BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Some 400,000 people took to the streets and shut down the center of Buenos Aires through a massive demonstration in support of striking public school teachers and against the policies of President Mauricio Macri.
On March 6 and 7, teachers nationwide, accompanied by large sectors of the General Confederation of Labor of the Republic of Argentina (CGT), went on strike in the largest work stoppage since Macri assumed the presidency in December of 2015.
Macri, the first Argentine leader in history not to have attended public school (as is the case with most of the ministers in his cabinet), has been feeling the wrath of teachers unions since then as he refuses to meet their demands amidst an economic crisis caused by Macri’s economic reforms.
Macri’s policies have led to an economy heavily slowed by a drop in industrial production and rising inflation, an increase in joblessness and poverty, a sharp loss in purchasing power and a growing level of inequality.
As a result, teachers warned earlier this year of strikes at the beginning of the school semester due to the “Macri government’s cutting of education budgets and the freeze in salaries of education workers in the face of a full-on economic crisis.”
“It cannot be that this government is giving all sorts of tax breaks and financial loopholes for the wealthiest and most powerful companies and sectors of Argentina while the workers suffer from salary reductions as part of a plan of harsh economic austerity and massive rate hikes in vital services,” said Roberto Baradel, the head of SUTEBA, late last year.
While statistics released in January showed that the rich in Argentina grew their wealth since Macri’s inauguration, the poor have become poorer. Macri has removed the subsidies instituted by his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), and went a step further by adding higher taxes on vital services like public transport fares, electricity and water. The costs of these services increased between 200 percent and 700 percent and Macri has warned of even higher price hikes in 2017.
In August, Macri’s government sought to raise the price of gas by 1,000 percent in the middle of a severe cold snap in the austral winter but a series of protests against the measure led to an initial halt to the increase by a federal court. Weeks later, Macri said that a more “moderate” and revised raise of “only” 700 percent was being instituted.
The wealthy businessman-turned-politico born to an Italian billionaire construction tycoon who arrived in Argentina in 1949 has also removed currency regulation (which has led to a 30 percent depreciation in the Argentine Peso), laid off over 150,000 public workers (and warned of more layoffs) and agreed to pay the New York-based vulture funds that have refused to accept restructured loan payments.
An oft-repeated slogan of Macri’s has been to reach “zero-level poverty,” the catchphrase description of his plans for economic growth and security in Argentina.
Statistically speaking, however, his neoliberal economic plans have done just the opposite as all indicators (including GDP growth, inflation and unemployment) have worsened significantly since his term began.
With no improvement in their economic situations in sight and their purchasing power nearly halved since Macri assumed power in what was already Latin America’s most expensive nation in which to live, the teachers decided on a work stoppage. The Union of Argentine Educators (UDA), the Confederation of Education Workers (CTERA) and the Unified Education Workers of Buenos Aires (SUTEBA), three of the largest teachers’ unions in the country, went on strike in March.
The teachers were seeking an increase in pay of 35 percent; this was to offset the 40 percent inflation felt throughout 2016 while 2017’s inflation rate is still expected to be a high 20-25 percent. The government, meanwhile, offered the teachers a maximum pay raise of 18 percent. The last straw for the educators was when the government suspended their participation in the “national partnership” program, the medium in which the annual cost-of-living increases are discussed.
Since then, their chapters in the Province of Buenos Aires, which is approximately the size of Poland and has a population of nearly 17 million (or some 40 percent of the national populace), and other smaller provinces have continued the strike in what has turned into a faceoff between public school educators and government.
This week, the teachers received a massive show of support in the streets of Buenos Aires as some 400,000 people flooded the city’s central district and demonstrated before the Ministry of Education and the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.
The city was effectively shut down as the sea of people blocked out any signs of asphalt on the streets in the center of political, economic and cultural life in the country.
The anger and indignation showed by the demonstrators was furthered on the day of the march as Macri, speaking obliviously given the issue at hand and his own privileged upbringing at a press conference, mentioned the inequality between “those who go to a private school and those that must fall into the public school system.”
“I fell into the public school system and I think, read and know more than the president,” read one placard carried by a demonstrator. “Mr. Macri, you should fall into the public school system and I will teach you how to read and think,” read another.
While the salary of the teachers was the focus of their strike, other factors added to their anger. Many of the teachers in the cities struggle with the low pay but others, especially those in the poorer suburbs and rural areas, also have to deal with leaking roofs, a lack of heating and cooling and even the lack of drinking water or bathrooms in remote areas.
Instead of investing more in the “vulnerable” segments of public education, Macri has cut funding to public institutions and, according to the teachers, has placed more importance and heaped praise on expensive private schools. This is a new development in the long history of public education in Argentina, which was responsible for eradicating illiteracy long before the feat was achieved in many wealthy European nations.
The spectacular show of force in the streets was shown on televisions throughout Argentina, which is a bad development for Macri given that important midterm legislative elections are slated for October. The issue with public education, along with the aforementioned economic crisis, could spell electoral disaster for the president.
The situation will only get worse in the near future for Macri as the General Confederation of Labor of the Republic of Argentina (CGT), the largest and most historically important labor union in the country, will go on a massive general strike on April 6.
The CGT’s decision reflects another failure for Macri as throughout 2016, he made several public calls for patience in regard to the “initial” difficulties brought about by his reforms with a special eye on the labor unions.
In fact, Macri met with several unions repeatedly and sought to reassure them that the economy would improve and that he would offer better pay and benefits so that the unions would not strike and place him in their crosshairs.
The unions say that these promises, however, were not fulfilled and commitments were not kept. As a result, the CGT is acting accordingly and heaping more trouble onto Macri’s table.