Subte Conflict: From National to City Hands

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On 13th November, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri announced the city government’s decision to finally take full charge of the subte starting on 1st January 2013, after over 11 months of conflict between the national and city governments.

Mauricio Macri (Photo courtesy of Mauricio Macri)

During the press conference where he announced the take-over, Macri clarified that “it is time to start taking care of the subte operation,” and stated “old trains need to be replaced, safety improved, and the union strikes that have been causing major halts in the network during the year need to be solved,” at the same time blaming the national government for having neglected the subte issues for too long.

However, in practical terms the decision has not been as easy to implement as the city government hoped. Due to opposition from political parties and unions, the bill to formalise the transfer has been stalled in the city legislature for weeks. An extraordinary session to debate the bill has been called for today, but there are still doubts as to whether a solution will be reached. The future operation of the city’s vital transport service is at risk.

A Year of Conflicts

Late last year, president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the transfer of the subte service to the city, and the withdrawal of the federal government’s subsidies to the underground from the start of 2013.

When Macri first signed the agreement to accept responsibility for the subte on 3rd January this year, the national government offered -and the city government accepted- a payment of $360m in 12 installments for 2012, to finance the maintenance and necessary works on the subte system before stopping the subsidies completely the coming year. Two days after the agreement was signed, the city government announced the decision to raise the price on the passenger fare by 127%, from $1.10 to $2.50.

In February, the Once train crash caused Macri to review the commitment he had made the previous month, not wanting to carry the responsibility for the underground trains, that are just as old and in bad condition as the train in the Once accident.

On 1st March, Macri denied all responsibility for the subte and the service was left to an uncertain destiny. 

As the conflict regarding to whom the subte belongs was being played out, another important conflict broke out: the subte workers’ strikes. Union members called over 20 strikes this year, for a total of 31 days, that left the six lines dysfunctional and the city paralysed. Workers demands to operator Metrovías for higher wages and better working conditions nearly brought the city to collapse, with the ten-day-long strike in August this year setting a history record.

Subte shutdown due to strike earlier this year (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

The repeated strikes during the year culminated in a final one at the beginning of December. Representatives of the Association of Subte and Premetro Workers (AGTSyP), also called metrodelegados, demanded a 28% salary increase and an improved escalating increase for long-term employees: all retroactive to last March. In the final stage of the heated strike, a fight between the two rival subte trade unions -AGTSyP and the Urban Transport Workers Union (UTA)- broke out after UTA workers tried to keep working when AGTSyP insisted on continuing the strike. UTA had earlier reached a satisfactory agreement with Metrovías.

On 6th December, AGTSyP met with representatives from the city government and they too reached an agreement with Metrovías, after which the union’s press officer Enrique Rositto promised “the agreement was successful and there will be no more strikes in the near future.”

They were not granted the demanded wage increase but promised not to ask for higher wages until March 2013 when the official, annual wage negotiations will be held. However, the agreement included the cancellation of two clauses of the prior agreement reached between UTA and Metrovías. Those clauses deducted 1% from subte workers’ pay that went to UTA members’ health insurance and docked the wages of workers who took part in the record 10-day strike last August.

Macri’s Proposal

When Macri now for the second time accepted the take-over of the subte, he faced many tough decisions regarding financing, operation, and maintenance of the system. When the bill to formalise the transfer was being drafted, rumours and predictions regarding its content sparked hard criticism, as there is a general concern over another potential fare increase.

“This was an irresponsible and illegal act carried out by Macri,” says Proyecto Sur deputy Rafael Gentili about the first fare increase earlier this year. “It violated law 210, which forces public hearings when changing a service fee”.

The city government’s project to finance a continued service of the subte network during next year is estimated at $1,054m. The bill put forward by the city government proposes that the money be taken from the pockets of local motorists. The core income to pass on to the subte will come from “a 10% raise on city toll roads, a 5% increase of the high-end car tax, and the introduction of a new tax on fuel, of between 15 and 40 cents per litre,” the bill explains.

Included in PRO’s bill there is also the suggestion to potentially remove Metrovías, the network operator. The alternatives on who should take over the operation and maintenance services are either to carry them out “by the executive branch itself,” i.e., a nationalisation, or “through other private legal corporations,” according to PRO legislator Martín Ocampo. He explains the main project is now “to limit downtime guilds, prohibit the hiring of more staff in the company, and extend the working hours of employees already working in the service.”

Diagonal Norte station on the C line (photo by Galio/Fotopedia)

Ocampo explains that PRO’s plan “not only raises the possibility of a removal of Metrovías, but opens the door to foreign companies, such as Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB),” that, according to Macri, was the inspiration for the audit that culminated in the decision of taking over the subte.

