argentine workers resist
impact of capitalist crisis
Unionists, unemployed protests spread across provinces
Photo - see caption below
Irma Montiel
State employees, including militant Light and Power union members, pour into the streets of Córdoba, Argentina, December 20 to protest state of siege and demand the resignation of then-president Fernando de la Rúa, who stepped down that day in face of a nationwide explosion of popular protests. Depression conditions and attacks on workers living standards are deeper in provinces outside Buenos Aires, the capital, and have sparked ongoing resistance.
CÓRDOBA, Argentina--"We're demanding they pay us our wages for December and January and our end-of-year bonus," said city worker Cecilia Reyes at a January 11 demonstration here. "And we want to be paid in pesos, not in bonds. It's bad enough that our paychecks are worth less since the devaluation."

Reyes was one of 1,200 members of the municipal workers union, students, and others who rallied downtown against the government of Mayor Germán Kammerath. Earlier that day, the mayor asserted categorically that there was no money in the budget to pay the workers. He gave no indication of when or whether they would receive their back wages. One of the demands of the rally aimed at the resignation of Kammerath, a leader of the Peronist party in Córdoba province.

The demonstration captured the situation facing millions of working people in Argentina today, especially in the hard-hit provinces outside Buenos Aires, the capital. The same day, jobless workers and unpaid workers demonstrated across the country in the cities of Salta, San Juan, Catamarca, Neuquén, Mendoza, Santiago del Estero, San Rafael, and Jujuy.

"Argentina pays billions every year in interest payments on the foreign debt, yet the debt keeps growing," said Oscar Mengarelli, general secretary of the Association of State Workers (ATE) in Córdoba province, in an interview at the union head quarters. The country's debt to imperialist creditors now stands at $141 billion, about half of Argentina's gross national product.

To meet the international creditors' demand for continued debt payments, the national and provincial governments "have slashed the number of public employees from 850,000 to 300,000 in the past decade," Mengarelli said. Virtually all state-owned industries and utilities, from oil to telecommunications, were sold off to capitalist investors, while large companies were legally exempted from income tax and even awarded generous government subsidies. In many provinces, where the state is a major employer, the result has been massive layoffs and cutbacks in health care and other services. Unemployment has soared above the national average of 18.3 percent.

"The devaluation will mean another huge transfer of wealth from workers to the rich," Mengarelli said. Businessmen will expand their profits through increased exports, but workers' wages have been cut by 30 or 40 percent through this measure, he noted.

Just days after the Argentine legislature appointed him president January 2, Eduardo Duhalde officially devalued the peso, ending a decade-long policy of pegging the national currency to the U.S. dollar. The government has established two exchange rates. The official rate, mainly for foreign trade, is 1.40 pesos to the dollar. For most Argentinians, the peso on the open market floats freely, at present hovering at 1.70 to the dollar.

Duhalde was appointed after mass protests led to the resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa and three other presidents within less than two weeks.

Over the past decade, the administrations of presidents Saúl Menem and Fernando de la Rúa, of the Peronist and Radical parties respectively, carried out a brutal offensive against the social gains of working people in order to meet the demands of the imperialist creditors. In face of skyrocketing unemployment, plummeting wages, and worsening job conditions, working-class resistance had been building in recent years, beginning with road blockades by jobless workers throughout the provinces, combined with scattered struggles by unionists.

In mid-December, following protests by unemployed workers and a nationwide strike by the unions, crowds of pauperized workers demanding food stormed supermarkets across the country. Middle-class protesters clamored against government-imposed limits on bank withdrawals. Thousands poured into the streets of Buenos Aires, the capital, demanding de la Rúa's resignation. The popular outpouring of anger widened after the government declared a state of siege, and de la Rúa stepped down.  
Duhalde prepares austerity budget
Duhalde, a Peronist who was appointed to fill the last two years of de la Rúa's four-year term, has moved to try to put together a stable coalition government with the Radicals, the other major capitalist party. While using rhetoric about his concern for the plight of working people--a trademark of the Peronist party--he is pursuing big-business policies in continuity with his two predecessors.

