How unions and the left sabotage the extension of struggles

24 April, 2021

Demonstration of "autoconvocados!" health workers in Neuquén.
Demonstration of "autoconvocados!" health workers in Neuquén.

The situation in Argentina in recent years has become a laundry list of union and left-wing resorts to divert and prevent the extension of struggles. We saw a first large-scale example in 2019 in Chubut. Then the convergence of struggles in the province around teachers and health workers was neutralized with national union strike calls cutting across the movement. Now in Neuquén we are seeing an alternative -yet no less damaging- strategy. We workers in Argentina and the rest of the world have much to learn from the experience in order to be able to effectively confront the unions and find our own terrain of struggle.

In this article

The extension of struggles in Neuquén and Río Negro health sector

Unions have been fighting against the extension of struggles around the striking Neuquén health workers from the very first moment
Unions have been fighting against the extension of struggles around the striking Neuquén health workers from the very first moment

In the province of Neuquén, Argentina, autoconvocado health workers have been demanding wage readjustments from the provincial government for two months, that is, an update on delayed payments and devaluation of their salaries in a country whose inflation will be around 40% this year. In most cases we are talking about losses of 70% of purchasing power.

A group of workers who break with the union on the basis of rejecting the agreements signed by the union and go on strike alone is called autoconvocado.

There have been a thousand attempts to intimidate these workers, even the national government tried to, after the provincial governors requested the intervention of the Secretary of Labor. Meanwhile, the struggles of health workers spread to the neighboring province of Río Negro. But in Río Negro the unions partook in the demands from the beginning, clashing with a part of the workers who sought to join up with the striking Neuquén workers.

The key: the extension of struggles cannot be limited to additional struggles in the same sector, even in several ones. The extension of struggles to be effective requires centralization in assemblies of all

.

The left is engaged in breaking down coordination among workers

Tucumán. Dividing the most combative workers into small groups and sending them to cut roads is a way to disarm them, divert them and isolate them, just the opposite of what is necessary for the extension of struggles: to meet with other workers in struggle, mobilize workplaces which remain on the margins and integrate all under the leadership of a single assembly or an assembly of delegates from other assemblies.
Tucumán. Dividing the most combative workers into small groups and sending them to cut roads is a way to disarm them, divert them and isolate them, just the opposite of what is necessary for the extension of struggles: to meet with other workers in struggle, mobilize workplaces which remain on the margins and integrate all under the leadership of a single assembly or an assembly of delegates from other assemblies.

The left’s mobilization tactic is to keep the workers moving and scattered. A lot of picketing, a lot of roadblocks and mobilizations separated by categories and trades. All in order to avoid the call for open assemblies, which would make the extension of struggles real and bring together the workers in struggle in the health sector with ginners, teachers, oil workers, miners, fishermen, governmental workers and involve the entire community of working families that uses hospitals and schools.

This is precisely the opposite way of what may successfully impose a position of force on the part of the workers.

Read our pamphlet: “Understanding Capital” on why extension of struggles and their centralization in open assemblies is the only way to advance them in a situation like the current one.

Atomization allows the instrumentalization of the workers

Health workers cut the road to Vaca Muerta
Health workers cut the road to Vaca Muerta

However, the multiplication of struggles threatened several governors who, on a daily basis, see the emergence of new strikes and struggle plans. The business associations asked Governor Gutiérrez to break up the conflict and shut it down. They all see their businesses in danger. From the gas stations suffering shortages to the hoteliers and the tourist sector whose clients are scared away by the picket lines. For them, the extension of struggles means anarchy and chaos.

But meanwhile, picketing tactics continue to wear workers down in isolated and pointless scuffles. Chilean truckers crossing the cordillera with merchandise try to lift the picket lines by force. The autoconvocados are isolated in these battles on empty roads. But they resist and appeal to the recognition and prestige gained in the months of pandemic to summon the community to reinforce the picket lines rather than to extend struggles.

Instead of solidifying the extension of struggles by building assembly structures of all workers, the basis of class power, the autoconvocados further fragment the workers on the roads by dispossessing them of even numerical strength and their ability to halt production.

The workers are worn out and slowly simmering. Weakened and atomized by the picket tactics, they can already be instrumentalized by the government of the Nation, which delays the resolution of the conflict as a way to intimidate the Neuquén government, which, while also a Peronist government, is part of the opposition.

The role of the left, Trotsko-Stalinism and the autoconvocados

Strike of bus drivers in Tucumán
Strike of bus drivers in Tucumán

The ATE, UPCN, ATSA unions intervene in the promotion of these tactics, which break the extension of struggles. The trotsko-stalinist left bound in the FIT-U and its fringes, is apparently missing. But if we spend a minute studying the situation, it is easy to discover that it emerges in those strikes in which the unions are unable to handle the strike situation. Otherwise, they turn a blind eye to it with the regularity and predictability of a physical law.

The contrast with the indefinite strikes that, in other provinces, are carried out by sovereign assemblies of workers is striking. Because there, the same political groups ignore and invisibilize them, directing workers from other centers only to the conflicts managed by these groups or by the union bureaucracy and in which they impose their tactics.

