Teachers in Buenos Aires Are Striking Against Neoliberalism

Buenos Aires’s neoliberal government has used the pandemic to impose austerity on the city’s primary and secondary school teachers. Argentine teachers are fighting back with a campaign of rolling strikes.

Public school teachers from the ADEMYS union demonstrate for job security and better working conditions on November 23, 2021, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Ademys / Twitter)

Buenos Aires’s public school secondary teachers and the unions that represent them are locked in a battle with the local government over job security and working conditions. The mechanisms that have historically allowed teachers to move from insecure to secure employment are breaking down. The city’s Ministry of Education and Innovation is also attempting to “modernize” the system that allocates administrative work to teachers. Together, these developments are worsening the conditions of teaching staff, already made difficult by the ongoing pandemic.

The ministry is taking advantage of the growing rates of precarious employment within Argentina to worsen teachers’ working conditions. The goal of these reforms is to save municipal government money by cutting the number of administrative staff in schools. What the ministry calls modernization really means ramping up teachers’ workloads while cutting jobs and reducing the security and work conditions of those kept in employment.

Two unions that organize teachers in Argentina have launched a rolling strike campaign in response to these changes. The first is the Union of Education Workers–Confederation of Education Workers of the Argentine Republic (Unión de Trabajadores de la Educación–Confederación de Trabajadores de la Educación de la República Argentina, UTE-CTERA), which is the largest labor organization affiliated to the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina, CTA). Its leadership is aligned with the movement inspired by Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s center-left populist president who governed the country from 2003 to 2007. The UTE-CTERA also has member unions aligned with traditional Peronism, the Communist Party, and other socialist tendencies.

The second union leading the strikes is the Teaching Association of Secondary and Higher Education (Asociación Docentes de Enseñanza Media y Superior, Ademys). More militant and independent of Peronism and Kirchnerism than UTE-CTERA, the union organizes middle and high school teachers in Buenos Aires. Ademys has links with the Workers’ Left Front (Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores, FIT), an electoral coalition bringing together four of Argentina’s Trotskyist organizations. The FIT received 5.91 percent of the national vote in Argentina’s November 14 elections.

Together, the UTE-CTERA and Ademys are standing united against Buenos Aires’s Ministry of Education by launching a wave of rolling strikes, backed by thousands of teachers across the city.

The Fight Against Precarity

Teachers in Buenos Aires can work under three different types of contracts classifying them as substitute teachers, interim teachers, or titular teachers. Each contract awards teaching staff different rights. If you are a substitute teacher, for example, although you can have access to short-term emergency leave, you are unable to take longer periods of leave. You are also barred from applying for higher-level jobs, like being a head teacher.

Titular teachers are securely employed. Interim and substitute teachers face variable hours and may be forced to move schools depending on the job market. In contrast, teachers on titular contracts have greater leave entitlements and greater opportunities for promotion.

According to Celia, a workplace delegate with UTE-CTERA who spoke to Jacobin about workplace organizing, there were previously mechanisms that allowed teachers to move between these different employment contracts. For a decade, the routes from one contractual status to another have become increasingly difficult to navigate. As a result, most teachers are uncertain about whether they will be able to access secure employment or if their jobs will even exist in a few years’ time.

Most interim teachers, despite having a precarious contractual status, have worked regular hours for a few years. Interim teachers have come to rely on the expectation that they will be able to stay on the job, even though positions in the field offer little security. The government of Buenos Aires is now moving to enact reforms that will force interim teachers to reapply for their usual teaching hours, with no regard for their previous allocations. As Celia explained, this has created widespread fears within the profession that teachers will lose their hours and positions:

We are worried that many interim teachers will be out of work. Like many teachers, I work across four different schools each week. We are all facing uncertainty about how many hours we will have and know that we will face the same uncertainty.

In 2020, Buenos Aires’s Ministry of Education introduced a new app that teachers are required to use when recording student grades. “Prior to the app, we recorded marks and comments on student progress either on paper or in Excel spreadsheets,” Celia explains. “The app was supposed to standardize and simplify this work. However, it is extremely unstable and does not record comments easily.”

To make matters worse, secondary school teachers — who have only recently been required to use the app — feel that it is incompatible with their needs and those of their students. This is because the app, which was initially developed with primary school teachers in mind, was not modified for secondary teaching before its implementation. As Celia notes, this has only added to workload pressures:

Last year, we had to work so much harder due to the pandemic. We had to teach remotely to protect the health of students, teachers, and their families and communities. Now, apps that were supposedly designed to reduce our workload have instead increased it substantially.

On top of this, Buenos Aires’s government has also introduced the “My Self-Management” app, which is supposed to manage staff leave allocations, replacing work previously done by individual school secretaries. According to Celia:

We have had problems with the app not letting you take the appropriate leave. When I was sick last year, the app would not accept my medical certificate from the hospital, and I had to enter a different type of leave rather than sick leave.

The Political Context

This is not the first struggle that teachers have waged against Buenos Aires’s government. Over the past year, the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires (Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, CABA) municipal government, led by Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, found itself at loggerheads with Argentina’s federal government, led by President Alberto Fernández. This dispute revolved around the respective stances that the local and national government sought to take on the pandemic, particularly with regard to education.

For context, Larreta is a member of Republican Proposal, which is part of the “Together for Change” coalition, Argentina’s main center-right neoliberal bloc. Fernández — a successor to the Kirchner administrations — is part of Argentina’s left-populist Peronist tradition.

Fernández’s administration, much like the Kirchner governments before him, sought to assert Argentine national sovereignty against United States–driven free trade agreements. The president and his predecessors have attempted to combine economic development with redistributive measures by imposing protections on Argentine industry. They have also tried to clamp down on multinational corporations and oligarchs based in Argentina, who avoid taxes by moving their wealth to offshore havens.

In line with neoliberal governments around the world, Larreta opposed efforts by the Fernández government to suppress COVID-19. In April this year, Argentina faced a surging case rate of 27,000 infections per day. The Fernández government called for a return to remote teaching. Buenos Aires’s government, however, opposed the president and attempted to force teachers back to the classroom. In response, teachers in the city struck for three weeks to protect their health and that of their students.

In addition to prioritizing business as usual over public health, Larreta’s government also wanted to disrupt the Fernández’s administration’s pandemic management measures in advance of Argentina’s November 14 elections. The results of these elections were a setback for the Left, as the Together for Change coalition substantially increased its share of seats. Meanwhile, Fernández’s Everyone’s Front lost control of Congress.

The Fight Continues

The teachers’ industrial campaign began slowly, in part due to risks associated with COVID-19. Teachers and their supporters were understandably anxious about spreading infection, which reduced the size of their protests, a pattern that has been replicated in other social movements across Buenos Aires.

As the campaign has continued, it has gained momentum, building on growing fear and frustration among teachers. The refusal by Buenos Aires’s municipal government to heed the concerns of teachers has galvanized the opposition, resulting in larger protests and strikes. The November 23 mobilization was, according to Celia, “the largest I have attended since 2019” — a fact that is almost certainly due to the hard-line stance of the city’s government.

Buenos Aires teachers’ fight goes beyond workplace issues and has consequences for politics across the whole of Argentina. The city’s government’s attack on teachers is a preview of what all Argentinian workers — and especially those in the public sector — can expect if the Together for Change coalition comes to power.

If the teachers organized by UTE-CTERA and Ademys win, their struggle could become a beacon of hope for progressive forces across the country. Victory would show that it’s possible to defeat neoliberal attacks, and to improve working conditions — even under right-wing governments.