light at the end of the tunnel

by Alix Arnold, from ILA no. 333, March 2010 – translation by friends of The Commune

Underground Rail Transport in Buenos Aires:
Successful Struggles against the consequences of privatisation

At the peak of the economic crisis in Argentina, workers demanded – and secured – a six-hour day, citing the hazardous nature of the work. In 2005 they fired the starting gun to a wave of wage strikes in Argentina by enforcing a 44 per cent wage increase. After that the workers of the Subte (short for subterraneo: underground trains) made sure that their casualised work-mates in the cleaning and security services would also benefit from these gains. All these struggles would not have been possible with the old union apparatus. After years of underground organising efforts the Metrodelgados have established a new union.

“I guess I will never forget the strike of the 28th of May 1997. I am more and more convinced about this: The strike against the redundancies was the mother of all battles. I think everything else which happened afterwards would not have been possible if we had lost at that point. We would not have been able to lead those struggles, particularly the great struggle which re-enforced the six-hour day.

“Back then I worked part-time at the Subte. On that particular day I had to rush from my other job to arrive at the Miserere station, but I felt rather worried. Only one thing was on my mind: Did Virginia manage to stop the trains? I ran down the steps, nearly fell, arrived on the platform. I saw a train standing still and over the loudspeaker I heard the announcement that traffic had been disrupted – I started crying like a little boy. This strike was a direct result of our organising activities which we have undertaken as clandestine as possible. It was the result of a collective effort of militant workers. We had managed to build a network of active workers, though initially only amongst the workers at the ticket counters. After this strike the arbitrary dismissals ceased, which had happened on a daily basis since privatisation. Today we can see with pride: this is what we have achieved”.

This is a quote of Flavio Baigorria from Virginia Bouvet’s book A spectre is haunting the Subte (1). The title refers to the spectre evoked in the Communist Manifesto, but also to a legend about Line A of the Subte, the first underground railway in Latin America, which opened in 1913. To travel on this line is like a travel through time: You travel in antiqu coaches with wood panels, passing stations with historical decor. Between the two ‘half’ stations Pasco and Alberti (which only serve one direction each), the coach light becomes temporarily defunct. If you look out of the window at that particular instant – so they say – you can a ghost station and two workers sitting at the edge of the platform: Two dead workers, Giuseppe and Leonardo, migrants from Italy, who were buried alive by an landslide while working on the construction of the station. The station has never been finished.

“Virigina has written the book, but it is the history of all people working at Subte, about the best fifteen years of our conscious life, when we were no longer ’employees of the company’, but when we had reclaimed our identity as workers, our dignity, which had been rendered unrecognisable by neoliberalism and privatisation”. Beto Pianelli, like Virginia and Flavo, belongs to the Metrodelgados, those delegates who have organised themselves independently and against the bureaucratic Peronist union UTA and who have won more and more influence among the work-force. The little book about the struggles in the privatised Subte is directed, last but not least, at the own work-mates. It has been published in a third edition of 1,000 copies (via the ‘occupied’ and self-managed print-shop Chilavert).

The Subte had been nationalised since the 1950s, until the wave of privatisation in the 1990s. On 1st January 1994 the corporation Metrovias took over. Out of 3,643 workers only 1,100 continued working, the others were dismissed. The old collective contract was abolished, wages were cut and working-times increased. The cleaning and security services and the main chunk of maintenance work were sub-contracted to other companies. By hiring new people the work-force was re-shuffled. The enterprise started with 2,200 workers, out of which only 1,600 had the same contractual conditions. The management felt safe: The dictatorship had left fatal traces within the workers’ movement, the increasing group of unemployed was still largely subdued and a strike at the railways against privatisation had ended in defeat. But with the newly hired batch of workers the Metrovias had swallowed an unruly inner-enemy. While the union UTA churned out the usual slogans “We cannot do anything about it”, the organising started from below.

In 1996 a group of militant workers decided to stand as independent candidates for the works-council elections. When two of them were dismissed they organised a demonstration – this was the first time they came out in action. This was unsuccessful, but it was a start. In the same year the Metrovias announced an internal re-location scheme for 500 ticket sellers. Traditionally these workers used to work on those lines closest to their place of residence. The workers assumed that with the internal re-location the management intended to break up their recently established connections. 150 workers came to an assembly. They printed thousands of stickers, making their miserable working conditions public in trains and stations. They were not able to prevent the re-locations – but their anger had found a collective expression.

