Argentine workers march against government’s neoliberal economic policies

On September 2, more than 200,000 Argentine workers rallied in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, the capital, to denounce the right-wing, anti-labor policies of the country’s president, Mauricio Macri. This demonstration may presage a movement toward unity on the part of the country’s traditionally split labor movement.

The Marcha Federal (Federal March), as the protest’s leaders call it, began with rallies in a number of other Argentine cities, including  Rosario, Córdoba, La Matanza and Avellaneda, and then marched over three days to Buenos Aires. It was initially organized by unions, including the two branches of the Argentine Central Labor Federation (CTA) and the other, smaller labor groups. By the time the Marcha got to Buenos Aires, many other people’s organizations had joined in support.

The purpose of the march was to demand a reversal of key policies of the Macri government, which took power in December of last year. These policies have caused great suffering to Argentine workers and their families. Upon taking power, Macri imposed a major currency devaluation which had the impact of making the lives of ordinary Argentines much more expensive, because of the increased cost of imported items. Though the devaluation was billed as an inflation fighting measure, it has had the opposite effect: Already high inflation has jumped even higher, to more than 40 percent annually and rising. For workers and the poor specifically, the inflation rate is already 54 percent this year.

In addition, Macri’s government has cut subsidies for public services such as electricity and natural gas, and has laid off thousands of government workers, including 30,000 in Buenos Aires alone. As the economy has contracted, private industry has laid off tens of thousands more. In May, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the national legislature where Macri does not have a majority, passed legislation for the suspension of further layoffs, but Macri vetoed this.  An effort to stop Macri from raising electricity rates appears to be stalled in the courts.

In order to get his program through, Macri had to win over legislators from other parties than his own. He was able to do this because of splits in the Justicialist Party, which is the core of the Victory Alliance which ruled Argentina and set it off on a progressive “Bolivarian” path under presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Some Argentine history with the Perón family

The Justicialist Party was founded in 1947 by then President Juan Domingo Perón and his colleagues. Perón was a populist who got strong labor support due to social reforms during his first administration (1946-55), which benefited the working class economically. But ideologically, he also had some fascist ties. Perón was overthrown by the military in 1955. When he was finally able to return to power in 1971, he was older and took a more conservative tack. A left-right split in the Justicialist Party soon appeared, and took violent forms. When Perón died in 1974 he was succeeded in the presidency by his second wife, Isabel (Evita, Perón’s first wife, had died of cancer in 1952). The right-wing trend became dominant within the Justicialist Party, and then in 1976 came the coup which brought in the fascist military dictatorship.

The military dictatorship, under the pretext of suppressing violence from the left-Justicialist “Montoneros” movement, and with U.S. support, carried out brutal repression against all kinds of leftists including the non-Peronist Communist Party, labor and all other dissident elements. At least 30,000 people were murdered or “disappeared” by the military. In many cases, pregnant women were kept prisoner until they gave birth, then they were murdered and their newborn babies handed over to military officers and other supporters of the dictatorship to raise as their own. These cases are still being investigated, perpetrators still being sentenced to prison, and demands for justice for these families continue to be put forward by the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, by the Communist Party and others. So any suggestion from a right-wing politician like Macri that perhaps not so many were murdered, or perhaps there is no need to keep on prosecuting the perpetrators of the repression, sets off alarm bells. Macri and others have made some troubling statements recently.

Promising new alliances toward unity

The General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the major labor federation which historically supported Perón and the Justicialist Party, and has been considered one of the more conservative labor federations in Argentina, now may be moving closer to the other federations in opposition to Macri’s economic policies. Although the CGT did not officially co-sponsor the Federal March, its leadership made clear that if member unions wanted to participate, they were free to do so. They participated with other federations in demonstrations against Macri’s policies earlier this year and may call for a general strike, probably sometime in October. This is seen as a step forward by more left-leaning groups. Mario Alderete, labor secretary of  the Communist Party of Argentina, said that the march “[has] generated conditions for the building of a general strike,” though citing “the resistance of one part of the labor leadership which has remained passive when faced with the adjustments imposed by the government. It is necessary to carry out overwhelming actions against [the Macri economic policies] and repression. This is one of the first and necessary reactions of the people’s sector to the attacks of ‘Macrismo.'”

Macri got some of his initial proposals passed due to defections from Kirchner’s Victory Front in the Chamber of Deputies. Thus he ended up striking a deal very unfavorable to Argentina, with the “vulture” hedge funds against which his predecessor had been having a long-term fight. This is in line with Macri’s strategy of opening up Argentina to new penetration by foreign multinational corporations and also increasing the country’s access to the bond market. Macri’s cabinet is packed with neoliberal figures who are especially close to transnational corporations including Shell, IBM, and JPMorgan Chase.

But now even some more conservative elements in Argentine politics may be beginning to feel queasy about the direction Macri’s economic policy has been going. Economist Aldo Pignatelli, who belongs to a more right-wing trend within Peronism, has warned that Macri’s economic policies increasingly resemble those of the military dictatorship. This suggests that the legislators may continue to balk at Macri’s more extreme projects.

At the rally in the Plaza de Mayo, Hugo Yasky, secretary general of the Argentine Workers General Federation of Labor (one of the two branches of the CTA which sponsored the event), hailed the “unity of the workers. Also the unity, which marks a distinct new moment in the confluence of the labor movement with the social movements; unity and convergence with the student movement, with human rights organizations, with the [small-scale producers], the small-scale and family farmers, unity with informal workers, with the [worker cooperatives],” and with many other sectors who participated in the Federal March.

We will see now how far this unity reaches, and  how much it can impede Macri’s rush to the right.

Photo: People march in the Plaza de Mayo.  |  Victor R. Caivano/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.