Argentina: National Workers' Assembly meeting - a big step forward

At the weekend of February 16 and 17, thousands of workers, unemployed, and members of the popular assemblies, met in the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires for the National Assembly of Workers. This meeting is the highest point so far of the movement towards the creation of an alternative power of the workers and the masses in Argentina. The movement, which started with the revolutionary events of December 19 and 20, has advanced very rapidly not only in its organisational forms but also in the political conclusions that it has drawn. By Jordi Martorell, with a footnote by Alan Woods.

On Saturday, February 16, thousands of workers, unemployed and members of the popular assemblies, met in the Plaza de Mayo square in the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires. This was the beginning of the National Assembly of Workers (employed and unemployed). The day after, two thousand elected delegates met at the Avellaneda Colonial Theatre, representing unemployed workers' organisations from all over the country, but also local trade union branches, groups of workers' in struggle, neighbourhood popular assemblies, etc.

This meeting is the highest point so far of the movement towards the creation of an alternative power of the workers and the masses in Argentina. The movement, which started with the revolutionary events of December 19 and 20, has advanced very rapidly not only in its organisational forms but also in the political conclusions that it has drawn.

The popular assemblies, which meet weekly in every neighbourhood, now cover most areas in Buenos Aires and its periphery and are also spreading to other provinces. Starting on January 12, the popular assemblies in Buenos Aires have started weekly meetings every Sunday to co-ordinate their actions and discussions in common. These meetings of delegates from different neighbourhood assemblies ("interbarrial") have grown in size and now are gatherings of 3 to 4,000 people. There are reports of similar meetings taking place in the provinces. For instance in Rosario delegates representing 24 popular assemblies meet regularly.

These meetings discuss both the programme of the assemblies and the actions to be taken and are run on extremely democratic lines. Everyone is allowed only three minutes to speak and at the interbarrial meetings only elected delegates from neighbourhood assemblies or groups of workers in struggle are allowed to speak. At the end of the meeting all proposals are put to the vote.

The assemblies which at the beginning were mainly concentrated on the struggle against the "corralito" (government imposed freeze on bank account withdrawals) have now adopted a very advanced programme of demands which challenges every aspect of capitalist rule. These include the repudiation of the foreign debt, the nationalisation of the banks, the renationalisation of all privatised utilities, popular election of Supreme Court judges, the taking into state control of pension funds (AFJP), etc.

The popular assemblies and the workers' movement

Most important of all, the movement of the popular assemblies has taken important steps towards linking up with the workers and the movement of the unemployed. For a few years now Argentina has witnessed a movement of very militant actions on the part of unemployed workers, which take direct action and organise road blocks demanding jobs and subsidies. These piqueteros organised two national meetings to co-ordinate the movement in July and September last year.

The interbarrial in Buenos Aires decided to join the two piquetero marches called on January 28 and February 5, and various popular assemblies greeted the piqueteros in their neighbourhoods. A new slogan was coined which expressed the unity between the assemblies and the piqueteros: "Piquete y cacerola, la lucha es una sola" (pickets and pans, same struggle - this refers to the pickets organised by unemployed workers and the "pots and pans" protests organised by the assemblies). Furthermore the assemblies established links with groups of workers in struggle in their neighbourhoods. This was the case with the workers of the Brukman textile company who have now occupied the factory to oppose any lay-offs and demand that the company be nationalised under workers' control.

The workers' movement has so far not participated in these protests as an independent force. This does not at all mean that workers are passive. In the last three years there have been 8 very militant general strikes. Workers also participate in the popular assemblies in their neighbourhoods. One of the reasons why there has been no mass strike movement so far is the fear of unemployment, which has now reached an official level of more than 20%. Another important factor is the stranglehold of the trade union bureaucracy of the main CGT federation.

This is why the calling of the National Workers Assembly is such an important step forward. The September National Piquetero Meeting of unemployed workers' organisations agreed to call a new national meeting which would be composed of elected delegates, one for every 20 organised unemployed workers. This meeting never took place since the two organisations with the greatest influence in the unemployed workers movement consistently refused to call it. These organisations are the CCC (Class Struggle Militant Current) led by Alderete and the Housing and Land Federation (FTV, linked to the CTA union federation) led by D'Elia. The leaders of both these organisations are now involved in talks with the government about the management of unemployment subsidies, which is basically a manoeuvre to pacify the unemployed workers' movement.

