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Road Warriors

original article posted on http://www.americas.org

 

BY JAMES PETRAS

As far back as Gen. Juan Perón's 1946­1955 presidency, the northwestern Argentine province of Jujuy could rely on state-run companies and protected industries such as tobacco and sugar. A symbol of Perón's vision for the country was Aceros Zapla, a government-owned mining and steel company an hour east of the provincial capital, San Salvador de Jujuy. The company paid its employees middle-class salaries.

But life in Jujuy started deteriorating in the late 1980s as Argentina began lowering tariffs and privatizing state enterprises. Jujuy lost thousands of jobs to countries such as China and India, where workers were paid far less. The worst blow came in 1992, when Aceros Zapla's steel plant slashed its 5,000-strong workforce to about 700 people. The company's new owner, a partnership including New York­based Citicorp, had decided it could turn a larger profit by converting production to high-end specialty steels. The government, meanwhile, was cutting back the nation's welfare system and doing little to create jobs. The official poverty rate among Jujuy's 600,000 inhabitants soared from 35 percent in 1991 to 55 percent in 1999.

After pleading for labor-union militancy, petitioning the government and demonstrating peacefully-all with few results-Jujuy residents were among the first of Argentina's rapidly growing unemployed ranks to try a new tactic: blocking highways. One of their first blockades choked off the Horacio Guzmán International Bridge, Argentina's main link to Bolivia, the night of May 7, 1997. Over the next four days, roadblocks spread throughout the province. The government's first response was violence; troops injured hundreds of sugar workers May 20 by firing rubber bullets and tear gas at a barricade. But when the protesters refused to back down, provincial officials agreed to create more than 12,500 jobs and increase unemployment aid.

Such roadblocks spread quickly from Jujuy and other northern provinces to the impoverished suburbs of industrial cities such as Córdoba, Rosario, Neuquén and Buenos Aires, the capital. The piqueteros (picketers), as the unemployed protesters have become known, organize themselves by neighborhood and municipality. To avert sellouts, most groups guard their autonomy and insist that all piqueteros participate in decisions.

The largest roadblocks have occurred around La Matanza, a suburb west of the capital, where 2 million poor people live amid hundreds of idle factories that once produced everything from automobiles to textiles. La Matanza piqueteros form the backbone of an upheaval that shows no sign of abating after bringing down two Argentine governments in December.

With demands ranging from food parcels to renationalization of industries, the piqueteros are more radical than the middle-class youths who ransacked Citibank and BankBoston branches in January after hearing that a freeze on savings would not be lifted for months. And their roadblocks are more strategic than Argentina's frequent general strikes, in which trade unions release working-class steam without challenging the nation's economic order.

Showing the power of "marginal" workers, Argentina's unemployed are rattling that order, a crown jewel of the global economic elite. They're pioneering tactics against free-market policies that poor people around the world can emulate. They're showing that fundamental change comes not from politicians and bureaucrats, but from grassroots democracy and direct action.

 

PERON'S FIRST PRESIDENCY was followed by three decades of military dictatorship with only brief intermissions for civilian rule, including a Perón comeback in the 1970s. After the last military regime, the administrations of Presidents Raúl Alfonsín (1983­1989), Carlos Saúl Menem (1989­1999) and Fernando de la Rúa (1999­2001) toed the line of multilateral lending agencies dominated by the U.S. Treasury Department. The trade "liberalization" and privatizations that devastated Jujuy and La Matanza created ghost towns across the country. And drastic cuts in social spending hurt everyone who couldn't afford private schooling and health care.

Making matters worse, the government adopted currency policies that encouraged more capital flight and led to rampant speculation. A recession that began in 1997 became a full-blown depression last year, creating the world's largest concentration of unemployed industrial workers. The country's official unemployment rate has reached 18.3 percent, a figure that independent economists call a gross understatement. In some towns, four out of five workers lack a decent job. The nation's official poverty rate has reached a record 44 percent, double the 1991 rate. In a country among the world leaders in cattle and grain production, most Argentines can't afford beef or pasta. Trains carry it away for shipping to Europe.

