Workers’ Occupations and Roadblocks in Argentina Signal a Shift in the Class Struggle

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In the past few days, five different sets of workers have occupied their companies or set up roadblocks and encampments against shutdowns and massive layoffs. These grassroots rebellions are leading the way forward in the fight against unemployment.

It’s like an image from another time: a group of workers clinging to the wire fence around an occupied factory tell their stories.

They always threaten to fire us or shut the factory down and we have to turn a blind eye and work for peanuts. We’re tired of this. It’s been hard for years now and all the union does is support the other side. The Ministry of Labor supports the union. So we told the owner to negotiate with us. They pay us 20 thousand pesos [about USD 220] every two weeks. It’s not enough for us. We never complained, but they pushed us so hard, we reached our breaking point. So here we are, standing strong. We’re going to continue the strike and we’re not leaving the plant. We’re going to stay inside until we reach an agreement.

The speaker is one of the spokespeople for the workers of the Arrebeef meat processing plant, located in Pérez Millán, near the district of Ramallo in the province of Buenos Aires. He and his co-workers are leading a rebellion in a plant of 1,000 meat processing workers which has gained mass support.

 “We never complained, but they pushed us so hard…”

On Friday, February 26th , the packinghouse workers, fed up with earning meager wages while the company owners get rich exporting the meat they process, decided to occupy the plant while they continued their strike in order to make themselves heard. That afternoon the owner, Hugo Borrell, announced on a megaphone that he would shut down the meat processing plant. The workers also doubled down.

The workers  say they had never complained, but at one point they snapped. The amount of financial and physical humiliations, like the fact that they were required to go to work in the plant even though hundreds of workers there had contracted Covid, led them to say enough is enough. They decided to challenge these conditions, to demand, organize, join forces with workers under temporary contracts who were laid off in 3 months, and eventually occupy the plant.

It’s easy to understand the rage that boils over as they speak. “They get paid in dollars for what they export, and the most they pay us is 40,000 pesos [about 440 USD]. “I couldn’t even buy my son shoes for school,” says one worker. “There are times when I get off at 11:30 p.m. and I have to come back at 4 a.m. I can’t even sleep. And then they don’t pay you what they owe you,” says another. “The people and the youth are rebelling here. We’re tired of the abuse and exploitation.”

Their partners have also raised their voices and joined the fight. “We can’t back down,” says Brenda. They’re calling on everyone to support the workers.

The news of the occupation at Arrebeef shook Pérez Millan and the entire town of Ramallo. It has also started spreading to other meat processing plants throughout the country. The men in white coats watch how the businessmen make millions, while they work to the point of exhaustion and their neighbors can’t even afford to make an asado [Argentinian-style barbecue].

Other workers have begun to show their solidarity. Last Saturday, the plant workers welcomed a delegation from the printing company MadyGraf, which is under workers’ control. Sandro and Martín shared their experience:

The company wanted to lay us all off, so we occupied it and started producing to make sure that no families were left out on the street.” The applause from the workers who had “never complained” gave them goosebumps. They were even more moved when the plant workers asked my comrades if they could leave them the banner they had brought, “so that people can see the support we have.

Young workers from the occupied  Hey Latam call center came from Rosario to express their support, also spoke at the meeting. The photo of the Hey Latam banner in the hands of struggling workers with the plant in the background, is another memorable image of workers’ solidarity.

These young workers are also participating in occupations against layoffs.

Hey Latam: the Young Workers Who Are Saying “Enough Is Enough”

Last Wednesday was also a day of intense struggle for the workers at Hey Latam. After having organized an encampment for 86 days, when the company went bankrupt, they decided to occupy it peacefully. Just like in Arrebeef, their boss instituted an illegal lockout, thinking that they would go home. He was dead wrong.

At 6:00 a.m. we entered the premises peacefully, following the decision made by the Assembly of United Workers of Hey Latam, because the Civil and Commercial Court judge had declared the company bankrupt on Monday, leaving 300 families out on the street. We haven’t received our salaries. For three months, we’ve been depending on the soup kitchen we set up and people’s solidarity to survive. We need a job now to be able to support ourselves, so that we won’t have to drop out of school and so we can feed our children.

With this announcement, they told the world  and the people who had been supporting them of the decision they had made.

When they entered the managers’ office, they were amazed at the luxuries they saw there. Behind the boss’ chair, they put up a sign that said “Occupied Call Center” and a mask of Salvador Dalí. The media reported on the scene enthusiastically. They also turned the room where the young workers were routinely humiliated when they were sick, into an assembly hall.

But they don’t want to just sit around. They’re demanding that the State give them jobs, and they’ve even formed a cooperative for that purpose. They’re offering their tools and training to provide services to the community. “We can work for toll free lines, the 147 line for assistance related to the pandemic and vaccination, or provide services to meet any other need of the population, like phone assistance for emergencies and situations of gender violence, among others.”

The young workers of Hey Latam, many of whom are women, have turned their story around. Today, they’re an example for thousands of young people who are facing attacks in precarious jobs, like delivery workers, cashiers, cleaners and factory workers.

Like the workers in Arrebeef, they had to confront the complicity of the Trade Workers’ Union, which is working with the bosses to accept the layoffs. Instead of relying on the union, they joined other sectors in the struggle against layoffs and plant closures. Last Saturday, in order to strengthen that struggle they held an assembly of companies under workers’ control and struggling workers in front of Hey Latam, in which the MadyGraf delegation also took part.

The Struggle at Ternium Canning: a Headache for Billionaire Paolo Rocca and the Metal Workers’ Union (UOM)

On Friday, February 19, when the General Secretaries l of the UOM finally deigned to show their faces at the Techint Group plant, they were greeted by workers chanting insults at them. The tension was through the roof. A week before, the workers had begun a total strike and had set up an encampment at the gate, in response to the bosses’ attacks.

