BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's libertarian President Javier Milei faced a one-day general strike Wednesday to protest his anti-union decree as well as his proposals for economic and labor law changes and his austerity policies.
The largest union, known by the acronym CGT, organized the strike and joined other unions. Strikers took to the streets in the capital Buenos Aires and other cities across the country, alongside social groups and political opponents including the Peronist Party, which dominated national politics for decades.
A protester carries the Spanish phrase: “Out, Milei!” in front of the Argentine Embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
An effigy of Argentine President Javier Milei is covered in snakes outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Until he ran for president, Milei, an economist, was best known for his televised diatribes against the political caste, and he secured victory by a wide margin last year, taking office just over a month ago. A self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” he promised a drastic cut in government spending to offset the budget deficit, which he says is fueling blazing inflation, which stood at 211% at the end of 2023.
On December 20, Milei issued a decree that would repeal or amend hundreds of existing laws to limit the power of unions and deregulate an economy that notoriously requires strong government intervention. A court ruling has put the labor law changes on hold. He also sent an omnibus bill to Congress that provided for far-reaching reforms in the areas of politics, social affairs, taxation, law, administration and security.
As of early evening, Milei had not made any public comment on the strike, which was scheduled to end at midnight. It remained unclear whether this represented a speed bump to his agenda or not an obstacle at all.
While people have legitimate reasons to complain – triple-digit inflation and a sharp devaluation of the Argentine peso – behind the scenes, the main reason for the strike was the president's intention to weaken the power of unions, the Buenos Aires resident said Analyst Sergio Berensztein.
“There really is a lot at stake for union leaders. If they don’t complain, their ability to negotiate will drop dramatically and their influence in politics will wane,” Berensztein told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “Milei feels quite comfortable confronting these leaders. He is still very popular; Union leaders are unpopular.”
The strike was Argentina's first general strike in more than four years and also the fastest ever organized during a presidential term since the return of democracy in 1983, according to a review by local media outlet Infobae. Milei's predecessor, the center-left Alberto Fernández, did not face a general strike.
A protester with the Spanish word “hate” stands in front of police standing guard outside the congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A protester carries a U.S. flag-themed noose during a march to Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
“We will lose more rights that we have worked for,” teacher Karina Villagra told AP from a plaza outside Congress. “Militancy should be stronger than ever.”
Milei won the runoff with 56% of the vote and said in his inaugural speech on Argentina that things would get worse before they got better. Two separate polls this month show that more than half of respondents continue to support him despite rising inflation and announced mass layoffs at state-owned companies.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich on Wednesday accused strike organizers of being “mafios” seeking to block the change approved by Argentine voters, saying on the X platform that the action would not stop the government's progress. Milei's spokesman Manuel Adorni said at a press conference: “You can't talk to people who are trying to stop the country and show a more anti-democratic side.”
His labor order would restrict the right to strike of essential workers in hospitals, education and transportation and create new compensation mechanisms to make it easier to lay off workers. It would also allow workers to pay private health care providers directly instead of funneling those resources through unions, eliminating a significant source of revenue.
His government warned in recent days that protesters would be prevented from taking part in the traditional practice of blocking roads, as they did at a demonstration in December, and that they would be arrested.
People gather outside the congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Protesters sit on their drums during a rally in front of the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Police remove a protester from blocking a street during a congressional march in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
The closure began at midday and banks, gas stations, public administration, health authorities and garbage collection were only able to operate to a limited extent. Airports remained open although state airline Aerolineas Argentinas canceled 267 flights and rescheduled others, disrupting travel plans for more than 17,000 passengers.
Public transport workers in Buenos Aires and surrounding areas were scheduled to go on strike at 7 p.m., but planned to work normally during the day to help protesters access to and from the square in front of Congress.
Tens of thousands of protesters streamed in on Wednesday afternoon. Héctor Daer, the CGT's general secretary, told the crowd from atop a stage that Milei's decree “destroys workers' individual rights and collective rights and aims to eliminate the possibility of union action.” At a time when we have great inequality in the Have company.”
Pablo Moyano of the wagoners' union told them: “If they adopt these adaptation and starvation measures, the workers, pensioners and the most humble people will put him (Economy Minister Luis Caputo) on their shoulders and throw him into the river.”
xMilei said the passage of his proposed omnibus law would lay the foundation for economic stability and growth, curb inflation and reduce poverty that punishes four in 10 Argentines. The contents of the bill are currently being debated in the lower house of Congress, with a vote expected in the coming days.
A protester holds a banner of the late First Lady Eva Peron during a march to Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Berensztein, the analyst, said he expected the bill to be significantly weakened before it was approved by the full House and then move on to the Senate for another round of negotiations.
Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington. said that although Milei acts as if he had a clear mandate, many of his voters rejected Peronism rather than fully supporting his austerity proposal.
Argentinians have already suffered a 30% increase in food costs as well as increases in energy and transport costs in a single month.
“His ability to keep the Argentine public on board is being tested and is already being tested, and that's what you're seeing right now,” Gedan said, saying the president has “given a lot of weapons to the opponents because he's like that.” “has moved quickly” and “dramatically” to address Argentina’s problems.
Gedan said a one-day strike was not an “existential threat” to Milei's presidency, but added: “The question really is whether this is a sign of what's to come.”
Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press writer Natacha Pisarenko in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.