Argentine police today arrested more than 1,000 mechanics and auto workers staging a one-day work stoppage in defiance of the nation's antistrike laws. The action was the first major confrontation between Argentine labor and the three-month-old government of Gen. Roberto Viola.
Uniformed police, reportedly carrying submachine guns, forced their way early this afternoon into a union hall in downtown Buenos Aires where members of the Mechanics and Auto Transportation Workers union had gathered to launch their planned 13-hour strike. According to reports from the scene, the police commandeered about 20 city buses in the area, clearing passengers off the buses and filling them with striking workers.
The workers and several union leaders were taken to police stations around Buenos Aires. Between 1,200 and 1,500 persons reportedly were processed.
[The chief of police later ordered release of those processed, Reuter news agency reported.]
The work stoppage, the first direct labor challenge to Viola's new and troubled government, was called to protest the rapidly rising unemployment that has hit the automobile industry particularly hard. Before the arrests, union members scattered leaflets demanding more jobs for Argentine workers, and strike leaders announced that a representative group would meet with Labor Minister Julio Porcile to discuss the problem.
The planned strike "has no political content, but rather the human and Christian desire to want to work," union leader Raul Amin told the assembled workers shortly before the police burst in. "We don't want to fight with anyone. We don't want any confrontations. We want to work in peace. We were the first to fight subversion. We fought in the same trench with the armed forces."
Under Viola, as under the previous president, the military government has been heavily criticized for its economic policy of international "free market" competition, which has provoked factory shutdowns and layoffs in many previously protected industries.
Viola has opened a cautious dialogue with political parties, indicating that he wishes to restore some form of labor and political activity, which was banned after the military took power in a 1976 coup. But the economy has worsened steadily during Viola's three months in office, and unions have been clamoring with increasing vigor for some relief from the government.
Leaders from the General Confederation of Workers announced that they would hold a special meeting next week to analyze the arrests.