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Powerful Argentine unionist calls national strike

Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – The head of Argentina’s most powerful labor federation on Thursday called for a one-day strike by truckers and members of other unions next week in an escalating fight with President Cristina Fernandez that has pushed her into a corner in one of the most troublesome moments of presidency.

Hugo Moyano, the head of Argentina’s General Labor Federation, an umbrella group for numerous unions, said the nationwide strike involving truckers and members of oil and bank unions would be held next Wednesday, the first major work stoppage by the group during Fernandez’s almost five years in power.

Moyano also asked Argentines to demonstrate Wednesday at the Plaza de Mayo square in front of the presidential palace.

The former trucker, who is reviled by middle- and upper-class Argentines, was a close ally of Fernandez and his support helped her win re-election in October. But the relationship has turned sour and recent union actions are forcing Fernandez to take emergency measures unseen since a 2008 farmers strike gridlocked the country.

Earlier this week, truckers demanding pay increases blocked fuel refineries, prompting Fernandez to return home early from a U.N. conference in Rio de Janeiro and order military police to clear access to the deports.

“We’re asking the president to leave aside her arrogance and stop thinking that because she won the 54 percent (of the votes during the election) she can do whatever she likes with the country,” Moyano told a news conference.

Next week’s national protest could leave Argentina, among the world’s leading grain exporters, virtually paralyzed and create food shortages because most farm products are transported by trucks.

Moyano on Thursday also announced that the truckers’ three-day action blocking fuel stations would end early after union members reached a deal for a 25.5 percent wage increase in line with double-digit inflation. The action began on Tuesday.

While Argentines lined up for hours to fill up their tanks at the pump, and farm communities ran out of household gas during the inclement Southern hemisphere winter, the government launched a criminal complaint Thursday against Moyano and his son Pablo, who heads the truckers union.

But Moyano is increasingly defiant. Although truckers reached a wage deal, he is also demanding the state to cut back income taxes to improve wages amid inflation, which private analysts estimate at about 25 percent a year.

Fernandez has asked unionists to rein in their demands during a global financial downturn that is hurting the country’s economy. Soaring consumer prices have prompted many Argentines to send their money abroad.

Fernandez has extended the government’s reach in the economy with capital controls, import caps and the takeover of YPF, Argentina’s largest energy firm. She has accused unnamed business groups of encouraging a run on banks to hurt her second mandate.

The controls on dollar purchases, which some people compare to Venezuela’s, have worked to discourage capital flight. But analysts say they frighten investors, hurt the economy and frustrate Argentines who have started to protest by banging pots and honking horns in the streets and in front of the presidential palace.

The protests known as “cacerolazos” are highly symbolic in Argentina, where a decade ago pot-banging citizens angered by the collapsing economy marched in huge crowds and drove several presidents from office.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)