Thursday’s national strike called by opposition unions was big. The strike was observed by major transport sector unions, including the bus drivers. Strikes are called very often. Even general strikes are not rare here. Raúl Alfonsín, the Radical Party leader who was elected president in 1983, endured thirteen general strikes by the Peronist trade unions against his cash-strapped administration. But rarely has a general strike entirely halted a nation like it did on Thursday.
You could take this to mean that workers are just not happy any more under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government. Inflation is high. Polls show that the public is also concerned about crime. The anti-government unions, who belong to three separate trade union groupings, called the strike to protest exactly about those issues: crime, inflation and also the devaluation of the peso. Yet things are usually more complex. A strike is never only about workers not working.
Another way of looking at Thursday’s strike is that the trade unions, after ten years of economic growth, have amassed great power. Hugo Moyano, the leader of the teamsters union, has always been powerful. Yet rarely has the country been left with absolutely no means of transportation for its labour force like it happened on Thursday.
Moyano, the leader of the opposition faction of the General Labour Confederation (CGT) was the key actor of Thursday’s strike. For years Moyano backed the Kirchnerite administrations. The teamster was a key ally of the late Néstor Kirchner when he was president between 2003-2007. Kirchner, who was the current president’s husband, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010. Even before that sudden death there were signs that everything was not politically all right between Moyano and the Kirchners. The teamsters backed Fernández de Kirchner during her standoff with the farmers over soybeansexport duties increases in 2008. But by 2010 Moyano was directing political messages at the Kirchners.
On one occasion Moyano called a massive rally of truck drivers at the River Plate soccer stadium. In attendance as special guests were the Kirchners, who were duly impressed at the turnout. But when the time came for Moyano to deliver his speech he declared that Argentina should soon have a “worker as president.” The president, who also addressed the rally, took offence. Fernández de Kirchner, a lawyer by trade, told the crowd that she had worked all her life. But the Kirchners got the message. Moyano was tabling his political demands.
Those demands got louder come the presidential elections of 2011, which saw Fernández de Kirchner (by then a widow) re-elected by a landslide. Before the elections Moyano had demanded a number of key positions for his trade union representatives on the congressional slates of the Victory Front, the ruling Kirchnerite coalition that includes the Peronist party. But Fernández de Kirchner, who at the time was hugely popular, flatly refused to meet those demands.
It was the beginning of the end for the strategic alliance between the Kirchners and Moyano. Initially Moyano, who has historically controlled the transport sector unions, looked weakened by the rift because the UTA transport workers’ union sided with the pro-government faction of the CGT, which still backs Fernández de Kirchner and is controlled by the industrial unions such as the UOM metal workers union. But CGT life is also never that simple.
The UTA, meaning the bus drivers, still technically belong to the pro-government CGT. But on Thursday they went on strike with Moyano. And so did the train engine drivers. The Buenos Aires City subway workers, who are at odds with UTA (the union to which they once belonged), had announced that they would not join the strike. But the subway lines were picketed by UTA activists and there were no subways running in Buenos Aires City on Thursday.
CGT strikes have always relied on the transport sector for their success. Thursday was no different. But clearly what was impressive was that Moyano’s lot now clearly do have the muscle to grind the nation to a halt — completely. It’s bad news for Fernández de Kirchner. But it’s also bad news for all other potential presidential candidates, including Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli (a moderate Kirchnerite), Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri (leader of the centre-right party PRO), and the rebel Peronist lawmaker Sergio Massa (now an anti-Kirchnerite).
Moyano’s strike was also backed by two other umbrella groups: the opposition faction of the centre-right CTA and the so-called CGT Azul y Blanca headed by the rightwing restaurant worker Luis Barrionuevo. The far-left Trotskyist parties also went on strike on Thursday.
The far-left is growing in Argentina, especially in the northern provinces and in some industrial areas of Greater Buenos Aires. Those far-left parties on Thursday staged a series of pickets in support of the national strike. Leftwing activists scuffled with Border Guard troops on a highway in Greater Buenos Aires.
The strike’s critics, including national government officials, complained bitterly that support for the walkout couldn’t really be gauged because there were no means of transportation for those who wanted to go to work, and the roads were blocked in many places by the leftwing parties that backed the strike.
Thursday was the day an entire nation stayed home. What was there to do? The anti-government trade union bosses knew exactly what to do. They called a long press conference at CGT headquarters on Azopardo street.
Moyano took centre stage flanked by Barrionuevo and by Pablo Micheli, the leader of the anti-government CTA.
There had been another press conference earlier in the day: the one called by Cabineat Chief Jorge Capitanich. Capitanich had been especially critical of Barrionuevo, describing his as “the leader” of Massa’s Renewal Front.
Argentina’s trade unions, which collect fortunes in health care contributions from workers, have been historically very powerful. But their leaders are rarely popular with voters. It is no different now. Moyano and Barrionuevo, who were rivals in the 90s when the teamsters opposed neoliberal economic reforms, are not popular with voters. Barrionuevo, an old school rightwing Peronist who commands clout in the PAMI pensioners’ healthcare scheme, has a special knack for irking public opinion. He recently called the late Kirchner a “scrooge” who had “sh**t himself dying.”
Massa has denied any direct ties to Barrionuevo. But the Peronist lawmaker Graciela Camaño, Barrionuevo’s wife and political ally, sits next to Massa in the Lower House of Congress and belongs to the Renewal Front.
Most of the questions at the CGT press conference on Thursday were fielded by Moyano and, to a lesser extent, by Micheli. Barrionuevo tried to steer clear of controversy. He did not voice support for Massa on Thursday and did not confirm plans to launch a “Massa for president” trade union group. But come Friday Barrionuevo was championing Massa, who defeated the president’s candidates in last year’s midterm elections, and the “Massa for president” union group. Massa, Barrionuevo said, will “kill” the Kirchnerites in the presidential elections scheduled for next year.
Barrionuevo did not get Moyano’s support when he vowed to launch longer general strikes against the national government. How politically wise is calling more strikes? The trade unions controlled the Peronist party until it lost the presidential elections of 1983 against Alfonsín. The trade unions have since had a public relations problem and the Peronist party is controlled by the politicians — not the union bosses.
The immediate future could show that Moyano and Barrionuevo, once rivals, were only circumstantial allies. But how will Massa deal with the support voiced by Barrionuevo and all the difficult questions that come with it?
Thursday’s strike was big. Now all the politicos must be wondering how they will cope with such power should they don the presidential sash come 2015.