Portugal on the brink

Preparing for mass struggle

“Vladimir Lenin stated once that a revolution takes place when those above can no longer cope, and those below will no longer tolerate”. These words were not pronounced by a member of the Communist Party, but by Pedro Aguiar-Branco, a MP of the PSD (Partido Social Democrata, the main right-wing opposition party), during the commemorative session in the National Assembly of the 36th anniversary of the 1974 April Revolution. Among others, he quoted also the German revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, finishing his speech by saying “Let’s give the people the power to produce, choose and decide”.

The fact that a leading member of one of Portugal’s most reactionary parties delivered such a populist speech gives an idea of the wave of disarray affecting the ruling establishment, against the background of the organic crisis facing the country. The growing militancy of Portuguese workers in the recent period and the still influential impact of the 1974/5 revolution in their minds are important factors in the cynical calculations of such right-wing politicians. But above all, this speech illustrates that the political elite has lost any ideological compass to justify popularly its pursuit of a vicious anti-working class agenda.

PS government escalates austerity

After the adoption of the PEC (Plan of Stability and Growth), an already gigantic plan of social bloodbath sensibly re-named by the Portuguese workers “Plano de Exploração Capitalista” (Plan of Capitalist Exploitation), the whole European establishment made clear rapidly that this plan was “insufficient”.

Following the new downgrade of Portuguese government bonds by the rating agency Standard and Poor, the PS (Partido Socialista) government faced intense pressure to speed up austerity measures. Despite their lamentations on “the unjustified speculative attacks against our country”, Prime Minister José Sócrates and Finance Minister Teixeira de Santos revealed promptly their real intentions by announcing their availability to do “everything necessary” in order to calm down the markets, jumping in with a new plan destined to cut unemployment benefits.

The base of this plan, adopted in the context of the official unemployment rate being at its highest since measurement began, is to restrain the conditions by which unemployed people will be forced to accept a job. From the 13th month of unemployment, a jobless worker must accept any job, even below the minimum wage (€475), or face the threat of losing benefits.

But, obviously, this was still not enough. Moody’s, another rating agency, announced that it was likely to proceed with a downgrade of Portugal’s government bond ratings. Acting as puppets in the hands of speculators and banks, Sócrates and the PSD leader, Pedro Passos Coelho, arranged a joint meeting to set up a new round of austerity measures. These new measures include a 1 percentage point increase in VAT to 21%, including on basic necessities, increases of up to 1.5 percentage points in income tax, 5% pay cuts for senior public sector staff and politicians and the freeze of major public works such as the new planned Lisbon airport.

This ‘PEC 2’, as with the previous one, will not solve any of the problems facing Portugal’s capitalist economy. By attacking domestic demand, the government is only applying the very same recipes that plunged the country into the abyss in the first place. One conservative leader correctly described the new version of the PEC as a “bombardment of the economy”.

Moreover, while the previous measures essentially targeted the public sector, these new tax increases have a general character, attacking indiscriminately the working class as a whole. This lays the basis for another type of ‘bombardment’: a social one.

Political crisis

Despite its populist gestures, the PSD is in agreement with the PS on the fundamental idea that the current crisis must be ‘resolved’ by massacring the gains and living standards of working people and the poor. Actually, the PSD would like to go even deeper and faster in this direction: the core direction of the party for several months has been to argue for constitutional change which would open the door to further dismantling and privatization of social security, education and healthcare.

In the recent period, different ‘national pacts’ have been concluded between Socrates and Pedro Passos to ensure that the program of attacks from the minority PS government would not be obstructed in parliament by the right-wing opposition. Significant parts of the bourgeoisie would like to see a formal coalition involving both parties, a sort of ‘national emergency’ government to ensure a more stable executive, drawing the lines of the expected fierce class battles that the ‘shock therapy’ imposed on the country are inevitably going to bring.

But the feasibility of such a scenario is doubtful. Rather than softening the political crisis, the agreements between both parties are only contributing to sharpen the tensions in their ranks. The emerging social revolt will only contribute to sharpen those features, and open up new divisions between and inside the mainstream parties, on the road to follow.

Rising militancy

“Portugal is not Greece” has become a leitmotiv for the Portuguese establishment in the recent period. Beyond the risk of default on its debt, what is at stake here is the fear of the Portuguese ruling class that the militancy of the Greek workers develops on a similar scale in Portugal, under the pressure of a ceaseless escalation of austerity measures against their living conditions.

“Despite some public-sector protests, opposition to spending cuts is less noisy than in Greece”, wrote The Economist on 22 April. This sounds more like a self-reassuring comment than a realistic prospect. Indeed, everything in the situation indicates that the Portuguese people will not stay quiet for a long time. And actually, they are not.