Calling the National Workers' Assembly

But in a period of radicalisation of the class struggle, the more militant sections of the piquetero movement decided to go ahead with the calling of a Third National Workers' Assembly on their own. These included unemployed workers' organisations from all over the country, many of them linked to left wing parties like the Communist Party, the PO, the MST, the PTS, etc. They issued an appeal to employed workers, militant trade union branches and the popular assemblies calling on them to send delegates to this meeting.

The calling of this meeting provoked a split in the CCC. One of their leaders, Raúl Castells of the MIJDP, who is now under house arrest, came out publicly in favour of the National Assembly, and was expelled from the CCC for that reason.

The Buenos Aires popular assemblies had decided to remain in the Plaza de Mayo square overnight after their weekly "cacerolazo" (pots and pans protest) on Friday 15, in order to greet the delegates to the National Workers Assembly arriving from all over the country from early Saturday morning. Thousands of people were already crowding the Plaza de Mayo when the delegations of the different unemployed workers' organisations started to march in amid cheering and the chanting of slogans.

Two of the most significant delegations were those of the workers from the Brukman textile factory in Buenos Aires and the Zanón Ceramic workers from Neuquén. With a banner reading "Zanón and Brukman: under workers' control" they marched into the Plaza de Mayo, to the roar of the crowd, beating their drums. According to all reports the mood was electric. Delegations came from all over the country, from the provinces of Santa Fé, Neuquén, Chaco, Tucumán, Río Negro, Córdoba, La Rioja, Salta, Jujuy, etc. At one end of the square there was a podium with a big banner reading ‘National Assembly of Workers (Employed and Unemployed)'. At the front there was a space reserved for accredited delegates which was guarded by a line of workers with batons and metal pipes.

The mass meeting only got started in the afternoon, after having waited for all the delegations from the provinces to arrive. Dozens of speakers from different organisations from all over the country took to the stage, each one having ten minutes to address the crowd.

On Sunday, a delegates only meeting continued the debate at the Avellaneda Colonial Theatre. Two thousand delegates were present, all of them representing at least twenty people. These were not only unemployed workers, but also popular assembly delegates and, most importantly, trade union delegates as well.

One of the main focal points of the debate was the question of how the workers could solve the crisis facing the country. A resolution sent by the Union of Ceramic Workers and Employees of Neuquén (SOECN, which is occupying the Zanón factory) and the Neuquén Movement of Unemployed Workers (MTD), made it clear that "the effective unity between employed and unemployed workers… is the first condition for the workers to be able to head the necessary alliance with the ruined middle classes and the only way we can impose a workers and popular solution to the national crisis." They further added that: "Only the working class, employed and unemployed, state and private sector workers, can solve the national crisis. The employed working class produces all the wealth of the nation. It runs transport, pulls all the levers of the economy: from energy (gas, oil, electricity) to the financial and banking system. Together with the militancy of the unemployed (who we consider to be part of the working class) with their blockades of the country's principal roads and highways, and of course with the salaried state and municipal workers who are already in struggle and have made themselves part of the movement, this is the fundamental social force that can give rise to a progressive outcome to the capitalist crisis." Correctly, the Zanón workers also made an appeal to work amongst the rank and file of the trade unions to win organised workers away from the trade union bureaucracy.

Workers' power

The meeting finally voted a resolution which stressed the idea that the Duhalde government is an enemy of the working class and that a popular solution to the crisis means "expelling Duhalde and the class of looters which put him in government". The Assembly rejected all attempts of social contract (concertación), i.e. the process started by the government to co-opt the unemployed workers' organisations. Point 4 of the resolution states: "We must take into our own hands the solving of the most pressing problems of the masses: jobs, health, education, housing, which means spreading and promoting these organisations [popular assemblies, piquetero organisations and workers' assemblies], up and down the country as an alternative which belongs to the workers. We define the strategy of the piqueteros and the more militant trade union sections organised in this National Assembly as one of incorporating the industrial workers' movement and that of the privatised utilities to the struggle of the piqueteros. Any serious attempt to defeat the current government and the ruling regime cannot avoid the fundamental role of the working class which today makes the main production centres and services work, such as electricity, gas, telephone and transport"

