Portugal: Explosion of protest on 12 March

A country in ferment…

Last Saturday, 12 March, an explosion of popular protest took place in Portugal. Demonstrations, organised outside of the trade union structures, called by a Facebook group, named “Desolate Generation”, brought heaving masses of, predominantly young, people onto the streets. Over 200,000 marched in Lisbon, with 80,000 in Porto, 6,000 in Faro, and so on. These protests, along with the increasing number of strikes and other actions being carried out by workers in a number of sectors, gives a picture of a society in ferment, bracing itself for another round of mass protest on 19 March.

New austerity measures

The protests took place as the government announced a new raft of austerity measures, under the pressure of the markets and the prospect of a state default and EU/IMF intervention. Credit ratings agency, Moodys, “downgraded” the country again today. Included in the measures announced were a vicious cut to all pensions above €1,500 a month and the freezing of all pensions across the board, including those of €200 a month! This will be brutally compounded by the announcement of a new hike in VAT, which will see prices, especially of fuel, rocket upwards. The impact of the cuts implemented last year, has already been the “pauperisation” of millions of people. For many workers and youth, these new measures are clearly the last straw, propelling them into protest. If an organised and confident lead is given, the explosion of 12 March, following the magnificent general strike of November 2010, could be the harbinger of a mighty movement, which could force back the ruling elite and send shockwaves around the continent.

“No country for young men”

Although many older workers took part in Saturdays demos, the protests had as their focus the crisis faced by young people, for whom mass unemployment and precarious contracts and conditions are the norm. Dubbed the “precarious revolution” by many participants, the demo brought out a new generation, who the Trade Union movement has not been able to mobilise to a huge extent in the last period. But the demos showed that this “precarious generation” is also one of struggle! And how could they not be? Over 30% of graduates under 25 are unemployed. Those at work face pitiful wages and short-term contracts, with young workers at the whim of bullying bosses. And the government’s response has been a labour reform, which gives bosses more power to sack as they please, with little compensation!

Indeed, as one placard on the demo put it, many youth have come to see Portugal as “no country for young men”, with thousands opting for emigration, ironically often to ex-Portuguese colonies like Angola or Mozambique where it seems a better life is on offer!! And with the imminent intervention of the EU/IMF likely, young people can only expect a deepening of this crisis. Ireland which, “bailed out” by the EU/IMF and with a government that has cut and cut to the markets’ hearts’ delight, has over 1,000 young people fleeing its shores every week!.

For another 24-hour general strike as the first step in a sustained struggle!

In a way, these demonstrations marked a new stage of the struggle in Portugal against the austerity offensive being foisted on workers and youth by the Socrates government and its masters in the capitalist bond markets. Portuguese capitalism, over which the spectre of EU/IMF “bailout” hangs, has dished out a savage recipe to a population already the poorest in Western Europe. But this recipe was only the starter! The years of austerity which capitalism has in store will mean utter devastation if they are implemented, and effectively rule out any prospect of economic growth.

The magnificent turnouts on these somewhat spontaneous protests also show up as even more ridiculous and limited the current strategy of the trade union leaders, who after the most successful general strike in over 30 years on 24 November 2010, are effectively pursuing a strategy of demobilisation. They have only organised a national demonstration (which will take place on 19 March), by way of national co-ordinated action. But Portuguese society is boiling! The roads have been blockaded by lorry drivers, demanding a freeze in fuel prices. Teachers, transport workers, postal workers, have all taken national action in the past weeks.

The situation is crying out for another general strike, to bring this resistance together and provide a powerful next step to the struggle, which needs a plan of sustained action, involving a series of general strikes and co-ordinated actions to paralyze the austerity offensive. Such a militant lead would also have the power to unite the organised working class and trade union movement with the radicalised youth. As the demos last Saturday showed, in the absence of a militant lead from the trade unions, the vacuum can be filled temporarily by others. Mass assemblies and democratic committees of struggle should be formed to control the struggle from below.

No to EU/IMF intervention! For a revolutionary socialist alternative!

In anticipation of the massive anger of workers and youth, the main capitalist opposition party, the PSD, in an opportunist move, has now said that it will vote against the measures. This is after over a year of support for the austerity of the minority “Socialist” Party government, without which the attacks could not have been pushed through! Unfortunately for them, workers and youth have no illusions as to the PSD representing some kind of alternative policy to the slash and burn of Socrates. They share the same fundamental approach – attacking working people to “pacify the markets” and bail out the rich.

New elections, which could result from the failure of the measures to pass through parliament, would present the left parties (Left Bloc and Communist Party) with an opportunity to make a decisive breakthrough, if a united front of the left, on a programme which fundamentally rejects the notion of austerity to pay for the debts of the speculators and the rich is presented. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Portugal) argues that such a stand, combined with a powerful opposition to EU/IMF intervention, and a socialist alternative of investment and democratic public ownership, could have a colossal political impact and open the way for a new stage in the struggle, with fighting political representation.

The revolutionary events of the Middle East and North Africa have had an impact on workers and youth in Portugal and throughout Europe, boosting the protests on 12 March. And indeed, it is developments of a revolutionary character, in a country with the golden history of the April revolution of 1974, which will be required to pull Portuguese society out of the abyss of austerity, poverty and brutal rule by the EU/IMF now facing it. The workers’ movement and the left parties (Left Bloc and Communist Party) must campaign around a refusal to pay for the debts of the speculators and bankers in Portugal and abroad. The billions must instead be used to invest in society and create mass jobs programmes, for the youth in particular. This must be linked to the nationalisation of the banking and financial sectors under democratic control, in order to make them serve society through investment, rather than leech off it for the benefit of a few. On the basis of such a programme, a socialist society – a government by and for working people and the youth – could be fought for.