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ARGENTINA | 09-05-2024 12:37

Argentina grinds to halt on second general strike of Milei Presidency

Nationwide general strike called by CGT umbrella union grouping against President Milei’s “brutal adjustment programme” paralyses land and, sea, and air transportation services and forces many businesses to close shutters.

Argentina practically ground to a halt on Thursday as a massive general strike called by the nation’s main union federation challenged President Javier Milei’s government and its severe austerity.

In the nation’s capital, streets were mostly empty, with very little public transport. Many schools and banks closed their doors while most shops were shuttered. Garbage was left uncollected.

Rail and port terminals were closed, while the industrial action forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, leaving airports semi-deserted. Some buses – from firms that did not take part in the strike – were running in the morning, although with few passengers. Cars were circulating, but traffic levels were similar to that seen on weekends.

The port of Rosario, which exports 80 percent of the nation's agro-industrial production, was all but paralysed in the midst of its busiest season.

The 24-hour protest was called by labour unions in support of "a dignified wage" for Argentines battling a severe economic crisis, with annual inflation nearing 300 percent and poverty affecting one in two people.

Yet the nationwide strike, called by the CGT umbrella grouping, did not include plans for a mobilisation of unionised workers. It is the second mass walkout of President Milei’s time in office – he has only been in office for six months.

The action comes as the government attempts to secure passage through Congress of a sweeping reform bill that, among other things, would amend existing labour laws.

Union leaders say they reject the austerity imposed by Milei and reiterated their opposition to the so-called 'Ley de Bases' law.

The CGT’s leaders accuse Milei and his government of rejecting "social dialogue" and implementing "a brutal adjustment that especially affects the lower income sectors, the middle classes, retirees and pensioners.”

CGT co-leader Héctor Daer celebrated the "forcefulness" of the strike and said its size proved that "the government has to take note."

Voicing the government’s line, Presidential Spokesperson Manuel Adorni described the strike as “an attack on the pocket and against the will of the people," stating that it affected those who most need to work and put "a plate of food on the table.”

Milei’s chief spokesman said the CGT and other unions were “people who have curtailed the progress of Argentines over the last 25 years."

"This is a strike that damages and complicates the lives of many people," said Adorni at his daily press conference. 

"It is an absolutely incomprehensible strike” based on “extortion and threats," he claimed, branding union leaders "the fundamentalists of backwardness."

He said all state employees that adhered to the strike would have a day's pay deducted.

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, one of the government’s most outspoken ministers, on Thursday called on the population to "go out to work" at an impromptu press conference held at a bus stop in Constitución, one of the main transport hubs in the capital.

"There are means of transport for those who want to go to work," Bullrich claimed, failing to acknowledge the thousands of buses that were not in service. 

With television cameras in tow, she then boarded a bus to travel back to her office, though she did not have enough credit on her Subte transport card and had to use an aide’s.

Government officials claimed that some buses that were running had been attacked, though they did not specify where the incidents had taken place. 

 

Recession and austerity

Argentina is experiencing a severe economic recession, with inflation hovering at around 290 percent year-on-year. 

Since taking office, Milei has embarked upon a strict campaign of austerity. Public spending  cuts allowed the government to record a budget surplus in the first quarter of the year for the first time since 2008, but it came at the cost of thousands of layoffs, the elimination of subsidies, rising utility rates and the deterioration of wages and pensions.

Milei insists his "plan is working" and has said the protests go "against what people voted five months ago." But critics say Milei's few wins have come at the cost of the poor and working classes, and are unlikely to last.

Data published by the INDEC national statistics bureau on Wednesday showed that industrial activity in March fell 21.2 percent year-on-year, while construction plunged 42.2 percent over the same period – the largest fall since April 2020, when activity was paralysed due to the quarantine imposed amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Amid the economic slump, social unrest is picking up. Protests are becoming an almost daily occurrence, with three demonstrations taking place just this week.

The CGT-led general strike is the second against Milei's policies, following one staged on January 24, which did include a mobilisation on the streets. 

"The situation facing workers is not ideal, I think a strike is necessary, but for political reasons our company does not adhere to the strike," said Juan Di Gerónimo, a 32-year-old employee at the Dota bus company.

The largest protest of recent weeks took place on April 23, when hundreds of thousands of people marched across the country in defence of the public universities, whose annual budgets have been slashed by Milei. 

"Public opinion has shown itself willing to mobilise on certain issues that it considers to be collective goods and that are above political polarisation," said political scientist Gabriel Vommaro.

Despite a slight decline in April, several recent polls show Milei's popularity remains strong, with his approval rating hovering between 45 percent and 50 percent. 

"His support remains quite solid," said Vommaro.

Critics, however, question how long his voters will continue to back him if things remain as they are.

"The limit of the adjustment is the capacity of resistance of those who have felt the adjustment," said Carlos Heller, a former banker and Peronist lawmaker who is critical of the government.

 

– TIMES/AFP/NA

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