Another general strike in Argentina challenges Milei

21 June 2024
Tom Sullivan
Argentine students and workers protest cuts to public education outside the presidential office in Buenos Aires PHOTO: Reuters / Agustin Marcarian

The Argentine working class is not backing down from its struggle against conservative President Javier Milei. A general strike called by the major union confederations on 9 May, the second since Milei came to office in December, paralysed the economy and major cities. Urban transportation came to a standstill, nearly 300 flights were cancelled, banks and shops were closed, and government operations were massively reduced. One study found that the lost economic activity was equal to 1.1 percent of annual GDP.

The second general strike took on Milei’s new austerity package, which has just been passed by the Senate and will now return to the lower house. After he withdrew his first one (known as the Omnibus Bill)—which aimed to slash public spending, privatise state-owned firms and pass anti-labour legislation—he introduced a new, watered-down, version, colloquially referred to as the “Omnibus Bill XS”. Despite only containing around a third of the provisions of the original bill, the new one still includes significant anti-labour legislation and privatisations.

Milei has faced significant difficulty in passing any of this through Congress because he lacks even a sizeable minority parliamentary bloc—his party was founded only in 2021. Unlike other far-right figures, like former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump, Milei does not have a cohered and loyal base. He was backed by the Argentine ruling class in the second round of the election and won 56 percent of the vote. However, this was considered to be a vote against the incumbents—it’s unclear how loyal this base will remain.

“The government is very determined to move forward, but this also generates significant resistance”, Cesar Latorre, a union delegate at a major hospital in Buenos Aires and member of the Socialist Workers’ Movement (MST), said to Red Flag. “The government has not given up and, where another government might have backed down, it tries to keep pushing forward.”

This was clear when a journalist recently said to Milei, “The people can’t make ends meet, Mr President”, to which he responded, “If people couldn’t make ends meet, they’d already be dead”.

Milei’s intransigence reflects that, despite decades of economic turbulence, Argentina’s rulers have not succeeded in smashing the organised working class and the welfare state as fully as elsewhere in Latin America. Large sections of the economy are nationalised, and the unionisation rate remains around 40 percent. Milei’s whole political project is about fighting on behalf of the bosses. His labour measures would weaken workers’ ability to fight for better wages, his budget cuts would remove subsidies to households, his privatisations would hand public companies to private bosses, and his tax proposal would make workers’ pay a greater share of the state’s finances.

But after Milei faced stiff opposition in parliament for the last six months, it now looks like some of his opponents are willing to negotiate and approve sections of his agenda. This includes the main parliamentary opposition, the Peronists, a number of whom voted in favour of the second Omnibus Bill.

Peronism is a political current unique to Argentina. It has a strong base in the unions. Its origins lie in a coup led by Colonel Juan Perón in 1943. Perón sought a base in the organised workers’ movement but was no working-class hero; he worked to control and restrain the rising working-class militancy of the time. Perón severely attacked the left, jailing and murdering hundreds of leftists and unionists. More recently, the Peronists were the first to try to implement neoliberalism in the 1990s and, while in power for the four years prior to Milei, oversaw the deaths of more than 100,000 people during the pandemic. Outside of the various periods of military rule, the Peronists have governed Argentina most of the time since the 1940s.

The union bureaucracy consistently subordinates the interests of the workers it’s supposed to represent to the electoral interests of Peronism. Currently, while the Peronists are out of power and there’s a significant attack on the unions themselves, the unions have been pressured to organise protests and strikes.

“Peronism has a division of labour. On one hand, they make speeches in parliament, complain and denounce the law”, says Latorre, referring to the austerity package. “On the other hand, they discuss with La Libertad Avanza [Milei’s party], as is the case with the CGT [General Confederation of Workers], which is trying not to mobilise seriously to avoid destabilising the parliamentary session.”

The union bureaucracy and Peronists have negotiated with Milei to protect, among other things, union funding sources, such as automatic union membership at workplaces. Whilst it is right to defend this measure, the bureaucracy has been far more interested in negotiating with the government over it than sustaining protests and strikes to defeat the brutal attacks on workers.

The Peronist parliamentary leaders want to wait out Milei’s four-year term in a way that causes minimal disruption to Argentinian capitalism, whilst contrasting themselves as the steady hand against Milei’s chaos.

The second general strike was not due to any enthusiasm from the bureaucracy and Peronist leaders for a prolonged battle against Milei. Rather, it was called in response to pressure they are under from their own members and seen as a bargaining chip in negotiations to protect the unions’ structures.

Nonetheless, the strike was an opportunity to reunite the full force of the working class after many unions had ceased their industrial action while they returned to negotiations following the first general strike. However, its impact was contradictory. Whilst it had very strong participation, its political impact was not fully realised because the union leaders refused to call a centralised protest.

Despite the lacklustre efforts of the CGT leadership, Milei has so far failed to make workers pay for the crisis. Instead, resistance remains strong. Since the second general strike, teachers have held a national strike, healthcare workers have taken industrial action, train drivers organised a 24-hour national strike just a week after a national transport strike, and even judges struck for 24 hours. And on the day the second austerity package was being voted on in the Senate, public sector workers held a national 24-hour strike, the university sector began a 48-hour strike, and other unionists struck and joined protests outside the Congress.

On 24 May, a textile company fired hundreds of workers in two of its factories. When it attempted to remove the machinery, workers occupied both factories, one of which continued functioning for more than a fortnight.

Students have also joined the fight. On 24 April, around 1 million people marched across the country to defend higher education from Milei’s cuts. A few days later, he caved and increased the budget.

The rising social tensions reached even greater heights in the province of Misiones, an underdeveloped region in the north-east with a small but important agricultural sector. There, teachers, healthcare and other workers have been protesting and striking for months. In recent weeks, the protests have become more aggressive, marching on the provincial congress and clashing with security forces. Students and workers have blockaded roads across the province. Even the local police went on strike for a pay increase and set up an encampment outside their headquarters. The federal government, for the thirteen days of the police strike, had to call in other state security forces.

The police temporarily breaking ranks and joining the protests is a clear sign of how deep the crisis is. Combined with the increased levels of industrial action, it shows that Milei’s approach is a risky one. Previous conservative presidents have failed in similar attempts to implement austerity. For example, during Mauricio Macri’s term from 2015 to 2019, the unions thwarted his anti-worker changes with five general strikes. The other risk for Milei is that the Argentinian ruling class grows tired of the social conflict and returns to the Peronists. After all, they can offer something Milei cannot: social peace. A recent opinion piece in the Argentinian paper La Nación expressed this sentiment:

“The growing labour unrest, combined with social organisations joining the protests, threatens to reach record levels during Milei’s short presidency ... Curiously, many of the unions that today have adopted a belligerent stance ... remained silent during the last four years [when the Peronists were in government].”

The situation in Argentina is unstable. Even if Milei passes his watered-down austerity package, the mass mobilisations will likely continue. Union leaders are under serious pressure to continue mobilising, Peronism is highly discredited, and workers are eager to fight.

If Milei wins, his victory may embolden other far-right leaders. But if Argentine workers manage to defeat him, they will send an important message to workers facing similar attacks in Europe and elsewhere: that it is still possible to defeat a ruling-class offensive with a mobilised and combative workers’ movement.

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