Union federation action causes third shutdown in 18 months

On 22 March, Portugal’s CGTP union federation organised a general strike, for the third time since the beginning of the current crisis, in answer to the hammer blows of the government and Troika against the rights and living standards of the majority in society. Following the paralysis of the economy on 24 November 2010 and on the same date in 2011, last Thursday’s strike again saw a generalised work stoppage in all key sectors of the Portuguese economy, especially in public transport and the wider public sector. As union leaders correctly stated, the strike was an impressive example of the determination of broad sections of the workers and poor to take bold action, at the expense of a day’s pay, in an attempt to register the mass opposition and anger which exists and to fight for an alternative road. However, as the experience of the strike and its aftermath has shown, a lot more will be necessary.

Around the country, pickets began last Wednesday evening, shutting down bus and train terminals, post centres, refuse collection depots and thousands of other workplaces around the country. Trade unionists, workers, the unemployed and Left activists gathered in hundreds-strong pickets, most of which bosses or police did not even attempt to break. Throughout the transport and communications sector, unions reported turnouts of between 70% and 100%. A more detailed overall impression of the solidity of the strike is difficult to obtain, as official figures have not yet been publicised, on a sector or national level. This partially stems from new government tactics that try to undermine the impact of workers’ action: they forbade public sector bosses from commenting on the strike turnout or effectiveness of the stoppage! But despite these gagging attempts, the strike left the country in no doubt that the trade union movement maintains the power to paralyse the economy in defence of the interests of those it represents.

Strike participation

Despite the consistent attempts by the pro-bosses’ media and establishment to paint the strike as a “disaster”, focusing on the admittedly lower participation in the action in some sectors, some details slipped through the bosses’ media filter which gave the contrary impression. For example, in many companies and workplaces (such as among health and education workers in Coimbra, the third largest Portuguese city) participation in the action was higher than during previous mobilisations. The day of action, also known as ‘22-M’, saw the crucial emergence of a layer of ‘precarious workers’, who, defying tyrannical bosses joined in the strike along with the heavy battalions of the traditional organised workers’ movement. Workers from various call centers, which are notorious domains of bullying bosses and precarious working conditions, defied threats and intimidation and joined the strike. This set an important precedent, which must be built upon, in a drive to organise and draw this crucial section of the working class into the fight.

Before the strike, the ‘yellow’ leadership of the UGT union scandalously signed up to a rotten deal with the government and Troika. This saw the acceptance of new historic attacks on workers’ conditions, such as the 150 extra working hours a year, the non-payment of overtime and the cheapening of sackings. This deal was also an attempt to isolate the CGTP union federation, which rejected the package. However, as we have pointed out previously, such actions, unworthy of the name trade unionism, can lead to the support of such leaders being seriously undermined. This tendency was further underlined in the strike, with 20 unions affiliated to the UGT joining the CGTP-led action.

Repression

As well as a media offensive to emphasise the ’weakness’ of the strike, the capitalist establishment resorted to other measures to undermine the fight-back and to discourage social resistance to their policies. In Lisbon and Porto, demonstrations organised by the 15-0 platform of social movements, which were regrettably organised as demonstrations separate from those of the trade unions, were brutally attacked by police. The media showed images and videos of journalists and passers-by being battoned by the line of police who advanced on hundreds of protesters. From the beginning of the demonstration, a large number of agent provocateurs (plain cloth police infiltrating the demonstrators) could be seen, acting with the clear objective of provoking confrontation and aiming to demoralise and criminalise the social movements. However, this time, this manoeuvre might have backfired on the police, as the beating of identified journalists provoked some sections of the capitalist media to expose and denounce police brutality.

Weaker mobilisation?

Although succeeding in creating economic paralysis, last Thursday’s general strike was less solid than those which preceded it. Union militants and leading officials admitted that mobilisation had been more difficult, primarily due to the grinding impact of the Troika’s impoverishing policies, which put the loss of a day’s pay beyond the capacity of a layer of workers. Sectors which experienced a noticeable decline in turnout were from those that suffered the most brutal wage cuts, and from within these sectors participation was lowest among those on the bottom rung of the pay scale. There is also widespread fear that engaging in action would result in discrimination, blacklisting or job losses, a fear made more acute by the more uncertain atmosphere and sky-rocketing unemployment. In the last year, the number of families in which both parents are out of work surged by 73%!