Billionaire Paolo Rocca, CEO of the Techint Group, which owns Ternium, is used to disregarding labor laws and executive orders. So he had decided that he wouldn’t comply with the UOM Branch 17 collective labor agreement, or the salary increase that was applicable to the company’s workers. After the first workers’ action, he attacked their organization by laying off 35 workers. But the workers didn’t back down. They fought even harder. The encampment at the plant gates became national news. The steel workers were standing up to the man who always got a “Yes, sir” from both former President of Argentina Macri and the current president, Alberto Fernández, leaders of both major capitalist political parties.

For 16 days, the workers organized an encampment and blocked the company gates with resolve, preventing the transportation of materials from the plant. They also organized a Women’s Committee, held assemblies and received the support of the people and other workers. The Movimiento de Agrupaciones Clasistas (Movement of Working Class Groups) was there, providing their support and contributing ideas, like the coordination of workers’ struggles across industries in the area.

The pressure on the workers has increased in the past few days, with threats of removal. “The Ministry of Labor allows all of these attacks by the bosses,” said the workers. “They let them pressure us so that we’ll stop striking and the bosses can sell their products. They’re all defending the interests of the multinational Techint.”

In the last few hours, the conflict has been on hold, but the struggle continues, according to the workers who are calling for support from workers’ and social movements.

Virtual Layoffs, Physical Occupations

Last week, the workers of the multinational SwissJust in Lomas el Mirador were called to a meeting on Zoom. They thought it was just another meeting, but, in fact, they were “virtually” being laid off. The company informed them that it would outsource its work to a warehouse in the far-away district of Escobar, if anyone was interested. “These are mass layoffs that they’re trying to pass off as outsourcing,” said Ivan, one of the workers. Three accepted and the other 50 decided to occupy the plant. “The workers rejected the proposal,” they said.

After 7 days of peacefully occupying the plant and spreading the word about the bosses’ attempt to lay them off, a mandatory conciliation process was imposed and the company was ordered to back down. But they know they can’t let their guard down, because the company is still planning on making cuts.

 VIP Vaccinations versus Struggling Nurses

The news that a group of privileged people skipped the line to get vaccinated at the Ministry of Health was just another example of how class conflicts are being laid bare by the pandemic. At the same time, health workers were struggling against the shutdown of the San Andrés Clinic in the district of Tres de Febrero, which serves 18,000 retirees and many Covid patients.

In response to the shutdown, the workers decided in February to enter the clinic and organize a permanent assembly there. They have also been organizing roadblocks and protests. The silence from the health workers’ union, led by Héctor Daer, is deafening. The movement is led by a group of brave women, who say that if the owners leave, “we want the State to take charge; we represent 144 families.” How could the clinic be closing down in the middle of a health crisis? La Izquierda Diario, the sister publication to Left Voice,  has been covering this conflict on a daily basis.

We Must Lose Our Fear, Challenge the Status Quo and Struggle against Austerity

In 2020, the country was rocked by the eviction of two thousand families who had occupied land in the district of Guernica and were demanding “land to live.”  They were part of the working class that was living and working in the most precarious conditions, the first to be left out on the streets during the health crisis.

They were evicted from their homes, left with nothing to feed their children, and were forced to go live under a bridge. So they decided to challenge the laws of private property, those that protect the owners of country houses (who are often business owners).

The year ended with dozens of conflicts for wage increases across the country. Some business owners might have thought that the holidays were a good time to take a bigger piece of the wealth pie. They were wrong.

February was a month of intense action. Workers from different industries launched fierce struggles in defense of workers’ health in the subway, against layoffs and salary freezes at airlines, the Roca railway company, the electricity company Edesur and the delivery company Pedidos Ya. Teachers have also been organizing for safe classroom conditions and there have been innumerable conflicts in the health care sector.

But the conflicts covered in this article are a sign of something new and powerful: the decision to occupy companies or block access to them, in response to shutdowns or mass layoffs. These are methods that have been historically used by the working class and are now being implemented by sectors that are relatively new to workers’ actions, like in Ramallo or Tres de Febrero.

We are also witnessing the development of grassroots democracy and organization, which we had already seen in workers’ conflicts last year (involving drivers, rural workers, teachers, health care workers and call center employees) as a way to make decisions and wage workers’ battles. This trend is closely linked to the fight against the union bureaucracy.

This is an encouraging development, especially considering that, although the current economic and social crisis has already taken a devastating toll on working people, it has not yet reached its peak, as the capitalists themselves anticipate. The situation is reminiscent of the late 90s, when the country’s deep economic and social crisis led to the first workers’ occupations and the first companies were placed under workers’ control.

In this way, the struggles we’ve witnessed in the past few weeks are like “memories of the future.” While they’re only just starting and there will inevitably be setbacks, they are proof that something is already beginning to change.

The Movement of Working Class Groups and the Red de Precarixs e informales (Network of Precarious and Informal Workers) have been supporting these conflicts. La Izquierda Diario is there, giving a platform to these voices. With humility but with great pride, we can contribute our experience in defense of our jobs, which led to the establishment of workers control in companies like MadyGraf, Zanon and Cerámica Neuquén.

We also learned many lessons from the workers’ occupations at Kraft, PepsiCo, and other companies, in response to massive layoffs.

These actions were taken to put in practice the best working-class traditions and the program of the revolutionary left in defense of the working class against capitalist austerity. They are also a way to bring each of those experiences into the arsenal  in the fight for a workers’ solution to the crisis.

This article was originally published on La Izquierda Diario on February 28, 2021

Translator Marisela Trevin