Buenos Aires Subway workers punk capitalist bosses, state, and union leadership, winning major gains

In February 2005, the subway workers of Buenos Aires, Argentina, went on strike demanding an increase in wages amongst other things. This was a successful wildcat strike, conducted democratically by the workers through assemblies and elected delegates, without, for the most part, going through the official leadership or legal structures of the union. Below is a translation by an AS comrade of an article by the Socialist Workers Party of Argentina that tells the story of the victory. Below the translated article is a response by the translator to some possible critiques of the strike that another comrade raised semi-sarcastically. These responses are intended to spur further discussion and debate, so please chime in with your two cents in the comments section.

 AS is not monolithic and we struggle with our positions on many things. We see this as a sign of our openness, lack of dogmatism, and honest search for truth. This translation of an article by a Trotskyist group shows our sympathies for good work with good impacts on the working class’ revolutionary agency, no matter who is behind it, because we are not dogmatic sectarians. While we give props to all organizations and actors who contribute to the growing power of the proletariat, we do theoretically vacillate between support for state-recognized working class organizations like unions and rejection of them as co-opted vehicles that tie the working class to capital even as it appears to make “gains.”

Translated from http://www.pts.org.ar/spip.php?article814

The increases reaches 44% of payroll

Triumph of the Subway Workers

Friday, February 11, 2005

Socialist Workers Party of Argentina (Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas)

Article after the jump!

One can already follow the journey the metro workers accepted yesterday in the agreement that was announced in the middle of the night Wednesday by the UTA. Metrovías conceded 19 percent plus the 100 pesos the it gave the government by decree. With the rest added up, for the delegates the increase was 44 percent.

The subway workers achieved a salary agreement through which they earned 44 percent more than they were earning in December. Through a week of conflict in which services on the five lines and the Premetro ended up totally paralyzed, yesterday they accepted the agreement between Metrovías and the UTA, which set an increase of 19 percent, and they lifted the forceful measures. So you can understand what this means, the salary of a ticket seller will come to be over 1200 pesos, and that of an operator will surpass 2200.

“At the start of the complaint, we said that we wanted to lay the groundwork for future salary discussions. We understand that what was under debate was if the workers had the right to earn a living wage, that would permit access to education and culture,” said the delegates Carlos Pérez and Roberto Pinalli at the announcement of the strike’s end. “If was a difficult conflict, we started to win because we could explain to the public opinion that we weren’t ashamed to have salaries of over 1000 pesos in a country where there are people that make 400. The existence of 400 peso salaries, 300 peso retirements, and managers that make 40,000 pesos is what makes us ashamed.

The improvement adds two great items: on one side the increase drawn up by Metrovias, which will be 19 percent. On the other, the 100 pesos that the Government granted in a general manner, by decree, to all the workers in January. Additionally, it recognizes a bonus of one percent as compensation for unpaid night hours and holidays.

The addition of these benefits implies for the business an increases of more than 12 million pesos in payroll (a 44 percent increase compared to December). As such, from now on the lowest category, that had a salary of 681 pesos, will rise to 910, whereas the highest will go from 1530 to 1921. All the employees will receive, additionally, 200 pesos in ticket credit and 156 as a travel allowance. The seniority bonus will be calculated on a case by case basis for all conductors, with that as such the employee, be he a low-level laborer, will receive a minimum 1921 pesos for each year worked.

The minister of labor, Carlos Tomada, detailed that, “the agreement reached consists of a 19 percent that translates to 250 pesos, which we consider an important increase for the workers of Metrovias”. The explanation is linked to the fact that the magnitude of the wage increase is going to influence future complaints.

The agreement has, finally, two valued points in the sphere of the union: it doesn’t include a social peace clause, and neither does it mention the idea of installing more ticket-selling machines.

The full story:

The conflict between Metrovias and the workers had begun in November. The business is concessionary of service: it manages the functioning of the subways, but it isn’t in charge of capital investments, since the national State buys the trains and the government of Buenos Aires pays for the rail extension projects. The company receives transportation subsidies (last year they were 65 million pesos), despite its claim at the beginning of the complaint that it couldn’t grant salary increases because its balances showed losses.

