Friday, July 14, 2006

May Day And Argentine Labor Struggle, 2005

Originally published as a Znet Commentary, May 20, 2005
By Marie Trigona

The First of May was a symbol of the international proletariat's struggle for emancipation. Neither military parades nor the 'good little boy' marches of the reformist union federations can blind us to the deep-seated international solidarity of the struggle. Worker autonomy, direct action - with no chiefs, guides, Great Leaders or Grand Helmsmen, but organized into our own rank and file agencies - will turn the revolutionary movement into a tool for liberation.
CLLA - Libertarian Latin American Coordination

Since the turn of the century Argentine labor movements have marked May Day as a remembrance of class struggle and resistance. Since the 1890's in Argentina anarchists held their acts in Plaza Lorea to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs of Chicago who were murdered for their anarchist ideas and fight for a eight hour day. This year, workers in struggle held their May Day act in this same plaza - separate from traditional Left.

"Fighting for a reduced 6 hour work day is similar to the struggle for the 8 hour workday, in the effect of the campaigns. Today, the working class working doesn’t have time for rest, leisure activities, or for their lives. The system has transformed us into working beasts. The average working day for Argentines is 10 hours. This has resulted in a unified struggle among active workers and unemployed, together fighting against capitalism and super-exploitation," Roberto Pianelli, subway delegate.

Subway workers who have been organizing wildcat strikes for salary increases have spearheaded Argentina's movement for a six-hour workday. In 2003, subway workers (in all sectors from ticket office to train drivers) won a six-hour workday. Metrovias, the private corporation that was contracted to take over the once state-run subway lines in Buenos Aires, has had to respect the 6-hour workday, improve working conditions and gender inequality and increase salaries. Since this victory, subway workers, other labor conflicts, economists and unemployed workers organizations have formed a unitary movement for a 6-hour workday for all workers, with increased salaries. In addition, Metrovias employees (organized outside of the bureaucratic UTA officialist transport workers’ union) held weeklong wildcat strikes in February this year and won a 44% wage hike.

During an interview with several subway delegates they reflected on the relationship between the struggle for a six-hour workday and the fight of the Haymarket Martyrs of Chicago, the personal significance of May Day and anarchist traditions in Argentina. I caught a few delegates after their weekly delegate meeting at Hotel Bauen, a hotel recuperated by its workers. Each line has two delegates. There are commissions for press work and gender. There are over 3,000 workers at Metrovias, who work three shifts, making it almost impossible to hold general assemblies, except during strikes. In general, decisions are made during assemblies organized by line or shifts. The workers hold democratic decision making inside the delegates union as a fundamental principle.

Walter Varela, delegate from the subway’s D line idealized the struggle for an 8 hour workday. "The Martyrs of Chicago set an example of struggle, where they were demanding an 8 hour workday. What we want to do is to create a movement for a six hour work day. It would be useful for Argentina because it would create 4 million new jobs and better salaries for all workers, but our struggle doesn’t compare to the struggle of the martyrs of Chicago," said Varela.

He added, "I couldn’t tell you if there are workers more exploited than at the beginning of the century. In that period, workdays were really long just as they are today. If we look at the parallels between the struggle of the anarchists and today, we see that the labor standards have become more flexible. Today, workers are standing up against the trade unions and are creating a syndicalist movement made up of struggling workers. I see May Day as a day to recover the historical fight of workers and to continue with that fight. The struggle of the workers in Chicago, which ended with a terrible murder of 8 workers that wanted to put in place an idea is celebrated on May Day but it, isn’t a party. This is the difference we want to make."

Today unemployment stands at 19.5% and underemployment 15.7%, which means 35.2% of workers (approximately 5.2 million) have serious job problems. Businesses take advantage of the desperation of the millions of unemployed— increasing work shifts, allowing work conditions to deteriorate, hiring undocumented labor (paying under the table), and lowering salaries to a humiliating subsistence. The average salary is 600 pesos (around 200 dollars) and the poverty line is 720 pesos. Inflation is increasing rapidly, it’s expected that 2005 inflation will reach 20%. Wages have been frozen since the early 90’s, not be readjusted according to the peso devaluation in 2001, which has devalued salaries to a third of their former value.

