BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Tens of thousands of striking workers took to the streets of Argentina’s capital in protest against newly-inaugurated President Mauricio Macri and his policies of devaluing the currency, cutting subsidies across the board and laying off over 21,000 state workers.

Photo: ATE Argentina
Photo: ATE Argentina

Over 50,000 members of the Association of State Workers (ATE) at the municipal, provincial and national levels have gone on a 24-hour strike, and they were joined by thousands more belonging to various political and social groups in demonstrating in front of Buenos Aires’ iconic Plaza de Mayo.

Macri only assumed office on December 10, the changes he is planning or changes he has already made to the national economy, among other sectors of society, have earned him many critics and detractors.

Macri, of the conservative Republican Proposal (PRO), ended 12 years of ‘Kirchnerism’ after he narrowly defeated Daniel Scioli of the governing center-left Front for Victory (FpV) in the two-candidate second round run-off vote.

The FpV, whose ideology is known as ‘Kirchnerism’ due to its association with the last 12 years of rule, first with Néstor Kirchner (2003 to 2007) and then Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), is just one of several factions of the big-tent Justicialist Party, which tasted defeat for just the third time in its presidential election history (1983, 1999 and 2015) as a split along internal lines between the FpV and conservative dissidents helped Macri to the presidency.

In the run-off vote, Macri won 51.4 percent of the vote while Scioli won 48.6 percent, a margin-of-victory that was considerably narrower than what was predicted.

The narrow victory, coupled with the fact that the FpV still enjoys the largest presence in both houses of Congress and Macri’s ‘Cambiemos’ (‘We Are Changing’) coalition being an unlikely and uneasy alliance between his PRO party and the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), meant that the new leader was going to face an uphill battle in governing.

Seeing the odds against him, Macri has hit the ground running by making several changes during the honeymoon period. He has made those changes quickly through a tactic of “shock and awe,” hoping to take action while Argentines are still forming their opinion of him as to minimize political repercussions. Many who voted for him knew what he planned to do, but did not realize how quickly he would do it and thus, less than three months into his presidency, his approval rating has already slid from an early 70 percent to just over 50 percent now, according to local polls.

First, he named two Supreme Court judges by decree instead of vetting them through Congress (a decision he since rescinded), rolled back export taxes on beef and grains, nixed subsidies across the board and removed currency controls which led to a 30 percent devaluation on the Argentine peso.

Macri argued that the devaluation was necessary in order to send a jolt into the economy via foreign investment but ordinary citizens were the first to feel the pinch as they saw their purchasing power effectively reduced by a third, a significant development with inflation already hovering at around 25 percent. Since Macri assumed power, that number is now over 30 percent and climbing.

Given this development, Macri announced that his government would be seeking several multi-billion dollar loans from abroad, an act that, paired with other neoliberal economic measures similar to Macri’s, led to several major collapses and skyrocketing inflation in the Argentine economy during the right-wing military dictatorship of 1976-1983 and the terms of Carlos Menem (1989-1999) and Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001).

“This has the smell of the 1990s,” said Hugo Moyano, the leader of one wing of the General Confederation of Labor of the Republic of Argentina (CGT), in reference that unstable economic period marked by neoliberal policies.

The CGT is the largest and most historically important labor union in the country and, like the Justicialist Party, has its internal factions. On one side was the ‘oficialista’ sector that backed the former government of Fernández de Kirchner and on the other side were the dissident CGT Azul y Blanco (Blue and White) and the CGT Azopardo (led by Moyano) unions, both that were in opposition to the former government.

Although Moyano initially voiced his displeasure with Macri’s actions, he has recently held a series of meetings with the latter and the CGT Azopardo has calmed their stance. This has led many in Argentina to accuse Moyano of now becoming a useless shill on behalf of Macri as he softly criticizes the President but refuses to take any action.

Given this development, the ATE, along with the help of various organizations including the Central Workers’ Union of Argentina (CTA), the second largest after the CGT, has finally staged a mass walkout of their own. Led by Hugo Yasky and Pablo Micheli, the tens of thousands of workers walked out on Wednesday morning and gathered in various spots around Buenos Aires.

As they chanted, sang, beat drums and displayed their various placards and flags, the striking workers blocked traffic along vital streets in the city and caused delays and gridlock, drawing attention to their opinions and demands against the “mass dismissals of workers, the devaluations, the criminalization of social protests and the limits placed on salarial raises.”

The 21,000 workers laid off since December (a number that was actually at 26,000 until 5,000 were re-hired) from various factories, ministries, transport entities, hospitals, museums, national media organizations and other institutions were released because they were “gnocchis,” a term in Argentina that means a worker that is on the payroll but does not work and only comes to collect their paycheck, according to the government. “Let there be no more Argentines that receive a salary for something they do not do,” Macri said of the layoffs in January.

Alfonso Prat-Gay, Macri’s Economic Minister, said that most of those laid off recently were hired by the previous two administrations, and that they were hired initially due to their political allegiance to ‘Kirchnerism.’

Most of those who have been laid off, however, have shown proof that they actually did do their jobs and did not belong to any ‘Kirchnerist’ organization or party wing. Furthermore, Hugo Godoy, the head of the ATE, was a fierce critic of ‘Kirchnerism’ and said that Macri’s “idea of ‘gnocchis’ is just being used as a reason to justify mass layoffs and to weaken important labor organizations.”

FpV politicians, on the other hand, are accusing the current government of ideologically persecuting workers who did belong to ‘Kirchnerist’ groups and are dismissing those individuals despite the fact that they showed up to work every day.

Macri and his economic team have promised more layoffs, up to another 25,000, a statement which Godoy said was “provocative” and was “like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline” on it.

Godoy concluded: “We want to tell President Macri that we will not allow more public layoffs, and our show of force here today as only a tiny fraction of us should serve to show him, as well as mayors and governors around the country, that the unity in our organizations will only show more solidarity and demonstrate in every corner of Argentina if the layoffs and job insecurity do not stop.”