This last Tuesday ushered in the third week of irregular classes at Argentina’s public universities due to ongoing professor strikes throughout the nation.
Professors claim that the salary raise of 15 percent they were offered by the government is far too low, given the projected inflation rate of around 30 percent. Meanwhile, the strikes ultimately mean that many students have not yet begun their second semester, which was scheduled to begin on August 6th after the winter break.
This coming Thursday, August 30th, university professors are organizing a national march in front of the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Ministry of Education. The protest is expected to be massive, with professors and students from universities all across the country participating.
The university strikes overlap with ongoing teacher strikes across Argentina’s public schools, with school staff demanding better pay, more resources in the classroom, and improved safety conditions. The teacher protests ramped up earlier this month after an explosion due to a gas leak in a school in La Plata left two dead, in spite of the fact that the leak had been reported to authorities on no less than eight separate occasions before the tragedy.
Meanwhile, on August 28th, President Mauricio Macri, along with Minister of Education Alejandro Finocchiaro, met with the heads of national universities to discuss their claims. It is the first time that Finocchiaro will join the negotiations.
The Bubble sat down with Tomás Balmaceda, a professor in the UBA School of Philosophy, to discuss the developments in the ongoing strike. Balmaceda is actively in contact with the spokesperson for Alejandro Finocchiaro.
“This is an ongoing power struggle that encompasses the more than 50 universities in Argentina,” Balmaceda emphasized.
“The demand is a salary improvement for university professors,” Balmaceda continued. “The government’s offer was a raise of 15 percent in three installments starting in August. The unions considered it insufficient because it is estimated that inflation will be at least 30 percent.”
Balmaceda described ongoing negotiations between professor unions and the government as turbulent and, overall, ineffectual. According to the professor, government negotiators have been largely unresponsive, and seem deaf to the salary wage necessities of professors, who worry that they will not be able to maintain a living wage by teaching in Argentina’s universities in the face of skyrocketing inflation and stagnating pay.
“Last week, there was another salary negotiation attempt. In this case, the counterproposal from the government was that the 15 percent raise—which was going to be given in three equal installments in August, September, and October respectively—be changed so that the August installment would be 5.8 percent. The September and October installments would then be 4.6 percent,” Balmaceda explained.
“That is, the 15 percent was not modified. There was simply a 0.8 percent increase in the first installment, which was subtracted from the second and third installments.”
In the interview, Balmaceda recognized the fact that many students, caught in the crossfires in the ongoing power struggle between university unions and the government, were ultimately hurt as a result of the ongoing strikes.
“I’ve been a professor since 2006, and the truth is that I have never before experienced such a long protest. It’s been three weeks without regular classes,” the UBA professor stated.
“Unlike other forms of protest, university strikes and the discontinuation of classes is complicated because one understands that it can harm the student, and this is really something that, as professors, we don’t want.
Balmaceda described how, in the face of such issues, university professors have tried a number of different alternatives to cancelling class, aiming to call attention to wage issues while minimizing the impact on students. One of these alternative methods is holding class outside in open areas, a phenomenon that is public enough to draw attention to professor’s claims, but which would avoid cancelling class all together.
However, Balmaceda also stated that the government and local authorities were making it increasingly difficult for professors to engage in these alternative forms of protest.
He detailed an incident that occured last Friday, when Professor Monica Cragnolini was cited for a crime after cutting off a small sidestreet to facilitate a public class in front of the UBA School of Philosophy and Letters. The class had blocked the street after a car had driven too close to the lecture spot and shouted insults at them.
“This was a very serious incident, because now the government has taken away one of our best protesting alternatives, which was to continue giving classes, but to do so in a public way to make our claim visible.”
The vast majority of university professors participating in the strikes are unionized. Balmaceda clarified that he’s part of the FEDUN union, but that there are many other union options available for university professors.
When asked if the university semester could ultimately be suspended altogether, Balmaceda said that this was possible, but that he found it unlikely due to the significant ramifications for students and the serious political cost to the unions.
