Workers in Buenos Aires know how to protest

What if, when your trash company’s CEO refused to give his workers a raise, they blocked the street leading up to their house with a literal garbage fire? Do you think that would get their attention?

Because that’s exactly what the cartoneros — workers who sort trash in Buenos Aires and sell the recyclables — did yesterday.

For some background, being a cartonero is rough work, with long hours in exclusively night shifts. But over the years, they have been able to improve their working conditions through persistent organizing efforts, recently becoming officially recognized by the city government as its de-facto recycling corps. According to a CityScope report from last year:

The cartoneros (literally, “people of cardboard”) have been a highly visible if discomforting presence in Buenos Aires ever since Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis put hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The economy has improved since then but the working conditions for the cartoneros has not — until recently.

Over the past decade, the cartoneros have been organizing themselves into cooperatives, in an effort to fetch better prices for recyclables and to gain recognition for essentially providing the only recycling program Buenos Aires has ever known. In 2012, a landfill crisis pushed the city to ramp up its recycling efforts and formally bring the 12 cooperatives into the city’s waste management structure.

Many of the cartoneros come from Villa Soldati, a small neighborhood in the southernmost part of the city where, as of 2006, roughly 80 percent of 300 families were involved in the profession. And those were the cartoneros protesting today, working through their Cooperativa 30 de Noviembre (November 30th Cooperative) to organize an assertive protest.

For the entire afternoon and into the evening, a group of cartoneros occupied a segment of Avenida Presidente Roque Saenz Peña one block from La Casa Rosada (The Pink House), which holds the executive offices of the Argentinian government, lining the street with trash and setting it on fire:

cartoneros                           cartoneros

Not only did the roadblock cause a massive traffic jam, as cars were unable to pass through what would otherwise have been a heavily trafficked road, but the protestors also told bikers and motorcyclists who tried to weave their way through and around the roadblock to at the very least, get off and walk:


As these bikers eventually did.

The cartoneros of Villa Soldati were organizing for a higher rate for the recyclables they process, as the volume of recyclables on the street has declined over the course of the past month, lowering their take-home pay. Having not been heard by the government when they had previously made their request for a higher rate, they took to the streets and literally took the street to draw attention to their cause. Throughout the day, the protestors chanted and catcalled the government amid signs reading, among other things, ¿Donde estan los que respondan a los catoneros? (Where are those who will answer the cartoneros?).

Keep in mind, this wasn’t a rally or march held by a national movement analogous to Fight for $15; while I showed up later in the day, so I can’t say for sure how many people participated in the protest in total, there couldn’t have been much more than 20 cartoneros maintaining the roadblock while I was there. In this respect, it felt fundamentally different from worker protests in the United States. For a number of reasons, not least of which being our penchant for appealing to the legal system before taking to the streets, it’s rare, to say the least, to see so few workers being so confrontational in the United States.

It is unclear as to whether the government will accede to any of the cartoneros‘ demands, or if they’ll simply wait them out in hopes that the volume of recyclable materials picks back up. But I’d imagine that the cartoneros aren’t going to back down in the near future. These workers have been successfully fighting for their livelihood for years via direct actions such as the one they executed yesterday. They know how to protest, and they aren’t going anywhere.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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