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September 16, 2014
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Moyano strikes back

Teamster Hugo Moyano speaks at CGT headquarters on Wednesday, the day before the general strike staged against the government. Luis Barrionuevo, leader of the restaurant workers’ union, is seen in the background.
By Martín Gambarotta
Herald Staff

The thump of the walkout was felt, but such protests risk turning banal

Not only do empires strike back. So do Argentina’s opposition trade unions. The anti-government faction of the General Labour Confederation (CGT), headed by the teamster Hugo Moyano, staged its second general strike of the year on Thursday. These are powerful unions. By one estimate Moyano manages a fortune and his inner circle has recently confessed that he owns a ranch.

Luis Barrionuevo, the head of the restaurant workers’ union and now one of Moyano’s key allies, is an old school rightwing Peronist who has bragged about pulling the strings of the democratic system since 1983 in cahoots with a Radical party grandee, the former Interior minister Enrique Nosiglia.

The jury is out on whether Moyano can drive a truck and Barrionuevo can wait a table. But be sure of one thing: these guys know how to hold a strike.

2014 will go down in history as the year in which salaries have struggled, or even failed, to keep up with inflation in Argentina. The economy is stagnant, industrial output is down, and workers are suffering suspensions (especially in the once-booming auto industry). Moyano and Barrionuevo staged the year’s first general strike on April 10. The walkout back then was a huge success because it counted with the support of the UTA transport workers union (meaning the bus drivers).

Argentina’s trade union world, which has been dominated by the Peronist party since the 1940s, has a complex history. There are, for instance, two CGTs. The UTA belongs to the pro-government faction of the CGT, which is dominated by the big industrial unions (including the UOM metal workers’ union, the SMATA auto industry union and the UOCRA construction workers union). But UTA still went ahead in April with its decision to join the general strike called by Moyano’s CGT.

There was a strong chance that the bus drivers would also go on strike on Thursday. But the UTA leadership, which reportedly does not like to take orders from Moyano, announced on Tuesday that this time it was not joining the walkout. With buses in the metropolitan area expected to run normally the pressure was on Moyano and Barrionuevo to still pull off a successful strike.

April’s general strike (the second such protest staged against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration) was an embarrassment for a government which claims to defend the rights of workers.

When dawn cracked on Thursday the buses were running, especially in Buenos Aires City. But some of those buses were half-empty. The streets of Buenos Aires were not completely deserted. But Thursday was not going to be a normal working day. All trains were on strike. So were the airlines along with one of the city’s subway lines.

UTA’s support was generally believed to be the key to success in past strikes. But the clout of Thursday’s strike could still be felt even with buses running.

Yet there’s a catch. The militant leftwing parties, which also have substantial clout in some factories, manned roadblocks in and out of Buenos Aires City. What was the point of trying to catch a bus in Greater Buenos Aires if a roadblock did not allow you to reach your work place in the City?

The anti-government CGT accused UTA of cutting a last-minute backroom deal with Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich to not join the strike. The private metropolitan bus lines rely heavily on government-controlled subsidies to run and the president recently launched a plan to replace 3,000 buses with new ones.

Moyano and Barrionuevo looked the other way on Thursday when the Trotskyist parties blocked the roads (a tactic also embraced by the centre-left union CTA). The anti-government CGT and the militant left, many times sworn enemies in factory elections, are now strategic allies against the Kirchnerite administration.

Moyano called a press conference on Thursday to declare the strike had been a hit. But Capitanich also addressed the press to say that only 25 percent of workers nationwide had walked out. Nonsense, said Moyano. The teamster was reluctant to talk about percentages. But eventually Moyano estimated that the strike had been observed by 85 percent of the work force.

Barrionuevo meanwhile denied that the next step was to call a two-day general strike — as demanded by the anti-government faction of the CTA and the leftist parties. But Barrionuevo said that a march on Plaza de Mayo spearheaded by the trade unions was a possibility. He also urged the government to heed the demands, including a request for income tax breaks. If the government does not grant concessions, Barrionuevo said, then Fernández de Kirchner could have serious trouble in serving out her mandate (scheduled to end in December, 2015).

