The Piqueteros Movement of Argentina

From our Latin American correspondent

A Little History

Argentina's current crisis of power has not only arisen because of the capitalist financial collapse, but from the aptitude of the hardest hit sectors of the proletariat to translate the experience of the last 20 years - during which the capitalist regime, whether under the military boot or under democracy, has plunged the working class into misery and super-exploitation - into autonomous organisations which restore to the masses the power to decide their own destiny. One of the characteristics of revolutionary periods is the organisation of sectors of the proletariat which were previously disorganised and thought destined to occupy a passive role in the dismal industrial reserve army. The origins of the piquetero movement go back six years ago when the first nuclei responded to the initiatives of experienced worker activists who had been fired as a result of bourgeois persecution. Born in an atmosphere of crisis and bosses' violence, where the situation objectively prevented the channelling of workers' demands through organs based on mediation and conciliation, the piqueteros organisationally crystallised the collective and direct action of the proletariat against the organised power of the bourgeoisie. Faced with the failure of all workers' organisations based on bureaucracy, functionaries and union and parliamentary work, the piquetero has no other subject than the very victims of exploitation, who have today become agents of the struggle. Its terrain is not that of the citizen, but of the proletariat, it is not democracy, but the class struggle, it is not mediation and agreement, but force.

The proletarian elements which capitalism has marginalized are gathered within the piquete. Here they directly raise their demands, elaborate their strategy and prepare actions without entrusting their fate to the decisions of the state and bosses' institutions of mediation and arbitration. Due to its own nature - direct action obedient to the worker assembly - the piquete is incapable of maintaining an apparatus; its strength resides in assembly and the effective capacity to mobilise, not in a caste of functionaries who are delegated the management of demands. Although initially all the characteristics of any organisation calling for social aid were in evidence, with time the piquetero movement went on to pose the general problems of society and economic organisation from the viewpoint of general demands of workers. Very soon the piquetes dispelled the impression that they were consumer or corporative organs limited to trade union demands, showing themselves unequivocally to be organs open to all proletarians in struggle, where all corporative distinctions had been erased to affirm the unity of workers in the common fight against exploitation. Perhaps this is the reason why such organs have been compelled from the beginning to move towards a constant confrontation with the state, the police and the unions. Their questioning of current society is not limited to the effects of the political-economic order of the government in power, but considers all the problems of economic organisation from a perspective of the construction of workers' power round the basic nuclei of the farm, mine, factory and workshop. Their questioning of the state aims at the reorganisation of the system of government on the basis of direct democracy starting from the district, the municipality and all the territory. Here are obviously decisive class moments virtually capable of realising the unity of the proletariat in revolutionary terms.

Today the piquetes want to generalise the experiences of workers' control of industry to all industrial units or enterprises, paralysed or closed, and propose the elaboration and implementation of a national workers' plan to expropriate all privatised enterprises (the most important in the country) and occupy all industry currently monopolised and place it under direct workers' control. The plan is to divide up the work and have all the conditions of social and technical protection for the worker, rewarding the worker with an income at least capable of covering primary needs. On the political level they propose the demolition of the entire structure of the current political system and its substitution by what they call a "workers' government". Despite the still rough and basic character of their consciousness the piquetes movement tends instinctively towards communism. When it estimates that the capacity of every worker to interact socially should not obey the market nor capital's economic cycles, but human need, when it proclaims that political power must be devolved to workers' assemblies, when it puts the needs of the workers above those of industry's capitalist hierarchy, and thereby effectively questions the social division of labour, when it opposes the unequal distribution of labour time in the name of the rights of the entire working class, when it says that the distribution of the social product of labour should correspond to social needs and not the criteria of bourgeois profit, it demonstrates its proletarian and communist spirit.

The capitalist catastrophe in recent years has accentuated revolutionary tendencies and confirmed the validity and relevance of the methods of democracy and direct action to solve problems. Today the very survival of the workers supposes the abolition of the antiquated system of production and distribution that inhibits the conquest of new productive forces to this end. Such are the great historical issues around which gravitate the movement of the Argentinian proletariat, the movement of the piqueteros.

