The Argentinean public employees who work for the state at national, provincial or municipal level are divided up by the artificial separation imposed by the constitution of the bourgeois state in 1853 and the various reforms that followed; but they are also divided by the activities of those other agents of the capitalist state, the trade unions. The public employees are affiliated to a myriad of union organisations, and this division has been institutionalised by capitalist legislation itself, such as the law on professional associations.
One capitalist government after another has been able to take measures against these workers through so-called 'state reforms' and policies of privatisation which have led to thousands of workers being laid off either openly or in a more hidden manner through early retirement and the like. At the beginning of these 'state reforms' in 1991 there was a wage freeze affecting all these workers at national, provincial and municipal levels.
We should underline that the effects of inflation have been very severe, including during the period of the convertibility of the Argentine peso vis-�-vis the dollar which lasted up to 2001: the workers had to put up with price increases in basic goods of up to 60% and since the failure of the economic policies brought in by Carlos Menem, the buying power of the workers has fallen by between 30% and 50%, depending on whether you reckon it in peso or dollars.
During this whole period of nearly 14 years, there has been very little protest by the public employees, despite their miserable wages, with the exception of some provinces or municipalities who took action because their wages simply weren't being paid at all; and even this was under the watchful eyes of the trade unions.
But faced with a brutal drop in wages, and finding themselves excluded from the 250 dollar raise in the private sector described as an 'emergency' by the government, and faced also with the silence of the unions, the workers broke from their moorings to trade unionism. In March 2004, with the unions looking on in alarm, they began to meet spontaneously in general assemblies, where workers participated without regard to trade union membership, or to whether they were contractual or casual. Here they began to discuss the question of wages and the need to fight for the extra 250 dollars.
The response of the big public service unions in Buenos Aires was twofold, using two different methods, but with the same aim: to exhaust the workers' energies, divert and destroy the struggle. One of the tactics adopted, in this case by the SUTECBA (United Union of Municipal Workers and Employees in Buenos Aires, affiliated to the CGT), was to try to frighten the workers with the threat of losing their supplementary hours and bonuses or even their jobs. The other union, the ATE (Association of State Workers, affiliated to the CTA) adopted the tactic of proposing various sterile actions: numerous expressions of support for the struggle, strikes of 24, 48 and 72 hours, all aimed at isolating the workers from their comrades in other institutions - an old tactic of the unions. But the development of the workers' struggle led to the ATE abandoning its 'Struggle Plan' without having put it into effect.
It was by becoming aware that the unions are opposed to the working class that the hospital workers began to meet at their workplaces and tried to spread the action to other hospitals, to hold general assemblies in all the hospitals, with demands like "immediate increase in wages" or "Neither ATE nor SUTECBA".
Some hospital workers put forward the demand for a struggle for a wage increase outside the trade unions, rejecting both their threats and their 'fighting directives', going so far as refusing to allow union leaders to speak in the assemblies. They did not remain isolated in their own workplace, but tried to extend the movement to the rest of the public services.
The proof of this was the general assemblies which sprang up like mushrooms all over the place, in all sectors, integrating new workers who came to join in on a daily basis and, starting from the demand for a wage increase, came to reject the entire government plan, concluding that there is no solution in the capitalist system. This is what happened in different hospitals and it was a very important step for the municipal workers, who have historically been detached from other workers' struggle owing to the illusion that they were part of a 'workers' aristocracy'. Today this myth has been smashed forever; something very significant has changed and these struggles are proof of this.
These assemblies mandated delegates to represent them in inter-hospital assemblies, which were not closed, but on the contrary were open to all workers, with all having the chance to speak and take part in decision-making. Faced with the pressure coming from various political and union currents, they decided that no representative or delegate would negotiate in the name of the workers and that any agreement would have to be approved by all the workers.
Seeing the turn-around in the struggle of the capital's health workers, and faced with the risk that this would extend not only to other workers in the city but also to workers at provincial or national level, the unions, especially the ATE, stopped trying to take things over by force; but the SUTECBA used its whole arsenal to intimidate the workers, to deceive them with false wage increases, which would not be applied to 80% of municipalities.
This tactic, together with the threat of disciplinary and economic sanctions, brought the healthworkers' struggle to an end.
Workers must recognise that an important step forward has been made here, concretised in slogans like "Neither ATE nor SUTCBA, the decisions are taken by the assembly", "The trade unions are our enemies", "Workers' unity, without any distinction between permanent and temporary workers".
While it's true that we didn't win a wage increase, we have begun a new practise in the struggle, by insisting on the unity of the class and developing the instrument for this struggle, the assemblies.