We have already reported previously on socialistworld.net about the demonstration which took place on the occasion of the anniversary of the Revolution. The sentiment that “we did not fight 36 years ago for this result” was vivid in the protest. A large number of people considered this demo as an integral part of the fight back against the government and bosses’ offensive.

The following week was accompanied by strikes virtually every day. The postal workers organised a round of stoppages from 27 April to 7 May. The national rail company’s workers went on strike on the 27th, as a prelude to the general transport strike which took place the next day, with the massive participation (95% nationally) of railway workers, bus drivers, boat and ferry staff, etc.

The day after, the Parliamentary session could not take place, as the Parliamentary workers stopped working as well! On May Day, 130,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Lisbon, behind the banner of a struggle against the PEC. Workers at oil company Galp had already halted twice the country’s two refineries and other installations in April and May over a wage dispute.

The number of local disputes is also on the rise. Over 3,000 cleaning workers in Lisbon organised a two-day strike and 90% of sewer cleaners, garbage collectors, animal catchers and even cemetery gardeners united in the fight for an increase of safety subsidies, which have not been adjusted to rising inflation and wages since 2003. “We are collecting garbage, but it does not mean that one can treat us like garbage!” said one of the workers who led the struggle and who is active also with two other colleagues in Socialismo Revolutionário, the CWI in Portugal. The workers achieved a significant victory by obtaining increased subsidies for 5 years and a rise in wages for 2010.

The nurses, who have already organised several days of strikes since the beginning of the year, are preparing further action in their fight for a wage increase. The teachers have threatened to go “to war” against the government. And when the teachers say such a thing, they know what they are talking about, as their long and massive dispute in 2008 clearly demonstrated.

“Em April, aguas mil” is a Portuguese proverb meaning “In April, a thousand rains”. A Portuguese newspaper transformed it into: “Em April, greves mil”: “In April, a thousand strikes”! Indeed, April of this year has seen the biggest amount of strikes in 16 years in the country. Fears amongst the capitalist class about the possibility of social upheavals are growing. On 27 April, the main big business paper, Diário Económico, warned in its editorial: “Strike activities are on the rise after 15 years of calm. If the unions continue their strategy, we are going straight away towards collective suicide.” However, from the workers’ point of view, the problem of the unions’ strategy… is rather the lack of it.

The CGTP-IN must use its forces efficiently – Let’s build the General Strike!

Following the new austerity measures announced by the government, Carvalho da Silva, the general secretary of the largest union body CGTP-IN, declared: “Either we come up with a very strong reaction or we will be reduced to bread and water”, adding that “probably decisions will be adopted for an exceptional mobilisation of workers”. Unfortunately, he didn’t specify on what terms this “exceptional mobilisation” will be made, except by calling for the already planned nationwide demonstration on 29 May.

This is despite the fact a huge number of workers have shown they are ready to fight and are desperately waiting for a serious plan of action. Whoever doesn’t recognise this basic reality is blind or criminal. At the national delegation meeting of the trade unions of the CGTP held on 15 May, 500 delegates of different trade unions participated. The union leadership was forced to call this meeting because of the new attacks of the Portuguese ruling class, but also because of the mounting pressure at rank-and-file level of the unions. The majority of the people attending were in favour of using 29 May as the first stage of the mobilisation for a general strike. But the union leadership tried to take a cautious attitude and, despite militant words, decided to wait until after 29 May before taking and announcing any further steps.

Da Silva is saying that “there are many things to do before the national demonstration planned for 29 May ”. This is absolutely true, but when it comes to the question of explaining what has to be done, nothing concrete was proposed. The union leadership should call right now for a national 24-hour general strike, and use the next few weeks to prepare seriously the mobilisation in all workplaces and factories. The demo on 29 May must be used as a springboard to this stoppage, with mass rallies and demonstrations in all regions and cities, inviting workers, young people, students, unemployed, pensioners, etc, to join in this massive response against the agenda of misery concocted by the capitalist government. Such an appeal would undoubtedly receive a warm response from hundreds of thousands of people all over the country.

The Left and the new period

An important number of workers and youth are looking towards the two big left-wing parties, the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda – BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), for an answer to the present capitalist impasse. With their influence in the social movements and in Parliament, these parties have unique opportunities to raise, on a mass scale, the necessity of a socialist perspective and programme.

The important support the PCP still has in the working class and, to a certain extent, amongst the youth, is of a huge significance. It shows that the language of Marxism is finding more than a few open ears in the country. But providing a correct Marxist programme and approach to those layers is even more important.

In its last communiqué, the PCP talked of the necessity of promoting investment, “particularly public investment”. It argued for employment creation, wages and pensions increases, and expansion of social benefits. These are all demands we would support. But it doesn’t explain how these measures could be achieved except by arguing for an imposition of a tax on banks of “at least 25% of their profits”, as well as a tax on stock market transactions.

