Reports from Argentina
Posted: Jan. 30 2003, 19:52My story begins on Tuesday at noon. I was with Carlos in his apartment copying the documentaries from Contra-Imagen onto my camera. On the news there was a report about a supermarket that had been occupied by its employees.
The supermarket was somewhere in the "Northern Zone" of Buenos Aires, outside of the city limits but within the metropolitan area. I asked how I could get there, but Carlos assured me I would get lost if I tried to go by myself, which in hindsight is probably true. So he put me in contact with Pablo, an activist from IndyMedia Argentina, who was going that afternoon.
I called Pablo and we met in the center of Buenos Aires. First we went to a Piquetero demonstration in front of the Ministry of Labour. The CCC (Corriente Combativa y Clasista; Combative and Class-based Current, piquetero organization of the maoist PCR) and the MTR (Movimiento Teresa Rodriguez; Teresa Rodriguez Movement, piquetero movement started by former guerilla leaders) had convoked at least 10,000 people to demand more and better subsidies for Argentina's six million unemployed. Currently the government provides two million "plans for the heads of families", which is 150 pesos (about $35) per month per family. The problem with this system is that it only reaches about half of all unemployed people, and even those who get a plan cannot support an entire family with just over one dollar a day.
But this is really a different story. I'll tell you guys about the piqueteros another day.
San Cayetano supermarkets is a chain with at least 50 stores throughout the Northern Zone of the Buenos Aires. It has its headquarters in Virreyes, a working-class neighborhood 30 kilometers north of the city center. The headquarters is a big building with a supermarket, administrative offices, and the warehouse for the whole chain.
This supermarket was occupied by sixty former employees on Monday night. These people had worked in the supermarket for months but had received almost no money.
All the workers had a salary 300 or 400 pesos a month, but the company never paid it. Some weeks they got five or ten pesos, other weeks they got nothing at all. And on top of that they often had to work eighteen hours a day, five days a week! The business claimed that the whole chain was in a financial crisis and there was simply no money on hand to pay salaries; this crisis didn't mean the owner had to give up his mansion or his three European sports cars, of course.
It is hard to say what made the workers stay there. The situation in Argentina is so desperate – unemployment is well over 25% – that people fight for any job at all, even one that pays virtually nothing. Every worker knows that no matter how bad his job may be, there are fifty other people waiting outside who would take it in a second. Having a job where there is at least the prospect of getting paid is better than no job at all.
San Cayetano recently entered into bankruptcy and as a result fired more than half of its employees. The business still owed these workers hundreds and in some cases up to two thousand pesos. And now the workers found that the 100 pesos that had been taken from their salaries every month, supposedly for social security and pensions, had in reality never been paid, so they couldn't collect any kind of subsidy.
Now the workers had no illusions about continuing to work and waiting for their salaries – they wanted the money that was owed to them and wouldn't accept any more excuses.
So Monday night, before the supermarket closed, sixty of these former employees entered the store and refused to leave until they were paid. Many more came to support the action but the police blocked everything off and prevented people from entering or leaving. This got quite a bit of attention in the media: all the major news programs ran stories and several papers had front-page headlines about the "Maximum Tension in the Supermarket."
The management of San Cayetano realized they couldn't just arrest and/or kill all the workers. They invented stories about the supermarket being looted, but these were all proven false by the TV crews on the scene. Everyone was sympathetic with the workers' cause – after all, they had no radical demands, they just wanted to collect their salaries.
So the managers spent the whole next day negotiating with the workers who were occupying the store. By afternoon they were able to come to an agreement: they would pay 60% of the salaries now, and the other 40% in a few weeks. In exchange the workers had to leave the supermarket and sign a form giving up their rights to a 200-peso indemnization for being fired without notice.
Pablo and I got to Virreyes at five o'clock. The supermarket was empty and had been completely sealed off by the police. The workers who had been occupying the store had already collected their money and gone home.
The problem was that only 60 employees had participated in the occupation. There were hundreds more who had also lost their jobs and wanted to collect their unpaid salaries. These workers hadn't occupied the supermarket and therefore weren't included in the agreement.