On 20th February 1997, three years after privatisation, the first strike kicked off at 5:15 am on Line E after a driver had been sacked. The union UTA first tried to sweep the issue aside: workers were supposed to wait for the results of a meeting with the management the following day. None of the work-mates had ever been on strike, but after a discussion in the break-room they decided to take the risk. They prevented the attempt of a superior to get the trains in motion by blockading the tracks. From 9am onwards the other four lines joined the strike. The same afternoon an arbitration meeting took place at the Ministry of Labour. The dismissed worker was re-instated. When three months later a female ticket seller was supposed to be kicked out for unexcused absence from work, the idea of the strike had already established itself. This dismissal was itself also prevented.

“A few days after the May strike I collected signatures for a water-dispenser in the ticket booths, as there had been no drinking water before. Out of 101 workers on this Line, 80 signed the petition. Two weeks later Metrovias installed the first water dispenser at the station Primera Junta and in less than a month there were water dispensers in all Lines and work-shops.” (Virginia)

After that the wooden chairs in the ticket booths were replaced by upholstered chairs and for the first time the company provided soap and loo rolls in the toilets. The repression eased. Superiors would not even ask for reasons when some work-mates did not turn up during the days after the strike. But there was a back-lash as well. When workers struck against the dismissal of a colleague in 1999, Metrovias answered by dismissing 200 more workers. Workers managed to negotiate the re-instatement of the 200 workers, but the dismissed driver had to go – a bitter experience.

In 2000 Argentina collapsed in crisis, and the protests throughout the country increased. After the works-council election in September the independent faction obtained the majority for the first time. In February 2001 Metrovias announced to cut all jobs of ticket conductors on Line B. UTA in turn proclaimed that any resistance against the cuts would be crazy. And again, the “crazy folks” win: after a conflict of 110 days – including strikes and threats of dismissals – they won.

Within the workforce of the Subte there had been discussions for some time about the hazardous working conditions – noise, dust, graphite – and a new demand, the six-hour day. In 1946, under president Peron, the six-hour day had been granted due to the health-risk. During the dictatorship of 1966 working-times were increased to seven hours. During the 1970s it was reduced to six hours and the military rule post-1976 re-introduced the seven-hours. After the retreat of the military junta, workers enforced the six-hour day in 1984 by going on strike. Until privatisation: Since then people had to work eight-hours – the longest hours since 1945 and longer even than during the dictatorship.

The delegates handed in a petition at the city hall, asking to declare their work as hazardous. The work-mates had good arguments for this demand, which seemed rather unfit for the predominant crisis-austerity logic of the time: Better health for the workers, more safety for the passengers and more work for the unemployed. The sedated old union did not like all this activism. Time and again physical confrontations with the thugs of the UTA erupted. In August 2002 their claim was approved by the city hall, as hundreds of Subte cheered and celebrated workers in front of the building. Too soon though: one month later the mayor Ibarra issued his veto. When the claim was reviewed fights broke out in parliament, and a ticket conductor was left with a bad head injury after a police attack.

Despite the official no-strike obligation the work-mates stopped running trains at Subte. Later on they chased Ibarra during his election campaign and disturb his stage-shows. Thousands of Piqueter@s [unemployed workers] occupied the stations and distribute leaflets for the six-hours day. It was not easy to establish this collaboration with the unemployed. The time of unity between “piquete and cacerola” – between the urban poor and the middle-class threatened by social demise – which had emerged during the uprising of December 2000, was already over.

In September 2003 the hazardous conditions at Subte were officially acknowledged, but only for two thirds of the workforce. The UTA was quick to inscribe this division in a collective agreement: The ticket booth workers were supposed to work seven hours. Apart from that the union gave its approval for the introduction of the contested ticket machines. This lead to the fiercest strike so far. For four days all five Lines of the Subte were blockaded and occupied. “This was one of my most important experiences. The strike was incredible. We spent day and night together at the workplace, a place where over years day by day we had dragged ourselves to, in order to do monotonous jobs to earn us a living, because we depend on the wage. And all of a sudden we were all there together, voluntarily, for other aims, which we had set ourselves. We organised ourselves without bosses, we had equal rights. We reacted together to this unexpected situation, we exchanged ideas and opinions. It was incredible to see how solidarity and comradeship grew these days, how the best surfaced in each one of us. This was a common experience of practiced freedom, an experience which still exists.” (Claudia Salud)

The six-hour day was enforced for everyone and the introduction of ticket machines was prevented. The next – larger – conflict was about wages. At the end of 2004 they raised the modest demand of a 53 per cent wage increase. The company agitated against the ‘high waged employees’, who already earned more than other workers. The work-mates counter-argued that it is not about survival, but a good life. Thus the scandal is not that they earn so much, but that other workers and pensioners get way too little.

