Since the economic collapse of the country in 2002, many Argentines have developed their own alternatives to capitalist policies and practices. From barter systems to worker-run factories and businesses, in the face of economic hardship many citizens have taken things into their own hands. The most recent example of this resistance took place this week in Buenos Aires.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens use the Metrovias subway in Buenos Aires each day. So when all the subway workers went on strike this week, it created quite a stir. Since November 2004, the workers have been demanding pay increases of 53% and better working conditions. After months of waiting for the company executives to meet their demands, the workers decided to go on strike…and they won.
From the 5-10th of February, the workers blocked all subway stops throughout the city. Many were on guard for 24 hour shifts at time, others had their whole families with them and slept on the concrete floor. There were some fights between Metrovias workers and angry citizens who didnâ€™t support the strike. In some cases enraged commuters broke the glass cases surrounding ticket counters.
Like many Argentine citizens, Metrovias workers struggle to survive on a meager salary. Meanwhile, the companys vice-president, Alberto Verra receives 86 times the annual income of most the workers. “I make about 300 pesos per month,” one Metrovias worker on strike explained. “Thatâ€™s about 100 US dollars. Itâ€™s simply not enough for my family and I to survive on!”
Metrovias, which is a US owned company, receives approximately $2,500 USD per hour for the maintenance of the subway. In spite of this, the company has not performed general maintenance since 2001 and employees complain of unhealthy working conditions, horrible air quality and faulty equipment. Though the price of tickets has risen over the years, the salaries and the maintenance have basically remained the same.
Since the 1990s, due to a lack of wage increases in Argentina, people across the economic spectrum have been forced to work beyond an eight hour day in order survive. However, from 2003 to 2004, the subway workers fought long and hard to gain a six hour work day, and they were successful. (Ten years ago, they had a six hour workday when the subway was state-owned, but lost that right when the company was sold to Metrovias.) Though this success inspired some, the workers in other sectors that are fighting for six hour work days are still a minority. Currently, the subway workers are more democratic and often more radical than other unions, and so have fought and gained more.
As a result of the lack of subway service this week, the buses were abnormally packed throughout the week and bus lines remained on the sidewalks long into the evening. As many Buenos Aires residents were quick to point out, the subway strike was a huge inconvenience. “Thousands of working people are being forced to arrive late to their jobs, and so they lose money. This loss can be huge for people who depend on every cent to survive,” one kiosk worker in the cityâ€™s center explained.
In a poll conducted by Clarin, a major newspaper in Buenos Aires, 67.6% of 26,434 people polled said they were against the subway workers strike and thought it was excessive. 32.4% of those polled supported it.
However, the Metrovias strike could be the first step in a longer fight for workerâ€™s rights in the country. A conference among the cityâ€™s major unions recently took place in Hotel Bauen, a worker-run cooperative that was occupied by previous employees after its closure in 2002. At the front of the conference hall, a sign read “Si Gana el Subte, Ganamos Todos.” (If the subway workers win, we all win.) There was fervor in the air at the meeting, and a feeling that with the countryâ€™s eyes on the Metrovias workers, it was a time to make the most of the strikeâ€™s clout. Representatives from student groups to telephone worker unions were in attendance. Many proposed a city-wide strike demanding higher wages in general, others suggested more street protests and road blockades.
The end of the conflict came on February 10th when the Metrovias workers accepted an offer from the company for a pay increase of 44%. Improvements on the working conditions of the subway are still being discussed. Yet for many of the workers, the wage increase was a victory and could serve as an inspirational example to other workers in the city.
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics.
www.UpsideDownWorld.org “If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?” – Eduardo Galeano