This is basically a recognition of the potential power of the working class to paralyse society. In this regard the Assembly heard a proposal of the railway workers (who are now threatened with thousands of lay-offs) to paralyse rail transport in the country and spread the piquetero road blockades to the railways. One of the slogans on Saturday's open rally was precisely "Luchar, vencer, obreros al poder" (Fight, win, workers to power).

The resolution also calls upon the leaders of the CCC and the FTV-CTA, who refused to call for this National Assembly, to break any negotiations with the government taking place behind the backs of the movement and to join the plan of struggle which had been approved. The meeting rejected any attempt to foster illusions "in governments which basically represent the interests of the exploiters, native and foreign".

The programme approved was the following:

Freedom for Raúl Castells, Emilio Alí, Peralta and all the other imprisoned comrades. Withdrawal of charges against the fighters.

The organisers and perpetrators of the murders on December 19/20 must be put on trial and punished. The murderers of the comrades in Salta (Justiniano, Gómez, Verón, Barrios and Santillán) and Corrientes must be put on trial and punished.

Repudiation of the foreign debt.

Nationalisation of the banks and main companies.

Statisation of the AFJP (pension funds).

Outlawing of lay-offs and suspensions.

Statisation under workers' control of all companies that close or sacks workers, and reopening of all closed companies under the same conditions.

Immediate return of bank deposits to small savers.

Struggle for genuine and permanent jobs, through the sharing out of working hours without reduction of pay.

Minimum wage and unemployment benefits to be linked to the cost of living.

Out with Duhalde and the IMF. For a workers' government.

This programme, which is basically a programme of socialist revolution, was passed by these workers' delegates together with a plan of struggle. This states that the process of struggle of the last few years in Argentina opens up "the possibility of solving the crisis of power which affects the system of exploitation in our country in favour of the workers" and that "we must act, because the tenacious action of the people has not yet resulted in a victory, but rather in the usurpation by an illegitimate government which is the puppet of the looters."

The plan of action includes the reinforcement of the road blockades, a national mobilisation of pickets and cacerolazos for February 20 on the second anniversary of the popular uprising. A national day of action against the privatised oil companies. These were singled out since they have been the most profitable privatised companies in the last few years. The demand is that these profits should be used to create jobs and that the companies be renationalised. A march demanding the freedom of class fighters for March 2, a national workers' march on the capital on March 4 to 8. And finally a new date was set for the next National Workers' Assembly which will take place on April 2.

On Sunday evening, representatives from the National Workers Assemblies attended the 6th meeting of the Buenos Aires interbarrial to explain their decisions and get support for their plan of struggle. The interbarrial decided to support the plan of action and also passed a number of other programmatic demands. The most significant of them are:

e) The calling of a National Popular Assembly with representatives from the popular assemblies, the interbarrial and assemblies from the provinces for March 16 and 17.

k) Duhalde and its economic plan must go. For a government of the popular assemblies, the interbarrial, the workers and the piqueteros.

The resolutions of the National Workers' Assembly and the interbarrial are basically a programme of workers' and people's power. Interestingly the slogan of a Constituent Assembly (which we have polemicised against) does not figure amongst the resolutions of the Workers' Assembly or the interbarrial.

Ruling class terrified

The key question is that this is not just a programme which has been passed, but that sections of the organised workers are being won over to this programme. The deepening economic crisis will force more and more sections of active workers to join the struggle to defend their jobs, and it will become clearer that this can only be done effectively by replacing the capitalist system with a system of nationalisation and workers control.

As the leader of the CGT San Lorenzo put it at the Saturday rally, "the working class, and specifically the industrial proletariat must regain the centre stage in the Argentinean political scene". The leader of the Union of Ceramic Workers and Employees of Neuquén (SOECN) insisted that the key was winning over the organised workers to the struggle, "having a picket outside the Repsol-YPF refinery is very good, but it would be better if we can get the oil workers to come out, if we can get the electricity workers [also present at the Workers' Assembly] to switch off the power. Having a protest outside a bank is good, but it would be much better if we can get the bank workers out on strike".

