Latin America has witnessed three waves of overlapping and interrelated social movements over the last twenty-five years. The first wave, roughly from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, was largely composed of what were called “the new social movements.” They included human rights, ecology, feminist, and ethnic movements as well as Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Their leadership was largely lower middle class professionals, and their policies and strategies revolved around challenging the military and civilian authoritarian regimes of the time.
The second wave developed into a powerful political force from the mid-1980s to the present. Largely composed of and led by peasants and rural workers, the mass organizations of the second wave engaged in direct action to promote and defend the economic interests of their supporters. The most prominent of these movements included the Zapatistas of Mexico (EZLN), the Rural Landless Workers of Brazil (MST), the Cocaleros and peasants of Bolivia, the National Peasant Federation in Paraguay, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Colombia, and the peasant-Indian CONAIE in Ecuador. The composition, tactics, and demands of these groups varied, but they were all united in their opposition to neoliberalism and imperialism, that is, the neoliberal economic regime and the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of local and foreign elites. Specifically, they struggled for land redistribution and national autonomy for Indian communities, and they fought against U.S. intervention in the form of coca eradication programs, colonization of territory by military bases, penetration of national police/military institutions, and the militarization of social conflicts, such as Plan Colombia and the Andean Initiative.
The third and newest wave of social movements is centered in the urban areas. It includes the dynamic barrio-based mass movements of unemployed workers in Argentina, the unemployed and poor in the Dominican Republic, and the shantytown dwellers who have flocked to the populist banners of Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez. In addition to the urban movements, new multi-sectorial movements, engaged in mass struggles that integrate farm workers and small and medium-sized farmers, have emerged in Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay.
The nature, mode of operation, and style of political action of the second and third waves challenge many of the stereotypes and assumptions of conventional liberal social science and post-Marxian orthodoxies. For example, the “new social movement” writers declared the end of class politics and the advent of cultural and “citizen-based” civic movements concerned with democracy, gender equality, and identity politics. Theorists like Eric Hobsbawm used “demographic” arguments to dismiss the centrality of peasant movements in contemporary political struggles, and others argued that the mass of urban poor, engaged in fragmented and marginal employments or divorced from the means of production, were incapable of challenging established political power.
The subsequent explosion of peasant and urban class movements throughout Latin America, in pursuit of land and political power, shattered these orthodoxies. The notion that economic and political liberalism would lead to the end of mass ideological struggles evaporated with the emergence of the Zapatistas, the FARC, and CONAIE. These movements have organized popular assemblies to challenge decades of abusive, corrupt, and reactionary rule, and in the process have defined a new substantive form of direct democracy. The centrality of direct action struck at the center of capitalist exploitation, frequently paralyzing the production and circulation of commodities essential to the reproduction of the neoliberal regime. And the Hobsbawm thesis has been refuted by the splendid display of political power embodied in the Indian takeover of the Ecuadorean Parliament in 2000, the FARC’s formidable influence in almost half the municipalities of Colombia, and the MST’s show of force in twenty-three of Brazil’s twenty-four states.
A particularly interesting and important contemporary social movement, and the subject of this essay, is that of urban unemployed workers in Argentina. This movement, which transparently challenges the assumptions of the atomized impotent urban poor, is a case worth exploring for its innovative features and its explosive possibilities for the rest of urban Latin America.
The Unemployed in Argentina Erupt
One of the major reasons orthodox Marxists have argued that the industrial working class is central to any social transformation is its strategic location in the productive process. The relative shrinking of this class and the enormous growth of the under-employed, unemployed, and informal or “marginal” urban masses have therefore been seen as developments that retard or even make impossible radical social change. Marxists contended that the fragmented job structure of the urban poor atomized them, and their relative isolation from the main sectors of the economy undercut their capacity to undermine the accumulation process. They also argued that this urban mass benefited capitalism in so far as it kept wages down and served to lower the demands of employed workers. Ironically, some mainstream social scientists and NGOs have tried to convince us that these changing employment patterns are a good thing, because they have led to increasing independence for the urban masses through their encouragement of micro-activities, subsistence economies, and reciprocal exchanges.
