Argentinas unemployed continue their struggle

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The cries from the street, “Piqueteros Unidos!” could be heard all over town. On Dec. 20, over 50,000 “piqueteros” (picketers), unemployed workers known for organizing highly effective roadblock protests, filled the streets of the nation’s capital. They were marching on the third anniversary of a popular uprising that forced the resignation of four presidents in a span of two weeks.

The piquetero movement erupted in 2001 in response to a 25 percent unemployment rate caused by a government privatization drive and its neoliberal “free trade” policies during the 1990s. Alongside the piqueteros, many laid-off workers returned to their closed, bankrupt factories and began operating them on their own. Not since the 1920s had Argentina seen such a massive popular uprising.

“Today there are nine national piquetero groups, and dozens more on the local level,” said Martin Sequeira, a student organizer from Buenos Aires.

One of the nationwide groups is the Movimiento Territorial Liberacion (MTL). The MTL started out in 2001 by occupying buildings and staging roadblocks on major highways, demanding jobs and housing. After a three-year struggle, the Buenos Aires MTL finally forced the city government to grant them a 20-year loan to build a large urban housing complex in an abandoned industrial center.

The city’s MTL is now able to pay 250 of its members to build the 330-unit apartment complex. The construction process involves a mix of physical labor and political education, with regular discussions about social issues among all the workers. One-third of the construction workers are women, almost all of whom had never worked in construction before. When the structure is completed in August 2006, many of its builders will be able to move in.

The MTL is characteristic of many piquetero groups that have established projects that self-employ their members while simultaneously providing useful facilities to the community. Other piquetero groups have opened local barter networks, produce cooperatives, soup kitchens, flea markets, a printing press, and a bread factory.

Another response to the Argentine unemployment crisis has been the “recuperation,” or occupation, of bankrupt factories by their workers. In response to the economic crisis of 2001, hundreds of factories shut their doors. Many workers, having no other option, occupied their factories and continued producing, even under threat of eviction and arrest.

Now, over 200 “recovered enterprises” are functioning in Argentina as worker-run cooperatives, including a hotel, printing press, and factories producing ice cream, aluminum, tiles, balloons, washing machines, bread sticks, chocolate, and suits.

Candido, a member of the Chilavert printing press cooperative, explained how the workers occupied the press and continued printing, even under threat of eviction. “We had to keep security around all the time to keep from having our equipment removed by the police,” he said.

“We would take orders for books and print them and then deliver them through a small window in the building during this time,” Candido said. The Chilavert workers also received considerable support from the workers at IMPA, a locally recovered aluminum cooperative, who sent 100 members to the press when the police were threatening to raid the occupied building.

The takeovers have often been rocky. Former bosses have firebombed their own plants or otherwise tried to sabotage production. Many of the relationships with vendors of raw materials and buyers are severed when management leaves. As a result, workers must train to take over management responsibilities, which many times translates into the boss’s former secretary becoming the point person for all vendor-customer relationships.

Carlos Chile of the MTL said an even larger problem of workplace organization exists. “We are trying to learn how to construct a counterculture where we report to no boss and where we relate to each other on an equal level,” he said. This is difficult because workers are still living within a larger culture that continues to operate in the traditional worker-boss relationship.

The future of both the piqueteros movements and the recovered enterprises movements is uncertain. There’s been some infighting between organizations over issues like whether to accept government welfare checks and whether to support President Nestor Kirchner.

Nevertheless, these evolving movements show that a creative worker-led response to neoliberal economic policies can achieve successes. And, as the march of 50,000 on Dec. 24 shows, they are still a force to be reckoned with.