Portugal: Mass protest against neoliberal policies

“At 6.30 in the morning when I left home to travel into central Lisbon, I could see immediately that the strike was on. The refuse bins were full up in my street and in the whole of my neighbourhood near Sintra. When I got on the train, I realised that it was going to be a great strike; nearly half of the usual workers were not travelling into to Lisbon. 

Account from participant in the 24 hour public sector general strike of Friday, 25 January. socialistworld.net

Mass protest against neoliberal policies

“I met a fellow shop steward and a leader of my union at 8.30, in Boavista compound of Lisbon Council. The night shift of refuse collection was solidly on strike. The Boavista site is a centre for clerical workers and higher technicians and is where the strikes usually have a lower response. But half an hour later we saw that this strike was the biggest ever in Boavista. All over Lisbon there were signs of the strike: schools, tax offices and other public services completely closed down.

“From the TV, we could see that it was not only in Lisbon but from Bragança, in the North to Beja, in the South, from Porto to Faro in the Algarve, the Azores and Madeira islands. Schools, hospitals and other health services, public offices, courts, cleaners, council services, municipal bus services all came to a stop in a 24 hour general strike. It was called by all the unions, including those affiliated to the CGTP (Confederation of unions close to the Communist Party) and the UGT (Confederation of unions close to the Socialist (social-democrat) Party and the governmental PSD).

“The unions have declared that this was an historic strike and, for sure, it was one of the biggest strikes in the public sector for years. A 10,000 strong March for Education took to the Lisbon streets in the afternoon, protesting against the policies of the privatisation of Education. Even a 300 strong protest of policemen surrounded the Internal Affairs Ministry in central Lisbon.

“Almost every sector of the working class is deeply affected both by the economic recession and the vicious neoliberal policies of PSD-PP Government. Public sector workers have been singled out by the government and the bosses: it is government servants who are being made the scapegoats of the troubles that capitalism is imposing on the working class.

“The strike had two main goals: to protest at the so-called ‘Public Service Reform’ and to press demands for the collective bargaining on wages and conditions. On the ‘Public Service Reform’ (PSR), the government has put through a set of laws that worsen in a very clear way the life and working conditions of public service workers. They open the way to job losses in the public services and cuts in social benefits and impose a private management style in most of the public services.

“The ‘PSR’ comes at the very same time as the privatisation of public services and the widespread application of a Public Private Initiative (PPI) style of management in the health services (hospitals and health centres). These laws open more areas to increased casualisation of the workforce and also to more low paid work.

“On the wages matter, the government imposed a 2% increase on public sector workers earning above 1000 euro per month and, for the second year in a row, a freeze of wages for those who earn more the 1000 euro a month. But, in fact, it means a cut in wages as the inflation of last year was 3.7% and the inflation for 2004 is set to be around 4.4% and could be more. This is when the prices are increasing rapidly in all the commodities such as water, rents, electricity, telecommunications, transport, insurance, food, etc.

“Anger is mounting day by day, as the government is also, at the very sametime, giving huge payment increases and other bonanzas to the managements ofthe new privately-run hospitals and big investment companies.

“In the process of building for this strike, I attended several workers’ meetings in different workplaces of Lisbon Council. Generally workers are in favour of arguing for a real general strike. It is now wide-spread the idea that workers must unite and act together.

“The strike was seen in a good light by private sector workers, despite the impressive campaign of capitalist ideologists and opinion-makers about the ‘fundamental need to squeeze public expenditure and reduce the public sector workforce’ and the media mouthpieces which try to whip up sentiments against workers from the users of the public sector, talk of harassment in workplaces all over the country, etc. 

“The unions are under pressure from below to prepare more militant action and among union activists this is an inevitable step towards building a more serious andeffective resistance to the attacks of the bosses and the government. This was reflected by the calling of this strike by the UGT which is usually a precious ally of government in its attacks against the working class, especially in relation to the public sector.

“There is some expectation that the CGTP National Congress at the end of January will adopt a new set of measures to build such resistance. However, for us in the CWI in Portugal, it seems unlikely.

“The lack of an independent working class and socialist organisation means that in the union field the dispute still is between different sectors of reformism: Stalinists, left social-democrats, left-Catholics and so on. The Left Block has a small group of union leaders but takes the option of trying to deal with things within the apparatus and not giving much value to the work on the shop-floor. They are putting forward proposals for proportional representation in elections to union bodies, the setting up of union fractions, but nothing about building resistance.

“The Communist Party now has different trends inside it that are reflected in the unions: a pro-social-democratic wing around some of the ‘Renovadores’ (a public faction in the CP), an ‘old-guard’ Stalinist trend in dispute with the people around Carvalho da Silva, the General Secretary of the CGTP, who stands for social ‘concertation’ – doing deals with bosses and the government.

“CWI members argue the need for a new political organisation of the working classthat expresses also in the union field the need not only for reforms but a truetransformation of society – away from the aim of creating profits for a small handful of people as nowadays and to gearing everything to the needs of all in a truly democratic and socialist manner.”

Francisco Raposo, Secretary of All Shop Stewards’ Assembly of Lisbon Council Workers’ Union (personal capacity) and member of CWI

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January 2004