In Argentina, the absence of stable employment, declining living standards, growing social discontent, increasing violent outbursts, and the enormous growth of illicit economic activities emanating from the barrios have rendered ridiculous the idyllic picture painted by mainstream ideologues of “self-help.” But the sophisticated and successful organization of what were thought of as unorganizable groups has challenged the Marxist orthodoxy as well. In August 2001, a nationwide mobilization of highly organized unemployed groups, numbering over a hundred thousand people, shut down over three hundred highways in Argentina, paralyzing the economy, including the previously invulnerable financial sector. In the previous months and weeks the federal police killed five piqueteros (picketers), and arrested over three thousand, in violent clashes throughout the country. At the same time, the organized unemployed were able to pressure and secure thousands of minimum wage temporary jobs, food allowances, and other concessions from the state, while retaining their independent organization. By September 2001, the unemployed were able to organize massive highway blockades throughout the capital of Buenos Aires, and a successful general strike in association with sectors of the trade unions, blocking government activity and the entrances of all the major private industries. Remarkably, these actions drew support and often participation from a wide spectrum of citizens and social classes, including local merchants, provincial and municipal employees, pensioners, public health workers, school teachers and human rights groups, principally the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
These spectacular recent successes were built upon several years of patient and often frustrating organizing. The unemployed sent petitions to municipal, state, and federal governments. They demonstrated peacefully. But when these tactics were ignored, the unemployed began to take more direct actions, occupying state and municipal office buildings and occasionally torching them. Road blocking and mass picketing activities began in two towns in the interior, Cutrol Co and Plaza Huincal, in June 1996 and again in April 1997. These demonstrations mobilized thousands in protest against job cuts and plant shutdowns. By the late 1990s, massive road blockades occurred in the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires, protesting the high electric rates charged by the privatized light and power companies and the cutting off of power to the homes of unemployed consumers unable to pay their bills. By 2000, mass demonstrations took place in the cities of Neuquen and General Mosconi, previously prosperous oil producing centers. When privatization led to the closure of work sites and widespread unemployment the government failed to honor its promise to finance alternative employment, largely because of budget cuts made to meet International Monetary Fund (IMF) fiscal requirements.
Explaining the Movement
The first step in explaining the unemployed movement in Argentina is to place it in the context of the neoliberal project that has ravaged the lives of workers and peasants throughout Latin America. As the Argentine government toed the line drawn by free market ideologues, it put in place policies that had predictable effects. Public enterprises were sold, and the new owners fired thousands of workers. Operations deemed unprofitable, including mineral and energy centers, were closed, creating virtual ghost towns in which all socioeconomic sectors were adversely affected. The wages and working conditions of public workers were lowered, and many were laid off. Thousands of public employees went months without being paid at all. Labor unions were attacked, and union members sacked. Social services were drastically cut, affecting pensioners and all who could not afford private schooling or health care. The influx of foreign funds led to rampant speculation, generating a crash in the financial sector and the movement of $130 billion dollars (equivalent to the nation’s public debt)outside of the country by the Argentine bourgeoisie. A recession began in 1997 and deepened into a full-blown depression in 2001. Depending on location, between 30 percent and 80 percent of the labor force is now unemployed or underemployed. In greater Buenos Aires, official unemployment figures of 16–18 percent quickly doubled. Most employed workers had to subsist on temporary and precarious employment. In the large working-class suburbs, unemployment reached 30–50 percent. Everywhere the great majority of households fell below the already meager poverty line.
Economic difficulties were exacerbated by political conditions. Not only did the three most recent presidents (Raul Alfonsin, Carlos Saul Menem, and Fernando de la Rua) turn over the economy’s “family jewels” to Argentine and foreign capitalists at bargain basement prices and aggressively reverse existing social legislation, they also exonerated the military officials responsible for thirty thousand deaths and disappearances. To pacify the poor, the two major parties, the Radicals and the Peronists, occasionally distributed food baskets and employment to their loyal followers, but these were totally inadequate.