On posters they publicised the wages of managers and company profits. The Subte is used by one and a half million passengers a day. Conflicts automatically become public and for many people strikes cause considerable troubles. But the work-mates showed how to organise a strike in the public service sector without harming the users. They struck at the ticket-booths and opened the turnstile, so that everyone was able to travel free. Thanks to such actions – both thanks to a clever means of making their struggles public, and thanks to their determination – the Subte workers gained wide sympathy. The result of this conflict was 44 per cent increase on average and 53 per cent for the lower waged workers. This was the beginning of a strike wave in Argentina. There were more wage disputes in 2005 than in any other year during the last quarter-century. During that time the subcontracting of work was also put to a halt.

In the cleaning companies the work-mates still worked eight to eleven hours per day. In support of the Subte delegates they took their first strike, at Christmas 2004. By March 2005 the workers of the cleaning company Taym had won their incorporation in the Subte collective contract. Other subcontracted companies followed.

After all the bad experiences with UTA the Metrodelegados decided in 2008 to establish their own union, allowing more transparency, more participation and common decisions. Instead of 21 delegates as there were before there are now 100, and 300 additional work-mates are active in various committees. After a referendum in February 2009 nearly 70 per cent of the work-force voted for the new union. This union is still not officially recognized, but after several strikes the Metrodelegados were granted by the Ministry of Labour the right to negotiate collective contracts. For the first time delegates were accepted as negotiating partner without official union. This could have an impact for other rank-and-file delegates, because the question of representation is on the agenda again.

The work-mates don’t accept the usual accusation of creating divisions on the shop-floor: “It was the union bureaucracy which divided us, when they agreed to outsourcing and privatisation. I would also prefer having one union to having twenty, but only if this one actually represents everyone. If I have to face a union which does not represent anyone, I’d rather create a new one.” (Beto)

What, in hindsight, seems like a success story from beginning to end, has been a time of major efforts, repression and back-lashes for many work-mates. At the beginning they followed something like a union focal-theory: small organised group of workers start to fight and others follow. This resulted in active workers having to stick out their necks and being victimised. In the long run the movement had to be based on a broader base. They introduced a method which had been long forgotten during the times of the union bureaucracy: the assembly. They related to the so-called Clasismo, the combative workers’ movement in Argentina in the 1970s, and at the same time they became part of the new horizontal movement after the uprising of December 2001.

Given the rather segmented workforce – spread out over the whole city and divided into different professional strata – to organise a classical general assembly is a difficult undertaking. So the delegates transformed the break-rooms at the terminus stations into places of permanent assemblies. They hung out there for hours and debated with all work-mates who came by until a consensus was found. This could result in delegates having to represent demands in negotiations which they themselves saw as a mistake. But they thought: rather continue together after a common mistake than do the right thing on your own. Nevertheless, there have been moments when people just go ahead on their own: “I remember how Morales presented the four-day strike for the ballot. I think we were forty or fifty who had voted for strike, and this is how we entered the struggle. Fifty out of ninety. Antonio did not adhere to the workers’ democracy and just went ahead, and I think that was the right thing to do. He did not stick to the slogan, he made a political decision to start with what we had at the time. After that the others followed. This is what often happens in conflicts: People who were initially opposed stayed firm on strike for the whole four days.” (Nestor Etcheto)

Besides the concrete demands the Subte-struggles transport the question about a different life: a good life for everyone, without poverty, without exhaustion through work, with time for just being, good relationships, learning and fun. May be these often unvoiced dreams explain the enormous determination and unity of the work-mates. A spectre is haunting the Subte. Together with the spectres of Guiseppe and Leonardo it seeks justice for the victims – and together with the work-mates of today it is searching for a better future.

(1) Virginia Bouvet: Un fantasma recorre el subte. Crónica de la lucha de los trabajadores de Metrovías. Buenos Aires 2008, Editorial Desde el Subte. All quotations are from this source.