They didn't have the best bargaining chip: the supermarket itself. All they had was the possibility of picketing the supermarket and shutting down the warehouse and thus the whole chain. So that's what they did. The workers, along with their families, the youth movement ¡NO PASARÁN!, the PTS, the MTL and the Polo Obrero (piqueteros movements of the Partido Comunista and the Partido Obrero, respectively), independent activists, and a number of journalists, stayed in the street to demand their money. As night fell lots of people had to go home, but at least thirty spent the night in the street to show that we would not give up.
The night wasn't too exciting. We talked a lot, played fútbol with pieces of trash, discussed strategy for the next day, and generally wasted time. The supermarket was closed anyway, so the police had no reason to attack us. And they had blocked off the street with their cruisers, so we weren't bothered by traffic. Around 4 AM I went to sleep right on the asphault with my head on my backpack. That actually wasn't as bad as it sounds – I slept fine until six or seven in the morning.
The next day is when the struggle began for real. Now the supermarket had a problem, since the store and the warehouse were blocked off. It was clear that the whole chain would fall apart if the warehouse was closed for too long.
Throughout the morning more and more workers kept arriving. By 9 AM there were at least a hundred demanding their money, with fifty more activists supporting them.
We tried to make as much noise as possible to get our message across to the people inside the headquarters: we clapped, yelled, and banged pots and pans, and a few workers found metal rods to bang on the supermarket's sign post*, a sound which could be heard several blocks away. As the hours progressed our rythm got better, so that by the afternoon we could do some really cool STOMP-style percussion.
Around 10 AM the president of the company came down to talk to the workers. I had seen this guy on the news the day before and can certify that both on TV and in person this fucker is the most slimy bastard you can possibly imagine. He assured all the journalists that the company wanted to help all the workers and their families and make sure that everyone got the money they deserved, before condescendingly telling the workers that they were only creating problems for themselves by protesting – the best solution would be to go home and let the business take care of everything.
Of course no one fell for this. The workers picked five delegates to go up and negotiate with the managers. Meanwhile our percussion concert continued, that is until one of the delegates came down and told us to shut up because they couldn't negotiate over all the noise.
After half an hour the delegates came back down and presented management's offer: a limited amount of merchandise from the supermarket and an unemployment subsidy from the government of 150 pesos a month! These people were owed 1,500 pesos and were supposed to walk away with some cooking oil and a welfare check! Now I know this was just management's "first offer," but it's still totally ridiculous.
Let's try to imagine this situation in reverse. If a worker owes hundreds of dollars to a supermarket but only offers a few pencils and a nickel, he'd be thrown in jail! Nonetheless, there were armed police pressuring the workers to accept management's "offer." But the workers were in perfect agreement: they had come to collect their money and wouldn't leave without it.
We made a lot of noise to demand that the managers come down and keep negotiating. They had promised to return after half an hour, but hours and hours passed and we didn't even catch of glimpse of them.
It was obvious that management was trying to tire the workers out. But more activists from B!NO PASARCN! and other organizations kept arriving, as did more journalists, so the noise and the protest continued. It was a long afternoon, a lot of people sat down in the shade to doze, talk, or read, but everyone knew they were going to stay there as long as it took.
Some workers got three old tires from a store down the street and set them on fire in the middle of the road. It was just a few feet from the stains left by the tires that were burned the previous day. By some coincidence or perhaps act of god all the smoke went directly towards the headquarters, which stained the building and caused a good laugh. Even though this didn't serve any real purpose, since the street was already blocked off by the police, it looked really cool and brought people's spirits up. It made management realize that we took this fight seriously.
Right at that moment the police decided to step up their tactics. First they called in the firefighters to put out the tire fire.
Then came a naked provocation: they pulled back their cruisers that were blocking the street, so we had to go out to block it ourselves. We were about to light up more tires to block the street in both directions, but at that moment we saw the police in the parking lot getting ready to repress: they got out their shields and grabbed their shotguns.
In the end we removed the tires, but a police captain came to the gate and told us that blocking the street was illegal. That street had been blocked continuously for two days, mostly by the police themselves! Nonetheless he told us that if we didn't leave it open to traffic they would attack.
The workers were angry: they kept telling the police that they didn't want to create trouble, they just wanted to collect their money and then they would leave. The police captain said "look, I'm not from this business, I can't say when they're going to pay." I yelled out from the crowd "If you aren't from this business, why are you working for them?" He had no answer.