The plan for struggle was for progressive stoppages. In the final week, services were interrupted three hours per day, then four, five, and finally twenty-four hours. But the tension wasn’t only put on that arm wrestling between Metrovias and the workers (such that to curb the departure of trains laid down on the tracks nine times), but also in the parallel dispute that the delegates maintained with the direction of their union, the Union Tranviarios Automotor (UTA), which is led by Juan Manuel Palacios.

The body of delegates is a combination of leftist independents, peronistas, and militants from MST and from PO. Palacios is the right hand man of the head of the CGT, Hugo Moyano. The delegates, who drove the conflict, had legitimacy in the eyes of the workers, but the UTA, with its status as the union, is the only entity legally authorized to sign agreements. This situation is the cause of friction and episodes of absurd overtones. The final one occurred at midnight that Wednesday. At the end of a day in which all negotiations had failed and a new forty-eight hour stoppage had been announced, Palacios called a press conference and announced in an unexpected manner, that he had arrived at an agreement with the business sector. Consequently, he said, the conflict was ending.

The director was surrounded by his peers from the UTA. “Why aren’t the delegates here?”, asked a reporter. “Not one came”, said Palacios. “But, are they aware of the agreement?”. “We’re just leaving to inform them”, answered Palacios. He had arrived at an agreement in an audience with only Metrovias and the Minister of Labor. From a legal point of view, he had done nothing wrong.

Urgent matters

The body of delegates heard about the new proposal from Metrovias watching the press conference and confirmed the strike. In the subways no one knew that they had signed and there were urgent assemblies in the five strike headquarters, with the people that were nearby being informed of the new development.

At one in the morning the UTA sent a copy of the business proposal to all five subway lines. A group of eight from the union arrived at Virreyes station. The delegates didn’t let them come down, although they agreed to come up to receive it. The delegate Nestor Segovia pointed out,“Its the rank and file and not the union who decides if the agreement is accepted.” A series of subsequent assemblies determined that the offer was favorable. The stoppage was lifted eighteen hours later, at half past seven in the afternoon, after all the shifts and sectors backed the agreement.

But according to the minutes Palacios signed it in a new hearing with Metrovias and the minister of Labor. And there was occasion for a new round of comedy, because the delegates, informed of the meeting, went to one of the offices of the ministry to join in the hearing. Followed by the TV channels and the radio stations, they were at the at the building at 100 Callao street where the final negotiations had been conducted and they didn’t find anyone. The agreement was being signed in the headquarters of the ministry of Labor, on Leandro N. Alem.

During the week that the conflict lasted, the company tried to put emergency services into operation operated by hierarchical personnel, but the trains’ departure was disabled by workers who laid down on the tracks. For this reason, Metrovias presented nine charges to the Ministry of Justice that will now follow their course, since the signed agreement did not foresee the withdrawal of the demands.

One AS comrade:

This is terrible, unions are the left wing of devalorization.

 Reforms and concessions are impossible in today’s crisis.

 Anyway, this is an exceptional example of worker militancy and a fighting union. It can’t be reproduced. They got lucky.

 We really need to smash all value relations, and settle for no less. 

Response by another AS Comrade:

To respond to your devils advocate arguments,

Your points are all false. 

“This is terrible, unions are the left wing of devalorization.” This is false in the case described in the article because the union won a general wage increase, which increases the total wage bill, increasing the valorization of labor power, not devalorizing it as you spuriously assert. Even the workers’ desire to have a wage that affords them ‘education and culture’ is presumably valorized by this victory, an extraordinary victory indeed seeing as education and culture are outside the scope of the simple labor power that is usually exchanged. The union leader and the legal union entity, not the entire union which consists of the delegates and rank and file as well, does play a conservative role, but it is acting more as the right wing of a class conscious proletariat than the left wing of devalorization. I say this because, as the workers were about to launch a 48 hour shutdown of the Subways in Buenos Aires, the official union leader held closed door hearings with the company and the ministry of labor to come to a compromise that greatly favored the workers. In and of itself this isn’t even that conservative, as it sealed the deal on a large victory right when the company was ready to give in. But insofar as the workers were progressing towards proving to the proletariat that they have the power to paralyze capital completely for 2 days, and that was thwarted, this was a conservative stifling of the workers revolutionary agency, not a left wing face for devalorization. Additionally, the agreement was made without the democratic participation of the workers, so it contained the seeds of a Stalinist bureaucracy type degeneration of a revolutionary proletariat, not a liberal degeneration of capital. However, the union itself, meaning its delegates and memberships, were able to continue with their plans to shut down the city until they got each local to vote on the agreement, albeit one made by the union leader behind closed doors, showing that unions are not endemically folded into the left wing of capital, even when their leaders and legal structures are very conservative elements of the right wing of the proletariat, because the mass and body of the union can be the real leading force if it has politically advanced ‘delegates’ and is prepared to shut down the means of production. 

