Travel chaos in Argentina as transit unions strike

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Buenos Aires (AFP) - Argentina's largest cities ground to a halt Tuesday as transport unions went on strike, demanding tax cuts for low-income workers and putting the government on the defensive seven months out from general elections.

An eerie quiet reigned over Buenos Aires as buses, trains and subways began a 24-hour shutdown at midnight, emptying the streets in this city of three million people and forcing many businesses to remain closed.

The Buenos Aires metro area tops 13 million.

The strike caused chaos at airports, with flights cancelled, rerouted or delayed. Several major regional airlines cancelled all flights to and from Argentina for the day, including LAN of Chile and TAM in Brazil.

Public transport was also paralyzed in the second and third cities, Cordoba and Rosario.

The strike, called by unions opposed to President Cristina Kirchner, is the fourth major stoppage of her administration, which wraps up this year after October 25 elections.

Kirchner, who succeeded her late husband Nestor in 2007, is struggling to deal with an economic slowdown, high inflation and a messy debt default as she enters the home stretch of her second and final term.

"Really, these (union supporters) who are having a stoppage, they sadden me. They ought to give some of the salary they earn to help out other people -- like their coworkers, like retirees, and people who don't have water to drink," Kirchner said before thousands of supporters on the western edge of the capital.

And besides, she shot back: "if the commuter trains, subway and buses had been running, there would have been no strike. This was no general strike. Just a transport strike."

Unions had pressed ahead with a full strike, despite government threats that they would face sanctions if they failed to provide agreed minimum services under collective bargaining deals.

"The strike was crushing, and now we expect the government to give the answers that workers deserve," said truckers' union boss Hugo Moyano.

The strike will cause Latin America's third-largest economy losses of $340 million, consulting firm Analytica estimated.

Workers are striking over an income tax regime they say hurts the lowest earners because it has not been updated to keep pace with inflation.

The tax applies to salaries of over 15,000 pesos ($1,700) a month, starting at a rate of nine percent and increasing progressively to 35 percent for the highest earners.

Unions say the 15,000-peso threshold is outrageously low given that inflation has topped 20 percent a year since 2006 and now stands around 30 percent, according to independent estimates.

The threshold was last revised in August 2013, when it was raised from 11,500 pesos.

- Threat of new strike -

Leftist opposition groups that backed the strike erected road blocks at the main access points to the capital and stopped all trains and buses.

The Constitucion railway station, where hundreds of thousands of commuters normally arrive each day, was completely deserted. Its gates were closed and the bus platforms that serve it were empty.

Workers in the medical, banking and food sectors also joined the strike. A trail of garbage was starting to pile up in Buenos Aires as truckers stopped working.

A few taxis and private cars were on the roads but many employees had little choice but to walk or ride bicycles to work.

Medical auditor Mariana Bassi said she had left home early to make the five-kilometer (three-mile) trip to work.

"It's 50 blocks, but health care doesn't wait, the patients can't wait. Strike or no strike, people go to the clinic," she told AFP.

Unions have threatened to stage another strike, this time for 36 hours, if the government does not give in to their demands.

But Economy Minister Axel Kicillof has refused to budge, saying the income tax only affects "the highest-earning minority" -- some 850,000 workers out of a labor force of 11 million people, according to government figures.

Late last year, the government averted a similar strike by announcing that workers' December bonuses would be exempt from income tax.

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