BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Argentine President Cristina Fernandez faced a nationwide strike on Tuesday, led by the union bosses who used to be her most steadfast supporters.
Many workers stayed home as the strike made commuting a puzzle, with some trains and bus lines paralyzed and small groups of people blocking highways in about a dozen places around the capital. Banks, courts and many schools were closed, many hospitals offered only emergency services, most Argentine flights were canceled and garbage wasn’t being picked up.
But in other ways, it was a normal day in Buenos Aires, where cafes and small stores stayed open.
The strike was called as a political show of force by truckers union boss Pablo Moyano, the longtime leader of Argentina’s vast General Workers’ Federation, and one of the closest allies of the president’s late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
Moyano and some other union leaders broke away from Fernandez this year as she tried to contain the demands of a now-divided labor movement by supporting a rival slate in union elections. He has increasingly appeared alongside her political opponents since then, speaking out against the government he long championed.
As his strikers tried to snarl traffic on Tuesday, Moyano said their demands include “the total elimination of income taxes,” as well as other new salary hikes and benefits.
The point is to make the Fernandez administration understand that it “can’t manage the country in the way that it does, without providing answers, with authoritarian attitudes, imposing everything and defying all the world,” Moyano said in an interview with Argentina’s Channel 13.
Fernandez, meanwhile, called on workers to act responsibly and defend all she’s accomplished for workers in Argentina, rather than return to a past when a relative few enjoyed the benefits of economic growth.
“The first ones to become hungry or be left without jobs will be the workers,” she warned in a posting Tuesday on her official Facebook page. “That’s why I want to call on my comrades, the workers, to show great responsibility and defend, not my government _ not at all _ but the political project that has generated more than 5.5 million jobs.”
Most union workers won pay hikes of 25 percent or more this year, in line with what private analysts say is Argentina’s true annual inflation rate, much higher than the 10 percent a year cited by the government’s widely discredited inflation index.
For most, those pay hikes put them over the threshold to begin paying income taxes, something many lower-paid workers never had to do before. For a single worker, that annual salary threshold is about $15,600. Tax rates then rise from zero to 35 percent, with most workers losing about a fourth of their take-home pay to income taxes.
“The government should stop robbing workers with the income tax,” said the Workers’ Party leader Nestor Pitrola, who joined a blockade of the Pueyreddon bridge over the Riachuelo river, a key access point from the south.
Most flights were grounded in Argentina, frustrating tourists at Buenos Aires’ downtown airport, where machinists’ union leader Ricardo Cirielli said 100 percent of the workers who maintain the jets of Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN Argentina were on strike. Other international carriers weren’t affected, he said.
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