The car industry workers have already announced strike action against threatened redundancies. Civil servants in the provincial governments up and down the country have been taking strike action demanding the payment of their wages. The government has also just intervened to stop the threatened oil workers' strike. The privatised oil companies had announced thousands of lay-offs as a response to an increase in the government tax on petrol. This had forced the bureaucratised oil workers' union leaders to announce an all-out-strike to start on Monday 18. The terrified government imposed compulsory arbitration, which for the moment means the suspension of lay-offs and strike action. In this example we see the contradiction in which the Argentinean ruling class is trapped. On the one hand they can only maintain the system of capitalist exploitation by launching ruthless attacks on the living conditions of the workers and the middle class. But at the same time, in doing so this threatens to provoke a revolutionary movement in which they could lose everything.

In the meantime the economic crisis continues to deepen, with the peso falling to 2.10 to the dollar, its lowest level since the beginning of flotation just a few weeks ago. Industrial production collapsed by 18% in January, a record fall after an already steep fall in December. All sectors of the economy were affected, but amongst the worst hit were the textile industry (-56,1%), car production (-65%) and engineering (-54,1%). And this is despite the fact that in theory devaluation should have boosted exports.

The Argentinean bourgeois can also see the dangers involved in this whole process. In the last few days they have published two hysterical editorials in La Nación, denouncing the movement of the assemblies. On February 14 they declared that "although the rise of these assemblies appears as a consequence of the public being sick and tired of the untrustworthy conduct of the political class, we must also take into account that such mechanisms of popular deliberation present a danger, since because of their very nature they can develop into something like that sinister model of power, the 'soviets'". And the article continues: "Experience shows that these assemblies are sometimes taken over by agents of extreme ideologies, which take advantage of the legitimate indignation of the majority for their own purposes, trying to achieve in this way what they could never achieve through the ballot box. It is not a bad thing that people want to express themselves... But it is important to point out that it is one thing is to engage in noisy protest and it is something completely different to take government decisions that touch on public interest and the common good."

What they are basically saying is that the people have the right to say what they want... as long as they do not threaten the rule of the capitalists and the bankers!! As in every revolution the bourgeois media raises the spectre of "extremist agitators" as the cause for the revolutionary mood amongst the masses. In reality it is the complete bankruptcy of their own system which has created a fertile ground for revolutionary ideas to be adopted by the masses, as we see in Argentina in these days.

Harping on the same theme, La Nación of February 17, accuses the movement of assemblies of organising an "undercover coup d'etat". The editorial insists that "it is necessary for Argentineans to calm down and recognise that a country cannot work in a state of permanent popular deliberation." (Why not?) "It is not reasonable that [a neighbourhood assembly] meets to declare the illegitimacy of the president of the Nation, to declare null and void the mandates of all members of parliament without exception and to demand the resignation of all members of the [Supreme] Court." Once again this exposes the real character of what bourgeois democracy means. The people can participate, as long as this participation is limited to voting every few years. But once the people start to actually take affairs into their own hands, then that is a coup! The problem is that the majority of the people in Argentina have voted for every available political option over the last 20 years and none of them has been able to solve the problems facing the majority. Now the masses of workers, unemployed and middle layers have said enough is enough and have started to take matters into their own hands through democratically elected and accountable committees.

The editorials of the bourgeois papers are calling on the government not to make any concessions, since, they argue, this would only further encourage the movement. After violent protests of small savers, who attacked a number of banks in the financial district of Buenos Aires, the government warned that if such actions continued they would use repressive measures. The police has already been used in a number of clashes with the piqueteros. It is clear that this time the ruling class is more prepared than it was in December. This is why it will take a more organised movement to take the revolutionary process forward. The main tasks are those voted at the National Workers' Assembly: the strengthening and spreading of the assemblies and above all the organising of the industrial working class into workers' committees capable of organising a general strike.