The priority of the Duhalde regime is to draw up an economic program that will meet the approval of Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It hopes to negotiate another $15 billion in loans to keep paying on the existing debt, on which Buenos Aires has already defaulted. No proposals have been aired other than promises of an "austere" budget--meaning further assaults on the wages, social benefits, and jobs of working people.

The Argentine government is seeking some maneuvering room with Washington by cultivating closer ties with European imperialist powers. It is also pursuing better relations with Brazil, its South American neighbor. The government in Brasilia has responded positively to this rapprochement, in the hope that Buenos Aires will drop demands for protectionist barriers to imports from Brazil.

On his visit to that country, Argentine foreign minister Carlos Ruckauf pledged to strengthen Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. Washington, on the other hand, has been pushing to draw all Latin American countries except Cuba into its proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would be a regional trade bloc dominated by U.S. imperialism.  
Acute crisis in Neuquén
Meanwhile, in face of the continuing economic collapse, Argentina remains convulsed by social turmoil and class polarization. One province where this crisis is among the sharpest is Neuquén, in northern Patagonia. This important oil- and gas-producing region, southwest of Buenos Aires, developed rapidly in recent decades but was devastated after the sell-off of the state oil company, YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales) to capitalist investors in 1993.

In an interview at the headquarters of ATE in Neuquén, union researcher Horacio Fernández explained that in 1999 YPF was bought by the Spanish company Repsol. "The company cut the workforce from 10,000 to 5,000, and tens of thousands of related jobs were lost as well," he said. Especially hard hit were the twin towns of Cutral-Có and Plaza Huincul, which in 1997 exploded in a revolt by thousands of unemployed workers, who blocked roads and bridges to demand jobs. The example of these piqueteros, as the pickets were called, quickly spread to other provinces.

"Repsol-YPF is based on high profitability, few jobs, and no development of the local economy," Fernández said. It has accelerated oil production for export without investing much in exploration, allowing oil deposits to shrink to seven or eight years' worth, while polluting the surrounding rivers and land. The Mapuche Indians in the area of Loma de la Lata are fighting Repsol's takeover of their lands and pollution of the soil.

While the Spanish oil company pays royalties to the government that are among the lowest in Latin America, the provincial authorities are pleading poverty and cutting social spending.

At a January 7 rally in downtown Neuquén, several hundred unionists and other workers demonstrated against the antilabor policies of Gov. Jorge Sobisch. "The government plans to cut health-care funding by another 13 percent this year," said an outraged Norma Mendoza, a member of the health workers union, which is affiliated to ATE. "In the hospitals here there is a shortage of medicines, supplies, and personnel."

The workers were also protesting the Duhalde government's devaluation of the peso and the resulting cut in wages. In addition, Mendoza noted, pharmaceutical companies were withholding insulin and other vital medicines, waiting for higher prices.

The demonstration was called by the Argentine Workers Federation (CTA) and its largest affiliate, ATE. Also participating was a group of 30 workers from the Zanón ceramic tile factory, who are fighting a company attempt to shut down the plant and lay off all the workers, as well as contingents from several left-wing organizations such as the Workers Party (PO), the Workers Party for Socialism (PTS), and Left Unity (IU), an electoral coalition between the Argentine Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Movement (MST).

Two days later, the CTA and ATE organized a march by more than 1,000 unionists to the Social Security Institute of Neuquén (ISSN) to protest the government's failure to fund the social security program, which covers 140,000 state employees and their families. The ISSN has been the focus of a sharp conflict between the government and the labor movement.

The authorities responded by trying to frame up several CTA and ATE officials on charges of having physically assaulted ISSN administrator Gerardo Hettinger. On January 11 the police raided the union headquarters and arrested four union officials, including Julio Fuentes, general provincial secretary of the CTA and ATE.

Not only thousands of public employees but workers at many privately owned companies are owed several weeks' worth of back wages. The best-known union battle in Neuquén is the fight by the nearly 330 workers at the Zanón ceramic tile factory to prevent the boss from closing the plant (An article on this fight will appear in the next issue).

