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Up Against Pepsi

Pepsi's mass firing of bottling plant workers in Argentina has led to a pitched battle in the streets of Buenos Aires.

July 11, 2017 demonstration for the hearing at the courthouse in San Isidro against eviction of workers from PepsiCo. @duroms / Twitter

Two months after Argentina’s midterm elections, an otherwise placid political scene has been transformed by the struggle of six hundred workers for the right to keep their jobs.

The mostly women workers of the PepsiCo manufacturing plant in Buenos Aires occupied their factory in response to mass layoffs by the multinational. Supported by the organizations of the far left, they have been able to galvanize an important resistance to both the multinational and the conservative government of Mauricio Macri. Beyond offering an inspiring example of workers fighting back, the struggle has important lessons for how an independent left allied with resisting workers can have an impact far beyond its polling numbers.

When they arrived at work on June 20 at the PepsiCo Plant in the western suburbs of the country’s capital, workers faced a devastating surprise. A flyer was posted on the locked gates announcing that the plant was closing and that their services as workers were no longer needed.

The order to close came directly from PepsiCo’s US headquarters, which identified the plant as insufficiently profitable, despite the company’s soaring global profits. While the exact rate of profit of the Argentinian subsidiary hasn’t been disclosed, it is not in financial crisis. PepsiCo initially claimed that the jobs were being moved to another region of Argentina; it has since been revealed that the real plan is to replace the factory´s production with imports from Chile.

The closure is part of a growing pattern of mass firings and attacks on workers’ rights overseen by Macri’s neoliberal government.

Between November 2015 and March 2017, nearly fifty thousand jobs in the industrial sector were lost. The scale of the social crisis reveals itself through data like the recently confirmed 20 percent rise in homelessness in the city of Buenos Aires. The battle cry of workers defending their jobs, “families in the streets, never again!” is no exaggeration.

Both union leadership and the major opposition parties (aligned with the legacy of former president Cristina Kirchner) have been silent or complicit in this round of attacks by the Argentinian elite. The support of wide sections of the supposed opposition in the legislature and senate has been essential to Macri’s government, as his right-wing coalition would be unable to pass a single law on its own.

With politicians urging them only to wait for the next election, workers have organized their own resistance, posing one of the first real challenges to Macri’s government since it took power. On June 26 they entered the PepsiCo factory and began an occupation. They also immediately set to work organizing a series of marches and blockades to draw attention to the struggle. The far left, especially the parties composing the Left and Workers Front (FIT) in the election, threw itself into supporting the struggle.

As the Argentinian media began to pay attention, PepsiCo’s official declarations defending the action began to unravel. While the company initially maintained that it would be relocating within Argentina, it was later revealed that importation of Pepsi products from Chile had already begun. The company’s strategy has been to eliminate the plant in order to remove the threat posed by the worker militants who have built a strong organization there.

After winning a judicial order to evict workers from the occupied plant, Buenos Aires’s right-wing governor ordered the police to carry out their removal. The eviction was accompanied by brutal repression. Protesters were beaten, an encampment was torn up and trampled upon, rubber bullets were fired, and so much tear gas was dispersed that it wafted into a nearby elementary school and daycare facility.

The candidates of the FIT, including 2015 presidential and vice presidential candidates Nicolas Del Cano and Myriam Bregman, were on the frontlines of the protest defending the plant from police eviction. Party militants have long been engaged in political work at the factory; that PepsiCo workers have put up such militant resistance is no coincidence.

The political fallout from the firings and eviction represents a major blow to Macri’s governing Cambiemos (“We Change”) coalition. Officials of Cambiemos reported how they would practically be starting from scratch to reconstruct support in the neighborhoods near the factory. Plans to introduce a labor-reform bill (conceived along the lines of the reactionary legislation recently passed in Brazil) have had to be postponed, at least until after the elections.

The struggle has also provided an opportunity for the Left to take the frontlines of resistance — in stark contrast to the passive official opposition to Macri. Where before a complicit opposition made continuing the pro-business reforms easy, the explosion of a case of workers’ resistance to state repression on behalf of a multinational corporation has set back planned neoliberal reforms.

Many of the rank-and-file workers and activists who supported the pro-Cristina Kirchner (the country’s progressive president from 2007 to 2015) opposition as a lesser evil have rallied behind the struggle. Journalists in pro-Kirchner media outlets like Pagina12 have provided positive coverage of the struggle. While the politicians who claim the mantle of opposition to Macri have been mostly silent, those who voted for them hoping for resistance seem to be growing more impatient.

By leading the struggle at PepsiCo, the far left has emerged as the only real resistance to Macri. Before, the Kirchnerists attempted to blame the Left’s refusal to endorse the lesser evil for Macri´s victory (a familiar situation for many on the US left); now they have been put on the defensive.

The struggle is an important model for how to build radical left political and electoral alternatives. PepsiCo is one of a number of factories where the left-wing parties that make up the FIT have built rank-and-file militancy among workers in strategic positions. The FIT has always been conceived of as not just an electoral tool, but as a political strategy for organizing among the working class in struggles like the one at the PepsiCo Plant.

While the eviction has succeeded, the fight is still far from over. A protest on June 19 drew over thirty thousand people to the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. After passing through the main streets and effectively shutting down the city center, workers have now launched an occupation in front of the National Congress.

Workers have called for a boycott of all Pepsi products — a boycott which has spread to nearby countries like Chile and Brazil — and are asking for supporters around the world to sign a petition in support of them.

The order to close the Buenos Aires plant came directly from Pepsi’s international headquarters in the United States. Leftists here should support workers struggling against US corporations abroad by spreading the boycott and organizing solidarity actions.