This has made the situation for workers unbearable, and many sectors have held a number of actions (strikes, occupying business building and recuperating bankrupts businesses). May Day, 2005 arrived in the midst of hospital workers, airline workers and teachers labor conflicts. Many other anarchist slogans were reminiscent during this year’s May Day, freedom for all political prisoners and defense of worker controlled enterprises.
Pianelli drew a direct connection, "There are fundamental nexus. In this past century, there haven’t been relationships as strong as with the turn of the 20th century in respect to working conditions as there is today. The first nexus is the level of super-exploitation that workers are suffering. Today, workers work incredibly long shifts, with miserable wages and an army of reinforcement."

Jorge Mendez is a young worker. After the subway was privatized, Metrovias cutback personnel and hired mostly young workers. This year was the first time Mendez spoke on a platform, he said that this May Day was a moving experience. Not only because he spoke but because workers could organize an important act and mark their own path without being blocked by the traditional left. What workers are proving they can set their own dynamic of struggle without Marxist/Trotskyist parties with electoral platforms. He mentioned that syndicalist anarchist methods of democratic organizing workers funds and direct action methods such as the strike, sabotage and collectivization were an inspiration.

"Capitalism has evolved to always fix itself and to continue exploiting the workers. We are organizing so that our fight is similar to the struggles of the workers who died for a 8 hour workday. We want to recover May Day as a day of struggle. Today, when there is so much unemployment we are convinced that our struggle in the subways that a reduced 6 hour work day can be a solution for the millions of unemployed in Argentina," said Mendez.

In 1909 the anarchists organized a May Day demonstration in Buenos Aires, in Plaza Lorea. Police attacked the rally and killed eight people. Chief of police Colonel Falcon ordered the brutal repression. Simon Radowitzky, a nineteen-year-old immigrant from Russia and anarchist made history when he killed Colonel Falcon. He was present at the May Day demonstration and watched the death of his fellow comrades. A week after the repression Radowitzky decided to act in solidarity and threw a packaged bomb into the Falcon's carriage. Radowitzky spent 21-years of his life in prison.

In April, subway workers staged a strike in solidarity with airline workers who are against the government’s
decision to sell the state-run airline LAFSA to LAN Chile. Police attacked a workers assembly at Jorge Newberry metropolitan airport, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at workers on April 19. 20 demonstrators were injured. Subway staff immediately announced they would stage surprise strikes in solidarity with LAFSA employees.

Subway workers have pledged their willpower to use striking as a direct action against state repression of labor conflicts. In recent months, with a crackdown on worker controlled ceramics factory Zanon, subway workers have promised that if the factory is evicted there will be a price to pay in Buenos Aires subway lines. During the May Day act this year many workers from different labor conflicts spoke of mutual solidarity and support as fundamental objectives of struggle.

Pianelli reflected on the importance of this year’s act. "This May Day was really important because in this year a ton of struggles and conflicts emerged. We staged a huge act, led by workers organizations, without the participation of the traditional leftist political parties as part of a vanguard of workers in struggle. This is why we did an act in plaza Lorea."

He added, "The working class has inherited may the slogans from anarchists at the beginning of the century such as struggle for political prisoners and organizing working class trade unions. For me it's important to recuperate the ethic, actions and democratic organization from the anarchists. The anarchists' actions at the beginning of the century to raise a working class subjectivity and to take in their own hands their destiny have been lost in the past decades of Argentine history. For many sectors of the left whoever (activists/workers) acts differently from their electoral objectives, they try defame the dissident (a practice from Stalinism). Workers need to recover the best traditions from anarchism—self determination, respect for dissidence and creating a new working class subjectivity."

Since the mid-1990's with swelling unemployment the road blockade became the central tactic of the piquetero movement. Without access to the factory and the ability to strike, sabotage machinery and occupy factories, unemployed workers sought out a new practice for struggle-the road blockade, which is a method to prevent merchandise from arriving to the market. In the past few years, active workers gained ground in terms of accessing the work place to pressure owners and bosses for better wages and working conditions. The dynamic of workers’ struggle has changed and strengthened in search of new victories.

Mendez summed up this new dynamic. "Today I think that its us, the employed workers who have to fight for all of the compañeros, who were excluded from the system, can be reinserted into the labor market with better conditions and salaries. We think that we have the possibility to unite all of the struggles."

Grupo Alavío produced a documentary about the struggle for a 6-hour workday.

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