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Hundreds of heavily-armed police officers were stationed in front of the Argentine Congress building on Sunday, April 9, under direct orders from President Mauricio Macri. The troops were lined up along the square, their pepper spray cans and batons at the ready, and ordered to advance. Their target? A group of school teachers who had been setting up an “itinerant school” in the public square from which to continue their months-long struggle for living wages.
“We were showing the police authorities that we had filed a request for the installation,” explained María, a long-time teachers’ union leader of over 60, “and then we heard them drawing nearer. The officer commanding the operation yelled ‘advance, advance, advance,’ which meant to advance over us. They sprayed pepper spray straight into my eyes and those of other teachers, from a distance of less than 4 inches.”
The fierce repression and the arrest of four teachers during the operation sparked nationwide outrage among a population that just days before had participated in a mass general strike against Macri’s policies of austerity that have led to increased unemployment and poverty in a context of unremitting inflation. The national backlash and general teachers’ strike called in response to the repression the following Wednesday prompted the government to backtrack, granting permission to run the school until April 19th.
The “itinerant school” put in place by the teachers is now fully functioning, organizing educational and cultural activities for children and adults, as well as talks on the teachers’ demands and the state of the country’s education system as a whole. “This school expresses what we have been doing in different districts in the province of Buenos Aires and in several other provinces in the country,” explains María, a teachers’ union leader. “We’ve been organizing activities, marches, exhibitions of the students’ work, trying to express the conflict, to show [the population] photos of the schools, the serious state of disrepair of our school buildings, the horrible situation in the school cafeterias [which provide meals to many students in the poorest areas of the country], and the lack of teachers and vacant positions. That’s why we decided to set up this itinerant school, to draw attention to all of that and express it here, in the heart of the city of Buenos Aires.” Hundreds of individuals and families have flocked to the itinerant school since its installation on April 11, in a show of massive support for the teachers’ struggle among the general population.
Since the general strike that took place three days after the repression, the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, María Eugenia Vidal, has called for a reopening of negotiations with teachers’ unions next Monday. However, the national Minister of Education, Esteban Bullrich, has yet to make a call for national negotiations.
“Trying to erase reality with baton strikes”
The repression took place during an impasse in the teachers’ struggle after a 24-day conflict, during which the teachers’ demands had been met with sheer intransigence on the part of the government, even after a federal court order was issued requiring the government to reopen national negotiations.
Governor Vidal has offered teachers an overall wage increase of 19% by the end of 2017. Given that teachers’ salaries in Argentina have already fallen significantly behind the inflation rate since last year’s negotiations and that the inflation rate this year has continued to rise uncontrollably, the government’s offer is woefully insufficient. According to the INDEC (National Institute of Statistics), consumer prices rose by 2.4% last March alone, making it highly unlikely that the government will be able to meet its 17% inflation target for the year. And to make things worse, the latest figures show that prices have increased most significantly in basic consumer categories such as education (5.6%), clothing (4.8%), and food and drinks (3%).
Not only has the government refused to make the teachers an acceptable offer, it has also employed a wide range of tactics aimed at breaking the struggle, including the launch of a campaign to recruit “volunteer” strikebreakers, making deductions from striking teachers’ salaries, recruiting state employees to prepare black lists of teachers who took part in the strikes, and planting police officers in schools and teachers’ assemblies.
The union federations’ response to the government’s stance has fallen short of many teachers’ expectations. Throughout the struggle, decisions regarding the actions to be carried out by the CTERA (Argentine Confederation of Education Workers) and the Suteba (United Education Workers’ Union of Buenos Aires) have been made behind the backs of the unions’ bases, without calling a single teachers’ assembly. And after a general strike with an overall participation of 95% on April 5, following massive mobilizations and protests in late March, the leadership of Suteba called for ending the strike to await negotiations, without a clear plan to continue the struggle. In spite of these circumstances, the struggle has remained strong, particularly in the districts most affected by recent hikes in transportation and utility fees, layoffs and inflation, where it has channeled widespread discontent with the national government and expressed enormous support for the teachers’ struggle among working families.
Taking the Struggle into Our Own Hands
Both sides in the conflict are well aware that it is not only the teachers’ salaries that are at stake in this scenario. The outcome of the struggle will determine the prospects for future collective bargaining agreements in both the public and private sectors. And in a context of growing social discontent, in which the government claims it cannot increase social spending but has made plans to acquire new anti-riot equipment with which to confront the inevitable conflicts, a clear teachers’ victory could seriously restrict the administration’s ability to continue implementing its austerity plans as it has so far, with the complicity of the country’s union bureaucracies.
In order to win this conflict, teachers must be able to organize democratically. Assemblies of delegates with mandates from their bases must be called by the teachers’ union federations in each province to vote for a nationwide plan to continue the struggle. This plan should include massive mobilizations and road blockages, like those that were organized by the most combative sectors of the movement during the teachers’ strikes and general strike.
But in order to succeed, the teachers will need the support of the country’s entire working class. The high levels of participation in the general strike called by the CGT (General Workers’ Federation) on April 6, as a result of massive pressure from its base, showed not only the population’s dissatisfaction with the course of the economy, but also its willingness to fight the government’s austerity plans. The nationwide actions taken so far should be continued within the framework of a national action plan, organized and implemented by the unions’ bases. In this scenario, a victory for the teachers will be a victory for the Argentine working class as a whole.