Teachers and public workers in an Argentinian province have been striking, blockading roads, marching by the thousands, occupying buildings, and even attacking and burning the provincial parliament building, in a fight to defend their contracts and their bargained wage increase.
For the last four months, these workers in Chubut province battled their provincial government, which is supported by transnational corporations and by the national leadership of the oil workers union—a key political player in the country’s main oil region.
Chubut is one of Argentina’s southern provinces, in Patagonia, where low population contrasts with rich natural resources. Most of the provincial economy is based around exports—oil, aluminum, and shrimp.
These exports significantly increased after a devaluation of the national currency between 2018 and 2019. Exporting companies made more money, but imports became more expensive, driving up the local cost of living.
The negative impact of this devaluation on real wages—especially the wages of public workers, who don’t get a share of the export boom—provoked a struggle in Chubut last summer, including strikes and a once-a-week tent camp in front of ministries and public buildings. Public employees make up almost 20 percent of the workforce in the province These protests finally got the provincial government to grant wage increases near to inflation rates by the end of February. (Editor’s Note: Argentina’s summers take place during North America’s winter months.)
However, shortly after being re-elected in June, the Peronist governor Martin Arcioni, who is close to employers, reneged on the wage increases the government had agreed to in the February bargaining—arguing that he needed the money to pay debts.
Since 2016 the provincial government has been enacting public policies aimed at maintaining both profits and labor peace. It took on dollar debts to subsidize the extractive companies and to raise public workers’ wages in the annual provincial collective bargaining rounds.
With the breach of the collective agreement and with public disgust growing at the corrupt alliance between the governor and transnational firms, over the winter a wave of deep unrest unfolded.
BATTLE ON OIL CAMP ROAD
Local assemblies of teachers and public workers voted for strikes and street demonstrations. Union leaders played a role but couldn’t always control these resolutions. On August 22, thousands of teachers and public workers marched from Rawson to Trelew, two of the main cities of the province.
The governor seemed indifferent to the unrest, so the struggle escalated to direct actions blocking the entrances to oil camps and aluminum plants. The aim was to stop the transport of the province’s most strategic commodities. On the picket lines teachers explained their situation and received the support of oil and metal workers. But instead of opening a dialogue, the provincial government called for the oil union to repress the pickets.
On an icy night, September 4, a mob of hooded thugs with oil workers union logo stamps on their jackets attacked the picket line that teachers had erected to block the road to the oil camp.
The popular response was immediate. Thirty thousand people marched in Chubut; the teachers’ national union and the teamsters provincial union went on one-day strike September 5 to condemn the attacks.
The governor and the oil workers officials defended the repression, arguing that teachers should accept the government’s reneging on their wage increase. The governor declared that to get the funds to solve the crisis, the province should allow open-pit mining, which was rejected by a popular referendum some years ago.
By the middle of September, the struggle had escalated again, intensified by the deaths of two teachers in a car accident while traveling to an assembly in a distant city. Between September 17 and 19, groups of furious activists besieged and partially burnt the provincial parliament, occupied public buildings, and returned to blockading roads. By the end of September, metalworkers at an aluminum plant went on strike to protest the dismissal of five co-workers who had shown solidarity with the teachers’ struggle.
After the death of the two teachers, Maria Cristina and Jorgelina, the struggle intensified. Both opposing camps attempted to broaden their arrays of allies. The provincial government strengthened its alliance with a section of the oil workers union leadership, transnational corporations, and the country’s President-elect Alberto Fernandez, although neither the corporations nor Fernandez have made explicit their support for the governor.
At the same time, some members of the oil workers union showed solidarity and sympathy for the teachers’ struggle. Chubut public workers, especially the teachers, maintain democratic workplaces and bonds of solidarity with the provincial section of the teamsters union and with some local sections of the oil workers union.
At the end of October, the government announced that teachers’ wages would be cut because of the strike, a move that was considered a provocation by the union, which marched to the Government House. The governor ordered the repression of the mobilization and the union’s general secretary was arrested and detained for several hours. In response, the Confederation of Education Workers (CTERA) went on a national solidarity strike on November 8.
After that, negotiations were reopened. Finally, this week, the teachers achieved the recognition of the wages agreement, and the restoration of medical services. They also obtained the government’s commitment to funding school infrastructure.
The 17-week strike ended on Wednesday, November 20. Still, the union maintains a heightened state of alert, because it does not trust the government’s commitments.
Julia Soul is a researcher at Labor Studies Center, union activist, and ANRED (Agencia de Noticias RedAcción) collaborator. Leandro Rodríguez is a professor in sociology, union activist, and ANRED collaborator.
This article first appeared in Labor Notes