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Bus Drivers in Argentina: Conflict and Action Amidst Covid-19

Written by The Passenger.

Mandatory quarantine is being further extended across Argentina. If it first few weeks saw a relative calm, this strange social peace – promoted by the new “social pact” of Alberto Fernandez’ government – is starting to show its cracks to the naked eye. On one hand, news is spreading that fast food companies such as McDonalds, Starbucks and Mostaza are paying only 50% of their workers’ salaries. On the other, we start to witness some concrete protest action from the more organised sectors of the working class. The meatpacking company Penta, in the district of Quilmes (to the south of Buenos Aires) stopped paying wages and shut down the plant, in effect a real lock-out, allegedly due to a lack of inputs. A picket line that was being held by workers at the gates was repressed by police, the first case of repression against workers fighting the effects of this crisis.

Another complex situation is taking place among bus drivers all over the country. The former government, led by Mauricio Macri, decentralised national subsidies to the public transportation system, giving provinces responsibility for the obligations to business owners. But the provincial budgets are under heavy pressure due to the Covid-19 crisis, affecting the negotiations between provincial governments and the bus companies. Without hesitation, these companies then rushed to cut the bus drivers’ salary.

On the 540 and 533 bus lines, both in Buenos Aires, the company – Autobuses group – paid only 80% of workers’ wages for March. The immediate response was a drivers’ strike, which quickly resulted in the payment of the rest of their wages. Meanwhile, the Argentinian Federation of Passenger Transport (FATAP), the bosses’ association, threatened the national government with a lock-out as a form of extortion for more subsidies. The same association has also notified the bus drivers’ union (UTA) that many companies will have trouble paying the entire sum of salaries in these months of quarantine, clearly revealing their plans so that they may count on help from the union to accomplish them. The situation of incomplete or delayed wages has already generated many assemblies throughout the country, in provinces such as Jujuy (where some have been paid 20% of their wages), Corrientes, La Rioja, Córdoba and La Pampa, including long-distance bus companies: there have already been 100 layoffs in Via Bariloche.

Since the beginning of the sanitary crisis, bus drivers from some lines have begun organizing to take protective measures in order to not expose themselves to risk while working. Bus drivers from line 60 (Buenos Aires city), who have a long organising tradition, decided in their assembly to block the front door and to modify the plastic glass inside of the bus in order to physically separate the passengers’ section of the bus from the driver. The company at first notified the drivers of these measures, but did not take any concrete action against them, and just a few days later the National Commission for Transport Regulations (CNRT) published a protocol recommending precisely the same sanitary measures to all companies. This shows that workers’ organization can be quicker and also more efficient to protect their own health, than waiting for managerial initiative.

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