In terms of the labour conflicts, Ocampo said “We are declaring it [the subte] an essential public service. This means they have to ensure a minimum service even during strikes.” He claims “the minimum frequency has to be 90% during peak time and 60% in normal time.” This decision would mean the workers are not legally permitted to call for a full strike.

On 13th December, the budget for 2013 was passed by the city legislature and it did not include any money for transport subsidies. To the disappointment of the opposition the and subte workers’ unions, the transfer was not debated in the session and a consensus was not reached. Instead, it will be discussed further in the coming weeks, although the 13th December session was the last regular meeting of the year.

Deputy mayor María Eugenia Vidal announced last week that if the legislature does not approve Macri’s draft bill for the take-over the subte, the service will be at ”immediate risk” from January. Macri made an announcement after the last legislature session threatening once again to reject the subte: ”If they don’t approve the bill, there will be no take-over of the subte,” he said, justifying his threat by stating that “no one can give back what they have not received. Without law, there is no take-over”.

The Alternative Bills

The most resisted points in PRO’s draft bill are those related to financing and the right to strike.

AGTSyP secretary general, Roberto Pianelli says they do not approve of PRO’s intention to prohibit the right to strike, as “it is a human right”. Pianelli announced the metrodelegados’ support for the opposition’s bill. “The points that bothered us in PRO’s bill are not included in the opposition’s, but the points we find important are,” he stated.   

Rafael Gentili’s Proyecto Sur and the Kirchnerist parliamentary group have both presented alternative bills.

Gentili explains: “We proposed a budget re-distribution that would be enough to cover the costs of the subsidies, with 50% of what is currently collected from tolls and 4% from car registrations, the taxes that are raised especially for the subte, what we get from the new contracts for parking meters and tow trucks.” However, “more importantly”, he points out, “is a plan of urgent works to be performed regarding maintenance and modernisation of the system.”

City legislature (photo by Roberto Fiadone)

Legislator Francisco ‘Tito’ Nenna from Frente para la Victoria (FpV) confirmed last week that they do not support the initiative of PRO either. The Kirchnerist group he represents questions the possible fare increase, the funding of the service, and the alleged encroachment on the right to strike. He proposes “the rejection of the draft bill,” as “it is an attempt by PRO to exercise superpowers over the subte.” He summarises his opinion saying, “the whole project is nonsense.”

Nenna wants to create a single fare for all trips on the lines in the network, ensuring a social fare according to the economic reality of the users, including students, seniors, and people with disabilities.

In addition to funding, FpV’s proposal includes an ambitious investment plan for infrastructure and rolling stock and an expansion of the network. It ensures the representation of users and workers in the Buenos Aires Underground State Society (SBASE) board, and the extension of the night service in certain areas according to the needs of the users.

FpV, Proyecto Sur, and other members of the opposition have now agreed on a common bill against Macri’s. As a response to the tax increase proposed by the city government, the opposition has suggested other sources of funding, while establishing a regulatory framework and carrying out an audit on Metrovías. The project includes a suggestion that the service will be provided by the state company SBASE, which operated the service for more than 20 years, until its privatisation.

With this unified text, the opposition seeks to negotiate with PRO or, if there is no agreement, to build a majority to approve this initiative and defeat the one drafted by Martín Ocampo.

Ocampo, in turn, says the issue comes down to two things. “First of all, we need to have a source of funding to ensure the provision of the service in a sustainable manner, and second, to solve the issue of union unrest.”

Regarding the opposition’s and AGTSyP’s accusations of breaking human right laws by limiting the right to strike, he explains: “We cannot act as if nothing happened, in the last year there were 31 days of strikes in the subte. There is still an unresolved problem between the metrodelegados and UTA, and we have to take the side of the subte user.”

He concludes: “We are ready to discuss, but not willing to change the essence of the proposal, because we are in government and we need that tool to manage the subte.”

What Happens Next?

The subte conflict seems to continue and the risk of not reaching an agreement before 1st January has left everyone wondering whether there will be a subte service at all in the new year. Today, the city government and the opposition will debate the subject in an extraordinary session in the legislature, called by mayor Macri.

Gentili expresses a serious concern: ”We have a critical situation where we cannot waste any more time and the bad administration and urgent reparations need to be started now, or the citizens will have to rely on other transportation means that are in even worse condition than the subte.” He says ”we need to act fast before it gets dangerous and we have more accidents.”

The transfer from 1st January is still an uncertain event. ”Macri’s government is a year late to start dealing with this, and now with this provocative bill the conflict only continues,” says Gentili.

 

Do porteños think the transfer will help solve the city’s transportation problems? Click here to find out.

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