On Wednesday March 22, hundreds of thousands of public and private school teachers left their classrooms, marched and protested in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.
The grievance was the failure of the right wing government of President Mauricio Macri, of the “Cambiemos (“We Must Change”) coalition, elected in October of 2015, to negotiate salary increases in good faith. But teachers’ union representatives and the Argentine left also see this action (which is one of a series of large scale labor protests) as being part of the national mobilization of working people against Macri’s extreme neoliberal program. Macri’s “adjustment” involves union busting, privatization and austerity. They accuse Macri and his cabinet of wanting to turn Argentina, once one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in Latin America, into a mere source of cheap raw materials for the wealthier developed countries, especially the United States and Europe. Such a country, Macri’s opponents reason, does not need the mass of its population to be highly educated. The elites can send their children to expensive private schools, while public education is starved for funds.
Furthermore, they say, the government and its friends in business and the mass media see strong teachers’ unions as a bulwark of the whole labor movement which is now solidly against Macri. Thus, breaking the teachers’ union is another political goal. The strong role of unionized teachers in opposing government austerity and privatization programs is characteristic of the whole Latin American region.
As one Argentine teachers’ union leader, Rogelio de Leonardi, head of the Association of Teachers and Professors in la Rioja province, put it: “The struggle of the teachers is for wages, for public education, and for the purchasing power of the whole working class, so it is something which we are not willing to surrender.”
Argentina had an inflation problem before Macri’s election, but since he took power this problem has grown much worse, with 40 percent inflation in 2016. This is “in spite” of the fact that the government has been using austerity measures, including mind bogglingly huge numbers of layoffs, to “control inflation”.
The teachers are asking the government, at the national and provincial level, to give them a 35 percent salary raise to counter the impact of inflation. Buenos Aires provincial governor Maria Eugenia Vidal and federal Minister of Education Estevan Bullrich are the targets of particularly sharp criticism by the unions for their failure to negotiate in good faith on salaries. Vidal, for example, had responded to the unions’ demand for a 35 percent pay increase with an offer of only 18 percent.
Austerity has also led to a shredding of the social safety net, which had been robust under Macri’s predecessor, leftist Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Particularly painful was the removal of subsidies for electricity, which led to a huge jump in rates.
Soon after taking power, Macri laid off tens of thousands of government workers. Private industry, especially the largest firms, followed suit with even more massive layoffs.
The Macri austerity policies have, predictably, led to an increase in poverty in the country over the past year, according to a study sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, with more than a third of the population now impoverished. But at the same time, the country’s wealthy elites have been getting wealthier at a fast clip.
Labor leaders predict even larger strikes and demonstrations on March 30 and April 29. There will be legislative elections in October, and both sides are thinking about how these mobilizations might impact the outcome.