November 24, 2017
Sunday, July 14, 2013

On railways and derailments

Argentine unions’ role on the safety of the transport system under scrutiny

The role of Argentine unions is becoming increasingly questionable at times. And that doesn’t necessarily happen, as it did this week, because Mr. Hugo Moyano mobilizes truck drivers. It happens due to typically corporate behaviours which do no good to a system that has managed to become the bedrock of the pivotal support of Argentina’s political power.

The truck drivers’ protest was weak, almost as if they had flat tyres. It might have been so because the union that is likely the best paid in Argentina —which the truck drivers are, and Moyano duly takes credit for it — was facing a paradox when they rallied against income tax: some reports have shown that many truck drivers pay less in income tax than they do in union dues nowadays. In other words: the monthly cost of their membership is higher than the tax they challenge.

Moyano’s may be a key union to the system of services throughout the country (let us remember that the truck drivers’ strike paved the way for Salvador Allen-de’s ouster in Chile, in 1973), but union actions are decisive in more ways than one — and not only for truck drivers but also for railroaders. The latter work in the most sensitive of services, as proven by the harrowing crash at the Once station last year and the recent train collision, both of which occurred on the Sarmiento rail line.

Coincidentally, a report on the investigation into that crash was released this week, at the hands of a group of experts from the University of Buenos Aires. They claim the collision occurred because the brakes of the train were not applied, although they were working perfectly. In other words: it was a human error. But this conclusion was not accepted by many unionists who — by showing an extraordinary esprit de corps — have flatly refused the indictment of their fellow engine-driver.

The chief of La Fraternidad said two weeks ago that “the rail lines, the signalling system, the rolling stock, none are as they should be. Ten, twelve years from now, we’ll have the railways we should have.” The idea was shared by Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo, who said, after the Morón collision, that “we can’t do in a year what hasn’t been done in fifty.” That is true — just as true as the fact that ten of those fifty years fall under the responsibility of the current administration.

Furthermore, while it is true that Kirchnerism can show deft results (as part of their ideological triumph over a rather braggart opposition), it is also true that, for most of these ten years, the government has kept Mr. Ricardo Jaime as Transport Secretary — perhaps the most objectionable official of the Kirchnerist decade who is currently prosecuted on corruption charges. The same decade, we might add, that the government can very well claim as “won” in many ways but certainly not as far as the transportation system is concerned.

Beneath it all lays the long-standing incompatibility between the policy of state subsidies and a private management which is inefficient and driven by pure corporate voracity. The latter became the norm during the last decades in Argentina, which include dictatorship governments and virtually every democratic administration. The deterioration of the Argentine public transportation has been steady and solid. And this is something the ruling class should anticipate by merely noticing the current crisis in Brazil — that sort of giant brother, where the appalling public transportation system was precisely what aroused the fury of millions of users.

From a reasonable point of view, nobody should doubt the key role played by the subsidies in the economic recovery after the 2001-2002 crisis. However, private operators — perhaps encouraged by ultra-neoliberal mentors — have not only invested next to nothing in the improvement of transportation systems for millions of Argentines but, being the obsessive prebendaries they are, they simply let the system crumble while they pocketed the money and became transportation tycoons outside Argentina, in Peru and the US, for example.

There is no end to subsidies in sight, nor should there be. However, the government should address the pressing matter of improving these systems — railways as well as roads — because Argentina is a country where drivers also have had enough of paying increasingly higher tolls for bad and poorly-maintained roads not wide enough for the dozens of thousands of trucks and buses which cross the country everyday from one side to another.

If the government decides to keep the subsidies in place, then it should direct investments toward the modernization of roads and rolling stocks, guaranteeing safe and comfortable services. This may be why the government has opened a path of participation which has caused worry among many: the Army Corps of Engineers is already working on replacing railway sleepers and tracks. And it is no coincidence that the flamboyant Defence Minister Agustín Rossi has announced this week that no less than 30 train cars could be build on a monthly basis, which sounds a tad too optimistic but also naturally delightful to the ears of many.

The role of unionism — at least from the left’s point of view — in Peronist Argentina is unquestionable. If unions also carry corruption, they should be remodelled, cleaned and freshened but not eliminated. This is why criticism always falls into the realm of ideologies and why unionists reject them.

It is self-evident that the largest interest in the disappearance of unions is part of what the right wing preaches all over the world, highlighting corruption in their speeches and making a point of discrediting unions.

But these arguments may be too sophisticated for some Argentine leaders who are more inclined to switch sides readily, to join or create second-hand political parties and/or betray by looking the other way — as often happens with conflictive couples.

To be sure, corruption stands in the middle and it is known to be one of those drab issues this republic faces — beyond the incredible complaints fuelled by television shows, where some of the more contradictory and questionable figures come off as crusaders of a morality which is made out of plastic. Or out of tin.

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Tags:  Moyano  CGT  strike  

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