BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s government sent military police to take control of fuel plants and get trucks back on the road on Wednesday, the first day of a truckers’ pay strike that could cause widespread shortages in Latin America’s third-biggest economy.
The powerful truck drivers union defied a government order for talks and launched the three-day protest, disrupting fuel distribution throughout the country, a leading exporter of grains.
The government initiated a criminal complaint over the strike, sparking the wrath of top union chief Hugo Moyano, who heads the CGT labor federation and whose son runs the truckers union. Both men are at odds with President Cristina Fernandez.
“I’m announcing a nationwide truckers strike,” Moyano told local television. “Tomorrow (Thursday) we’ll define the scope of this and I’m certain other unions will join us.”
The truckers union represents workers who transport cash, garbage and farm products, in addition to fuel and other goods.
Labor disputes are common in Argentina due to double-digit inflation, but the Labor Ministry normally intervenes to avoid major disruption to the economy. In this case, the truckers flouted the ministry’s order for compulsory conciliation.
“The president has ordered us to deploy all the state’s forces to be able to quickly solve the (fuel) shortages they want to impose on the country,” Security Secretary Sergio Berni told local television.
“Those people who try through force and violence to block the trucks from leaving (plants) will have to explain that in court,” he added.
The government has the power to reroute trucks to areas where fuel is urgently needed and the military police, known as gendarmes in Argentina, dispatched halted rigs at several plants.
Argentina is one of the world’s biggest exporters of grains and the vast majority of farm goods are sent to port by truck. Farmers, who are nearing the end of this year’s soy and corn harvest, are also major consumers of fuel.
In Buenos Aires, some people sat in long lines wrapping around city blocks during Wednesday’s public holiday to fill up their tanks with gasoline.
Government officials said patients at a hospital in the small town of Guamini, Buenos Aires province, had to be turned away because operations could not be performed.
The leader of the truckers’ union, Pablo Moyano, vowed to send truckers to demonstrate in the country’s most famous square, the Plaza de Mayo, if security forces crack down on striking workers.
“If they try to force us out, things will get ugly. We hope the government has common sense and doesn’t do this,” Moyano told local media.
Although scuffles could be seen between union workers and police at the main entrance to a refinery in La Matanza, outside Buenos Aires, Berni said fuel trucks were able to depart from that plant.
Pablo Moyano’s father, Hugo, used to be a close ally of the president’s but their strategic alliance has all but collapsed, increasing the threat of labor unrest as inflation seen at roughly 25 percent fuels wage demands while economic growth slows sharply.
Fernandez canceled her speech at a U.N. conference in Brazil on Wednesday to return to Argentina early to oversee the response to the fuel strike. She was holed up at the presidential residence in Olivos, a northern suburb of Buenos Aires.
The truckers, who have threatened to stage a series of protests, want a 30-percent pay rise as well as lower taxes.
Editing by Ed Davies