These economic, social, and political conditions converged with favorable opportunities to produce mass organizations. We can make a distinction between the relatively objective conditions that were favorable to organization and the conscious strategies of the organizations themselves. Among the propitious objective factors were the following: (1) There was a high concentration of unemployed industrial workers, never-employed young persons, and women heads of households in quasi-segregated and relatively homogeneous barrios, not much subject to lower-middle class influence; (2) In the barrios there were fairly large numbers of unemployed industrial workers with union experience and familiarity with collective struggle; (3) The prolonged nature of the crisis devastated households to such an extent that it activated a disproportionate share of militant women (the same was true for adolescents, most of whom had no prior work experience and faced bleak futures); and (4) The barrios are located close to the major highways over which goods and commuters travel between the major cities and across national frontiers.
Of course, it is not enough for circumstances to be favorable. Organizations must respond with the right strategies and tactics. The success of the unemployed movement in Argentina today is due to the fact that it learned from experience to avoid the pitfalls of the past by organizing independently within the barrios, autonomously from the trade union bureaucracy, electoral parties, and state apparatus. The trade unions, particularly the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), have been run by a venal group of highly paid repressive bosses closely aligned with the Menem regime and unwilling to confront the De la Rua government or its regressive policies. The occasional denunciations and even general strikes are understood by everyone—the regime and the workers—as a meaningless symbolic rituals to “blow off steam” before submission. Previous half-hearted attempts by trade unions to organize the unemployed workers had failed, even in the case of “militant unions.” Despite programmatic demands to organize the unemployed, all unions concentrated their efforts on their dues-paying members and their sectoral struggles. Where unemployed were organized, they frequently served as “auxiliary” partners in one-day demonstrations and had very little impact on the economy and securing reforms. Much the same can be said about the political parties, which, in addition to direct repression, had thrown a few patronage crumbs to workers and co-opted the workers’ leadership.
So, fundamental to the success of the new organization of the unemployed was its rejection of the patron-client politics of the electoral party bosses and trade union bureaucrats and its reliance on self-organization and direct action. The Unemployed Workers Movement (MTD) began and continues as a grassroots movement organized and led by members of the barrio and the municipality. The MTD is organized with a very decentralized structure. Each municipality has its own organization based on the barrios within its frontiers. Within a barrio, multi-block areas have their informal leaders and activists. Each municipality is organized by its general assembly where all active members participate. Policy is decided in assembly; the demands and organization of the road blockades are decided collectively in assembly. Once a highway or principle artery is designated, the assembly organizes support within the barrios. Hundreds and even thousands of women, men, and children participate in the blockage, setting up tents and soup kitchens at the side of the road. If the police threaten, hundreds more pour in from the adjoining shantytowns. If the government decides to negotiate, the movement demands that negotiations take place with all the piqueteros at the blockage. Decisions are made at the site of the action by the collective assembly.
From experience, the piqueteros distrust sending delegates, even militant local people, to individually negotiate in government offices, because as one piquetero leader stated, “they buy them off with a job.” Once the demands—usually a quota of state-funded temporary jobs— are secured, the distribution of jobs takes place by collective decision according to prior criteria of family needs and active participation in the blockades. Job allocation is on a rotating basis in cases where there are fewer jobs than unemployed. Once again, the piqueteros have learned by experience that when individual leaders negotiate and distribute jobs, they tend to favor family members, friends, and others, turning themselves into caudillos (personal leaders) with a patronage machine that corrupts the movement.
The tactic of cutting highways is also central to the MTD’s success. It is the functional equivalent of workers laying down the tools of production. It paralyzes the circulation of goods, both inputs for production and outputs destined for domestic or overseas markets. The stoppage of traffic is also an electrifying event close to the barrios. Those who organize the stoppages, local workers like Pepino, Hippie, and Piquete in General Mosconi, are those who are most courageous in speaking out and making demands. The general populace is supportive but fearful of speaking out, but they became massively involved in supporting the nearby and easily accessible road blockades and preventing the gendarmes from arresting their leaders. From passive sufferers of poverty, social disorganization, and opportunistic manipulation, they became active in a powerful solidarity movement, engaged in autonomous grassroots social organization and independent politics.