Some piqueteros have spent their lives in the informal economy, working as street vendors, day laborers, household workers and so on. But many others until recently held decent-paying jobs in formal industries, from metallurgy to energy to apparel. Many have trade union experience. And a preponderance of piqueteros are women whose husbands are dispirited from unemployment.

Argentine trade unions, like their North American counterparts, blame their declining power on the disappearance of industrial jobs. The oldest of the country's three major union federations-the General Workers Confederation (CGT), led by Rodolfo Daer-collaborated with the last dictatorship and has allied itself with every government since. A dissident federation takes its name from its leader, Hugo Moyano. The CGT-Moyano calls general strikes and uses populist rhetoric, but pressures the government on narrow issues only and negotiates behind workers' backs.

The third federation, the Argentine Workers Central (CTA), has been more progressive. Led by the State Workers Association (ATE), a public-employee union, the CTA has worked with the unemployed and raised structural issues, but tends to engage in militant actions only to step back for closed-door negotiations of its own. During the December 19­20 protests that brought down de la Rúa's government, CTA leader Víctor de Gennaro was notable by his absence.

All three federations run based on personal loyalties to the top bureaucrats, many of whom draw salaries comparable to Argentine CEO pay. All focus on their dues-paying members, not the working class as a whole. All maintain close ties to the two major parties: Menem's Justicialists (known as the Peronist Party after its founder) and the Radical Civic Union (UCR) of Alfonsín and de la Rúa. These interests explain why general strikes, more common in Argentina than any other country, remain one-day affairs without factory occupations or any other strategic mobilization. Corporate and government officials have learned to sit tight until everything returns to normal the next morning.

And these interests explain why union attempts to organize the unemployed have been half-hearted. No union boss is willing to trudge through a shantytown's muddy, unpaved roads. None is willing to attend meetings in an improvised gathering spot amid icy winds or sweltering heat, while children cry, women demand food for their families, and youths yawn through economics lectures. None is willing to stand with a slingshot behind burning tires, blocking highways and facing live ammunition. The union bosses prefer a half-hour appointment at the Labor Ministry. They prefer "tripartite" committees on which they help corporations and the state cushion austerity programs and thereby secure "governability."

 

MILITANT NEIGHBORHOOD-BASED organizing is on the rise throughout Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, the urban poor are fighting to keep their electricity. In Venezuela, they're the base for President Hugo Chávez's populist agenda. In Bolivia, they're working with unions against water-utility privatization. Such barrio-based organizing intertwines with powerful rural movements in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay.

In many countries, the most effective tactic is the roadblock. Traffic piles up, trucks can't move, factories can't get supplies, and agribusinesses can't move their grain. A roadblock halts production inputs and output. Like a debilitating strike, it hampers the elite from accumulating profits. It slows foreign exchange, cutting into taxes that enable the government to service its debt.

With this powerful tactic, Argentine piqueteros have pressed a wide-ranging agenda. A typical roadblock demands release of jailed militants, a withdrawal of police, food parcels, state-funded jobs, living wages, unemployment benefits and public investments in electricity, paved roads and health facilities.

The Argentine unemployed practice grassroots democracy. All decisions, from formulating demands to siting a roadblock, are reached collectively in open assemblies at both the neighborhood and municipal levels. Once a highway is chosen, the assembly organizes support within the neighborhoods near the road. Hundreds and even thousands of people participate, setting up tents and soup kitchens. The threat of police action swells the crowd.

The government, fearing a battle, usually has decided to negotiate. The unemployed demand that the talks occur at the blockade so all the piqueteros can participate. If the government agrees to provide jobs, the unemployed distribute them based on a family's need and its roadblock participation. The piqueteros have learned from experience that sending representatives to negotiate in a government office downtown leads to jobs for those individuals, their relatives and their friends, but not necessarily anyone else.

