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Backlash to Argentina airline privatisation heralds union battles for Javier Milei

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Union leaders in Argentina’s aviation industry have said they will fiercely resist incoming President Javier Milei’s plans to privatise the state airline, in an early sign of the tumultuous relationship the libertarian is expected to have with the country’s powerful labour movement.

Following his victory in a presidential run-off vote on Sunday, Milei said he aimed to hand over shares in Argentina’s state-owned airline Aerolíneas Argentinas to its workers and reduce the state funding on which it relies.

“If he wants to take Aerolíneas, he will have to kill us,” said Pablo Biró, leader of Argentina’s airline pilots’ union, on Wednesday. “And when I say kill, I mean literally: he will have to take dead bodies and I’ll sign up first.”

The hard-left Unidad Piquetera social movement has announced plans to lead a march through downtown Buenos Aires on Thursday to oppose Milei’s austerity plans, while its leaders will meet to co-ordinate a “battle plan” for the coming months.

Milei’s victory by 11 percentage points in Sunday’s election heralds a sharp shift in political direction for Argentina, following four years of unorthodox economic policy under the left-leaning populist Peronist movement.

Pablo Biró, leader of Argentina’s airline pilots’ union
Several union leaders, including Pablo Biró of the airline pilots’ union, have said they are waiting for the incoming president to release details on his plans for Argentina before formulating a response © Pablo Biro/X

The country is suffering its worst economic crisis in two decades, with annual inflation topping 142 per cent in October.

On Tuesday, Edgardo Llano, head of an aviation workers’ union, said Milei’s plan would mean “signing the death certificate” of Aerolíneas Argentinas, which was nationalised in 2008, “because this company doesn’t work without the contributions of the state”.

Milei, who has called former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher one of his political heroes, has said he intends to privatise “anything that can be in private hands”, including the state energy firm YPF.

The hard-right economist has also pledged major and rapid cuts to government spending to eliminate Argentina’s chronic fiscal deficit.

Milei may struggle to carry out his agenda, given that his La Libertad Avanza party holds less than 15 per cent of seats in Argentina’s lower house and less than 10 per cent of the senate. Transferring shares in the state airline to private hands would require a simple majority, while privatising YPF would require a two-thirds majority.

Labour organisations are influential in Argentina. Some are closely aligned with the incumbent Peronists, whose presidential candidate, economy minister Sergio Massa, lost to Milei on Sunday.

Peronist unions and social movements have indicated they will wait until after Milei’s December 10 inauguration to begin any demonstrations. Several union leaders, including Biró, have said they are waiting for Milei to release details on his plans before formulating a response.

Argentina’s labour movement is large and diverse, and Rodolfo Aguiar, leader of a public sectors’ workers union, said on Tuesday he expected “a big section of Argentina’s union movement to quickly come to an agreement” to support Milei in an effort to protect their power. However, Shila Vilker, director of pollster Tres Punto Zero, said a “season of protests” was still likely once the targets of Milei’s austerity plans became clear.

“Milei’s speech [since his win] has been marked by a readiness to face resistance,” she said. “While we may have relatively calm streets this week, the language being used in Argentina heralds the conflict that is on its way.”

Milei reiterated in his victory speech a pledge to crack down on protests “outside of the law”, alluding to disruptive road-blocking demonstrations that are frequent in Argentina and a major complaint of many Milei voters.

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