Argentina: The working class fights for its own interests
Everything the government led by citizen K (1) says about the ‘fantastic revival of the Argentine economy’ after the debacle of 2001 is just lies. The reality facing the workers and the immense majority of the population is more and more disturbing. A few figures illustrate this: those on incomes below the poverty level, which was 5% of the population in 1976, reached 50% in 2004. 11 million people live on $150 a month, with the poverty level standing at $389(2). Famine, previously limited to the northern provinces (Tucumain or Salta, for example, where 80% of infants suffer from chronic malnutrition) is beginning to reach the poorest areas of the terrible slum belt around the south of Buenos Aires.
Workers have begun to revolt against this unbearable situation. Between June and August, the country has seen the biggest wave of strikes for 15 years (3). The most important struggles were those at the hospitals in Quilmes and Moreno, at enterprises like the Coto supermarkets, Parmalat, Tango Meat , Lapsa, the Buenos Aires subway (the Subte), the municipal workers of Avellaneda, Rosarion and the main towns of the central province of Santa Cruz; sailors and fishermen at national level, judicial employees throughout the country, teachers from five provinces, doctors employed by the city of Buenos Aires, university teachers in Buenos Aires and Cordoba. Among all these struggles, a particular mention should be made of the struggle at the children’s hospital of Garrahan in Buenos Aires because of its militant spirit of unity and solidarity. In Cordoba, one of the main industrial centres of the country, there were for a month and a half more struggles than have been seen for two decades, in automobiles, gas, teaching and the public sector.
At the time of writing the wave of strikes is receding. The social situation in Argentina is now focused on the widely publicised confrontation between the piquetero organisations and the government (4), as well as the spectacle of politicians preparing for the coming legislative elections. The struggles here and there won some ephemeral wage increases – above all in the public sector – but, faced with a capitalist system stuck in a crisis with no way out, the main gain of the struggles is not on the economic level but on the political level, in the lessons drawn from these struggles. These lessons will serve to prepare the new struggles which will inevitably break out: the need for unity, the understanding of who are our real friends and our enemies…
The main lesson of the wave of struggles: the proletariat affirms itself as a class in struggle
In 2001 there was a spectacular social revolt in Argentina, saluted by the ‘alternative world’ groups as well as by at least one group of the proletarian milieu (the IBRP) as representing a ‘revolutionary’ situation. But this mobilisation took place on an inter-class basis, and was geared towards nationalist preoccupations and ‘reforms’ of Argentine society which could only serve to strengthen the capitalist state. In an article that we published in International Review 109, we pointed out that “the proletariat in Argentina has been drowned and diluted in a movement of inter-classist revolt, a movement of popular protest which has expressed not the proletariat’s strength, but its weakness. The class has been unable to assert either its political autonomy or its self-organisation”.
As we said in the same article, “the proletariat has no need to console itself or to clutch at illusions. What it does need, is to rediscover the path of its own revolutionary perspective, to assert itself on the social stage as the sole class able to offer humanity a future, and in doing so to draw behind itself the other non-exploiting strata of society”. We also said that the combative capacities of the Argentine proletariat have not been exhausted, and they will develop once again, above all if it draws a clear lesson from the events of 2001: “inter-classist revolts do not weaken the power of the bourgeoisie but of the proletariat itself”.
Four years later, the wave of strikes in Argentina has revealed a combative proletariat fighting on its own class terrain, and beginning to recognise itself, if only in a timid way, as a class with its own identity. We are not the only ones to say this: the publication Lucha de Clases: Revista marxista de Teoria y Politica in July 2005, edited by left wing intellectuals, recognised that “one of the most remarkable facts of this year has been the return of the employed workers to the centre of the Argentine political scene, after years of retreat. We are facing a long cycle of demand struggles, where the workers fight for the improvement of their wages and against deteriorating working conditions and try to re-appropriate gains lost in previous decades”, adding that “at a time when the workers of industry and the services begin to find their voice, others are staying silent: those who had decreed ‘the end of the proletariat’”.
This militant upsurge of the proletariat is not a local phenomenon resulting from particular Argentine circumstances. Without for a moment denying the influence of specific factors, particularly the rapid and violent fall in the living standards of huge parts of the population, in turn the result of an accelerating economic decline since the collapse of 2001, it remains the case that this wave of strikes is part of the international revival of class struggle that we have been pointing to since 2003.
