May 25, 2013
Baby, you can’t drive my truck
What are national holidays supposed to be for? Are they not supposed to be to take it easy? Wednesday, Flag Day, was a national holiday here. Whoopee for you, people. There and then you could indulge in what ever it is you like to do on a day off .
But then maybe, like so many others, you work on a national holiday. Maybe you are a nurse, a fireman, a cop, a journalist. Maybe, even, you are a truck driver. Many people have to work on national holidays. Yet you can always expect the mood to be relaxed, right? Think again. Rewind to that odd Flag Day on Wednesday. Incredibly, if you were looking for some political anxiety smack in the middle of a holiday there it was for you to have in the form of a strike by the fuel sector truck drivers.
There are many ways to spend a day off. The truck drivers union, headed by CGT labour confederation boss Hugo Moyano, for instance chose to picket a fuel distribution plant in La Matanza, Greater Buenos Aires.
The national government’s answer to that picket, and the 72-hour nationwide strike by the fuel sector truckers to demand a pay hike that was leading rapidly to fuel shortages, was to deploy the Border Guards. The strike, called by Moyano and his son Pablo Moyano in the middle of collective wage bargaining, was scheduled to end on Friday morning. Come Wednesday night, long lines of cars formed outside petrol stations, especially in Buenos Aires City.
Fear started to spread that the hampered distribution of natural gas would lead to shortages in hospitals and also in small towns and villages in Buenos Aires province that rely on trucks for their supply. Here, finally, was the nightmare of the truck drivers flexing their muscle taking shape before the very eyes of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration (an administration that prides itself in meeting the demands of workers and allowing for satisfactory wage bargains).
What are the truckers like demonstrating? On Wednesday, they took a truck filled with garbage and dumped the trash in front of the main entrance of that YPF energy company distribution plant in Greater Buenos Aires.
Yet despite the beating of war drums in the form of pickets and piles of trash, the order issued by Fernández de Kirchner was not to negotiate with Moyano.
The national government argued the strike was illegal because the truck drivers on Tuesday had defied a compulsory truce called by the Labour Ministry while the wage bargaining continued.
The truckers drove home the force of the strike. A so-called “crisis committee” was quickly assembled by the national government to deal with what, come Wednesday night, was clearly a very delicate situation. Fernández de Kirchner was abroad on official business when the truckers defied the call for a truce. The President attended the G20 summit in Mexico on Tuesday and then flew to Rio de Janeiro to also attend Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. On Wednesday, news broke that Fernández de Kirchner had cut short her trip to Rio to personally deal with the fallout from the strike.
The President arrived in Buenos Aires on Wednesday night when the strike was raging at its fiercest and the situation was very difficult to predict.
The crisis committee included Security Secretary Sergio Berni and Lieutenant Governor Gabriel Mariotto. Vice-President Amado Boudou, acting president with Fernández de Kirchner away, had declared that the government would use an anti-hoarding law to punish the striking truckers. Boudou made the comments on Tuesday. Yet questions surfaced about Boudou’s authority (and if CFK wanted him in charge) because he is facing a court investigation over influence-peddling, and reportedly not performing well in polls.
When the President landed in Buenos Aires, Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo had also already announced that the government was filing a lawsuit against the Moyanos for intimidation.
The scuffling outside the YPF plant continued between the Border Guards and the burly truckers, including Moyano’s personal bodyguard: a heavyweight boxer with tatoos all over his face and shaved skull, including one of an automatic pistol.
Berni, an Army officer on leave now calling the shots on security for CFK, was inside the plant trying to arrange for at least eight fuel trucks to leave despite the picketing.
Eventually, Berni told reporters that the Border Guards had been deployed as a distraction, confirming that the eight trucks had gone out of the plant. By then, with the President back in the country, Moyano Senior was sitting himself down on Wednesday night at 10pm in the studios of the news television channel Todo Noticias, which is owned by Grupo Clarín.
Get Moyano’s message? The CFK administration and Grupo Clarín have been bitter enemies since 2008, when the media group’s coverage of the national government’s standoff with the farmers over export duties upset the President and her husband Néstor Kirchner (who was to die suddenly of a heart attack in 2010).
