Argentina unions lead first major protest against Macri

By Charles Newbery

BUENOS AIRES (AA) – Thousands of protesters marched here Friday to protest economic reforms by President Mauricio Macri that they say have brought job losses, surging inflation and a recession.

”We have to be together to defend the rights of the workers,” Hugo Moyano, head of General Labor Confederation, the country’s biggest union umbrella group, told the crowd gathered at a major intersection downtown in front of the Workers Monument. The group estimated the turnout at 350,000.

”They are shifting the cost of the economic measures to the worker’s back,” he said.
It was the first major demonstration and strike against Macri since the conservative businessman took office in December after 12 years of populist-left rule.

Macri inherited the economy after four years of stagnation and high inflation. To try to put the economy back on track, narrow a fiscal deficit and attract more investment, his administration has devalued the peso by more than 40 percent and raised utility rates by 300 percent to 500 percent.

While the moves have stabilized the exchange rate and cut public spending, they have been blamed for plunging the economy into recession and speeding up the inflation rate to nearly 40 percent from 26 percent in 2015, according to most private estimates.

The results have been a decline in consumer spending power and job losses. The poverty rate surpassed 34 percent in March, up from 29 percent at the end of 2015, according to the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.

The main message of the three key speakers at the rally Friday was a warning to the president to enact a bill in Congress to stem rising unemployment.

The unions expect a loss of 150,000 jobs this year.
Macri has vowed to veto the opposition-drafted bill, which would discourage layoffs by requiring companies to pay generous severance packages to fired workers.

He has said the anti-layoffs bill would discourage the investment needed to create new jobs.
If he vetoes the bill, there will be consequences, union leaders warned at the demonstration, while listeners waved union flags, banged drums and chanted in support of labor rights.

”We are going to confront those who go up against workers,” Moyano said in his speech that wrapped up the protest.
Pablo Micheli, another union leader, said the next steps could come with greater force.

”We will deepen the struggle,” he said. “And if they don’t listen to us, then we will go on strike.” 
Ahead of the protest, Macri said he agreed with at least some of the unions’ demands.

”We are working on the same agenda as them,” he said. “We are also seeking to reduce inflation and spur investments to create more jobs.”

He added that he didn’t mind that the unions had taken to the streets to protest against his measures.

“Everybody has the right to express themselves,” he said.