The conditions of hardship and fear and misery which the crisis of capitalism has unleashed, as well as provoking radicalisation and anger, poses challenges for the working class movement and the Left. The CWI has never subscribed to the simplistic and mistaken hypothesis that the worse the situation becomes, the further the struggle will automatically develop. From the point of view of the workers’ movement, it is often harder to convince those workers risking the wrath of bosses’, the threat of poverty and big pay cuts or emigration to take more industrial action and to lose a day’s pay. However, rather than fatalistically accepting this situation, the workers’ movement needs a strong, well-organised and militant movement, with a programme capable of uniting ever greater layers of the poor and oppressed in struggle and of inspiring confidence in a pro-working class alternative to the austerity.

Sustained programme of workers’ action needed

The 22 March action was Portugal’s third one-day general strike since November 2010. Although showing the might of workers’ power and opposition to the Troika and the road of austerity, the reality is that none of these strikes have managed to defeat attacks or win concessions. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Portugal) has argued that to defeat a ruling elite so determined and united behind these attacks, a sustained programme of workers’ action is necessary, involving a democratically discussed plan of strikes and mobilisations, including strikes of a longer duration. The four month interlude, between 24 November strike and last Thursday’s, was undoubtedly too long. It meant that the impact of the struggle was that of two separate and isolated strikes rather than a series of mobilisations.

The struggle must not only protest or register opposition, but have the objective of defeating the cuts and imposing an alternative programme. Generally representing a more militant position than his predecessor, new CGTP leader, Armenio Carlos, and the rest of the CGTP leadership, mounted a serious campaign to build for the strike. However, it could not be said that the mobilisation was linked to a strategy to win, but rather to the general idea of ‘fighting back’ or ‘achieving dignity’ etc. While commendable, such declarations are not sufficient to give workers the confidence necessary to engage in the “sacrifice” (as Armenio Carlos has put it) of strike action, at such a time. A positive programme based on the rejection of the national debt, the nationalisation, under democratic control, of the big banks and the main pillars of the Portuguese economy to carry out massive investment, if popularised by those with the power to influence mass consciousness (union leaders and mass left parties), could transform the situation. The demonstration organised outside parliament by the CGTP to coincide with the voting through of the government’s labour reform package, could have a profound impact, if it was linked to the fight to implement such socialist policies, and advocated by socialist MPs.

The fact that regrettably the union leaders and influential Left forces (the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc) continue to confine their proposals to a “renegotiation” of the insufferable Portuguese ’public’ debt, is not unimportant in this regard. This is a barrier which must be broken in order for a genuine political alternative - the revolutionary socialist policies outlined above - can be fought for. A united front of the Left parties and organisations, both inside and outside parliament, need to put forward a programme for government of workers and youth, independent of the capitalist parties. Such a programme is more urgent, as mass impoverishment renders the country increasingly uninhabitable. Over 500,000 people have emigrated since the onset of the crisis in 2008, in the hope of finding better prospects in former Portuguese colonies, like Angola or Brazil, as well as in north European countries. Austerity measures in healthcare have literally killed, with 1,000 more patients dying in January due to an extra charges on admission to doctors’ surgeries. The increasingly likely prospect of a second Troika bailout and further untold neo-liberal brutality hangs over the country.

Lessons of struggle, so far

During last week’s general strike, as throughout the course of this crisis, the Portuguese working class has proved it is prepared to step into the breach. The lessons of the struggle, so far, need to be discussed throughout the workers’ movement, as working people and youth prepare to return to struggle against the continuous wave of anti-worker measures. They must do so armed with a sustained programme of action and a political alternative to austerity. Portugal’s 22 March general strike took place only one week prior to the Spanish general strike on 29 March. This shows how the objective situation of capitalism in crisis poses sharply the question of simultaneous and co-ordinated struggle.

The CWI will argue within the workers’ movement and the Left that the next Iberian general strikes are co-ordinated and simultaneous, drawing in the other peripheral ’PIGS’ countries in united general strike action. This would be a vital step towards an all-European general strike and a struggle for an alternative democratic socialist confederation of countries to replace the capitalist EU.

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