The division of labor in the Argentine left

The Argentine left is born from local versions of Trotsko-Stalinism. Deeply nationalist, it was always an obstacle to the extension of struggles.
The Argentine left is born from local versions of Trotsko-Stalinism. Deeply nationalist, it was always an obstacle to the extension of struggles.

Promoting the emergence of autoconvocados is the tactic preferred by the PTS, but in their hands it becomes indistinguishable from atomizing and scattering workers across the territory. In Neuquén alone there are 25 roadblocks. The assemblies of public health centers are systematically directed to engage in strikes isolated from the rest of the workers, including other health workers. They vote for marches, caravans, encampments in public buildings. All of them separately sector by sector and hospital by hospital.

And this is occurring at the same time as strikes by oil workers, private health, judicial and public and civil service workers who are also on strike.

It is not innocent for the left to sell the picketing tactics of the autoconvocados as a great example of struggle. They can see that it leads headlong into a dead end. It is clear that this is a tactic which destroys the spread of struggles by atomizing them. It is impossible not to see that by causing fuel and food shortages under these conditions tends to further isolate the mobilized workers from those of other sectors who were not even invited by imposing a worsening of the situation of the workers of the province as a whole. … even in Covid cases.

The Argentine left, like any other country’s left wing, creates a real cordon sanitaire around the working class, through which it tries to contain and disperse the working class’ movements when they exceed the first line of control: the trade unions.

Their only particularity is the profusion of trends and the high degree of specialization of each one in specific sectors, usually linked to the local control of public subsidies (social plans).

  • Maoism and other Stalinist weeds, run thousands of organizations of unemployed and cooperatives; these are not really classical worker cooperatives, but groups of ultra-precarized and unemployed workers grouped in a legal framework they cannot control – it is not even the custom to have public statutes – and who receive social plans as if they were a worker cooperative. It is a way of ensuring that if they leave the framework of the party leader and his deals with the current local politician, they will be definitively excluded and starved.
  • A sector of Trotsko-stalinism (MST, PO, IS) also leads sectors of the unemployed through the distribution of social plans, soup kitchens and maintains its own groups in some unions.
  • Another sector of the same stem (PTS) which does not manage social plans, specializes in leading combative unions and in some cases co-leads official unions with other leftist organizations or with Peronism in all its variants.

Why did the autoconvocados attract so much political apparatus and state intervention?

Union rally in Vaca Muerta in 2019. The same unions that systematically sabotage the extension of struggles, mobilized workers to support the companies in the face of the cut in subsidies that the companies received from the state.
Union rally in Vaca Muerta in 2019. The same unions that systematically sabotage the extension of struggles mobilized workers to support the companies in the face of the cut in subsidies the companies were receiving from the state.

But even within this framework, what is striking in the case of Neuquén is the tremendous amount of political apparatus mounted on the autoconvocado health workers. Why so much effort to control the health workers in order to avoid the extension of the struggles in a province which does not usually attract the attention of the state or its left wing?

In fact, the issue is that, unintentionally, the autoconvocados were left in the middle of the disputes between the national government and the Neuquén government for the control of the Vaca Muerta field, which is the golden goose of the Neuquén bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie fears having the national government take advantage of the conflict to impose its will over the oil and gas basin.

A piece of evidence is enough: when the atoconvocado workers started to picket the road to Vaca Muerta, the oil workers of state and private contractors refused to accept the wage increase that the bourgeoisie wanted to give them and voted to go on strike. … which lasted as long as a candy in front of a school, since almost at the same time the courts -that is, the state- ordered the compulsory settlement and lifted the conflict.

And for a semi-colonial national capital such as Argentina’s, Vaca Muerta is today one of the few sectors that can bring in new foreign currency through genuine investment, exploiting labor power. The mere threat of the possibility of a real extension of the struggles mobilized state and capital. The mere idea that Vaca Muerta would not be capitalized enough due to the fear of a real extension of the struggles, was understood by the Argentine bourgeoisie as the ghost of a great collective failure as a (ruling) class.

In short, for the Argentine bourgeoisie, the profitability of Vaca Muerta is not to be messed with!

The way out for the workers

Autoconvocado health workers in Neuquén. Either the extension of the struggles is also their centralization in open assemblies or defeat is certain.
Autoconvocado health workers in Neuquén. Either the extension of struggles is also their centralization in open assemblies or defeat is certain.

If the autoconvocados fail to break the isolation imposed by the union bureaucracy and the left, failing to make their struggle converge with that of other sectors and with the community of which they are part, the picket lines have their days numbered and everything will end in accepting the crumb they are offered or parading to the slaughterhouse of repression.

The tradition of the Trotskyist-Stalinist left in Argentina depicts the pickets and roadblocks as an example to follow in the struggle for better conditions. Nothing could be more destructive.

With these methods, they scatter and weaken our class, which can only assert itself in the factories, in the schools, in the hospitals and in the neighborhoods through sovereign assemblies, electing its own representatives and taking coordinated steps.

So much energy put into the picket lines has to be brought to the productive units and the neighborhood to be able to self-organize and fight as a class. Not as cliques, crews, or trades, but as a class.

Read our pamphlet: “Understanding Capital” on why extension of struggles and their centralization in open assemblies is the only way to advance them in a situation like the current one.