The Piquetero Assembly of February 16th

The last assembly held on February 16th concretised the idea of uniting in one Congress all the organs of struggle of the workers in factories, enterprises and districts in order to impose a programme which unifies the workers and gives life to an independent class strategy, advancing a struggle plan towards a political general strike to bring down the government and the parties regime. In this sense the February assembly reaffirms the tendency towards political rupture.

It is normal that in order to drain the strength the masses have gained by their political development, the bourgeoisie develops various manoeuvres to weaken and divide. Due to their historic position of weakness, today the Argentinian bourgeoisie favours political alternatives. As under the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, the Argentinian bourgeoisie is trying to co-opt the workers' organs and integrate them within the institutional framework. It has called for the constitution of so-called "crisis councils" or "consultative councils" via which "the government wishes to channel social plans". According to the latest resolution of the piquetera assembly of 16th February 2002, the consultative councils

are an organisation dedicated to convert social aid into a source of capitalist business and regiment or weaken the genuine organisations of the unemployed.

With such organs, the government aims to generate a demobilising dynamic which may allow it to direct the workers' anger towards immediate solutions which can be recuperated on capitalist terrain, causing them to lose the perspective of power which today motivates them. Firstly, it aims to use the employment plans "to supply cheap labour at 50 dollars to bankrupt business". The National piquetera Assembly has called for "not integrating these 'emergency' or 'crisis' committees and demand, backed by mobilisation, the totality of our demands and their control by the organisations of the unemployed". Before ending, the Assembly stated in point 4 of the cited resolution "we are witness to a torrent of struggles and organisations via the Popular Assemblies...and the Piqueteros Assemblies and the working class.."

Calls for conciliation are designed to integrate the leaders and silence the organisations, with the aim of preventing them uniting around a single plan of struggle. With proposals such as public works schemes with the massive employment of cheap labour power and the tactic of setting workers in export industries (who live untouched by the crisis) against the rest of the working class, the intention is to profit from the clamour for work. For example, before the Grand National Piquetera Assembly was held, the government made several attempts at political neutralisation. One of these saw President Duhalde commit himself to signing a decree allowing the organisations of the unemployed to integrate the consultative councils in the provinces into the administration of social plans. In spite of attempts to corrupt, and the pressures applied by the government to subsume such a compromise under a social peace pact, it found no echo amongst the unemployed organisations which met in the assembly.

One of its essential characteristics lies in the attempt at national and international co-ordination of worker resistance (for now limited to neighbouring countries). Another resides in its denunciation of the failure of the collaborationist policy of the CCC and the FTV-CTA, and their call to all members of these organisations to turn around and join the movement bearing the programme and continuity of the two preceding piquetera assemblies (in this as in other debates, the Assembly revealed a high level of political homogeneity, upheld by four forces; the MIJD, Polo Obrero, MTL and the bloc headed by the MTR). (1) The third sign of this tendency is revealed by the conduct of a significant sector of the masses which is clearly posing the problem of power. This puts forward the necessity of the revolutionary strategy, tactic and programme (the party itself) and the development of the military strength of the movement. Whilst some sectors, seemingly unimportant, claim to limit the movement to the satisfaction of workers' urgent needs by simply looking for an immediate escape from hunger and unemployment - the most important sectors signal that the movement should immediately create an action plan which can implement, step by step, a strategy of growth of workers' power and its politico-military strength.

It is not wishful thinking when we point to the preponderance of a healthy revolutionary instinct within the piquetero movement. The attitude best reflecting it is crystallised in the rejection, and the almost unanimous denunciation by those present, of attempts by the Pymes (2) - some of whose organisations participated in the Assembly - to transform the piquetero movement into a mechanism subordinated to trade union demands. When a proposal to support the Pymes of Salta city to carry out a project concerning roads, the hostility of the delegates and the mass of those present was general. They first emphasised that the Pymes are the organisations of small owners and ought to speak for themselves, at their own risk, whilst the piquetes are an independent organisation of workers struggling for a global solution to the problem of misery and put forward the establishment of their own power. Naturally, hatred of the Pymes does not arise from theoretical criteria, but from the practical experience of workers from 1999-2000 when the Pymes began to receive subsidies from the government and became the most voracious exploiters of the workers.

