Argentina’s trade unions will not go back to the 1990’s

Union leaders who remain loyal to the workers will question Macri’s policies, and will confront the government through the union membership both in the streets and in the National Congress. Español

Alicia Castro
12 February 2016

Mauricio Macri in 2015. Maxi Failla / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

A few years ago, at the beginning of the nineties, a Peronist government began to implement an economic model that we call “neoliberal” and which was openly inimical to the interests of workers.

We watched with frustration as President Carlos Saúl Menem dismantled the public sector by privatising and denationalising state-owned enterprises - assets belonging to the Argentine people - liberalised and deregulated the economy, and eliminated trade barriers to the point of practically destroying national industry and thereby putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The increase in the numbers of unemployed brought about a systematic and progressive reduction in salaries because, as we know, unemployment is labour’s great disciplinarian in that it forces workers to accept precarious conditions of employment. Retirees as well as workers suffered drastic reductions in their purchasing power and, as an inevitable consequence, the internal market contracted.

The new poor and the fatties

Thus began a new and painful period for those of us who had never before seen our compatriots sleeping rough in the streets and squares, and eating out of rubbish bins. Everything was crumbling before our eyes. A new class was born in Argentina: the “new poor”, middle class people who still had roof over their heads, but who lacked means to feed their children.

The number of citizens without work, prospects or even visibility multiplied - people who lacked political, social and trades union representation: the “excluded” whom the government treated as a mere statistic. Meanwhile, Argentina sank into international indebtedness and became the IMF’s star pupil. Both national and international commercial media as well as risk assessment organisations greeted the changes - just as they do now - as a sound and successful opening and modernisation of the economy. “Argentina returns to the world”, they proclaimed.

Union leaders were not complacent about these developments - in particular the big transport unions; and in the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) we fought to modify the conduct of those who recommended inaction and “prudence”.  In the end, we separated to form the MTA (Argentine Workers’ Movement) which, together with other political and union organisations like the CTA (Argentine Workers Central) and the CCC (Corriente Clasista y Combativa - Class Struggle Movement), plunged into a war of ideas, and began organising union resistance, street demonstrations, and protests in congress; and we also sent out a call for international solidarity.

When we analyse how Menem succeeded in privatising Aerolíneas Argentinas, the railways, the river fleet, and the social security system, and in eroding workers’ rights, one answer is clear: he did so with the complicity of the major trades unions.

How did he manage it? The answer to this question is also clear: by placing vast sums of health insurance money at the disposal of union leaders without any corresponding oversight or control. These leaders became known as “fatties” more on account of the capacity of their pockets than their girth.

Changing the State by decree

Mauricio Macri’s government, as we have seen, is changing the State by decree with no respect for the law, for the separation of powers, or for the citizenry.

In a brutal curtailing of individual liberty, people are being blacklisted, just as they were during the military dictatorship. Political activists are being persecuted and social protest criminalised; an important union leader is in jail, and even children are being victimised. Tens of thousands have been thrown out of work, and the real value of wages has plummeted thanks to inflation and a pre-announced devaluation. While export taxes for large companies have been abolished, electricity rates have been increased by an unprecedented 500%. Price controls on food and medicines have been lifted.  Workers salaries are being adjusted downwards to pay off supposed debts to the vulture funds - a small group of financial speculators that have refused to accept Argentina’s debt renegotiation.  And the reductions are taking place without proper joint negotiations so as to facilitate the direct and brutal transfer of income from the pockets of workers to the owners of capital.

In a country that was no longer in debt - and thus free of the pressures and strictures of the IMF - foreign indebtedness is now rapidly increasing - to the detriment of future generations for whom repayments of debt plus interest will demand yet more sacrifices above all by those who can least afford them. We have no need to refer to Greece or Spain to understand how these policies are likely to end. It is enough to recall the Argentine crisis of 2001 that cost so much to overcome. As a consequence of external indebtedness, we sank into the misery of shadow money, barter and frozen bank accounts.

Animals will now be depicted on our paper currency instead of important national figures - a sign of contempt for our country’s history and culture. An image comes to mind of a dog sitting on Rivadavia’s [1] sofa and mocking us. From the balcony where general Perón mobilised the forces of organised labour, where Evita bade farewell to the nation and bestowed her revolutionary legacy, a president now dances like a clown while referring to the workers as “surplus fat”. Yes, that truly does qualify as a change.

In summary, the present moment places the country at a crossroads similar to that of the nineties.

Macri has offered the unions the same trade in economic favours as Menem: collaboration and silence in exchange for unsupervised control of health insurance funds. The deal is that is the leaders accept large-scale redundancies, weaker employee rights, and lower salary rates and in return get the keys to the safe.

Union leaders who remain loyal to the workers and their interests will question Macri’s policies, and will confront the government through the union membership both in the streets and in the National Congress - just as we did in the past.

And there will be those who repeat the history of the nineties - betraying the workers in return for gifts, and they, too, will be judged by history, though this time not as “fatties” but as traitors.

Let us hope for a union leadership capable of understanding the gravity and dangers of the present time, brave enough to recognise its responsibilities, and willing to honour the best traditions of struggle as well as the dignity of the Argentine labour movement.

[1] Macri recently circulated a picture of his dog sitting in the presidential office on an armchair used by Bernardino Rivadavia (1780 - 1845) Argentina’s first president.

A longer, Spanish version of this article was published in Página 12.

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