Moyano has also in the past locked in fierce arguments with Grupo Clarín. The Moyanos have been key strategic allies of the national government since Kirchner first rose to power in 2003. But something went wrong immediately after Kirchner died. Rumours swirled that Kirchner and Moyano had argued angrily about Peronist party politics minutes before the former president died in Patagonia. Moyano confirmed the telephone conversation, but denied an argument.
Then, last year, Moyano tabled a series of political demands ahead of October’s presidential elections in which Fernández de Kirchner clinched re-election.
Moyano, who at the time controlled the Buenos Aires province branch of the Peronist party and was also a member of the national leadership, implied before the election that Fernández de Kirchner should name a trade union leader as her running-mate.
Moyano also demanded key positions on Peronist party congressional slates for trade union leaders. Moyano was to be disappointed by Fernández de Kirchner before the vote in October. The President denied most of the political demands made by the CGT boss.
Moyano also combined his political demands with complaints about inflation, saying that “supermarket inflation” was far higher than the official inflation rate as reported by the state’s INDEC statistics bureau. Then Moyano gradually buried his immediate political demands. He quit all his positions in the Peronist party, complaining it was now only an “empty shell.”
Moyano concentrated once more on making salary demands. He has also called for the income tax floor to be raised and for the abolishment of salary caps to collect child benefits.
Yet Moyano’s problem is that his mandate as head of the CGT ends in July and a number of big trade unions are no longer backing him. On Wednesday night, when Moyano sat down for that interview, he knew full well what was at stake. When asked about Randazzo’s decision to file a lawsuit Moyano brashly announced a “national strike” by the truckers “in all of its branches.” Moyano also called a demonstration to Plaza de Mayo.
The whiff of confrontation was still in the air come Thursday. Yet the fuel strike did not last. A leader of the truck owners called a press conference on Thursday to announce that a salary agreement of 25.5 percent had been signed with Moyano. Then Moyano called a press conference of his own to confirm the salary deal, to lift the strike by the fuel sector drivers and to also confirm that on Wednesday the truckers will stage a national strike and march on Plaza de Mayo. The issue, Moyano said, was no longer the salary hike. The issue, he said, now was the income tax floor as fixed by Fernández de Kirchner’s administration.
The CGT, still technically controlled by Moyano despite the lack of support from major unions, on Thursday also announced that it was backing the call to rally and strike.
So is this then the first general strike called by the CGT in the Kirchnerite era? Maybe — technically. But Moyano’s real aim is to march on Plaza de Mayo and to gain support from other sectors for his income tax demands.
Moyano’s call to rally could be backed by militant trade unions, including the anti-government faction of the CTA Argentine Workers Congress. But it will be interesting to see if the middle-class protesters from the upmarket neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, who recently bashed saucepans against the currency exchange restrictions, will also march with the CGT to Plaza de Mayo on Wednesday.
The CFK administration’s aim will be to ride the storm of Wednesday’s demonstration. It still hopes that the majority of trade unions will not back Moyano’s bid to be re-elected at a CGT convention called for July 12. Wednesday’s demonstration could be massive, but it can’t inflict as much damage as a 72-hour strike by fuel sector drivers.
The President could meet at some point after July 12 with the unions that don’t back Moyano and raise the income tax floor for fewer workers to be affected (say, after meeting with a delegation of pro-government unions).
Moyano’s defiance will also test the President’s grip on the Peronist party. Scioli has been harshly criticized by the Kirchnerites, including his lieutenant Mariotto, for recently hosting a soccer game in his country house attended by Moyano. Mariotto, speaking on Wednesday as the crisis raged, said Scioli would have to explain why he wanted to be photographed with Moyano “the man who has caused this headache.”
The crisis is here. Moyano will soon no longer lead the CGT. Many large unions oppose him and his re-election is not assured. But Moyano will still be sitting in the driver’s seat of the powerful truckers union long after Wednesday’s demonstration is over and the CGT splits.