Piqueteros in some areas have rendered local officials powerless and created quasi-liberated zones. In the northwestern town of General Mosconi, unemployed workers have formulated a "parallel economy" of more than 300 projects, including a bakery, organic gardens, water purifying plants and first-aid clinics. Some of the projects are running successfully already.

Last spring, when government security forces began responding with more violence, the unemployed movement became more militant. In the months after a June 17 attack killed two protesters and wounded about 40 near a General Mosconi roadblock, piqueteros joined with militant trade unions to coordinate tens of thousands of Argentines in nationwide protests, blocking more than 300 highways and paralyzing the economy. In September, the piqueteros organized massive highway blockades throughout the capital and worked with the militant unions to shut down most major public and private employers. The actions drew significant participation from the middle class, including shopkeepers, pensioners, health workers, schoolteachers and human rights activists-most notably Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo members.

When the government froze savings accounts December 3, effectively confiscating billions of dollars from middle-class Argentines, the number of protesters soared. The next two weeks saw massive demonstrations and organized looting of supermarkets, followed by days of unorganized looting and deadly clashes with security forces. In a televised address the evening of December 19, de la Rúa announced a 30-day state of siege, which tens of thousands of Buenos Aires residents defied, taking to the streets within minutes of his speech. Many banged pots and pans outside the home of Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, leading him to resign that night. Still more protests brought more deadly police attacks and de la Rúa's resignation the next day. The upheaval kept the presidential palace door revolving until Congress installed Eduardo Duhalde, a Peronist, on January 1.

 

PIQUETERO DEMANDS considered leftwing only two months ago, from massive public works to repudiation of the government's $140 billion debt, have become battle cries of the middle class.

A list of such demands emerged in September from two national meetings, one in La Matanza, the Buenos Aires suburb, and the other in the city of La Plata, an hour southeast of the capital. Convoked by unemployed committees, the meetings drew more than 2,000 representatives of piqueteros, militant trade unions, human rights groups, leftist parties, student groups, artist collectives and others.

As Argentina's depression deepens and the government responds to protests with harsher repression, there is still no recognized leadership to transform the neighborhood-based movement into a workers' government. Noting that the movement's resiliency stems from local autonomy, some of the strongest piquetero groups are resisting national organizing. General Mosconi, for instance, didn't send delegates to the meetings in La Matanza and La Plata.

The nation's leftist and center-left parties, for their part, have concentrated on selling their newspapers and electing officials to an impotent parliament. While a few piqueteros have accepted posts in leftist parties, including a new formation called the Social Pole, most of the unemployed movement shuns electoral politics for fear of being reined in behind a moderate agenda. A similar fear arises from tactical relationships with trade unions. Piqueteros influenced by the ATE, the public-sector union, have allowed alternative roads to remain clear, a concession aimed at "winning over" middle-class commuters and the Labor Ministry.

From the right, meanwhile, some opportunistic Peronists are championing piquetero demands and offering to negotiate with the government for jobs. Their goal is to woo tiers of the unemployed to rebuild the party. The piqueteros have resisted these blandishments so far, but if repression intensifies and basic needs remain unmet, they'll have to choose between radicalizing further and working with the political bosses.

Duhalde knows this game. His 1991­1999 tenure as governor of Buenos Aires, the province surrounding the capital, owed much to a patronage apparatus that handed out food baskets and jobs. And when the favors didn't work, he unleashed fascist street fighters. Even as Duhalde took the presidential oath, his thugs showed up and started throwing punches at protesters. The police supported the thugs.

The U.S. government quickly convinced Duhalde to negotiate for more loans conditioned on an austere budget, which will only add fuel to the upheaval and open the door for a more repressive regime or a popular revolution. With at least tacit U.S. approval, Argentina's 1976­1983 dictatorship buried a leftist movement by murdering 30,000 thousands people.

But the piqueteros aren't letting up. Back in Jujuy, unemployed workers blockaded highways January 15 under a banner that read "Class Struggle Movement." The next day, as protests spread across the country again, thousands in the capital chanted, "We want 100,000 jobs now!

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