Strike three

Decent. Adjective 2 [attributive] of an acceptable standard; example, find me a decent cup of coffee, people need decent homes. Satisfactory: good – Oxford Dictionary.

Still no word from management. Our UPTBA union rep Nicolás says our meeting with the Ministry of Labour and employer AmFin has changed its time tomorrow from 1pm to 3.30pm and that a Canal 7 TV crew are coming by Herald Towers today to conduct some interviews. Rest assured that they won’t be allowed into the building to film.

So what is this all about? Why are we, the Buenos Aires Herald editorial and administrative staff, striking? Why am I, a nice, middle-class, private-school educated, southerner from bloody England, striking? I’ve never done this before. Many members of the 21-strong Herald editorial team (yes, that’s how many of us, maximum, put out a daily newspaper and it’s a daily that only takes advantage of three Argentine bank holidays a year) have never done this before.

I wouldn’t be striking if:

1. The first offer made by AmFin hadn’t been 3%. Inflation in Argentina is estimated to be between 25% and 35%, according to private consultancies. The official INDEC figure, which is widely discredited, was 10.9% in 2010.

2. I hadn’t started earning 1,750 pesos a month from July 2008 to October 2010 at the age of 33 and with 10 years’ experience as a journalist and production journalist and watched new members of staff (no one more senior or more experienced than me) join the Herald after me on 3,000 pesos a month.

3. An annual pay rise in line with inflation had been offered between this date and 2009 (this is called recomposición). Taking the 25% from private consultancies, the Herald minimum wage floor in 2011 should be 3,416 pesos.

4. I hadn’t had to cry in front of my editor in chef about the pittance I was earning in comparison with the responsibility they had chosen to give me (entertainment to economy overnight? I had a weekend to crib and there ain’t no Dummies guide to that). It was humiliating. I got a pay rise. But she had no (capital letters) idea how much (little) I was earning at that point. Which made me cry even more.

5. It hadn’t taken from May to October 2010 to receive confirmation of a personal payrise after being forced to change sections over the course of one weekend from the entertainment desk to the economy desk.

5a. I hadn’t been told, on my first day in economy: “Sorrel, you don’t sit there anymore, you sit over there,” by way of a full and complete explanation from an editor about my changing section.

6. It hadn’t taken four months, after delivering a neurologist’s letter to human resources requesting a new chair – as I was undergoing prolonged physiotherapy for an ongoing neck problem – to obtain a new seat. My chair, not an infamous wonky blue one, was fairly decent except I couldn’t raise it to the correct height. Tantamount to a red flag to a bullish cranky neck.

6a. Human resources had confirmed receipt of that neurologist’s letter and were taking it into consideration. Common courtesy would have been the decent thing to do to give me an idea of how long this would take.

Physical stress
7. I hadn’t taken on additional part-time work editing a book in winter 2010 at a publishing house to supplement my income. The stress that caused me led to my having a trapped nerve in my already vulnerable neck, which led to a migraine cluster, which led me to my neurologist, all kinds of medication and five months of physiotherapy. In order to be slightly better off – and that extra work earned me 2,500 pesos more a month and believe me I felt rich! rich beyond my wildest dreams at that point – my health suffered for seven months. My last migraine cluster was at the end of April 2011.

8. I didn’t work on the second-and-a-half-floor of an office where the canteen workers refuse to store their food products because it’s too hot. In summer, the AC is so cold, it’s freezing to the point of shivering and many of my colleagues and I wear a scarf. So turn it up, Mona, you say. It’s out of our control, because we ask permission to turn it up, those on the second floor then melt and everyone is unhaappy. It’s an engine of some description that serves the whole building. No one can open a window, either because there aren’t any or they are blocked shut.

In winter, obviously it’s the other way round so we’re all inadvertent pawns in a strip show. I’ve never suffered from so many colds and blocked-up noses as I have since working in this space – and have the CAT scans and decongestants to prove it. In addition, the cold air vent blows right on me. And the noise. It’s like living next to Heathrow airport. Okay, that’s over the top. But it’s a permanent rumbling, that when it finally eases off or is turned off by mysterious hands, it’s like a load of my migraine pills just kicked in. When you walk into the second-and-a-half-floor and the heating/AC is on, you don’t notice it, but when it’s gone, my God you don’t miss it.

9. I didn’t work on the second-and-a-half-floor of an office which doesn’t have any windows. We just have airless stuffiness. When it’s warm it is so vile, it is inexplicable in summer. No fresh air for six hours a day. No wonder I smoked to go outside for fresh air…

10. I didn’t work on the second-and-a-half-floor of an office which was never designed to be an office. I don’t have a desk that has lockable drawers. Possessions left on desks are often stolen – umbrellas, jumpers, tea, biscuits, mobile phones, pens from hotels which are designed to be stolen at least once… It’s like open season. I work at best, at a kitchen work surface, and don’t have any open leg space to stretch out. My legs are locked in by a wall and a boiling-hot hard drive by my feet. Three of us used to sit at a work surface measuring around 2m in length. Now it’s just the two of us with a computer occupying precious desk space and waiting for someone who had the luxury of being sidelined and now works from home. I imagine it’s like being in World War II: make do with what you’ve got, and try and keep your spirits up when someone comes back from holidays with some alfajores

11. The minimum wage wasn’t 2,300 pesos a month. I lived on 1,750 pesos a month for ample enough time but was stupidly lucky to be living almost rent free and had the advantage of working for ents and was therefore able to maintain a social life for free. That began three years ago. If you calculate the Herald‘s minimum wage floor at 25% over the past three years, which is the lowest annual inflation estimate made by private consultancies, the Herald‘s floor should currently be 3,416 pesos a month. (Also see point 3.)

