Portugal: Public sector workers demonstrate against the government

Workers and young people take to the streets against the background of deepening crisis

On Friday 5 February, Portuguese public sector workers took to the streets in Lisbon, in opposition to the new attacks planned by the PS (“Socialist Party”) government. According to the CGTP union, who had called the demonstration, 50,000 workers participated in the protest. Workers from the municipal departments turned out in large numbers, as well as teachers, ministry workers and nurses, who recently organised a militant 3-day strike for better wages.

A national day of action by school students, with about 30,000 students demonstrating all over the country against the reforms in the education sector, the undermining of democratic rights in public schools and the rising cost of education, took place the day before the trade union demonstration.

Growing resistance of Portugese working class

No easy way out for the capitalists

Portugal was one of the countries most vulnerable, when the world economic crisis hit, due to the fact that the economy and society were already plagued by high unemployment, low wages and anemic growth, before the beginning of the ‘great recession’. Anti-capitalist attitudes have therefore grown in recent years, and the current protest actions clearly show that Portuguese workers are not prepared to pay for the bosses’ crisis.

A certain fear has developed among the capitalist class regarding this growing resistance, which was illustrated by the recent large decline in the stock exchange. Indeed, the capitalists fear that the government will not be able easily implement its austerity measures and solve its debt problems. The success of the nursing staff action last week and the public sector day of action on Friday give the capitalists good reasons to think that their way out of the crisis will not be a ‘painless’, from their point of view.

Like Greece, Ireland and Spain, Portugal is now facing greater pressure from the rest of the Eurozone to reduce, as soon as possible, its public deficit. By 2012, Portugal must meet the requirements of the Stability Pact, with a maximum deficit of 3% of GDP. The current budgetary deficit is partly the result of the rescue package implemented by the government to avoid economic collapse, by giving billions to the banking sector. This deficit is now so big that the country could possibly reach the stage of bankruptcy. This money is now supposedly to be repaid by the entire population through new ‘sacrifices’. They plan for public sector workers to among the first victims.

The plans of the Government include a freeze on all public sector wages. In real terms, this represents a wage cut. Portuguese wages are already the lowest in Europe) with a minimum wage of Euro 450 a month. In addition, the government is also planning an embargo on recruitment in the public sector (one job in three would not be renewed), the tightening of retirement conditions and the changing of contracts to make workers more easier to sack.

Protests during day of action by school students

Social struggles on the rise

It is against this background that the CGTP, the largest Portuguese union – an umbrella organization of various unions – called for a national day of action on 5 February. This followed a three-day national strike by the nurses last week. The nurses (SEP union), who ended their strike with a march of 15,000 through the streets of Lisbon, also joined the national demonstration, along with the teachers (FENPROF) and municipal service workers (STAL & STML).

The CGTP is also calling for "decentralised actions" in the public and private sectors throughout this month, with strikes and demonstrations taking place in several cities and workplaces.

The demonstration on Friday was a success according to the unions. What was noticeable, however, was the lack of a political response being proposed on the demonstration. The CWI was the only political organisation which intervened with a leaflet. Even the PCP (Communist Party), which has a very strong position in the unions did not use its position to attempt to politicise the resistance against the government and channel it into a political alternative to capitalism and to the Socrates PS government.

Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Portugal) leaflet

For a workers’ government based on real socialist policies

Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Portugal) we intervened in the demonstration with our own political material. Our leaflet, the only one distributed on the demonstration, was openly and enthusiastically received. Despite our limited forces, a few thousand leaflets were handed out. We also developed contact with young workers, who wanted to distribute material in their workplaces. Discussions afterwards, with some union activists from Lisbon, showed great the receptiveness which exists for our ideas.

In our material, we called for the parliamentary Left Parties (the Communist Party and the Left Bloc), as well other Left groups and the unions, to work together to fight for a political, governmental alternative with a socialist program, a government based upon and serving the interests of the Portuguese workers, and not the interest of the international or Portuguese capitalist class. The forces of the left are strong enough in Portugal to bring the effective power of the capitalists to an end. The situation shows tremendous potential but lacks a political program and perspective to concretise this struggle. The politicisation of the struggle and the putting forward of a genuine socialist program in the struggles of the Portuguese working class will be the main task of the CWI in Portugal, in building its forces in the next period.

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