The immediate demand of the unemployed movement for locally administered state-funded jobs is followed by other demands: distribution of food parcels, the freeing of hundreds of jailed unemployed militants, as well as a host of public investments in water, paved roads, and health facilities. The demands for employment go beyond subsistence temporary work and include stable employment with a living wage. In General Mosconi, the leaders of the movement have formulated over three hundred projects—some of which are operating successfully—to provide food and employment, including a bakery, organic gardens, water purifying plants, first aid clinics in the barrios, and many other projects. The town is ruled de facto by the local unemployed committee, as the local municipal officials have been pushed aside. In some working-class suburbs, the unemployed movement has led to quasi-liberated zones, where the power of mobilization neutralizes or is superior to that of local officials and is capable of challenging the state and federal regimes on the particular issues being raised. The emergence of a “parallel economy,” on a limited scale, in General Mosconi sustains popular support between struggles and offers a vision of the capabilities of the unemployed to take command of their lives, neighborhoods, and livelihoods.
Beyond the local and immediate demands, the MDT has demanded an end to debt payments and austerity programs, the reversal of the neoliberal model, and the re-emergence of state regulated and financed economic developments. In early September 2001, two national meetings of unemployed groups took place in Matanza and La Plata. The meetings drew over two thousand delegates from dozens of unemployed, trade union, student, cultural, and NGO groups. The purpose was to co-ordinate activities, share ideas, and forge a national program and plan of struggle. The assembly of delegates in La Plata agreed to six immediate demands: (1) the derogation of the structural adjustment policies, the zero deficit policies, and the judicial process against arrested and other activists; (2) the withdrawal of the austerity budget; (3) the extension and defense of the public employment schemes and food allocations to each unemployed worker over sixteen years of age, the establishment of a massive register of unemployed under the control of the unemployed organizations meeting in the assembly; (4) the payment of one hundred pesos (peso=$1.00) per hectare to small and medium size farmers to seed their fields; (5) the prohibition of firings; and (6) the immediate withdrawal of the gendarmes from the town of General Mosconi.
The assembly convoked two nationwide road blockades in September to back up their demands. And, in addition, the assembly embraced five strategic goals: (1) non-payment of the illegitimate and fraudulent foreign debt; (2) public control of the pension funds; (3) renationalization of the banks and strategic enterprises; (4) forgiveness of the debts of small farmers and sustainable prices for their products; and (5) ousting of the hunger-provoking regimes and any reshuffle of politicians. The assembly ended by calling for an active thirty-six hour general strike and a national committee to coordinate activities with the dissident trade union confederation, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos.
The Future of the Movement
The MDT has become a force to be reckoned with in Argentina. It has spread rapidly outward from Salta, Juijuy, and Matanzas to the poverty-stricken suburban belt surrounding Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Rosario, and into the “ghost towns” of the interior. Local organizations have formed national federations, as evidenced by the two national congresses discussed above. This success is based upon the mobilization of tens of thousands of unemployed workers, the energizing of thousands of trade union activists, the bringing of women and adolescents into the movement as active participants (perhaps 60 percent of participants are women), and the actual securing of (limited) concessions from the regime. The strength of the movement however, continues mostly at the local level, based on neighborhood ties, mutual trust, and concrete demands. And its main attraction remains the fact that the MDT catalyzes action—direct action—in a society exhausted by the endless “SAP” (structural adjustment policies), budget cuts, multiple low paid jobs, and the corruption and impotence of Congress and the authoritarian elitist nature of the Executive branch. The unemployed workers are the only pole of opposition to all of this, and the MTD has the only effective tactics: direct action—the prolonged blocking of highways until minimum demands are met.
As the unemployed movement has grown in numbers and capability for action, it has formed alliances with university students, dissident trade unions, human rights groups, and small leftist parties. The most significant tactical alliances were forged with the public employees unions (ATE) and with local teachers’ unions. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo gave moral support and mobilized its supporters, as did a number of left university student organizations. However, throughout the joint activities, especially with the trade unions, the unemployed movements jealously guarded their hard won autonomy and freedom of action. The movements rejected the demagogic interventions by conventional politicos who sought to capitalize on the unemployed movements growing power.