Less senior than an intern
12. I wasn’t still called aspirante on my pay slip. I always jokingly describe an aspirante as an intern but according to WordReference it means a candidate or applicant. Even worse! I’ve worked at the Herald for three years (on June 30), and for over two of them on the books (but that’s another story…) and I’m not even referred to as cronista or a reporter. I’m pretty muich in charge of the economy section since Javier left in August 2010, so how about calling me redactora, or editor even? because that’s what I’m doing. I even edit the former news editor’s news analysis pieces five days a week so give me the title that goes with the job I do – besides the lay out and design, picture editing, headline writing, oh and actual writing so I get to have a byline every now and then.

13. If I hadn’t written a column called ‘The Expat’ for two months after being put on the books. After previously invoicing around 80 pesos extra per weekly ‘Expat’ story for nine months, I was told it would be included in my salary. After being put on the books, I was earning less so it clearly wasn’t included. (I know about tax and stuff – it wasn’t included.) For some reason I got screwed over for a few hundred pesos. During those months I even published interviews with Argentines living in the UK to reverse the concept. “Nice twist, Sorrel!” Oh, that was my invisible mentor giving me a pep talk, and not commenting on my jive. I stopped doing ‘The Expat’ once I realised I was no longer getting paid extra per column. Ditto the Style page I created for the On Sunday supplement. Which I never got paid for in around 10 months of compiling it.

14. I hadn’t been frequently been threatened with dismissal for not having DNI. My paperwork was in process and for that reason I had seemingly been allowed to continue working when we moved from Azopardo to San Juan. Around 10 interns who worked across the whole paper vanished overnight, almost a third of the staff back in February 2009 when the Herald moved. But one of my editors insisted on throwing out that little threat once a week, that I might not be able to continue.

15. On July 1, 2008, I turned up at the Azopardo to work on the international desk. I worked with Nico, who showed me how to go through the wires and reminded me to put “yesterday” as we were putting together tomorrow’s paper which would be “today.” Later on, around 8pm, some giant tupper ware boxes appeared out of nowhere and thus dinner was produced. I sat down with one of the editors who offered me, on my first day, ‘Face and Places’, a community page. I said yes. Free supper, plus coffee machine tokens and tea in the form of two dozen facturas came with the job. I was so skint I didn’t eat all day, as I couldn’t afford to, eagerly waiting for the mysterious tupper ware to turn up. Even on mondongo days, I’d pick out the mondongo but greedily slurp up the vegetables swimming around in tripey oil.

We also had kitchen facilities to make coffee and a microwave. Needless to say, when we moved to our new employer, we lost all those culinary and gastronomic benefits and they were never replaced. We have been raising this issue since 2009 but it has always been ignored.

16. Our employer AmFin adhered to the Journalist’s Statute. It basically involves working conditions, an adequate office and computer, that kind of thing. I should explain this further, but it’s the law so there is no need to.

Most of my reasons are personal. But the basics are this – the recomposición, our working conditions, the fact our current agreement ran out on January 31 and today is May 11 and we still havem’t reached an agreement. And I know we are all worth more than that original 3% monthly incremental increase.

Why my colleagues are striking
Mike says: “There’s a lot of talk of rights in Argentina. In a country that is growing as rapidly as this one, we all have the right to make ends meet at the end of each month. We live in a country where the worker not only has labour rights but is also represented by unions who have a public face and political leverage to defend these rights. It is essential in a representative democracy to retain and reinforce these rights.”

Another colleague who prefers to remain anonymous, says: “I decided to participate in the strike because I’m tired of the effort I put in day in and day out which I don’t receive any recognition for. Besides the low salary, we suffer all kinds of abuse: negative attitudes from the company with regard to any subject, and negative attitudes from our bosses who intercede on our behalf to ask for the deserved pay rise in line with annual inflation. The Herald demands a lot from us, all our energy, we love our work. But it’s one thing to love our work, and another is to hang your head in shame and put up with anything. We’ve done everything we can to converse in a reasonable way with the company, but its intransigence means we are obliged to take a measure. There wasn’t another viable option to make them listen to our demands.”

Round two
So the second consecutive day of striking on Tuesday went like this. Rice cakes and wholemeal biscuits substituted Monday’s sugary tat provided by sports. Mate. Fresh coffee. Oh, and the head of human resources “dropping into” a meeting with colleagues from Ámbito Financiero as she wanted to know what we were “up to”. Which is all well and good but she brought a notary with her “to help her manage this situation” who then started taking photos of us. Intimidation, anyone?

Thanks to Argentina Digital for Tuesday’s story.

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