Argentina's Unemployed Workers Movement: A Traveler's Report

By Matt Feinstein

For a total of twelve months between 2003 and 2005, I lived and worked with the Unemployed Workers' Movement of Solano (MTD-Solano) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was an experience that fundamentally changed the way I think about community organizing and activism; I continue to search for ways to put those ideas into practice. This article is an attempt to share these experiences, and to let you know about a new video-workshop tool that aims to deepen the exchange between organizers around the world.

In the summer of 2003, intrigued by the stories of activist friends from Worcester, MA who had taken a trip to Buenos Aires that winter, I arranged to spend two months retracing their steps. I discovered that I was scheduled to arrive at the same time a member of the MTD-Solano returned from an overseas conference and we agreed to meet in the airport lobby. It wasn't hard to pick out the group waiting for us: in a sea of business suits and limo drivers they were only people dressed in bright green wool sweaters traced with designs from the indigenous Mapuche culture.

Within hours, I was immersed in a whirlwind of activity; in 2003 Buenos Aires was still floating on the vapors of the December 2001 uprising when 4 presidents were forced from power in a span of 2 weeks. The MTD-Solano formed part of the Coordinadora Anibal Veron, where 18 other Unemployed Workers' Movements gathered monthly to coordinate strategies, pool resources and plan joint actions. The 26th of each month everyone gathered to block the Puyerredon Bridge, the main southern entrance into downtown Buenos Aires. It was an action designed to maintain pressure on the government and to mark the assassination of two companeros, Maxi & Dario, killed by the police during a protest there on June 26th, 2002.

But the movement I encountered was also one in the midst of a large transformation. As the energy of the 2001 estallido slowly dissipated and the forced fraternity of the roadblocks, or piquetes, gave way to more nuanced debate, the movement began to turn upon itself. The Coordinadora, previously run by consensus, decided to operate on majority rule. Traditional Marxist parties designed a strategy of infiltration and cooption. By the end of 2003, the MTD-Solano-along with several other MTD's that had were similarly committed to the path of autonomy and horizontal-decision making-left the Coordinadora and struck out on their own.

While daunting, this was nothing new for the MTD-Solano. Its roots were humble: a rebellious priest, a social psychologist and handful of neighbors tired of corruption in the local government and Catholic Church. While the strength of the group was its members, its explosive growth was also fueled in large part by the conditions of the time. By the mid-1990's, unemployment had surpassed 50% in some of the outskirts of the Argentine capital. 'Work plans,' the Argentine version of welfare, were controlled by petty politicians and the Church. Those who lacked crucial connections-or refused to sell their votes-were denied access to the meager subsidies and surplus food distribution.

The political parties and unions that historically make-up the Argentina left were largely unable to adapt to these circumstances. With the flight of factories to China and Brazil, the unions' ranks grew thin; but traditional Marxist-Leninist dogma had many convinced that the unemployed, the â??lumpen,' weren't ready for organization and mobilization. Against this background, the MTD-Solano fought a series of struggles against very different foes. Piquetes shutting down the major highways entering Buenos Aires, earned government concessions of work plans and food. When the Catholic Church defrocked the local priest and barred its doors to the young movement, the community decided to occupy the parish, which they did for over 2 years. Their success drew the unwanted attention of the "old left," and the MTD made a critical decision, adopting autonomy as a founding principal. They rejected the struggle to obtain power and affect change from above. A long and continual process was begun of creating internal structure congruent with these principles. The concepts of horizontal decision making and direct democracy took shape with weekly assemblies, decisions by consensus, and rotating delegates.

But in a movement founded on such basic needs as food, work and income, process alone was not enough. From the very beginning the MTD-Solano sought to gain increasing degrees of self-sufficiency. Bakeries, soup kitchens, organic farms, and leather-working shops were started, and groups were formed to address issues around health care and education. These were the projects I found when I arrived in Solano in the summer of 2003.

I was quickly integrated into the projects that I expressed interest in: nutrition and first aid workshops, traditional theater and dance with neighborhood children, organic gardening, and, of course, the weekly assemblies. As the days turned into weeks and I repeatedly postponed plans to visit other groups, I became more and more impressed with the openness and introspection on constant display in the MTD-Solano. I hadn't imagined that a group with so much experience and that was capable of such large actions would be willing to continually reconsider its structure and tactics in an ongoing effort to achieve greater degrees of horizontality and self-sufficiency.

The time finally came to return home, but I continued to look for every chance to return, eventually taking a year-long leave of absence from school to continue my work with the MTD-Solano. It was a year of further changes: even as the leftist rhetoric of a new president, Nestor Kirchener deepened many political divisions, the MTD-Solano made great progress building a neighborhood health center and training health promoters. Most rewarding was the chance to watch the children of the movement grow another year under the liberating conditions provided by the MTD.

The latter provided one of the most inspiring moments I've ever witnessed, when the 11 year-old daughter of one companero was sternly reprimanded by her father for some minor infraction. She didn't yell back at him, but calmly gathered 4-5 other companeros who were working nearby, sat them all down and said, "I've called this assembly to discuss whether or not it's okay for a parent to yell at their child." Twenty minutes later we had all agreed that it was not, but that children also had to try to understand the challenges that parents faced and avoid unnecessarily adding to the burden.

One of the other responsibilities that also tended to come my way was helping entertain visitors who had come from all over the world to see the MTD-Solano firsthand. These visits often led to passionate discussions about improving international solidarity, a topic I've continued to think about since returning to Worcester last year. It's clear what we don't want: models based exclusively on fundraising or charity, piquetourismo (a term coined for visitors to Argentine social movements who treat their trips like sightseeing adventures) or academic study. There's also a general agreement that the best international solidarity, especially for those who come from world superpowers, often involves taking part in struggles in their homeland and connecting those local organizations with their international counterparts. Recognizing the many similarities between Argentina and the USA as well as the strength of the Argentine autonomous social movements and their unique blend of theory and practical experience, I began to think about ways to bring the Argentine experience to a wider audience of North American community organizers.

With this goal in mind, I've been working with a friend for the past 6 months to put together a video workshop tool based on interviews and 'behind-the-scenes' footage we've filmed during our time in Argentina. It's divided into short sections, each centered on a different theme. 'Getting Started' talks about how the movements went, in a few short years, from small gatherings of concerned neighbors to massive and militant popular movements. 'Autonomy and Horizontality' deals with the theory behind their operating principles, but also the day-to-day challenges they face trying bring the movement closer to truly embodying these ideals. Other sections focus on the numerous projects and workshops the movements have created, the groups working on issues of health and education, the repression they've suffered and the networks they've built to combat that repression, and their work addressing various forms of discrimination within the movements.

Spending time with the autonomous piqueteros in Argentina has dramatically changed the way I think about community organizing and my role as an activist. It's my hope that this video-and other creative approaches to reshaping the nature of international solidarity-will become a small, but important, step towards strengthening our movements at home and abroad.

If you, or anyone you know might be interested in organizing a screening of the video workshop, email us or visit www.ArgentinaVideo.com. English and Spanish versions are available, and copies are free (donations welcome). We've also put together a facilitator's guide to help those who wish to organize workshops using the video.

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