In a text published recently (5), we showed the general characteristics of this revival: slow and difficult, not yet taking the form of spectacular movements, advancing not through a succession of victorious struggles but through defeats from which workers draw lessons that will bear fruit in future struggles. The conducting wire which contributes to their slow maturation is “the feeling, still very confused but which can only develop in the coming period, that there is no solution to the contradictions of capitalism today, whether at the level of its economy or other expressions of its historic crisis, whose irresistible character is shown up more clearly by each passing day, such as the unending military confrontations, the growth of chaos and barbarism”.
During this wave of strikes we have seen, as in other struggles around the world (Heathrow in Britain, Mercedes and Opel in Germany) a fundamental weapon of the proletarian struggle: the search for class solidarity.
In the Subte, all the workers stopped work spontaneously after the death of two maintenance workers as a result of the total lack of protection against accidents. The workers of the hospitals in the federal capital carried out a number of solidarity actions with their comrades at Garrahan. In the south, in the Santa Cruz province, the municipal employee’s strike in the main towns won the sympathy of wide layers of the population. This was concretised in the massive participation at demonstrations in the town centres. At Caleta Olivia, oil workers, judicial workers, teachers, the unemployed, joined in with the demonstrations of the municipal workers. The oil workers came out on strike for the same demands as the municipal workers as well as their own demands. The same was done by the workers at the Barillari company, in the fishing sector. At Neuquen, the health workers spontaneously joined the demonstration of striking primary school teachers which was marching towards the seat of the provincial government. Violently attacked by the police, the marchers managed to regroup and were joined by passers-by who were extremely critical of the police, the latter retiring to a more prudent distance. A work stoppage in the all the country’s schools was called in support of the Neuquen teachers.
We should also draw attention to the unitary manner in which the workers at Garrahan raised their wage demands: instead of demanding proportional increases which would only sharpen divisions between workers of different categories, they fought for an equal increase for everyone, which reduced the differences and favoured the less well paid sectors.
During the last 15 years, the news have been dominated by the most violent consequences of the degeneration of capitalism: wars, economic convulsions, catastrophes of all kinds, terrorism, mass murder, unbridled barbarism…The only thing which seems to go in an opposite direction are the protests led by capitalist organisations disguised as ‘anti-capitalists’, whose programme is now being carried out by their colleague Lula in Brazil, or else desperate and impotent inter-class revolts. The picture is now beginning to change. Slowly, painfully, the proletariat is rediscovering its own class terrain, raising the real banner of struggle against capitalist barbarism, a banner which can be taken up by all the exploited and oppressed of the world.
The response of the bourgeoisie
It would be stupid to think that the ruling class is going to stand with folded arms in the face of its mortal enemy. It responded rapidly by deploying not only the weapons of repression, but also a more deadly one: political and trade union manoeuvres.
The federal government and the provincial governments used the police against the strikers: arrests, courts, administrative sanctions were directed at many workers, But the real focus of the bourgeoisie’s reply was a political manoeuvre aimed at isolating the most combative sectors, at leading the different centres of struggle towards a demoralising dead-end with the message that ‘struggle doesn’t pay’, that mobilising brings you nothing, that those who want to improve things have only one alternative:
- ‘action from below’: violent operations by minority groups like the piqueteros, or activities supposedly aimed at reducing poverty, such as the work of self-managed enterprises, barter networks, soup kitchens, etc;
- action from above, by the union leaders and the politicians.
In other words, the proletariat has no choice but to run from one false alternative to the other - a situation where the capitalist state remains firmly in control.
The main focus for this manoeuvre was the struggle at Garrahan hospital. There was a deafening campaign about workers being ‘terrorists’, putting their own interests above those of the children being looked after at the hospital. With nauseating cynicism, the government, which allows thousands of children to die of hunger, made a whole song and dance about the threat to the children by these abominable strikers. The government of citizen K, supported unfailingly by the main unions (CGT and CTE, with the latter’s health unions being firmly opposed to the strike) took an attitude of brutal intransigence. The Garrahan workers were deliberately excluded from the state employees’ wage negotiations. At the same time, the government bureaucrats agreed to receive representatives of other sectors on strike (for example the university teachers), but refused any contact with the Garrahan workers.