The way forward

(A footnote by Alan Woods)

From the above information it is clear that the revolutionary movement in Argentina, far from dying down, is advancing and acquiring an increased breadth and depth. The bourgeoisie and its government are unable to halt it, and are reduced to making dire warnings and threats from the sidelines.

The quotes from La Nación clearly show the growing alarm of the ruling class. They understand from their class point of view what we understand from the standpoint of the working class. It is no accident that La Nación in its editorial columns rages against the popular assemblies, which it correctly sees as embryonic soviets - that is to say, embryonic organs of workers' power. Yes! That is just what they are. The only difference between our analysis and that of La Nación is that this bourgeois paper sees in this something dark and sinister, whereas the working people see in it the only hope of salvation.

The masses, having begun to move, will not stop until all their just demands are met. They have found the appropriate organisational forms through which to express these demands. Moreover, the demands themselves are daily becoming clearer, more concrete and more conscious. The programmes adopted by both the National Assembly of Workers and the meeting of the interbarriales are excellent and correspond exactly to the needs of the moment. Taken in their entirety, they add up to a programme for workers' power.

Workers everywhere will read these marvellous accounts with a sense of pride and inspiration. We see here the birth of a new power - a proletarian power - that is growing up within the womb of the old society. It is as yet poorly formed, as one would expect in any embryo. It has a long way to go before it reaches full maturity. But it is already well on the way to becoming a sturdy infant, with healthy limbs and a strong heart and head.

What is the next step? That is also stated implicitly in the above resolutions. It is necessary to spread the movement to every town and village, to every factory, mine and farm. Everywhere the slogan of popular assemblies must be advanced and popularised. But there is something else which the comrades in Argentina are clearly aware of. In order that the popular assemblies and the movement of the piqueteros should acquire its full force and sweep, it is imperative that it should be firmly linked to elected workers' committees in the factories.

When we say that the popular assemblies are embryonic soviets, what that means is that they do not yet fully express the movement in the workplaces. But without this, their scope will be too limited to achieve their objectives. The next step must therefore be linked to a serious campaign to step up the formation of elected committees in the workplaces.

This demand will meet with the firm resistance of the trade union bureaucracy. They will not want to see their power undermined by the establishment of rank-and-file committees. But the power of the union apparatus is not absolute. The workers are faced with serious problems. Their wages, conditions and jobs are all under threat. The union leaders can hold back the discontent of the workers for a time - but only for a time. Sooner or later, the critical point will be reached where the workers will say: So far and no further!

What is absolutely necessary is to link the vanguard firmly to the masses, and to understand that different layers will draw conclusions at different rhythms. The vanguard, active in the popular assemblies and the piqueteros, is in the first line of struggle. They are the shock troops of the revolution. But the heavy battalions of the working class have not yet moved in a decisive way. Of course, they will catch up, but in the meantime it is necessary to avoid going too far ahead of the mass.

The decision to put demands on the leaders of the CCC and the FTV-CTA, who refused to call for this National Assembly, to break any negotiations with the government was very good. But the majority of the organised workers in Argentina are under the control of the Peronist CGT. It is not possible to carry through a revolution in Argentina unless this decisive layer is won over.

The Left in Argentina is traditionally hostile to Peronism, which is quite understandable. But it is one thing to combat the Peronist leaders politically, and quite another to ignore a large part of the organised working class. In the past there have been divisions and splits in Peronism. In the present situation, with a right wing Peronist government carrying out the policies of the IMF there must be serious divisions within the CGT. We must find a road to the rank and file of the CGT workers and win them for the revolutionary road by a skilful application of the united front tactic.

In all this, a key role is being played by the Trotskyists of the PO and other organisations and parties. The convening of the National Assembly of Workers was a great success for the revolutionary vanguard. We salute this success with every possible enthusiasm. We are pleased to say that, whereas we disagreed with the slogan of the constituent assembly, we are in complete agreement with the slogans that were approved last weekend. This gives us every confidence that, on the basis of the above demands, the Argentine revolution is now moving in the right direction.

February 20, 2002

Read the full text of the resolution passed on February 17:

Resolution of the National Workers' Assembly  (English translation)
Resolución de la Asamblea Nacional de Trabajadores (Spanish original)

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