Argentine unions protest Javier Milei’s measures to dismantle the State

The country’s main labor organizations held a rally at the headquarters of the Argentine judiciary. The far-right leader says that he will hold a plebiscite if Congress rejects his measure

Protestas sindicatos Javier Milei
Demonstrators protest against the economic reforms of Argentina's new president, Javier Milei, near the Palace of Justice in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 27, 2023.AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (REUTERS)

Summoned by trade unions and other organizations, thousands of people gathered in downtown Buenos Aires this Wednesday to demand the halt of far-right-wing President Javier Milei’s “necessary and urgent” decree to dismantle the Argentine State. The protest brought together the country’s main labor confederations, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the Argentine Workers’ Central (CTA), as well as social, political and human rights organizations, to demonstrate at the headquarters of the Judiciary and Argentina’s Supreme Court of Justice. The gathering took place amid a large deployment of security forces but occurred without incident until midday, when tensions between the demonstrators and the police increased.

On Wednesday morning, the various sectors at the protest appealed to “workers’ unity” to stop the decree of necessity and urgency (DNU) published in the country’s Official Gazette a week ago. The text imposes over 300 reforms at once. Among other things, it repeals laws, eliminates dozens of state regulations, enables the privatization of public enterprises, opens the door to dollarization and gives the green light to making the labor market and the health system more flexible. The decision is being questioned in Congress, the courts and in the streets by those who consider the decree “unconstitutional.”

“The DNU destroys our rights and, moreover, does so undemocratically,” said CTA member Juan Vita at Wednesday’s rally. “If this government, which was democratically elected, thinks [the decree] is necessary, it should take it to Congress,” he demanded. The unionist explained that this protest forms part of “a growing plan”: “We will see how to continue at each moment. We do not rule out other measures.”

All around, there were slogans criticizing the decree’s form and substance. “Without rights there is no democracy,” read the banners held up by the unions. Left-wing parties and movements, in another part of the plaza, demanded an end to the “chainsaw plan” and to “the repression of those who fight.” When it was still possible to move among the masses, a group marched with the image of the Virgin of Luján, Argentina’s patron saint, on their shoulders. On social media, the feminist movement criticized the decree as “a clear demonstration of authoritarianism,” while the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) charged that the executive order “violates the separation of powers.”

Decrees of necessity and urgency are exceptional mechanisms that allow the executive branch to issue or modify laws to deal with an urgent matter that cannot wait for debate in Congress. The government has claimed that Argentina’s situation — high levels of inflation and poverty — is “very difficult” and merits the measure, which is of unprecedented magnitude. However, many sectors believe that the president is assuming legislative powers for himself by imposing hundreds of reforms without congressional debate, and they question the “necessity and urgency” of the package’s contents.

The decree’s series of modifications will go into effect this Friday, and Congress may reject it with a majority vote in each of the chambers. But if only one of them approves it, the decree will be valid; it will also be valid if the measure is not taken up by one of them. Meanwhile, legal action represents another way to stop the measure: more than ten injunctions have already been filed, according to the news agency Télam, and the CGT also filed for a restraining order against the mega-decree, which the courts rejected this Wednesday, according to national media.

“The goal is for the DNU not to continue,” CGT secretary Héctor Daer announced the day before. In addition to their legal strategy, the unions have also held meetings with deputies and senators from other parties to broaden opposition to the decree in the two congressional chambers. The organizations say that they are assessing the situation as they cautiously define their strategies.

Neither the CGT nor the CTA have announced a general strike yet, but that measure is on the table and leftist organizations have called for it. According to Guillermo Kane, a Buenos Aires legislator from the Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party), it is “a bad sign” that the central unions have not called for a 24-hour strike. “Without mass participation and streets blocked, this march is almost symbolic. We need fundamental action,” Kane demands. “The CGT, which has not called a strike in four years, has not been playing an active role in defending the workers,” the legislator says. He demands a “fight plan” commensurate to the decree’s “severity.”

Tension in the streets

The first reactions against the DNU rang out from balconies after Milei read some of the measures on national television a week ago. Around the country, outraged Argentines expressed their opposition by banging pots and pans, and hundreds of citizens marched to the entrance of Congress in Buenos Aires to defend the rights that Argentines have won over decades. After the Christmas recess, the demonstrations rejecting the decree resumed. This Tuesday, in the city of Buenos Aires alone, there were two rallies in front of Congress, where protestors chanted slogans such as “Up with rights, down with the decree!”

The executive branch has suggested that the purpose of the demonstrations is to “destabilize” the government. Last week, Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich unveiled a protocol to prohibit protests from blocking streets and roads, one of the most common forms of protest in Argentina. This Wednesday, she once again deployed a strong security operation to control the areas where the march was taking place. The gathering occurred without incident until midday, but as the march dispersed, some demonstrators tried to block streets and tensions increased when a number of police officers — many more than the number of demonstrators — approached to allow traffic to move. There were scuffles and blows and officers arrested several people, as shown on TV. Bullrich reiterated her threat: “He who engages in protests pays for them.”

Minister of Human Capital Sandra Pettovello echoes the Minister of Security’s refrain: “He who cuts [off traffic] does not get paid.” The head of Human Capital, which brings together the purview of the former Ministries of Education, Social Development and Labor, is referring to the consequences that could result if beneficiaries of state aid block the streets. The DNU’s detractors have many reasons to protest: in addition to the decree that dismantles the state and the guidelines given by Bullrich and Pettovello to control protests, there are also strong austerity measures, as communicated by the Minister of Economy, Luis Caputo, who devaluated the currency by 50% and announced the elimination of transport and energy subsidies starting in January.

“We’re coming from a difficult situation and austerity measures cannot be borne by the people,” Dina Sanchez, assistant secretary of the Union of Workers of the Popular Economy (UTEP), objected. The trade unionist pointed out that “there is a lot of disillusionment” in working-class neighborhoods because the government’s decree “was brutal” for the most vulnerable sectors. “There were no austerity measures for the businessmen or for the judiciary,” she observed. She further noted that the goal of this Wednesday’s protest is not to destabilize the government but to stop a DNU that she considers “harmful” and takes away the “rights won” by citizens. “The situation warrants unity among all sectors,” she argued.

A possible plebiscite

The night before the march, Milei warned that he would not give in, maintaining his defiance of Congress. In a television interview broadcast the day before, the far-right president said that if Congress rejects the decree, he will “obviously” call for a plebiscite. “Why does Congress oppose something that is good for the people? Let them explain it to me,” he said. He charged that “some” legislators “seek bribes.” A congressman prior to becoming president, Milei went on to allege that “there are a lot of crooks and freeloaders” in the legislature.

Although Milei won 56% of the vote in the second round of the election to defeat Peronist candidate Sergio Massa, the president’s party is in the minority in Congress: in the Chamber of Deputies, the far right holds only 38 seats out of a total of 257; in the Senate, it has only eight of 72 seats. His party, La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances), is confident that it will succeed. The unions will meet again this Thursday to determine how to continue the “plan of struggle” against a government that, for now, has no intention of backing down.

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