Workers at the Centenario Slaughterhouse went on strike January 8 because they hadn't been paid in a month. They blocked the entrance to prevent bosses from removing meat from the plant. "They laid us off twice for 55 days, and now they're not paying us our wages," said Juan Pablo Kunz, 23, who has been working six months in this largely youthful workforce.  
Farm workers turn to union
Members of ATE also took Militant reporters to the countryside to meet farm workers organized by the CTA. In the town of San Patricio del Chañar, in the heart of the fruit-producing region in Neuquén province, many of the workers at the former Gasparri farms, now owned by Expofrut, have not been paid. Some 300 are members of the CTA, while an equal number are affiliated to the General Workers Confederation (CGT). The farms grow pears, apples, peaches, plums, and other fruit.

Segundo Melipil, a worker at the Collalongo farm who was picking apples, said, "We were on strike for a month because the bosses owed us four months pay, from July through September." Melipil, a union stalwart who is a Mapuche Indian, noted that many workers are immigrants from Chile or migrants from northern Argentina who are superexploited by the companies.

Rubén Fernando Roldán, originally from Tucumán province in the north, is a tractor driver at the Cervi farm. He was paid $13 a day for spraying pesticide. "We worked eight or nine hours a day, six days a week," Roldán reported. "I was fired for not working a Sunday as the boss demanded!"

Roldán went to get support from the ATE, since the firing was illegal. The company also owes him 3,000 pesos in back wages.

Similar struggles have been taking place in Córdoba, the third-largest city, located in the center of the country. Córdoba, historically an auto and aerospace center, has been hit by layoffs in those industries.

Unlike many other cities, the union movement in Córdoba has successfully resisted efforts to sell off several state-run facilities. These include the provincial bank, the water company, and the electrical company, EPEC.

Pablo Alvarez, 37, a worker at the electrical plant and shop steward of Light and Power, the electrical workers union, explained that since the early 1990s the provincial government has been trying to sell off EPEC. "In 1990 we organized a 64-day work-to-rule action. Under the government of Ramón Mestre, the authorities waged a fierce effort to sell the company. Mestre would unleash the cops against demonstrations of unionists. In 1995–96, young workers in the union prepared themselves to resist police repression with shields and slingshots. The union mobilized and we won that battle."

Under the current administration of José Manuel de la Sota, of the Peronist party, Alvarez said, "they tried to pass a privatization law. We put up a big fight. The law was approved by buying off a lawmaker. The union leadership at the time waged a legal offensive against the law, and this sparked a debate among some workers about the need to continue street mobilizations. We've marched together with other unions and organizations.

"Last year we took part in a march of 20,000 against cuts in university funding. Light and Power also organized a large march against the privatization of the electric company. In this way we pushed back attempts by Enron--which just went bankrupt--and by Belgian and Spanish capitalists to buy the plant," Alvarez said.

In August the government raided the plant and arrested 200 union members, accusing them of breaking transformers. Later it ordered the arrest of union leaders under the pretext of "financial mismanagement." Then in late October the authorities ordered the arrest of the union leadership, two days before a major protest march. But the march of 30,000 took place, under the slogan, "No to the privatization of EPEC, no to layoffs, no to the privatization of the schools."

By the end of the year, the efforts by the government to sell off the electrical company had been beaten back.

Alvarez commented that the mass protests against the de la Rúa regime that swept the country December 19–20 were "very positive. It was a popular victory." In Córdoba the municipal workers demonstrated December 19 and stormed city hall, protesting the fact that they had not been paid. They were attacked by the cops. That night, middle-class and young demonstrators held a cacerolazo, a pot-banging protest, and march of 6,000 to demand the resignation of de la Rúa.

The next day, the state workers carried out a protest march in defiance of the state of siege. Later that day, as demonstrations erupted in Buenos Aires and across the country, de la Rúa was forced to resign. "Since then, there have been greater expectations that the economy will improve," Alvarez said.

Because of the continuing economic crisis, demonstrations and protests take place virtually every day in Córdoba, Neuquén, Buenos Aires, and other cities. They have involved different class forces and are not all of the same political character, however.

