Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Three Strikes—yet nobody’s out (Ken)

Strike One: Unpaid Professors

I read in the newspapers last week that a study done by the University of Buenos Aires revealed that as many as one-third of their faculty had received no pay in the previous five years of teaching. That means that something like 30,000 of the 130,000 people listed as faculty were not being paid—anything. The study then went on to say that these professors were entitled to at least a $700 a month salary.

I have been told that it is considered a privilege, and honor, and a valuable professional credential to be able to describe one’s self as a member of UBAs faculty. Helen’s dermatologist spoke impressively of the pathologist he instructed her to go to as, “The best in the city—he is on the faculty at the University Medical School.”

In a country where a college education is absolutely free, there is no shortage of college-educated professionals. Therefore, in order to distinguish one’s self from all of the other professionals, teaching at the university—even for free—is a way to improve the resume.

The following day, a group of these unpaid professors demonstrated at Plaza de Mayo for their rightful pay. At first, I thought it was in response to a situation of which they had just become aware. Now, I see it differently.

UBA revealed this information from its own study. They are smart people and had to know what the study was going to say. They also had to know what the reaction of the unpaid faculty was going to be. I now think that UBA actually wants to pay these faculty and this is the first move in an attempt to procure additional funding from the government. At first I thought these professors were just happy to have the professional opportunity to teach and only protested after the size of the situation was brought to their attention by UBA. Now, I think it was all a plan by the university to encourage the unpaid professors to demonstrate after they had some data to back them up.
It's funny, kind of. At my college in the USA, we have a hard time finding part-time professors to teach a single class for US$2000 (6,000 pesos). Here professionals are eager to teach for free and only begin to ask for AR$700 (230 dollars) a month, for what amounts to a full-time gig, once the University brings it to their attention. We really do look at a university, and all that implies, very differently in our two countries.


Strike Two: Where’s the Beef?

I also read last week that the head of the organization responsible for sending live cattle to the slaughterhouses was reducing, by half, the number sent to slaughter. He assured the public, however, that there would be sufficient supply and that any shortages would be a result of governmental interference. Last Wednesday, there was a agreement between ranchers and butchers that allows the price of live cattle to rise between 6 and 18%.

At the Coto on French St. where we shop, there has been no beef in the store since Saturday. Today’s paper said that 6,800 cattle entered the Liniers stockyard for slaughter on Monday and 8,000 yesterday, “but retailers have yet to respond by either placing more meat on the shelves or lowering prices, pleading uncertainty.”

(The meat counter before, the sign announcing the problem, and the same meat counter after)
It seems to me that there is a culture here of high-quality, cheap beef, in abundant supply. Argentina may be at a crossroads where this tradition is concerned. I don’t pretend to understand it. I just don’t see how an empty meat counter and an election year can peacefully co-exist for long.

As for us, I guess that last package of taco seasoning we have been saving will have to wait a few more days.

Strike Three: “If that train’s on time, you can get to work by nine.”

I guess Bachman Turner Overdrive never tried to commute to Buenos Aires from the suburbs.

This one is not so much of a strike as it is a riot. Last night, train commuters, angered by technical problems that cancelled the trains they depend on to return home from work, rioted at the Buenos Aires City’s Constitucíon rail station. Over 20 people were injured—10 of them police—and 16 were arrested after over 100 riot police were called in to quell the demonstrators.

Here is the history as it has been explained to me. Argentina once had a great rail system, built and operated by the British. President Juan Peron, wanting to demonstrate Argentina’s ability to run its own rail system, purchased the trains from the British. I am also told he did so at an above-value price. However, Argentina did not have the money or technical expertise to maintain the system and it has slowly fallen into disrepair over the past 50 years. Today, there is only one line that operates with a great degree of reliability.

As I said before, this is an election year. I don’t know of this level of social unrest and demonstration is common during other years or not. There seems to be some level of dissatisfaction with the city government. From those I have talked to, it looks like current Mayor Tellerman will be defeated by mayoral candidate Mauricio Macri —the owner of the successful futbol team: the Boca Juniors. It also appears that there will be a Kirchner in the Casa Rosada for the next four years as well—we just don’t know which one yet. (Photos from La Nacion)

In any case, this is a country that has a longstanding tradition of strikes and demonstrations. There are powerful unions and worker organizations that can really exercise some influence in the lives of everyday people and cause some serious headaches for the elected leaders.
I think they protest a bit too much here. With all of the constant protesting, the really important issues get lost in a "Me Too!" situation. On the other hand, we don't protest enough in the USA. We let really important stuff go with little more than a mention during lunch at work sometimes.

1 comment:

Pablo Flores said...

The history of the train system is a bit more complicated. I'm not an expert, but I think it their decay had to do with several factors. One of them was the fact that the trains were nationalized and so protected from competition or the minimum requirements of efficiency; another one was the fact that the unions were given a lot of power by Perón, and big Argentine unions (the railway workers' one was major!) don't necessarily care about the ones they serve. But this all was not such a big problem until the 1990s. Carlos Menem co-opted the big union leaders, and in the name of efficiency he privatized some lines and shut down the rest (this incidentally killed off dozens of rural towns by the tracks). The privatized lines were as inefficient as before and sucked up state subsidies like hell (as they still do). The failing economy did the rest.