The dynamic and unprecedented growth of the unemployed movement and their success with road blockades in paralyzing the movement of commodities was accompanied by robust discussions and debates on how to proceed. Several basic issues arose within the movement debates:
- Localism: The initial and continuing strength of the movements are based on their close ties to their communities, barrios, and neighborhoods. Yet as the state has responded to the movement with violent repression, including murder, mass arrests, and military occupation, and as economic austerity proceeds, it is evident to many movement activists that only collective action at the national level will provide the leverage to weaken state violence and secure concessions from the regime. Yet some of the leaders who have been most successful in consolidating popular participation resist and are distrustful of national meetings and organizations. The movement in General Mosconi is a case in point. Its leaders refused to participate formally in the two national meetings in early September 2001.
- Competing Groups: The decentralized origin of the movement has been a necessary and important element in promoting local initiatives and leadership and guarding the autonomy of the various movements. But in several cases political and personal differences have emerged which could undermine future unity of action. While most unemployed movements reject electoral politics, a few leaders have been offered a place on the lists of left parties, particularly the new formation called the Social Pole. Other differences relate to the relationship with the established dissident trade unions. While few unemployed leaders would object to tactical cooperation, many are fearful that the CTA and ATE will eventually dominate the action and manipulate the movement to fit the moderate agenda of progressive trade union officials. For example, in one of the national days of action in August, the piqueteros, under the influence of ATE, allowed alternative roads to be clear while they blocked main arteries. The purpose of this concession was to “win over” middle class commuters and make a good will gesture to the Minister of Labor. Many unemployed activists rejected the “alternative routes” strategy as effectively undermining the purpose of road blockades and opening the door to the demoralization of the unemployed and the demise of the movement in favor of traditional trade union wheeling and dealing.
- Penetration by Traditional Politicians: The powerful thrust of the movement comes from its autonomy of action. As successful mobilization accelerated, conventional opportunistic politicos from the nominally “opposition” parties (Peronist and other) attempted to take up some of the demands, offering to “mediate” between the piqueteros, offering to secure jobs, and dividing the movement to gain a section of it and rebuild their depleted ranks. The movement has so far resisted the blandishments of these opportunistic demagogues. However, if the repression becomes more severe and basic needs are not met, the stark choice will be either a further political radicalization, or the temptation to accept “mediation” by the old political bosses.
- Students—Allies and Dangers: The unemployed workers convoked the September 7-8 national encounter. However, a large number of student, cultural, and even self-help groups turned up, diluting the social composition of the conference. The long and many times tedious presentations of the student orators did not add a great deal of clarity to the movement’s future. While the unemployed movement’s delegates did maintain control and welcomed student and other participation, there was concern that they would introduce the usual ideological rifts that paralyze action. The genuine search among some student groups to “articulate” with the unemployed movements was matched by a student harangue explaining to the Assembly why “globalization inevitably condemned the movements to failure in this period.” The unemployed delegates unanimously rejected this type of intervention and proceeded to outline a series of practical immediate and strategic demands. The Unemployed Movement of Lanus called attention to the pressures of unholy alliances following mass demonstrations and for the retention of leadership by autonomous unemployed workers movements.
These contradictions of growth point to the new challenges that face the movement. The important point is not that there are problems, but that these are open assemblies at the local, regional, and national level where the unemployed can debate and resolve these issues.
One of the debates about the declining power of the labor movement focuses on the proliferation of precarious work, the growth of the informal sector, and the increase in the number of unemployed. When questioned, trade union leaders constantly cite the difficulty of organizing the unemployed, the lack of leverage the unemployed have over the economic system, and the lack of interest among the unemployed in collective action. The massive growth of the organization of the unemployed in Argentina calls these assumptions into question and raises new questions. The experience in Argentina demonstrates that unemployed workers can be organized, will engage in collective action, possess leverage to paralyze the economic system, and are capable of negotiating and securing concessions, in a manner that the organized labor unions have not been able to accomplish in recent years.