All this was obviously a provocation to isolate the Garrahan workers, crowned by the absurd accusation that they were being manipulated by a so-called anti-progressive conspiracy formed by Menem, Duhalde and Maccri (7)
But what weakened the struggle of the Garrahan workers the most was the ‘help’ it received from the piquetero organisations. These groups swarmed like flies around the Garrahan struggle, just as they did with the Tango Meat workers, in the name of ‘solidarity’. The Garrahan workers were linked to the methods of ‘struggle’ favoured by the piqueteros, minority commando actions which, instead of really hitting capital and the state, cause problems for other workers. For example the piquetero organisations blocked the Pueyrredon bridge, a vital link in the capital city, at rush hour, resulting in monster traffic jams which mainly affected the workers of the southern suburbs of Buenos Aires. At Canadon Seco, in the south, about 40 people cut off access to the Repsol-YPF refineries without the slightest prior consultations with the workers of that plant.
Little by little attention was focused on the struggle at Garrahan and on another highly publicised confrontation between the piqueteros and the government, culminating in a spectacular deployment of the police around the Pueyrredon bridge.
The final blow was provided by the organisation of false solidarity with the Garrahan workers, They were invaded by an avalanche of rank and file union groups, piqueteros, groups of the extreme left, social organisations of all kinds, all offering wonderful speeches about support and solidarity. This gave an illusion of solidarity when in fact the workers were being isolated, encircled and led towards utter demoralisation.
This was possible because the struggle at Garrahan, despite its militancy and its desire for unity, was tightly controlled from the start by a ‘Red List’ belonging to the ATE union, opposed to the ‘Green List’ which runs the union from the top. Given the workers’ growing disaffection from the unions, these ‘Red Lists’ are taking up the slack, especially in moments of struggle, to make sure that workers remain under union control. This was concretised in the organisation of a false solidarity through the setting up of ‘coordinations’ with other rank and file organisations. The leader of the Red List at Garrahan said that “you can’t say today that the ATE is really struggling, it’s us, the rank and file, who are on strike. The idea is to coordinate with all those we can; we have to try to do at the base what the leaders won’t do at the top…the unemployed organisations, the piqueteros, our patients – they’re the ones who are in solidarity with us”. Solidarity is thus limited to “support groups” and to the “patients”, in other words, it’s not a question of a general class struggle, but a private affair between workers and patients.
Real solidarity can only develop outside and against the union prison, through a common struggle which integrates new sectors of workers, where there are mass delegations, demonstrations, unified assemblies, where the workers can fight, discuss and decide together, and where other oppressed and exploited layers can join in with them. In such a movement, the divisions between the workers begin to disappear because they can see concretely that they belong to the same class, because they can become aware of their strength and their unity.
This direct, active, massive solidarity, the only kind that can take the proletarian struggle forward, was replaced by a ‘solidarity’ organised by intermediaries, passive, limited to a minority, generating a false euphoria about being supported by the ‘masses’ who are supposedly behind these organisations. The end result is isolation and division.
“The worst thing for the working class is not a clear defeat but rather the sense of victory after a defeat that is masked (but real): it is this sense of “victory” (against fascism and in defence of the “socialist fatherland”) which has been the most efficient poison to plunge and maintain the proletariat in the counter-revolution during four decades of the 20th century” (‘A turning point in the class struggle’ IR 119).
(1) A popular term for Kirschner, the president of Argentina
(2) Figures supplied by the newspaper Clarin 30.8.05
(3) “June saw the highest number of conflicts in the past year: 127 movements, 80% affecting the public sector, 13% the services and the remaining 7% from different industrial branches, This has surpassed the number of conflicts for the month of June in any year since 1980” (Colectivo Nuevo Proyecto Historico, a group that has recently appeared in Argentina in its text ‘Sindicato y necessidas radicales’)
(4) On the piqueteros, read ‘Popular revolts in Argentina: only the affirmation of the proletariat on its class terrain can make the bourgeoisie retreat’ in International Review 109. ‘Popular revolts in Latin America: the class autonomy of the proletariat is indispensable’ International Review 117; ‘Argentina: the mystification of the piqueteros’ in IR 119
(5) IR 119 ‘Resolution on the class struggle’
(7) Menem and Duhalde are former Argentine presidents of dubious memory.