Defending Freedom of Protest Carlos (left) and feloow-syndicalists from France, India and Argentina at the anti-G20 protest in Hamburg. Photo: personal archive.

Defending Freedom of Protest

The first few days of July seemed like an open party in Hamburg with more than 150,000 people protesting, dancing and singing. On one side of the city, wealthy nations’ presidents such as Trump and Erdogan gathered to share their vision of how the world should be. On the other side, thousands of protesters from all over the world shared their experiences with, frustrations over and expectations of that very vision.  One of those protesting was Carlos Zamboni, who came all the way from Argentina to join the crowds and to talk about workers’ right to strike on a global level.

“The working class must strike because another world is possible”, states Zamboni. Actually, this belief seems to be at the core of the Anti G20 Solidarity Summit held in Hamburg two days before the G20.

Zamboni, an Argentinian labour lawyer in his 40s, joined labour’s quest for democracy at a workplace discussion workshop at the Solidarity Summit. Together with syndicalists from India, France and Germany, he tried to discuss the injustices at workplaces around the world that people face on a daily basis, to search for a solution to the problem, and to find common ground for change as well.

“Here it is like a party. In Argentina you would never get a protest like this.” Rave music; people dancing and drinking in a cheerful march; happy but pissed-off youngsters. “A union march would be totally different – always the same songs, the same gathering point, same speech, same scenario”, says Zamboni with his hands firmly in his pockets, eyes wide open.

His compañero at the Oil Union Argentina, Ezequiel Roldan, recalls what he thought a march looked like. In the face of laughter from his colleagues, he started reciting like a poem some of the lyrics of the song they always sing back in Argentina:

“The fight which you lose is the one that you abandon, the bureaucracy and the governments will never stop.” (“La lucha que se pierde es la que se abandona, ni la birocracia, ni los governantes no van a parar.”)

But then, there is the reality of their situation, which has been highlighted in most of the recent protests back home. “Not allowing people to protest and using violence on a peaceful protest is a form of terrorism from the state”, said Zamboni.

Not allowing and using violence upon a peaceful protest is a form of state terrorism.

The right to strike is enshrined in the National Constitution but, as with any constitutional right, it is not absolute and can not be exercised alone. Fundamentally, it should coexist with other rights of the same hierarchy as ownership, transit or work, explains Daniel Funes de Rioja, President of the Social Political Department of the Unión Industrial Argentina.

The discussions at the anti-summit in Hamburg emerged around the need to establish international contacts between unions and how this is a must for the future. The focus was on the fact that the workplace is embedded in society no matter where that society is located.

Carlos Zamboni (left) joined labour’s quest for democracy at the workplace discussion workshop at the protests in Hamburg. Photo: Andrada Lautaru / BlueLink Stories

“Working means expending your energy. I believe that human beings are not complete human beings if they are not given this opportunity”, says the Indian activist Vandana Shiva, also present at the summit.

Labour, protest and rights in Argentina and in the world

During the 1970s in Argentina, thousands of workers disappeared during the military dictatorship, according to the local press. Some were killed, others just went missing forever. This raised a feeling of insecurity, and it took time for people to move beyond this period and feel safe again when striking. Organised strikes are among the oldest models which still work and have a great impact, believes activist and lawyer Zamboni. This is why he supports the unions and federations of workers who seek to strike.

Zamboni also emphasises the fact that worker salaries should be determined by the workers’ necessities, not by the market. Zamboni highlights the interdependence between the syndicate and the protests, also claims that the best place for a strike is in the factory, and provides the current strike “recipe” in use back in Argentina – they block the entrance to the factory and stop all production and/or work until their complaints are listened to and resolved.

Zamboni says that he got his activist spirit from his family who went into a sort of exile in Peru during the dictatorship, and it was actually in Peru that he was born. His father was also a lawyer, and, following in his footsteps, Zamboni decided to return to Argentina and become an activist and legal counsellor for the unions.

“As a lawyer I have to first understand what is happening in the factory, see the roots of the factory and the issues and then start giving legal advice.” Their activity spreads throughout Argentina, both in the rural and urban areas. He gets confidence that he is on the right path and, pointing to both history and to the present reality, he states, “They both proved to us that the rights and the laws of the workers are not being respected if they don’t fight for them”.

He believes that in Argentina there is this conscience that the syndicate is the one that defends you and this is somehow the only refuge for the workers; this is why they join the unions en masse. But the issue that remains is that democracy among the members is still a dream in many syndicates, just as it is in many working places.

Ezequiel Roldan, 36, General Secretary of Federación de Trabajadores Aceiteros Desmotadores de Algodon for two years now, spoke at the summit as well. A tall, imposing man, Roldan became a worker at the oil company 15 years ago. Back then, not many workers were affiliated with the unions.

“They were afraid”, comments Roldan. He recalls an incident back in 2009 when he had an argument with his superior. He had worked an extra day and was to receive a free day in return, but when he when he asked for his day off, his request was declined. Soon after, more and more employees started to complain abut their low salary as well. The workers eventually went on a long strike – 14 days without any work or obedience. In the end, the boss agreed to their demand and increased salaries by 30%. When recalling this, Roldan smiles and is visibly energised by what was an exciting and invigorating experience. The 14-day strike yielded more than just a raise in salary; it gave the workers a sense of justice and empowerment as well. Only they could bring change. At the same time, it gave their superiors the realisation that employees can wield a great amount of force.

Roldan claims that the democracy within a company must start with the lowest positions and climb all the way up the ladder to the top. Nowadays, it is the other way around. And he has his own simple definition of what work is – the sale of time and skills for a salary. He dreams big but doesn’t expect that some hero will come and save the working class. Actually, he feels that the workers themselves are the only ones who can make a difference. ”The workers are the only ones who will save the workers.” (“Solo los trabajadores van a salvar a los trabajadores.”)

“I consider the Saturday protest to be really important; this is why I am going to be there. We do the same in our country. It is happening all over the world. We are all workers, and we know that when an injustice happens to one of our colleagues, we all have to solidify and defend his and our rights.”

Roldan at the protest in Hamburg. Photo: Personal archive

He also points out some examples of when the strikes and union efforts proved to be working. On different occasions some workers got their jobs back after being fired because the others came together and went on strike.

Zamboni and Roldan met through the former’s father, who was the adviser and attorney for the oil company at the time. They soon became friends, united by both the same goals and background. Both men saw a militant model in their fathers as well, and this contributed to their decision to walk their current path.

The Federation of the Workers from the Oil Industry with 15,000 members is one of the most visible unions in Argentina and has managed to achieve several salary raises for workers throughout the years.

Besides a fair salary, the unions are militating for security at the workplace and for improved working conditions in general. For instance, there was a proposal on the table that would have allowed one person to do the work of two or three others, a proposal which would have eliminated many positions.  Until recently, the unions have been able to avoid this, but the present reality is tough – every month a factory is being closed. According to local media, just in the last year around 1,500 factories were shut down, resulting in more than 40,000 workers losing their jobs.

It seems that many workers worldwide are squeezed between the absence of democracy at the workplace and a demand for democracy that can be achieved only through constant struggle. In factories and also on the streets, the fight continues. The summit in Hamburg closed with people shaking hands and exchanging smiles, while the scene in the streets escalated into a fight between protesters and police. Zamboni and his colleagues flew back home to Argentina, thousands of kilometres away, with the thought that solidarity does indeed exist. But they also realised that it will take longer to change the world than it does to exchange a few ideas.

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This article was produced during an Environmental Watchdog Journalism workshop held at the Global Solidarity Summit in Hamburg in July 2017.