Interview with Francisco Raposo, member of the Executive Commission of the STML (Union of Workers of Lisbon Municipality), Gracinda, secretary of the shop stewards committee of the municipal cleaners of Lisbon, and José Almeida, member of the leadership of the STML. All three are also members of Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI group in Portugal). They are involved in a crucial battle around the attempts, by the “Socialist Party” run-Lisbon Council, to implement a restructuring plan of the public services of the municipality, which will lay the basis for massive lay-offs and privatizations. This plan represents the most frontal attack on jobs and services ever realized in the area.
Can you describe what the new restructuring plan of the Municipal Council of Lisbon consists of?
Francisco: This plan is aimed at cutting different municipal public services that the Lisbon Council has, and give them to private companies or to inter-municipal companies with a private management. It includes a set of services such as the cleaners, the mechanical handling of cars and lorries, sanitation services, water tubes, public street lights, but also internet/telecommunication services, the management of sport parks, cultural services (museums, art galleries,…). According to the estimates of the STML, this plan threatens the jobs of between 3,000 and 4,500 workers, out of a workforce of 11,000. This is basically the biggest attack on public services and jobs ever made.
José: The Council is preparing a big campaign to mask the reality. The way the plan is presented to the people of Lisbon is by pretending that in splitting the services into different pieces, they want to make the services “closer to the people”. Obviously they don’t talk about the fact that they want to proceed to massive lay-offs, and give these services to private management, or even sell them directly to the private sector. They will increase the taxes on Lisbon citizens, mostly working class families and small shop keepers, and the quality of the services will sharply worsen for the city’s inhabitants.
What has been the reaction of the workers?
Gracinda: The future they face is to be put on the dole, in a situation of rocketing unemployment. They refuse to accept this and are prepared to fight back.
Francisco: There has already been mass participation in local meetings we organized in more than 50 places in the last two weeks. Even in workplaces where usually the participation is very low, the participation and participation of workers jumped impressively. Generally, at my workplace, a good meeting consists of 30-40 out of 150 workers. This time there were 87. In the national action of yesterday (29th), about 1,000 Lisbon council workers turned out, which is very good.
Gracinda: During the demo, a lot of workplaces depending of the Council were forced to close down. We called an 8hour strike, and we got a massive response, in particular in the cleaning sector, the handling sectors, and other technical and social services.
José: Even in several night shifts work teams, facilities were closed down by the strike. This is the first action against the plan, and this is a very good sign. The cleaning sector is traditionally a very combative, united sector of workers, and the initial response against this attack is in line with previous struggles.
Francisco: But what is also interesting is that some other sectors, where there is no tradition of struggles whatsoever, workers have shown that they’re also prepared to fight back against cuts and jobs losses. (like in the sport or cultural departments).
José: Yes, another sector which is prepared to fight back in a determined way is the auxiliary staff in nurseries and in first degree schools.
What are the next steps in the organization of the struggle?
José: The first step in the struggle was yesterday’s action, and the participation in the demonstration. The next is likely to be the organization of a mass meeting in the big city hall, involving the whole workforce, to let the mayor and the Council know that we will refuse any form of compromise on cuts, job losses and privatization, and to discuss concrete proposals on what we plan to do to push the struggle further if the Council refuse to step back.
Are there any attempts to enlarge the campaign outside the workforce itself, to try and get the support of the broad public?
Francisco: This is a crucial point. We raised this question in our different meetings. We are going to contact other sectors of workers, and try to build the broadest campaign possible, in defense of public services, and to denounce the hidden agenda behind this plan (increase of taxes, huge degradation of the services). We need to explain to the inhabitants of the city that they are all concerned, since this plan will concretely mean that they will pay more for the profits of private companies. We also call on the left political parties, namely the PCP and the BE, to build the solidarity around our struggle. Actually we are looking for any kind of support and solidarity, because it’s going to be a hard battle.
Gracinda: One of the argument used by the mayor (who is by the way one of the most influential Socialist Party member) is that the council cannot afford the need for public investment in the services, so that calling to the private sector is a way to get resources. This is complete bullshit. And we need to campaign and explain it clearly to the broad public.
Do you get any concrete support or publicity around your struggle from the trade union central?
Francisco: Not yet. We call for a clear stand from the rest of the trade union movement to bring this issue on a national scale. This is the biggest attack on public services and public sector jobs ever, and they will reproduce this elsewhere. Actually they already did. Attacks are implemented on a broad scale, and there have been similar plans in different cities (even some applied by councils run by the Communist Party!)
We had already conversations with the Lisbon Trade Union Council, as well as with the Common Front of public sector unions, on the need to widen this campaign, to convince people of its political importance on a national scale. The readers of socialistworld.net should be prepared to mobilise solidarity to our struggle, and we will publish information about its development. It is crucial if we can show solidarity and publicity for this struggle on an international level.
José: The leadership of the Council and the mayor are very clever politicians. They mask this attack with beautiful rhetoric. But we know what they want to do, they want to clear the way to impose a major setback to the workers of the city. We are aware of this and will fight back and resist to the end.
Gracinda: The cleaners know by experience that we can win through the struggle, that’s what happened in the end of 2008. We are confident that we can build a mass fight back and win this time as well.