Firms which are running in the region do not offer effective work. When they do use labour power, they work as the intermediaries of big business. The demand of the co-ordinators of the unemployed incorporated within the piquetes is the demand for genuine work from enterprises and the fulfilment of collective agreements, including a minimum wage, conditions of industrial safety, maintaining the 2.50 pesos per hour indexed by the evaluation which took place in Argentina as a whole. The Pymes used black market labour, ignored the most elemental rights of the workers, due to the absolute lack of resources and industrial safety, returned to atavistic forms of human exploitation (the Pymes saw the rebirth, on the one hand, of patriarchal worker - boss relations, and, on the other hand, workers having to suffer a situation of dispersion and social isolation, deprived of any means of defence, even trade union associations, which would allow them to fight for their demands within capitalism). The piqueteros organisations refuse to raise the demands of the small bosses to continue brutally exploiting the workers. This was declared a contradiction by the majority of delegates. In contrast, the Pymes were denounced as subsidiary instruments of big capitalist business and part of the general bourgeois policy to render work precarious. In fact, the effect of the Pymes on employment, the distribution of wealth and the organisation of work has been terrible.

First, instead of guaranteed stable employment they only offer temporary work and serve rather as mechanisms of subcontracting for big business. Obviously this has freed them from the onerous costs and social compromise of maintaining secure jobs. Second, instead of guaranteeing a subsistence wage, the Pymes pay starvation level wages and have heightened the slave-like distribution of labour-time, increasing overwork - by lengthening the working day (absolute surplus value) - and placing the burden of work on an ever-decreasing population of employed workers (which guarantees the growth of the industrial reserve army and unemployment, with the consequent intensification of competition between workers). Third, the use of labour power is more intense - to the extent that a multiplicity of tasks are carried out at a faster rate - the worker is literally squeezed, his physical and nervous output is pushed to the limit, leading to premature ageing and death (in the timber industry, which employs a large part of Pymes workers, the average lifespan for a worker is 50 years!)

The most important aspect of the piquetero movement today is its call for the unity of the entire class and the posing of a general strike to overthrow the ruling groups. The main demand of the last National Assembly is summed up in its formulation of a strategy which allows the creation of an organisation capable of carrying out a general strike with pickets, road closures and demonstrations throughout the country. This organisation has to unite the unemployed organisations with various sectors of the industrial working class and articulate them in a single movement against the regime. Such a proposition is not based on a chimera, but on the deepening of the conflict between workers and owners in the industrial apparatus due to the continual lay offs, closures and stoppage of business. In this sense, the piquetero movement operates as an authentic social vanguard that, on the one hand, proposes action strategies against the bourgeoisie and the forces of order, trying to maintain the initiative in the struggle against their power; and, on the other hand, strengthens the social and political united front of employed and unemployed workers, trying to coordinate them in a united strategy of the entire proletariat. Its role in formulating and carrying out of a strategy which is destructive and constructive at the same time, which puts on the agenda the development of a workers' offensive for the destruction of the regime and the re-organisation of the economy to serve the most pressing needs of the workers, generates an unmistakeable revolutionary dynamic in this southern country. We do not know to what extent the organisations participating in the movement are willing or have the power to structure the great strength of the piqueteros and workers to consolidate a political alternative for the working class: an alternative which would have the strength and breadth to allow the opening of the way for taking power through the generalisation and perfecting of the Assembly system on all levels of importance (factory, district, municipality, province, territory).


