Out in the Cold in the Land of Fire

When we arrived in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, in March 2016, it was the site of a huge workers uprising. Possibly the first large scale movement to challenge Macri´s government, it highlighted the flaws in past foreign policy and demonstrated to us the  strength of organised labour in Argentina.

 

One of the things we’re doing on our trip is avoiding travelling by air. This means two things : spending a lot of time on buses, and travelling by road. The first journey we deliberately took by bus instead of plane was Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Ushuaia is the most southerly accessible town in the world. Otherwise more dramatically known as ‘El Fin del Mundo’, or, ‘The End of the World’.

Waking up on the second morning of our bus journey we noticed something was wrong. We were stationary on a motorway in the dark. Hooded men were blocking the road with pickup trucks and stoking a large fire made out of tires. No-one on the bus seemed to be concerned, so we sat tight and waited for the situation to develop. The image through the window was distorted by raindrops, but it was clear the men were here to stay. Friends were arriving in more pickup trucks, shaking hands and adding vehicles to the blockade.

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“They’re protesting for jobs” we were told by a man who hopped into a taxi shortly after. We would have to wait three border crossings and two more buses for a more detailed explanation.

Approaching Ushuaia, fifty hours after leaving Buenos Aires, we passed a line of buses, cars, trucks and HGVs that stetched for over a kilometre. Ushuaia is a quiet town with log cabin style buildings and a reputation for great natural beauty, expeditions to Antarctica and the opportunity to have your photo taken with a sign proving how far south you have come. Our first impression was of oil drum fires, large white canvas tents, huge pots of food steaming in close-to-freezing temperatures and union flags with different colours and symbols being whipped by the wind. Laura, a secondary school art teacher and member of the teachers union caught our curious gaze and offered some context.

At our time of arrival over twenty unions were present at the blockade. The blockade was quite recent, but there was an occupation outside the local government building that had been in force for just over three weeks. The local government had introduced a law which effected all workers in the public sector, and reduced their salaries and holiday pay, and had increased the pension age, in some cases from 45 to 60. The reason behind the drastic changes is the local government deficit, currently standing at 40 million Argentinian pesos, and the refusal from President Macri´s national government to help finance local deficits.

For many years people in Tierra del Fuego received good in-work benefits. Previous Argentinian governments sought to increase the Argentinian population in Tierra del Fuego by making it more attractive to workers . This was seen as a strategic investment, and is linked to a history of complicated border relations with Chile. Chile and Argentina share the third longest international border in the world (3,300 miles), most of which constitutes the resource rich, tourist haven of Patagonia, a strong earner for both states and a source of dispute. Hostilities flared in 1978 with the deployment of troops, an extension of borders and placement of landmines, although relations have improved since the fall of the militaristic Argentinian junta in 1983. However, citizens who moved for a better life are now suffering the harsh reality of incompetent foreign relations and knee-jerk economic policy.

The package of laws was introduced with no warning and no consultation, and implemented during a school holiday. Many returned to their jobs to find their incomes, work-life balance and futures dramatically changed, and a public sector strike of truck drivers, teachers, civil servants, health workers and many more syndicates was enacted soon afterwards. The people we spoke to were aware of the need to negotiate the pension age, but were shocked at the number of workers rights that had been stripped quite literally overnight. 

Their demand – to talk to the local government officials and renegotiate the terms of the cuts.

The response – the local government representatives had fled to Buenos Aires rather than dicuss the matter.

The protest repetoire developed quickly and integrated various tactics, including road blocks, petitions and silent candlelit marches of thousands of workers. Initially the unions had blocked access to the airport. Then they formed a 24 hour protest outside the government offices in city centre, and set up a blockade at the entrance of the town – the only way in or out. At first resticting access to the town for thirty minutes, they gradually increased the time people were forced to wait to make more of an impact. While we were there, they decided to let vehicles through in short bursts every four hours. Many drivers sounded their horns and cheered in support as they drove past. A number of weeks later in El Chalten we spoke with a couple travelling in a 4×4 who had arrived a week or two after we had, who waited 24 hours. They had spoken with a bus driver who waited 36 hours.

It was an incredible experience for us to be present in this site of political contention. It was amazing to see labour organised in such a way as to prevent the bloodlines of capital flowing comfortably through the country, and to keep the motivation and discipline high. There is something about the landscape and development of infrastructure in and around towns and small cities in South America that makes a road blockade a very effective form of direct action – often there is only one or two roads giving access. However, when we visited the occupation outside the government building we were given a more sobering insight into what ‘going on strike’ can mean.

The scene was similar to the town entrance; shelter, fire and food cooking, but there seemed to be more children present. Laura had told us that all of the schools were closed during the strike, and we spoke to a couple who were there with their son. Both were without work. The father was taking odd jobs on the black market, but could only earn half of what their rent cost in a month with this precarious employment. They had both been without reliable pay for over three weeks. Both were committed to continue the strike and they hoped that private sector workers would soon join the struggle – after all, as they explained, if the public sector workers have reduced wages, or no wages, then the local businesses would suffer – but they were feeling the strain.

Many protesters we spoke to were regretful of the impact their action would have on tourism and the earning ability of the town , but felt they had no choice but to continue to ensure the well-being of people in the region. It was a reminder of the sacrifice and stress that direct action requires from those involved, and the complexity of issues surrounding organised labour struggle.

 

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