The continuing bank restrictions have been a focal point of street protests by small merchants and professionals. On January 9, the Federation of Professional University Entities of Santiago del Estero (FEPUSE) held a cacerolazo to denounce "political corruption and the national economic policies." In Santa Rosa, La Pampa province, 700 small businessmen tried to storm the Bank of La Pampa. In Buenos Aires, 2,000 banged pots in the Plaza de Mayo on January 11 to demand the resignation of the Supreme Court, accusing it of "corruption." In Córdoba, demonstrators in a well-off neighborhood protested price hikes in front of a small Chinese-owned store, letting off the hook the wealthy owners of the large supermarket chains.

In some actions, working people have been pitted against each other. In Córdoba, hundreds of taxi drivers went on strike January 9 to demand that the government enforce a law requiring livery drivers to buy a new car if they don't meet certain requirements. They stoned a passing livery driver and then waged a fierce street battle with riot cops who assaulted them. The taxi drivers, who consider themselves in competition with the livery drivers, are seeking to reduce the number of livery cars on the street--something that only benefits the taxi companies and dispatching agencies at the expense of the drivers' ability to organize themselves collectively.

Actions by working people that advance their interests continue as well. In mid-January, bus drivers in Rosario and Salta and sanitation workers in Buenos Aires carried out strikes over back pay. On January 14, unemployed workers blocked highways in Jujuy province demanding jobs, as did 2,000 jobless workers who marched in Buenos Aires.

Police in Neuquén arrest unionists

In a serious attack on the labor movement, police in Neuquén, Argentina, have arrested Julio Fuentes, general secretary in Neuquén province of the Argentine Workers Federation (CTA) and of the Association of State Workers (ATE) along with three other unionists, Horacio Fernández, Hilda Locatti, and Miguel Peralta.

In a phone interview from Neuquén, Ariel Aguilera, a member of the provincial CTA leadership commission, reported that the four were arrested January 11 during a police raid of the two union headquarters and the homes of several unionists. They have been denied bail.

The arrests followed a demonstration in Neuquén two days earlier of more than 1,000 unionists protesting the provincial government's failure to fund the Social Security Institute of Neuquén (ISSN), which is in charge of pensions and other social security programs for state employees. The struggle around the ISSN is at the center of the ongoing wave of protests by working people in this province in face of attacks on their living standards and union rights.

The authorities are seeking to frame up the four unionists on charges including "aggravated coercion," which carry sentences of up to 10 years in prison. They claim the four physically assaulted ISSN chief Gerardo Hettinger. A charge of attempted homicide was rejected by the judge in the case.

Aguilera said that on January 12, "a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the CTA headquarters as the union officials were in court seeking the release of the detainees. Neighbors say they saw it being thrown from a gray car with three men inside--a car of the kind used by undercover federal police." Luckily, several unemployed workers, who have been demonstrating for jobs nearby, were at the union headquarters and were able to call the fire department and the CTA leaders, preventing a fire.

Aguilera himself, a leader of the CTA-led Federation of Land and Housing, was arrested January 13, but was released after the police were unable to get any incriminating information from him. The police have announced that they are seeking several other union officials, and a number of unionists remain in hiding.

In response to this repression, the CTA called a national work stoppage January 14 along with demonstrations in Neuquén and Buenos Aires. The CTA unions remain on strike in Neuquén. The unions held a protest march in Neuquén January 16, gathering 10,000 signatures on protest petitions in a single day, according to ATE spokesperson Hugo Carballo. Further demonstrations are planned over the coming days.

The CTA and ATE are asking for protest letters demanding the immediate release of Fuentes and the other three unionists. The messages should be sent to Gov. Jorge Sobisch, Casa de Gobierno, Calle Rioja y Roca, 8300 Neuquén, Argentina; fax: 011-54-299-449-5555. Copies of these letters should be sent to the ATE, Yrigoyen 554, 8300 Neuquén, Argentina; fax: 011-54-299-448-7320, extension 212. --M.K.


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