Moyano and Barrionuevo have colourful and differing histories. Moyano was a staunch Kirchnerite ally, especially when Néstor Kirchner (the president’s late husband and predecessor) ran the country between 2003-2007. But Moyano turned on Fernández de Kirchner when the president refused to accept his political demands ahead of the presidential elections in 2011. Barrionuevo, a rightwinger unpopular with the middle class for once declaring that “nobody in Argentina makes money by working,” has never been a Kirchnerite and backed the neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s.

Strike day, when all was said and done, did not end with a bang or a whimper, but with the sacking of Carlos Bianchi, the legendary trophy-winning coach of now struggling soccer giants Boca Juniors. The spectacular sacking took some of the attention away from Moyano’s strike. Still Moyano is a very powerful player in Argentine politics. But with the president so clearly on the last legs of her mandate, is there really any room for more general strikes?

The risk for the opposition CGT is that general strikes could turn into something banal, just another national holiday imposed by burly union bosses in Ralph Lauren shirts. Kirchnerite officials were quick to declare that Moyano and Barrionuevo will “organize lootings in December” in a bid to bring down Fernández de Kirchner’s government. Argentina, even since the return to democracy in 1983, has a history of riots and turmoil.

With the annual inflation rate expected to reach at least 35 percent this year the national government is under pressure to reopen salary negotiations, which are held annually. Since 2003 workers have been generally awarded pay increases that have kept up with, or even surpassed, the annual inflation rate. That’s not the case this year. Yet Labour Minister Carlos Tomada, speaking on Thursday, said that the government does not plan to reopen salary negotiations for this year.

Tomada also poured cold water over any expectations that the government will offer income tax breaks, even when this has also been demanded by the pro-government CGT headed by the metal worker Antonio Caló.

Yet the CFK administration still has cards to play on the trade union front. On Thursday the government decreed an extra payment of 1.2 billion pesos for the trade union-controlled healthcare schemes. The Minimum Wage Council is also scheduled to meet tomorrow to announce an increase.

Moyano’s strike comes when polls show there is significant public support for the president’s legal standoff in a US court with the hedge funds, also called “vultures.” New York Judge Thomas Griesa has ruled in favour of the hedge funds’ demand to collect the full value (1.6 billion dollars) on the defaulted Argentine debt bonds that they hold. NML, a hedge fund controlled by the billionaire libertarian Paul Singer, has been relentless in its legal offensive against Argentina.

NML is now seeking information on loans recently granted by China for the construction of two hydroelectric dams in Patagonia and to develop the Belgrano Cargas freight train line.

Economy Minister Axel Kicillof meanwhile is charging ahead with a debt swap bill designed to move the payment venue from New York to Buenos Aires. The Senate, after hearing out Kicillof, on Wednesday cleared the bill for debate.

Also up for debate in the Senate is the reform of anti-hoarding legislation, which has been called “unconstitutional” by business leaders who also say it smacks of “Venezuelan populism.” The government has accepted reforms to the anti-hoarding bill tabled by small- and middle-sized businesses. But the controversy is still raging.

Kicillof and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on Friday announced that the G77 group of developing nations, plus China, are poised to sponsor the reforms of financial world regulations at the United Nations to prevent another Griesa-like ruling.

“Never again Griesa,” Kicillof declared on Friday. The minister said that the new regulations should also be used in Argentina’s favour in the Griesa case. The International Capital Market Association (ICMA), Kicillof said, also wants reforms to avoid another court victory by the vultures. But Argentina is still in a situation of “selective default.”

Significantly Kicillof shuttled to Brazil on Friday amid speculation that a Brazilian pension fund (and the Brazilian development bank BNDES) have offered the vultures 60 cents on the dollar for their bonds (it was not accepted). Reports said that Argentina is also seeking a currency swap agreement with its giant neighbour. It makes sense. Can Brazil really afford to see Argentina sink over a ruling involving the relatively minor sum of 1.6 billion dollars?

Kicillof, speaking at the Council of the Americas on Thursday, put Argentina’s problems this year mainly down to a global financial crisis. The minister, who has gained celebrity-like status due to the standoff with the vultures, at times looks like he is trying to argue his way out of an imbroglio while his political star keeps shining. Will that suffice for the CFK administration? Wait and see. Fernández de Kirchner will have a world stage for her momentous standoff with Singer’s libertarian lot when she addresses the annual UN General Assembly next month in New York.

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