Four or five hours had passed and there was still no sign of the managers. An assembly was held and we talked about a small branch of the supermarket which was just twenty blocks down the street. Some workers wanted to go there and occupy that store, since occupying supermarkets seemed like an effective tactic. Others argued that it was more important to keep blocking the headquarters and the warehouse.
In the end it was decided to send a delegation of eight compañeros to the other supermarket but stay at the headquarters. After the delegation left it was just half an hour until we got the news: the employees of that supermarket, together with the workers of the delegation, had occupied the store and expelled the manager! I had never expected that tactic to work so well.
It turns out those workers were owed hundreds of pesos by the company as well. They still had their jobs, but they could see which way the wind was blowing. They decided to take a stand before they lost their jobs and lost the chance to occupy a store.
The managers tried the same tactic again: they wanted to reach an agreement with the workers who were occupying the other supermarket and leave out the rest. But by now all the workers had learned the importance of solidarity. From the small branch twenty blocks away we got the message that those workers would not reach any agreement that didn't include the workers at the headquarters as well.
Around this time I decided I had to go. I had been at the supermarket for more than 24 hours. I was terribly sunburned, hungry, and tired. Of course I was interested to see how the conflict would turn out, but I simply didn't have the energy to stay there.
I left with three girls who were heading back to Buenos Aires. Before we reached the train station we found yet another branch of San Cayetano and decided to check it out. There weren't any customers in the store and only a few employees. We started to talk to them and they were also owed hundreds of pesos. They hadn't heard much about what was going on at the other two supermarkets, but they said they would be ready to occupy their supermarket if the protestors sent a delegation. As we left the supermarket two men with ties were giving us the evil eye and one of them was talking on a cell phone. I think management knew what we were up to – I shouldn't have worn my "I AM A COMMUNIST" shirt.
We called a comrade who was still at the headquarters and told them to send a delegation. Then we got on the train and that is just about the last thing I know about the situation.
Yesterday night on the news I saw that the workers were still blocking the headquarters and had burned more tires. Then I called a comrade who had stayed at the protest, and he said a lot of the activists had moved to the small supermarket down the street to keep the police from kicking everyone out.
Today I haven't seen any news and I haven't been able to reach any of the comades of that region. I could go there again, but I can already feel the skin tumors sprouting up on the back of my neck. It takes me over two hours to get there and I'm not sure I'm up for another 24 hours of picketing.
All in all, though, it was a great experience. The workers were so comitted and so energetic, I'm sure they will force management to meet there demands.
TWO SEMI-MARXIST CONCLUSIONS:
1) This is one situation where we can see how desperately Argentina needs a revolutionary mass workers' party. The workers at the supermarket had no revolutionary perspectives: they just wanted their money and they would go home. Some of the activists tried to interject our slogans, such as "protect the source of jobs," "nationalize businesses that fire their employees," "expropriate the expropriators," etc., and while certain workers adopted these slogans, most could not picture a solution that was outside the bounds of the capitalist system. With this type of spontaneous demonstrations and minimum demands we managed to occupy two stores and oblige management to pay some of the money it owed. A revolutionary workers party could have organized workers from the whole chain to occupy all fifty stores and re-open them under workers' control. That, of course, is the only solution to the crisis.
2) For me this represents a new stage of capitalism. Leon Trotsky established that in the 1930's capitalism entered into it's "death agony," the phase where it could no longer expand and thus would systematically destroy itself, and the world along with it. Capitalism was no longer able to grant concessions to the workers in order to keep the peace in this system of exploitation – in fact, it couldn't even maintain the concessions it had made earlier. This meant cuts in the standard of living, social protection, government services, etc. Since the proletariat was never able to overthrow capitalism, it's death agony continues. The phenomenon in Argentina represents the next level: The Argentinian bourgeoisie will not even give salaries to the working class in exchange for their labour. Thus the proletariat is reduced to slavery – they are forced to work in exchange for nothing at all. There is no logic at all protecting the system, no theory of "free enterprise" justifies this. The only reason the bourgeoisie can stay on top is because they pay a well-armed police and a better-armed army to protect them.
– Dzhon Rid
Pictures of the protest from Pablo at IndyMedia Argentina:
* the workers banging on the sign post can be seen in picture #3
does somebody want to post this on IndyMedia? unfortunately i don't know my way around too well in the IndyMedia universe. still, it seems like it would make an interesting story. Lukas, I'm thinking this would be a good job for you.