Argentine public sector workers take on Milei

6 May 2024
Tom Sullivan
A mass meeting of delegates from the State Workers' Association (ATE) PHOTO: Pensa ATE

The struggle of the Argentine working class against ultra-conservative President Javier Milei continues to evolve. Public sector workers are one of the key groups leading the resistance. Through strikes, protests and occupations of government buildings, state workers have pushed back against Milei’s plan to sack up to 70,000 people.

Milei took office in December and went straight on the offensive against the working class, moving to cut government spending, limit the right to strike and privatise state-owned industry. He also enacted draconian anti-protest laws that deemed any gathering of more than three people an illegal protest.

“They seek to destroy the public sector”, Leonardo Rando, a delegate in the State Workers’ Association (ATE) and a member of the Socialist Workers’ Movement (MST), told Red Flag. “They are not interested in continuing any public policy that improves the quality of life of the people.”

In many cases, management did not even tell workers they were sacked. Instead, they found out only when their access cards did not work one morning.

Fortunately, working-class resistance has thwarted major aspects of Milei’s plans. Argentina’s working class is strong, with a unionisation rate of around 40 percent in the formal economy and a large left. The resistance began almost immediately, with huge protests and strikes kicking off across the country. This culminated in a general strike on 24 January, in which half a million people joined the accompanying protest in the capital Buenos Aires.

Shortly after, Milei withdrew his proposal from congress when it became clear it did not have the votes to pass. The huge protests over the last five months have defied the anti-protest laws and rendered certain aspects of them a dead letter.

With his initial attempt to unleash a major attack on the entire working class defeated, Milei has changed tack. He is now targeting specific sections of workers, such as the public sector, while trying to pass a watered-down version of his original bill.

The Argentine public sector has a proud history of resistance and remains well unionised. Over recent years it has won progressive reforms, such as minimum employment quotas for women and transgender and disabled people.

In response to the attacks, some public sector unions have gone on strike and taken direct action. During a national day of protest on 3 April, ATE workers pushed through police lines and occupied several government buildings in various cities, where they held open assemblies. Two days later, ATE followed up with a nationwide strike and a march on the Ministry of Economy.

State workers from the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) have held large assemblies and protests for several months. Argentine cinema is world famous and plays an important cultural role in the country. Employing around 700,000 people, INCAA has long been in the firing line of conservatives for economic and ideological reasons.

“There is a tradition of independent cinema in our country that is also recognised and valued globally, which allows for storytelling from a diversity of perspectives, including critiques of the current political power”, wrote a group of INCAA delegates in a recent press release. “All of this is what they want to destroy in order to reduce Argentina to a cheap location for Hollywood productions.”

Inside the union movement, the socialist left has built itself into a considerable force. For instance, in Córdoba, the second most populous province, the left ran together in union elections last August and won the capital city section of the Union of Educators of the province, defeating two other campaigns. This section of the union has 16,000 members, and the whole union has 43,000 members out of around 80,000 teachers in the region.

But despite some victories for the left, the union movement is overwhelmingly dominated by Peronism, the political movement that occupies the space from centre left to centre right and has governed the country most of the time since the 1980s.

Socialist organisations, including the MST, are attempting to organise the unions’ rank-and-file members and encourage a more combative approach. Since Milei’s election, they have called public meetings, participated in large assemblies of workers and marched as a strong column independent of the union bureaucracy at the general strike in January.

“We believe that it is necessary to go to a large assembly of all state workers to define the necessary plan of action. There should be a new strike of 48 or 72 hours in the coming weeks. No action should be ruled out; we must continue to grow and think about the radicalisation of the struggle”, said Rando.

Public sector workers are not up against just Milei’s government. They face significant obstacles in the union bureaucracy, which is intimately tied to the Peronists. It has refused to call strikes in certain workplaces and industries, and even when it has called them, has not seriously organised and prepared workers. Instead, it routinely tries to channel workers’ anger and frustration into electoral campaigns for the Peronists, much as the Australian union movement does for the Labor Party.

The bureaucracy also overrides decisions made by the rank and file. For example, in the week prior to Milei taking office, delegates from ATE Capital (the Buenos Aires section) voted for a protest. But three days before it was to begin, the union’s general secretary announced that it would be replaced by a press conference in which union leaders simply requested a meeting with Milei.

Despite this approach from the bureaucracy, the unrelenting attacks on key sections of workers have compelled it to call a second general strike for 9 May.

The political situation in Argentina remains open. Milei is determined to attack workers, the union bureaucracy refuses to organise a prolonged strike campaign, and the misery of mass poverty is a heavy burden on workers’ shoulders. But two general strikes in Milei’s first five months signal the willingness of the working class to resist his agenda.

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