As to the second point, “Reforms and concessions are impossible in today’s crisis.,” this is false in the immediate sense of the example given by the Buenos Aires subway strike because concessions, a 44% increase in payroll, were made. Reforms, i.e. changing the political economic structure, were not made as far as I can see, as the only win was a wage increase. When people say this they usually mean that in the long term, a general trend of reform that allocates increasing power and wages to the working class on average across the whole proletariat over an extended period of time, is impossible. This strike suggests that this is false because workers were able to make the capitalist power structure do something that it didn’t want to do, that went against it’s ‘long term trend.’ But there might be larger macro arguments for ‘impossibility’ that speak to how, in this example, the wage increase comes from government subsidies, which comes from taxes and/or state debt, which comes from profit which has a declining rate and is further removed from real value production, which causes a vicious cycle of economic destruction as fictitious values are circulated etc…. I can’t definitively deal with that one here, but I would say this example proves, concessions are possible and scores two points for reforms. 

As to the third point, “Anyway, this is an exceptional example of worker militancy and a fighting union. It can’t be reproduced. They got lucky.” This example is extraordinary but not exceptional. The political economic conditions that produced this struggle, financial crisis in Argentina, more recent global financial crisis, wages too low to reproduce workers, years of struggle etc. are not exceptional. These are the conditions that workers across the globe are facing, albeit a few years behind the Argentinian curve. So if we hold that worker militancy and fighting unionism are caused by material conditions and subjective intervention, as opposed to particular cultural/psychological peculiarities or random outlier occurrences, then it follows that what occurred in Buenos Aires could occur in many other parts of the globe as material social forces develop in similar ways to how they did in Argentina. What is missing is the subjective intervention, which in this case took the form of a body of delegates who were mostly ‘ a combination of leftist independents, peronistas, and militants from MST and from PO.’ This strike proves that this kind of worker militancy that can be reproduced when the conditions are ripe and militants subjectively intervene at a strategic point in the structure of the working class movement, which is not the leadership or legal rights of the union, but is at the shop floor, above the ‘rank and file’ level, at the ‘delegate’ level, where the actual leadership of class struggle, i.e. shutting down a city and holding mass assemblies of workers, must take place.

The final point you make, ‘we really need to smash all value relations, and settle for no less,’ is also false because it is a fallacy to think that any social reality can appear instantly from nowhere. A thing changes to another thing by going through gradual quantitative changes until those quantitative changes add up to a qualitative changes. For example, for a flower to appear, the level of hormone in the lateral shoot apical meristem must reach a critical quantitative level before the shoot irreversibly takes on the identity of a floral shoot. And the length of the night had to change by quantitative increments until it reaches that critical level where the plant makes just the right amount of hormone to induce flowering. Not to mention that the plant had to go through many other forms, from being the seed of an earlier plant, to germination, to vegetative growth and so on before it could get to flowering. To put it simply, change requires both a quantitative and qualitative aspect, and current value relations must change incrementally until they become something qualitatively different, or else something else besides value relations must be incrementally changed into communist relations of production. But even in the latter case, value cannot be smashed instantaneously, just as a building cannot be reduced to rubble instantaneously. To destroy anything requires a series, be it fast or slow, of quantitative changes that eventually produce the phenomenon we perceive as a qualitative change. When a piece of iron rusts and falls apart, it takes the oxidation of billions of Fe2+ atoms over months or years that eventually ‘destroy’ the iron, when really it has just turned to dust. When a bomb explodes it requires a series of chemical reactions that incrementally build up heat and pressure, albeit very quickly, until the container goes through the qualitative change of bursting open and sending forth shrapnel and hot gas at high velocities. So even if we seek to destroy value, we must do so my increments until the regulation of resource allocation by the exchange of equivalent congelations of socially necessary labor time is nothing but a memory or the subject of artists’ reflection. The challenge for us is to know what those increments are! And to chip them away as quickly as possible. 

 In solidarity,

An AS comrade

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