“I do not think the suspension of the semester is a given at all. I don’t think it will happen,” the UBA professor stated.
However, Balmaceda admitted that university professors and the unions that represented them were currently stuck between a rock and a hard place.
He stressed that, while much is still unknown, “what’s certain is that it’s increasingly hard to imagine that a simple solution to the conflict will be possible, keeping in mind that the government’s response to the professor’s claim that 15 percent was incredibly low given 30 percent inflation was a counterproposal that ultimately kept the total of 15 percent exactly the same.”
“That is to say,” the professor clarified, “some type of action is necessary now to spur the currently stalled negotiation.”
However, Balmaceda stated that, as of now, the unions have not communicated any official plans to university professors in terms of alternative options to the ongoing strikes.
“The truth is that, as of now, the only measure that the unions have communicated to their base has been the strikes. I suppose that if the conflict persists, then there will be other alternatives. The truth is that I do not know them.”
Meanwhile, while many would expect Argentine university students to be upset with striking professors, a surprising number of students understand their professor’s claims and support the ongoing strikes. A large number of students are even expected to show up at the march organized by striking university professors this Thursday to show support and solidarity.
Julia Celoria, who is a student at UBA’s School of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism, explained that she doesn’t blame the university professors for the ongoing issues with classes. While she does lament the fact that she’s struggled for the past three weeks to find out whether or not her classes for the day have been cancelled, she sees the strikes as a legitimate protest to an urgent issue, and believes that it’s the government’s responsibility to pay professors a living wage.
Celoria, who will be attending the march on Thursday, emphasized that she fully supports the cause of university professors, and that many of her classmates hold a similar stance.
The Bubble also sat down with a student who attends UBA’s Faculty of Medicine (FMED). Laura (a pseudonym, as she wished to remain anonymous) is currently taking biochemistry and physiology, both of which are year-long subjects. She has passed half of her exams, but doesn’t know if she will be able to complete the courses due to the fact that she hasn’t yet started her second semester.
However, in spite of issues with her classes, Laura emphasized that she fully supports the striking professors. She will not only be attending tomorrow’s strike in solidarity, but will also be joining a group of students and faculty taking over the UBA medical school building tonight, starting at 5 PM.
“I support our professors 100 percent. They are forced to teach us in the worst possible conditions. There are rats, cockroaches, bats, elevators break down with people inside, the restrooms are out of order, there isn’t enough space…last week, a girl almost got killed because a fan fell on her head! So I am here to support my professors, my classmates, and my school.”
Laura emphasized that the length to which professors are going is necessary due to an ingrained culture of corruption in Argentine public universities that makes it difficult for any reforms to be accomplished. “Our centro de estudiantes—the group of students that are supposed to represent us with the big fish—is corrupted,” she stressed. “They always win because they lie to students.”
When asked about the general student sentiment surrounding the strikes, the student stated that while she can’t speak for everyone, there is a significant student solidarity with professors.
“There’s a page on Instagram and Twitter called @fmedmemes. They took a poll to calculate how many students were coming to the strike tomorrow, and the results were split 50-50. This is a huge amount, taking into account that some people live very far away, or they have to work the next day,” she stated, adding that a grassroots independent assembly of students without the influence of any political parties was created to support the professor’s movement.
Laura concluded by emphasizing the importance of the ongoing strikes and greater movement that they represent.
“Our main objective for the strikes is to get our rights back. Everyone knows that professors are awfully paid,but 70 percent ad honorem? Come on!” she stated, referring to the tens of thousands of Argentine professors—the majority from UBA—who are paid nothing for the work that they do.
“We love our community and take great pride in it. We are defending and striking for what is ours and for what we deserve. We hope to make this problem visible, make people understand that without public education our future is lost,” Julieta added.
“What most people don’t understand is that this will inevitably affect our country’s future. Public education matters, and without motivated, well paid teachers and professors, it becomes impossible.”