Argentina’s Unions Respond to President Milei’s Extremist Austerity Program with General Strike

Interview with Pablo Pryluka, doctoral candidate in the department of history at Princeton University, conducted by Scott Harris

When Argentina’s voters went to the polls to elect a new president on Nov. 19 last year, their nation was in the midst of a severe economic crisis with inflation raging at the time at more than 140 percent, rising poverty, and $43 billion in external debt owed to the IMF and $65 billion owed to bondholders. Sérgio Massa, the centrist candidate of the governing Peronist coalition, lost the election to Javier Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” who pledged to implement a radical austerity program that he claimed would fix the economy.

Since taking office on Dec. 10, Milei, a former TV personality who downplayed the atrocities of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, issued a presidential decree with 300 measures that slashed funding to dozens of government programs, deregulated the economy, overturned laws protecting workers and their right to strike, privatized state-owned companies and threatened to use the military to repress opposition protests.

In office just seven weeks, Milei has presided over an economy where inflation continues to rise over 200 percent with skyrocketing food, fuel and drug prices hitting Argentina’s poor the hardest. Responding to Milei’s shock therapy austerity program, Argentina’s labor unions organized a massive 12-hour general strike on Jan. 24 that brought parts of downtown Buenos Aires to a standstill.  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Pablo Pryluka, a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Princeton University who assesses Milei’s radical right economic policies, and the mobilizing of resistance where many opponents call the new president a “traitor.”

PABLO PRYLUKA: I do think that there’s probably a 10 or 20 percent of this electorate who are totally convinced that the central bank should be dismantled, the welfare state is the main problem in Argentina. Immigration is bad. Abortion is a crime. I mean, there is a strong core that are identified with his main ideas.

But also there is a bunch of people who are just desperate, are living under property especially young people who didn’t see a perspective of of upward social mobility, who didn’t see the chance of getting their own house or getting a car or savings and improve their living conditions. And after years and years of choosing different and rational governments—no matter the political side of them or traditional government–now they went for the outsider and in a way, even if it’s terrible, it’s scary, it makes sense, right? I wouldn’t blame them.

SCOTT HARRIS: Pablo, I do want to ask you about Milei’s program. Please summarize for our audience Milei’s government actions since he took office regarding issuing a decree with 300 edicts to repeal laws, eliminate dozens of state regulations, enabling the privatization of state companies and his threat to use armed force to repress protesters.

PABLO PRYLUKA: Yeah, so there’s a lot to unpack here. I would say there is one Milei during the campaign for the run for the presidency who had like one program and a set of ideas. And then there is the Milei in power, who is in a way learning that democracy implies bargaining, bargaining, negotiations and political exchanges or whatever, with other political forces, especially in the Congress. He hasn’t accomplished much yet.

You know, you mentioned the decree. You mentioned the elimination of state regulations and the liberalization of state companies. Yes. He wants to privatize the few state companies that we still have. Why do I say the few? Because Argentina had a first wave of privatizations during the early ’90s. So there is not much left to privatize, right? The main one, I think, is the one that we should definitely stop him from doing it is that the oil company, the petroleum company. He has already given up in the middle of the negotiations in the Congress. So that part is not happening right now.

He’s trying to deregulate the unionization of workers, which is a huge thing for Argentina. He’s been implying that he will use armed forces to repress protest, just like regular crime, which would be I mean, considering the experience of Mexico and other experience in Latin America, it doesn’t sound like a great idea.

But so far, he has not done much. Just claiming that he will do it. I mean, it could be worse. He could just go and do it. But it also creates this atmosphere of legitimization of political repression, which might come at some point. And I think that’s one of the questions that we should address.

SCOTT HARRIS: There was a recent 12-hour general strike called by Argentina’s labor unions. It was really one of the most significant signs of opposition to Milei’s agenda that we’ve seen in Argentina since his election. What are the prospects that the opposition will rise up to prevent some of his most radical ideas from coming to pass?

PABLO PRYLUKA: So I think that it was a very important expression of discontent. We need to be careful, the people who participated in the strike and the people who participated in the huge, massive demonstration that took place last week were the people that were already engaged here, right? So we need to be careful that we should not buy our own narrative.

And I think that you will see a significant challenge to Milei’s government once the people that voted for him start feeling the discontent or start feeling, you know, disappointed. So whenever prices get too high or salaries go too low, then you will have to see people that cannot pay for their health insurance, people that kind of buy books for their kids at school, that will not be able to get, you know, new clothes or whatever, basic needs that people need to deal with—or even food.

That’s when you’re going to see a huge crisis. Right now when it comes to unions, or when it comes to left-wing or the center left-wing political parties, I think what they are focusing on is trying to stop the most long-term damaging measures he’s trying to implement. And I would say those are mainly the privatization of public companies like the oil company and the dollarization of the economy, which could be a disaster for Argentina right now.

Follow Pablo Pryluka on Twitter/X @ppryluka.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Pablo Pryluka (17:37) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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