BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – An Argentine union paralyzed rush hour train traffic on Thursday, a day after Argentina's transportation minister showed videos of commuter train drivers reading books, talking on cellphones and even sleeping when they should have been focused on the rails.
The union said it called the strike due to a salary dispute, but Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo said it was clearly in response to the government's decision to install video cameras in train cabins and impose other new rules on drivers to reduce accident risks.
The videos show one driver sleeping through repeated road crossings, and another covering up the camera with a shirt. Others read books and sent text messages as the trains roll on at high speeds.
"Do you think we're stupid? Yesterday we showed horrifying videos and we wake up to a surprise strike by no more than 150 people who work on the Sarmiento line?" Randazzo complained Thursday in an interview on local Radio La Red.
"They take home 20,000 pesos a month (about $3,670 at official exchange rates). They're getting a 23 percent raise, like all the workers. And they do this, screwing with the lives of thousands and thousands of passengers," Randazzo said.
The strike, which lasted just a few hours, hit right at the morning commute.
Argentina's train union leaders said falling asleep at the switch is indefensible, but complained that the videos were taken from many thousands of train trips that drivers made responsibly. Rather than single out union members, they say, the government should be held to account for systemic corruption that has deprived the system of funds and equipment needed to properly maintain the trains. Also Thursday, the government officially issued new regulations requiring more controls on train workers, including blood-oxygen tests at the start of each shift to guard against fatigue and stricter licensing based on annual exams. It also announced that within seven months, automatic braking systems must be installed on the busy Sarmiento line, where crashes killed 51 people last year and three people in June.
Opposition lawmaker Ricardo Alfonsin said punishing drivers won't solve the train system's problems.
"If they had put cameras in the transportation secretary's office, perhaps the country could have avoided this decade of train disasters," said Alfonsin, who tops a list of lawmakers campaigning against the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in the Aug. 11 congressional primary elections.
"Argentina used to export train equipment, and now we import everything. Kirchnerism has done absolutely nothing to turn around this situation," Alfonsin alleged. "I've visited all the train repair shops in Argentina and their state of disrepair produces feelings of sadness and devastation."