Argentina: subway workers and riders unite against fare hike

Argentine judge Fernando Juan Lima ruled on Jan. 16 that the Buenos Aires city government could continue for now with a 127% increase it had imposed for the subway fare on Jan. 6. A coalition including unions, student groups and political and social organizations had filed for an emergency injunction to halt the increase, which raises the fare to 2.5 pesos (about 58 cents).

Judge Lima rejected the emergency injunction on the grounds that the increase wouldn’t “cause irreparable harm” to the system’s two million users. But the judge noted that he hadn’t issued a final ruling on the coalition’s case against the increase, and he said he would act on that within 20 days.

The coalition—the Multi-Sector Committee Against the Fare Hike in the Subte (as the subway system is known)—didn’t limit itself to using legal maneuvers to fight the fare hike. The groups also collected more than 200,000 signatures on a petition against the increase, which they said would be a hardship for poorer riders, and presented it to Judge Lima. Subway workers protested the increase by opening the turnstiles during rush hours for about a week and letting passengers ride for free. (The Union Association of Subte and Premetro Workers, AGTSyP, part of the coalition, used this tactic when it sought recognition as a union in 2009.)

As of Jan. 18 the coalition was determined to continue the fight but seemed divided on what tactics to follow after Lima ruled against the emergency injunction.

At the same time that he was facing angry subway riders and workers, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri was also in a dispute with the city’s “manteros,” vendors who sell handcrafts, blankets and clothing on Florida Street in the center of the city. On Jan. 16 the vendors blocked Corrientes Street to protest Macri’s decision the week before to send the Metropolitan police to remove them, a move that resulted in confrontations and injuries. The vendors have also protested by selling their wares in front of the Congress. They argue that their activities are protected by Article 83 of Law 1472, which allows artists and makers of handcrafts to occupy public space.

Until this year subsidies from the federal government made it possible to maintain low fares in the capital’s subway system. But the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—the head of a left-leaning section of the Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist) who began her second four-year term on Dec. 10—is now drastically cutting subsidies for transportation and utilities. The Argentine consulting firm EconomĂ©trica projects that the growth rate for the national economy will fall to 2% this year, down from 7% in 2011, partly as a result of the global economic crisis. Facing a shortfall, the Fernández government is retreating from generous social spending that has helped contain conflicts in the decade since Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic crisis; the president’s critics say the spending also helped her win an easy electoral victory last October.

The decision to turn the subway over to the municipal government and withdraw the subsidy has a political benefit for the president, since it shifts the problem to Macri, one of Fernández’s main rivals, and his rightwing Republican Proposal (Pro) party. The federal government has agreed to continue to pay about half the old subsidy to the end of 2012. (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 6; La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 17; TeleSUR, Jan. 17; Buenos Aires Herald, Jan. 17; Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores website, Jan. 18)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 22.

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