Blocking the Panamericana

A few day ago I made the trek north to observe the Lear workers blocking the Panamericana highway. I decided not to participate largely because there was a significant chance of getting arrested, something I would rather not do in a foreign country only a little more than a week after arriving here. Nonetheless I was able to observe quite an action and take a number of good photos for this blog.

The protest was to be in two parts (although I didn’t know it at the time). First, there was going to be a march along the Panamericana highway. Second, there was going to be a caravan of cars driving slowly to block the road.

I arrived early in the morning alongside my friend Carlos, a member of the PTS who has been introducing me to the political scene here. We were greeted by a lot of riot police, both from the local police force and the national guard, lined up in groups along the road (which made their numbers difficult to convey with pictures). They were equipped with shields, batons, shotguns, attack dogs and, as I would later discover, mace. There was even a police helicopter above.

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As protesters began to arrive we heard that a deal had been struck with the government: So long as the protesters left one lane open the police would leave them alone. This was quite a good deal for the protesters, the government was obviously a little scared and trying to avoid any incidents after the media fiasco of the week before (see post about background). The protesters would essentially still be allowed to carry out the action, make an impact and get media attention without being repressed so long as they made this small concession.

At about 8am two busses arrived on the street and deposited a group of about 200-300 protesters in the street. They waved large banners and started chanting a variety of slogans. Some of their chants were quite long and complex, and being only partially fluent in spanish I was not able to catch all of what they were saying.

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Immediately the police began to surround the protest. Once this was accomplished they began to force the protesters forward using their batons and mace liberally to force the unarmed protesters forward. Protesters sprayed in the face by the mace started to trickle out of the protest to recover. However, not satisfied with this, they then began forcing the protesters off the road. Obviously, they considered that the government promise did not apply to these protesters, since they had left a lane open. Either that, or they were simply breaking the promise. The slow trickle turned into a flood as protesters tried frantically to step over the barrier at the side of the street fast enough.

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The protesters soon rallied and resumed chanting on the side of the road. This continued for a good hour at least until the cars arrived. This time the police left them alone. The cars proceeded to block the road, honking their horns and joining the chants of the protesters at the side of the street.

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All in all, in spite of the police forcing the protesters off of the street the action was quite a success. There was a whole host of media, including at least ten television trucks. Reporters were interviewing protesters at any time they were able, particularly those hit with mace. The highway was essentially blocked twice and the government is clearly somewhat fearful of these protesters.

A further note of interest was that this protest seems to have been organized largely, if not exclusively by the far left. I was told that the majority of the protesters were from the PTS and the PTS clearly had a large hand in organizing this. Their presence in the workplace has paid off significantly here. One of the difficulties that we’ve come across in the US is that members often tend to be scattered in various different workplaces, few if any of which are involved in struggle. I will have to remember to ask exactly how it is that they gained such a presence and influence in LEAR.

But most importantly, this is part of a long term struggle for the workers of LEAR that has a clear strategy and does not in any way seem to be losing momentum. Here is a serious and militant struggle of workers fighting for their rights in the long term. In these ways it reminds me of the hotel worker’s fight back in Providence, where I went to college. However, the workers here feel like they have more power than in Providence. There are more of them, they are organized and they are able to disrupt things.

One final note about the day. After the protest I was invited by a student member of the PTS to a performance of Marx in Soho at the University of Buenos Aires that night. The auditorium could contain 300 people according to the publicity online, and it was packed! The performance was a lot of fun, I highly recommend you see the play if you haven’t had the opportunity yet. Then at the end of the play workers from LEAR and Donnelly came up on stage to talk about their struggle. The event had the clear purpose of getting more people involved in the protests as well as in Marxism. The PTS students were clearly well organized and linked with the workers movement, something that in my experience is pretty rare in the States. My group only really started to get involved in the worker’s struggle last year. There is a lot of organizing to be done on campus, and I’m sure the PTS is doing some of that as well. But a thriving socialist student group must also look outwards to the city and be involved to the fullest extent possible in workers’ struggles there.

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Background

I am a newcomer to Argentina, so I may be missing something, but from the conversations I have had there appear to be two main workers’ struggles in Argentina at the moment: The fight against layoffs in the LEAR automotive seat factory, and the occupation of the Donnelly printing firm.

The LEAR workers appear to be the biggest center of attention. Back in June LEAR fired 200 workers. Though consistent struggle LEAR workers and their allies have managed to get most of these workers reinstated, though 60 of them are still jobless. The police however have been clamping down on the protests however. Most notably, when protesters blocked the Panamericana highway, a relatively typical tactic, the police drove them away by force.

In response to this repression protesters decided to block the highway again. But this time they did so by driving slowly with cars in stead of blocking it with a march. The police tried to disrupt this action in an incident that has now become famous. A policeman jumped on to the windshield of the car of one of the protesters and then fell off in order to pretend to have been run over by the protester. The police then proceeded to drag the protester out and beat him. What they did not know was that the whole incident was being filmed and that the film clearly showed that the whole think was a badly executed setup. The video clip was uploaded to the internet and caused a scandal.

I went to the next protest, which was the first one since I arrived. This march was designed to be non-disruptive as the focus was squarely on the police and so there was no need to give them anything that they could use to deflect attention away from their latest blunder. Nonetheless, I was struck by the high presence of the police at the demonstration, although I was told by my companions that it was nothing exceptional by Argentine standards. They were everywhere! Police in full riot gear lined the march as we advanced, and less heavily armed policemen were to be seen on all sides.

Interestingly, two days ago, Lear workers in the United States also went on strike. They are demanding higher wages from the corporation which has used the crisis as an excuse to cut their wages but has not increased them as the company’s profits have increased. It is at moments like these that international solidarity would be very beneficial. They are both fighting the same company, unifying their demands and struggle would make it that much more difficult for them to be ignored and that much more likely that both would be victorious. Unfortunately however the strike in the States has not, to my knowledge, even noted the existence of the struggle occurring in Argentina.

As for the Donnelly printing firm the story appears simpler. The factory was abandoned by its owners who claimed bankruptcy, though this claim is considered fraudulent by the Argentine government. Workers have taken over the factory and hold general assemblies in order to solve day-to-day problems of running the place as well as fight against attempts by the government to put the factory under a provisional manager or sell it to another company. Interestingly, there is even opposition to working as a cooperative since doing so would mean having to compete with capitalist companies and so have to stoop to their work standards or be competed out of the market. This perspective shows a very high level of class consciousness as well as a deep understanding of the difficulties of workers’ ownership. Their intimacy with worker-owned production comes no doubt from other attempts, successful and failed, to make such situations work in Argentina. However, I would be curious to learn if and how they are hoping to be able to produce without having to compete with capitalist production.