Despite the above, the piquetero movement is not a homogenous whole without the class differences of bourgeois society and its influences. The outcome of the Argentinian movement today depends on the political leadership which is imprinted upon the mass organisations. Despite the essential tendency towards communism and its instinct for revolution, the piquetero movement, to the extent that it has demonstrated its importance and its national dimension, has become the theatre of the bitterest dispute between the different political currents who are fighting for the political leadership of the working class. The resolution of the February Assembly allows us sufficient grounds to warn that the movement is still a hybrid which fluctuates between reform or revolution. Whilst the fifth point of the general Resolution insists that the piquetero programme demands work plans under the control of the organisations of the unemployed, but also rejects devaluation, stopping payments on the external debt, nationalisation of the banks and wages and unemployment benefit according to family needs, point six calls for the overthrow of the regime and the instalment of a workers' government. However, there are encouraging signs, shown by declarations in points 3 and 4 of the resolution:

We must take into our hands the solution of the most pressing problems of the masses: work, health, education, housing, which means putting forward and extending these organisations throughout the length and breadth of the whole country as the workers' own alternative. We define the strategy of the piqueteros and the combative union sectors gathered in this National assembly by the incorporation of the industrial workers' movement and the large-scale, privatised, public services into the current piquetero struggles. Any serious claim to overthrow the present government and regime cannot bypass the fundamental role of the workers today in maintaining the principal centres of production and essential services such as light, gas, telephones and transport.

The great historical contest between reformism and revolution is expressed as follows: either organs of direct democracy and self-organisation of the worker masses are strengthened, articulated and centralised, or they are dissolved into bourgeois democracy. Is it by incorporating mass organisations into a 'democratic front' to ask for 'elections' and a 'constituent assembly' creating the basis for superseding bourgeois democracy? Or is it by making them alternative embryos of power and thus via their active achievement? What confronts workers who have already created power structures is not the winning of an electoral majority in a new assembly or bourgeois parliament, but to link and co-ordinate the basic cells in a single power structure, operating on all territorial levels, (the centre, provinces, municipalities). Such a structure is the only one which can come about and direct society's affairs in the name of the workers. The step to electoral participation, proposed by the P.O. and the majority of Argentinian Trotskyism, has an obviously regressive character because it would again transfer the exercise of power to separate political bodies, giving the mass organs, at most, the role of simple appendices of the government, standing above them, working in the interests of the privileged elites who make it up. Again the party oligarchy would emerge - the only effective holders of the reins of government - reconstituted by new personalities and state institutions. The great task facing class subjectivity and the mass of disinherited Argentinians is not so much to free themselves from their democratic illusions, since these have been exhausted by the experience of ten years of political struggle, but to unite their autonomous organisations and pave the way to their own dictatorship. Certainly, the masses have overthrown a government and imposed their organs' collective will through street fighting and strikes, but they have not destroyed the state or the bosses' organisation. Nor have they united their various partial struggles - and the organs of power with which, at various levels, have replaced the apparatus of government - into a general struggle for the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The political struggle today fought within the piqueteros movement should decide if, faced with the disintegration of the capitalist regime and the crisis of power, the movement moves towards the revolutionary solution and acts as an independent factor of the working class and the masses gathered in the Popular Assemblies, or ends up tied to the institutional framework, through the co-opting of its leaders and the loss of any perspective of power for the working class. If the revolutionary strategy is not politically imposed on its activity, the piquetero movement will be limited to showing just how far the spontaneous movement of the masses, left to their own fate, can go. Given the absence of the previous work of revolutionary organisation and propagation of the communist programme within the class (which is explicable by the considerable weakness of the working class vanguard) there absolutely do not exist guarantees of final victory. The fact that the crisis has thrust different strata and sectors of the working class onto the same fighting terrain and pushes towards class forms of organisation shows the immense contribution that the current situation makes to revolutionary development, but on its own it is not enough to assure a successful outcome. Despite objectively preventing any role for the organisations of conciliation, mediation and agreement, the burning question arising from the current crisis is just how far will the masses go, left to their own fate and under the influence of programmes and strategies which distance them just as much from their own class interests, as from the way to power.

(1) MIJD: Independent Movement of Unemployed Youth; MTD: Teresa Rodriguez Movement; MTL: Workers' Liberation Movement. All Argentina's radical left currents are active in these kind of organisations.

(2) Small and medium enterprises.