This suggests that the decline of labor has less to do with the nature of unemployed and informal labor and more to do with the structure, approach, and leadership of the trade unions. The unemployed movement organizes from the bottom up, in face-to-face recruiting in the barrios. The trade union bureaucrats ignore non-dues paying workers, and when organizing, send in “professionals.” The result is that they usually fail to gain the confidence of the unemployed, much less succeed in organizing them. Secondly, the unemployed movement has a horizontal structure in which leaders and supporters come from the same class and discuss and debate as equals in open assemblies. The trade unions are vertical structures built around personal loyalties to the top bureaucrats, many of whom draw salaries comparable to CEOs. The unemployed movements engage in sustained direct action and collectively negotiate demands in open assemblies. The trade union elites engage in symbolic protests and then negotiate with the state or the employers behind closed doors, reaching agreements that ignore workers’ key concerns and then “sell” the agreements to the membership or just simply impose them. As a result, the unemployed leaders have the confidence and support of their constituents, while the trade union bosses are viewed with distrust if not as active collaborators with the austerity-minded state and the employers.
The labor market, the large pool of unemployed, presents a challenge to the conventional way of top-down organizing, automatic dues check off, and formal organization. No trade union boss is willing to trudge through the muddy unpaved roads of shantytowns organizing; attending meetings in icy or sweltering improvised meeting places, amidst crying children and women militants demanding food now, or unemployed young men bored by long-winded lectures on globalization and unemployment.
No trade union leaders stand behind the barricades of burning tires with slingshots blocking highways and facing live ammunition. They prefer to secure a half-hour appointment in the offices of the Minister of Labor in order to form a tripartite committee to discuss how to cushion the austerity program and secure governability. The fact is that almost all trade unions as they are organized today are only concerned with their electoral ties to the official parties and are totally irrelevant if not a major obstacle to organizing the unemployed.
Through the initiative and social inventiveness of the unemployed, by trial and error, they have found a way to secure leverage over the economic system by cutting the highways that link markets and production sites. The early success of the road blockades by unemployed petroleum workers in the ghost towns of Neuquen in 1996 has spread throughout the country.
Road blockades have become the generalized tactic of exploited and marginalized groups throughout Latin America. In Bolivia, tens of thousands of peasants and Indian communities have blocked highways demanding credit, infrastructure, freedom to grow coca, and increased spending on health and education. Likewise in Ecuador, massive street blockades have protested the dollarization of the economy and the absence of public investments in the highlands. In Colombia, Brazil, and Paraguay road blockades, marches, and land occupations have been combined in pursuit of immediate demands, as well as redistributive policies, and an end to neoliberalism and debt payments.
What all these groups have in common is that they are non-strategic groups in the economy acting on strategic areas of the economy. The export sectors, the banks, minerals and petroleum, and certain manufacturing sectors are the principal foreign exchange earners (to pay the debt) and revenue and profit producers for the elite. Food is imported, as are manufactured intermediary and capital goods. From the perspective of the elite who control the accumulation process, the activities of the peasants, unemployed, Indians, farmers, local commercial enterprises, and small manufacturers are superfluous, expendable, and irrelevant to the main activities—exports, financial transactions, and imports of luxury goods. But these flows of goods and capital require free passage across roads to reach their markets. This is where the “marginal groups” become strategic actors whose direct actions interfere with the elite circuits and disrupt the accumulation process. Road blockades of the unemployed are the functional equivalent of the industrial workers stopping the machines and production line: one blocks the realization of profit, the other, the creation of value. Mass organization outside the factory system demonstrates the viability of this strategy when it takes place outside the structures of electoral parties and bureaucratic trade unions. Autonomous organization is the key in Argentina and the rest of Latin America. Experience demonstrates that the new mass movements can sustain struggles, resist violent repression, and secure temporary and immediate concessions.
The formation of a national coordinating committee of unemployed organizations in Argentina, and similar national organizations among the peasants and small farmers throughout Latin America, demonstrates that local movements can become national and potentially can confront the state.
Many questions remain unanswered. Is it possible for these new movements to unify into a national political force and transform state power? Can alliances be forged with employed urban industrial workers and employees and the downwardly mobile middle class to create a power block to transform the economy? Can local assemblies become the basis for a new assembly-based socialism?
In Argentina, the success of the unemployed workers’ movement has opened a new perspective for advancing the struggle in the face of a prolonged and deepening depression. With the advance of similar direct action movements growing throughout Latin America, it is not difficult to imagine the convergence of these “marginal” classes into a formidable challenge to the U.S. empire and its local collaborators.