We weren't hundreds of thousands of workers, only a few thousand, but what is important is that we have had this experience, we have verified that the working class is one class, that there is no difference between workers who are union members and those who are not - we are all workers, we have the same needs and the same enemy, the bourgeois state and its trade unions.
But the most important thing of all, along with the quest for unity and the creation of organs of struggle, is that the majority of workers didn't allow themselves to be seduced by the siren songs of the leftists with their proposals for new 'class struggle' unions. On the contrary, our practical experience in the heat of the struggle has shown us that whatever form the unions take on, whether bureaucratic or 'rank and file', these organs cannot be won back for the workers' struggle, and that whatever the good intentions of those who get involved with them, they will always be absorbed by the capitalist state and become an apparatus in the service of a decomposing system.
This unprecedented struggle by the hospital workers, whose importance is not seen by many, was a very powerful moment in the class struggle, above all because of the generalisation of the base assemblies and the election of mandated and rotating delegates.
All struggles led by the unions lead to a catastrophic defeat for the workers. For this reason, faced with workers' actions outside the unions, with decisions taken in general assemblies and tending to generalise throughout the working class, the bourgeoisie, the unions, the private or state bosses will use every means at their disposal to undo the movement.
We must organise ourselves outside the unions, create our own tools for the struggle and try to spread it as widely as we can. We have started along this path; we didn't go all the way, but the struggle has been rich with lessons for the future: we can only have confidence in the force of our class and not in our enemies and false friends.
This text was written by the comrades of the Nucleo Comunista Internacional (NCI) in Argentina, which has developed political positions very close to those of the ICC, and is currently engaged in discussions with our organisation and the whole of the communist left in a militant, internationalist perspective.
This text has a dual interest: on the one hand, it is testimony to a very combative struggle by the hospital workers of Buenos Aires, one that is rich in lessons for all workers. At the same time it clearly defends the unity of the working class: "the working class is one class, that there is no difference between workers who are union members and those who are not - we are all workers, we have the same needs and the same enemy, the bourgeois state and its trade unions". It supports the workers' methods of struggle and clearly denounces the trade unions. The end of the text is particularly eloquent: "We must organise ourselves outside the unions, create our own tools for the struggle and try to spread it as widely as we can. We have started along this path; we didn't go all the way, but the struggle has been rich with lessons for the future: we can only have confidence in the force of our class and not in our enemies and false friends".
We have always fought - and the comrades of the NCI have actively participated in this combat - against the error that sees the revolts of December 2001 in Argentina as a working class movement, when what really took place was an inter-class revolt without any perspective (see International Review 109, second quarter of 2002). As a result we have faced many criticisms from other revolutionary groups who have accused us of being 'defeatists' and of having a 'disdain for real workers' struggles'. Our reply was that it is absurd to try to grab hold of a mirage and to see giants where there are only windmills; at the same time, we made it clear that we were confident in the real capacities of the Argentine proletariat (see International Review 117, second quarter of 2004). Today, this small experience of the hospital workers' struggle has confirmed this perspective. Not because it was a spectacular and decisive movement, but because it supplies proof that what's happening in the Argentinean proletariat is part of the same tendencies maturing in a slow and often contradictory manner within the world working class.
In this sense, we want to make a precision about one aspect of the comrades' text. In certain passages, they say that "the workers broke from their moorings to trade unionism", that they were conscious that the unions are enemies of the working class and that "the majority of workers didn't allow themselves to be seduced by the siren songs of the leftists with their proposals for new 'class struggle' unions". There is certainly a tendency within the international working class to distrust the unions and to confront their manoeuvres; however, we don't think this has been generalised to the whole working class or to the majority of workers in Argentina. The proletariat still has to walk a long and difficult road before it can once again have confidence in itself, recover its class identity, and understand that the unions are its enemies and that the numerous varieties of trade unionism are an integral part of the bourgeois state.
We have to try to understand the global and historic balance of forces within which each particular struggle of the proletariat takes place. The fact that a small minority of workers are beginning to grasp the issues mentioned above is one thing; it's a very different thing for this consciousness to generalise irreversibly to wide layers of the class.
For us, it is very important that, on the basis of a dynamic analysis of the present situation of the class struggle, a minority of comrades has drawn the lessons and published them so that they can be part of the effort of the world proletariat to become conscious of itself. This effort faces many difficulties and contradictions and is only consciously carried out by small minorities, but in the end it will serve to change the balance of forces in the proletariat's favour.