Huelga de Subtes

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One arm was stretched-out to the fullest, gripping the three inches of free space on the yellow bar above my head; the other hand clutched the canvas straps of my bag with a deathgrip against my chest. I tried to adjust my footing as to better anchor myself for the   tumultuous twists and turns of the colectivo. I desperately needed to blow my nose, but there was not enough room for me to move my arms to unzip my bag. It’s hard to recall who stood next to me on the bus. There must have been about fifty of us. Not even kidding. Like sardines in a can, we were packed tight into any available crevice in the bus. It was a lot closer than I would’ve ever liked to get to complete strangers. I’m pretty sure some man behind me was touching my butt on purpose. Or maybe it was a woman. Regardless who it was, he/she was behind me and something was definitely touching my butt. The faces that I could see were apathetic. Some looked out the window, others stared into space, trying not to awkwardly, indirectly stare at a stranger.. But that was hard to do. Whenever the bus stopped there’d be a chorus of “permiso” “¿bajás?” “disculpame” as people attempted to simultaneously get on and off. There were times on my journey that the bus was so crowded that it wouldn’t even bother to stop at it’s designated places. As we approached I noticed the relieved faces of the porteños standing by the stop, and then how quickly those expressions changed to faces of disillusion and frustration. There was a slightly-bald, grey-haired man of about 60 years who actually chased after our colectivo when it was stopped at a red light, desperately hoping to be granted admission. The driver refused to acknowledge him, but instead stared straight ahead and engaged the gas once the light turned green. At the end of his rope, the old man burst into a fit of expletives and kicked the bus as it continued it’s route.

Instances like this have been standard these past 8 days. Tomorrow marks the 9th day in a row that the subtes have been abandoned. This strike, or the “huelga de subtes” as it’s referred to in Buenos Aires, began at 9pm on Friday 3 August, 2012. Since then, the 1.2 million subte commuters have had no other choice but to find alternative means of transportation. The streets have been jam-packed with cars, buses and cabs advancing at a slow, bumper-to-bumper pace. According to La Nacion, a local conservative newspaper, daily bike rentals have nearly doubled their business over the past few days. Most citizens, however, fled toward the hundreds of colectivos that circulate the city. These buses go hand-in-hand with the subte as the porteños’ main sources of daily transportation. Now that the colectivos are catering to the transportation needs of the majority of the city, their reputation of being timely and reliable is beginning to fall through the cracks. Everyday, there are crowds of people on the sidewalks, waiting for the bus to come. Often, there’s not enough room for everyone to make it on that bus, and they’re forced to wait until the next one comes around. The atmosphere within the colectivo is hot and stuffy – a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. Because there are so many more commuters, the frequency of the buses has also been dramatically sower. The other day, I was waiting for the 111 to show up to take me to my castellano class. 30 minutes passed without any sightings. With only an hour left to get to class, I decided to throw down A$45 on a radio taxi. What normally would have taken me 15 minutes on the subte took the whole hour; I got to class 5 minutes late. The rest of the week, I decided to walk to class. It’s about an hour’s walk, just about the same time it would take on a colectivo or cab for that matter, plus it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. It’s also been a nice excuse to get exercise and see more of the city (maybe it’s a blessing in disguise after all?)

So how long will this strike be? Roberto Pianelli, the secretary general of the Association of Subte Workers originally said it would only last the weekend. But here we are, still in a standstill one whole week later… What’s the deal?

Main actors:
La Asociación Gremial de Trabajadores de Subterráneos y Premetro (AGTSyP) (The Association of Subte and Premetro Workers)
Roberto Pianelli, Secretary General of the Association of Subte Workers
Mauricio Macri, the Head of Government of la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires
Cristina Kirchner, La Presidenta de Argentina

Main problems:
Subte workers demand a 20% increase in wages
Subte workers demand better working conditions and subte upkeep

On paper, these two problems seem like they could logically be discussed and worked out. However, the over-arching problem, and ultimate reason for this record-breaking strike, is more political than administrative.

Historically there has always been a political divide in Argentina. Today, the main adversing parties are The PROs vs. The Judicialists. PROs stands for “Propuesta Republicana,” or the Republican Proposal, and is the political-right-wing party of Mauricio Macri. The Judicialist party is a Peronist political party led by la presidenta Cristina Kirchner. It sits more in the center of the political spectrum, but Kirchner leans a tad bit to the left.

These two opposing parties contrast very similarly to the Republicans and Democrats back in the states. Needless to say, it’s created many feuds between City and Nation, this strike being a very obvious example.

Although Macri is responsible for meeting the demands for wage-increase, it’s Kirchner who would be technically be responsible for the conditions and upkeep of the subtes (it was the Nation that had given the subtes to Buenos Aires years ago, but they were of mal repair to begin with). Even though the Nation should be responsible, Kirchner has been refusing to claim responsibility for this problem.

So basically, this clusterfuck is all due to a long-running hissyfit between these two political powers. No progress can be made until Kirchner and Macri come to a compromise, and the longer their stubbornness remains, the longer the citizens of Buenos Aires will reap the consequences.

That being said, I think it’s amazing to note some of the cultural differences we have here. Never in the United States would there ever be a strike such as this. I’m almost positive that it’s illegal in New York City to stop public transportation. It’s something about the legal rights that the transportation unions have beneath national law.. But that’s just a guess. In Buenos Aires, there are many associations like AGTSyP that do not have laws to secure their rights. For this reason there are countless demonstrations in public spaces each day, and often strikes. It’s been fascinating to live in the midst of such passion and political fervor, but it’s also saddening to understand why it exists. The people of Argentina are so politically active because they have to be.

Who’s to say how long this strike will continue? The subte workers are fighting for their rights to better pay and working conditions, and will continue to do so until their needs are met. How long will Macri and Kirchner let their people suffer the consequences of their petty differences? Only time will tell.

Here’s to making history.

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