Friday, July 14, 2006

Argentine Workers Fight For Wages

August 23, 2005
By Marie Trigona

Why is it that prices go up but our wages don’t? Argentina’s working class is certainly concerned over the matter as labor conflicts are heating up. Public health workers have put the dispute over wages back in the national public spotlight.

Non-medical staff at the Garrahan children’s hospital have been on the strike path for the past three weeks to demand that the minimum monthly salary be increased to 1,800 pesos (600 dollars). The public health workers staged a series of 72-hour strikes at the hospital, which has caused uproar among the National Government. Garrhan children’s hospital is Argentina’s largest and most modern children’s public healthcare facility, which employs some 2,400 people (including medical, administrative and non-medical staff).

“We want to earn equivalent to the basic family basket,” said assembly delegate Mercedes Mendez. Garrahan workers say that they have the right to demand a 1,800 basic salary, the cost of family basic needs. Some 700 nurses, technicians, and janitors are organized in a worker assembly that functions as an internal commission of the ATE state-employees union. The assembly has criticized ATE’s leadership for maintaining a passive position in labor struggles, many times speaking publicly against the workers’ demands and actions. The assembly values direct democracy and non-hierarchical organization – motions are made by the assembly’s body and then the workers vote on the motion.

President Nestor Kirchner’s administration along with the mass-media has launched a massive campaign to demonize the health worker assembly and to divert attention from the urgent need for across the board wage increases and improvements in public services. This month, Health Minister Gines Gonzales Garcias said that protesting health workers were “terrorists, taking children as hostage.” He accused them of sabotaging medical equipment and putting the lives of children at risk. Gonzales Garcias’s characterization is a chilling echo of a discourse used by Argentina’s last military dictatorship.

Despite accusation that the strikers are neglecting patients, relatives of patients receiving care at the hospital spoke out against the attacks saying that nurses never abandoned their patients. They explained that workers covered emergency care when on strike. Again and again, nurses have reported with tears in their eyes from rage and impotence that the hospital doesn’t have enough health supplies for necessities as simple as syringes, tubes and needles for IV’s . Technicians, nurses and maintenance have said that they are the ones that keep the hospital functioning. They often have to stand in for doctors and sometimes even surgeons. For children’s day the workers’ assembly organized a festival with music, gifts and movies for patients and family.

In addition to being dubbed as terrorists, last week the hospital’s administration sent out telegrams to warn staff that if they continue with the strike they will be fired. The hospital this week hired 20 new nurses without sufficient training to break the strike, reminiscent of coal mining companies sending in scabs. However, the workers have not backed down. On August 15 they voted to stage another 72-hour strike.

The Labour Ministry offered a 20 percent increase for workers. Three of the unions involved in the conflict accepted the offer. Meanwhile, Garrahan’s dissident assembly’s general secretary Gustavo Lerer said that the offer is far from reaching employees’ demand of a 1,800 basic salary. Currently most non-medical staff make between 1,000 to 1,200 pesos. The offer would mean a 200 peso hike for most workers, while high-up administration who earn at least 2,000 pesos would receive a 600 peso increase.

In July, the minimum income needed to avoid falling below the poverty line increased from 750 pesos to 786 pesos. However, the average salary in Argentina is 600 pesos. The government worries that if Garrahan workers win their demands, they will set off a chain reaction in other labor sectors to demand a salary that correlates to the cost of family’s basic needs. Public workers nation wide have been on the striking on and off for four months. The labor ministry is trying to halt increasing demands by workers for wage hikes and that price increases cease. The IMF is pushing President Néstor Kirchner to keep salaries stagnated and cut the budget for public services, while inflation is expected to reach at least 15 percent this year. With every 1 percent of inflation, 150,000 people fall below the poverty line.

Salaries have been frozen for over a decade. Between 1984 and 2004, real salaries fell 52.7 percent. During this same period production grew 87.2 percent. This means that workers’ hourly production increased by 257 percent. While workers produce faster during more hour, the purchasing power of salaries fell drastically. For businessmen and managers, pressuring employees to work faster can result in reduced costs through cutbacks and increased production. While employees work faster, there’s a surplus of workers for what needs to be produced. This resulted in layoffs and flexible labor standards – current unemployment is at 19 percent (including the two million unemployed receiving unemployed subsidies).

So if a family needs at least 1,800 pesos to get by, why is it that salaries fall way below this minimum? “All workers, no mater from what category, has the right so that their family can eat properly, have clothes and live in decent shelter,” said subway delegates in their newspaper. All eyes are watching the Garrahan conflict. With direct actions like wildcat strikes and solidarity festivals they are sending a clear message that workers will not accept poverty-level wages. With a steady reserve of unemployed and humiliating average salaries, the government and business sectors have taught the population to get used to living in misery. However, all of this is changing with emerging labor conflicts like Garrahan.

Workers from the ceramics factory Zanon, occupied and managed by its workers since 2001, are donating ceramic tiles to Garrahan children's hospital. Zanon workers said that although the 200 square meters of ceramics tile is only a small gesture they support non-medical staff who are on strike for the third week in a row. The government also worries over a nation-wide network of mutual solidarity among labor conflicts. Hospital staff from other public and private medical centers have held parallel strikes and shown their support for Garrahan workers.

Many workers consider that the fight against increasing prices for consumers goes hand in hand with the fight for wage hikes. Subway delegates have a very direct proposal to improve workers salaries and conditions. “While the possibility of increasing prices is in the hands of businessmen there will never be a salary increase that is enough. This is why prices have to be part of worker production. While this seems like a utopia, we have a small margin to apply this idea with recuperated enterprises under worker control. If the 100 largest companies in Argentina were controlled by workers (like the case of Zanon) we could begin to control prices within the capitalist market. Or outside capitalism.”

Garrahan workers can be reached at

No comments:

Blog Archive