Defending Freedom of Protest

Carlos Zamboni (left) and fellow-syndicalists from France, India, and Argentina at the Global Solidarity Summit protest in Hamburg, 2017

The first few days of July 2017 seemed like an open party in Hamburg, with more than 150,000 people protesting, dancing, and singing. On one side of the city, the presidents of the wealthy nations such as Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gathered to share their vision of how the world should be organized. On the other side, thousands of protesters from all over the world shared their experiences with, frustrations over, and expectations of, that very same vision. One of those protesting was Carlos Zamboni, who had come all the way from Argentina to join the crowds and to talk at a global level about the rights of workers to strike.

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

Zamboni, an Argentinian labour lawyer in his forties, joined the panel for the discussion workshop “Labour’s quest for democracy at the workplace” at the Summit for Global Solidarity. Together with syndicalists from India, France, and Germany, Zamboni wanted to discuss the injustices that occur at workplaces around the world, and which people face on a daily basis. He wanted 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, the same speech, same scenario”, says Zamboni with his hands firmly in his pockets, eyes wide open.

His compañeroat from the Oil Union Argentina, Ezequiel Roldan, recalls protest marches he’s attended. In the face of laughter from his colleagues, he starts to recite 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 the reality of the situation faced by protestors in Argentina has been highlighted by recent protests there: “Not allowing people to protest and using violence on peaceful protesters is a form of terrorism from the state”, Zamboni reminds us.

"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 cannot be exercised alone. Fundamentally, it should coexist with other rights on the same hierarchy, such as ownership, travel, or work, explains Daniel Funes de Rioja, President of the Social Political Department of the Unión Industrial Argentina.

The discussions at the Global Solidarity Summit in Hamburg emerged around the need to establish international contacts between workers’ unions and to secure the global vision for workers’ rights for the future. Focus was on the fact that the workplace is embedded in society no matter where that society is located.

Carlos Zamboni (left) joined the “Labour’s quest for democracy at the workplace” discussion workshop at the Global Solidarity Summit in Hamburg, 2017

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

Labour, protest, and workers’ rights in Argentina and the world over

During the 1970s in Argentina, thousands of workers disappeared during the military dictatorship, according to the local media. Some were murdered and others just went missing forever. This created a feeling of insecurity, and it took people time to move beyond this and to start feeling safe again when striking. Organized 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 take strike action.

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

Zamboni believes that he has inherited 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, first I must 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 in both the rural and urban areas. He is gaining 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 going to be respected if they [the workers] don’t fight for them.”

Zamboni believes that in Argentina there is a widely held conscience that the syndicate is what defends the individual and that somehow this is the workers’ only refuge. This is why the workers join the unions en masse. But the issue that remains still is that democracy among members is still a dream in many syndicates, just as it is in many workplaces.

Ezequiel Roldan, age thirty-six, has been General Secretary of the Federación de Trabajadores Aceiteros Desmotadores (Federation of Oil Workers) de Algodón for two years now. He spoke at the workshop “Labour’s quest for democracy at the workplace” as well. A tall, imposing man, Roldan became a worker at the oil company fifteen years ago. Back then, not many workers were affiliated with the unions.

“They were afraid”, Roldan asserts. He recalls an incident back in 2009 when he had an argument with his superior. He had worked an extra day and was supposed to receive a day in lieu in return, but when he asked for his day off, his request was declined. Soon after, more and more employees started to complain about their low salary as well. The workers eventually staged an all-out strike for fourteen-days. In the end, the boss agreed to their demand, and increased salaries by 30 per cent. When recalling this, Roldan smiles, and is visibly energized by what was an exciting and invigorating experience. The fourteen-day strike yielded more than a salary increase: it gave the workers a sense of justice and empowerment as well. Only the workers could bring about change. At the same time, it made their superiors realize that employees can wield a great amount of force.

Roldan claims that democracy within a company must start at the lowest levels and seep all the way up the ladder to the top. Nowadays, he believes, it is the other way round. 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 Saturday’s protest to be really important, which is why I am going to be there. We are doing 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 come out in solidarity and defend his/her and our own rights.”

Ezequiel Roldan at the Global Solidarity Summit protest in Hamburg

Roldan also points to several examples where strikes and union efforts have proved successful. On a number of occasions, due to the collective efforts of the other workers who went on strike, workers have managed to get reinstated in their jobs having been fired.

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

The Federación de Trabajadores Aceiteros Desmotadores de Algodón, with 15,000 members, is one of the most visible unions in Argentina, having managed to achieve several salary increases for workers over the years.

Besides a fair salary, the unions are agitating for greater job security and for improved working conditions in the workplace 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 happening, but the present reality is tough; every month a factory is closing down. According to the local media, in

the last year alone, around 1,500 factories have been shut down, resulting in more than 40,000 workers losing their jobs.

It seems that workers worldwide are being squeezed between the absence of democracy at the workplace and a demand for democracy, which can be achieved only through constant struggle. In factories and also on the streets, the fight continues. When the Global Solidarity Summit in Hamburg closed, people were shaking hands and exchanging smiles, while the scene on 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 realized that it will take longer to change the world than it does to exchange a few ideas.

This article was created and published as a result of the Blue Link workshop held in Hamburg/ Potsdam in 2017. More information about the workshop and the project is available here.