These measures, if still progressive steps, remain totally insufficient and, above all, very theoretical. As long as the economic and political power remains in the hands of the banks, the big corporations, and their subservience in the government, such measures will never be applied. The working class must elaborate its own independent agenda of struggles, with the aim of putting these banks, as well as the commanding heights of the economy, into public ownership. A planned economy, democratically controlled and managed by working people at every level, would create the material basis for the achievement of all the above demands. Unfortunately, despite talking about “communism”, the PCP hardly tries to elaborate a concrete programme of transitional demands to realise such an objective.

The PCP correctly denounces the hypocrisy of the PS and PSD phraseology, both of whom argue for the ‘national interest’ in order to attack workers and their families. But why, having said that, is the same CP talking about the “increase of the national production”, the defence of “national sovereignty”, the affirmation of a “patriotic left”, etc? Socialists oppose the diktats of the market, the IMF, the EU, etc, but, in a capitalist society, “defence of the national economy” only means the defence of the interests and profits of national capitalists and bosses. We know that is not what the militants of the PCP are fighting for. But the PCP should make this point clear: it should stand for the nationalisation of the strategic sectors of the economy and for a state monopoly on foreign trade to break the market’s grip, but also for an international socialist answer to the crisis.

As the example of the Soviet Union clearly demonstrated, even an economy where production was nationalised could not be sustainable if it remained within national boundaries and without workers’ democracy. In a situation when, everywhere in Europe, working people are confronted with an avalanche of nationalistic propaganda, and when the whole political establishment is talking about “national unity” in order to tie the interests of working people to those of their capitalist masters, a powerful and united response from the international working class to cut across the attempts of division has never been so necessary.

Recently, a significant number of Members of the European Parliament from the GUE/NGL group took a common initiative to support European-wide actions against the austerity programs, in the form of a “Week of Protest & Solidarity” from 21 to 26 June, as a first step. The active participation of the PCP in such an initiative would have a tremendous impact in Portugal.

On the other hand, while the CWI welcomes the fact that the Left Bloc MEPs support such an initiative, this same party must remain consistent in what it argues for and ensure that this support does not remain on paper only. One cannot talk about solidarity with the Greek workers while on the other hand vote in the National Parliament for the EU/IMF bail-out of Greece, conditioned by the imposition of a massive austerity program against the Greek population, as the whole parliamentary group of the Left Bloc shamefully did a few days ago.

Another example of this sort of ‘political schizophrenia’ has been highlighted by the official support the national leadership of the Left Bloc decided to give to the candidacy of Manuel Alegre in the presidential elections of 2011. Manuel Alegre is a historic leading figure of the PS, who is presenting himself as an ‘independent’ candidate for these elections. The CWI thinks this move from the BE is a dangerous precedent. Besides the fact that this decision has not been made on the basis of a democratic debate inside the party, Manuel Alegre, despite his proclaimed differences with the PS leadership, is still insisting that the PS remains his “political family”. Worse than that, the same Alegre gave an interview to the newspaper Expresso, on 15 May, where he explicitly argued that the austerity measures were “tough, unpleasant and painful, but inevitable”, then added that he “would like political agreement for these measures involving other parties and social partners, including the unions.”

The results the BE got in the last elections represented a positive signal from a number of people seeing this formation as a channel for change. But, as the CWI commented at the time, instead of looking to its right, the Left Bloc should look more to its left and have more dialogue with the only force capable of changing society and achieving a socialist programme – the working class. The Left Bloc, despite talking about “popular socialism” occasionally, generally sticks to very vague criticisms of the government’s policy and does not use its position to formulate a clear anti-capitalist agenda. It does little or no consistent work in the trade unions and in the industrial working class, and more and more concentrates its entire activities in the parliamentary field.

Just after Portuguese bonds were downgraded by Standard & Poor, Francisco Louça, the main spokesman of the Left Bloc, gave a press conference in front of national TV cameras. He did not advocate the nationalisation of the banks and financial system, nor even talk about the mobilization of the workers. He called for “a more decent economy”, without specifying how and by who this could be achieved, and the only audible and concrete demand he put forward was for a “European and public ratings agency”.

For a workers’ government, based on genuine and democratic socialism

Regrettably, nor the PCP nor the BE give a clear indication of what is needed to build the mobilisation, or offer a programme which links the actual struggle to the need for a socialist society in a comprehensive way. Yet the Left should be prepared for the unfolding social battles. Inevitably, the revolutionary traditions of the Portuguese proletariat will come back to the surface, sooner rather than later. “Never since 1974 has the country been so close to a social explosion”, commented a woman working in an association for social help in Lisbon, interviewed by Le Monde on 28 April.

The BE and PCP, despite their limitations, are regarded by a number of radicalised workers and youth as an alternative to the present capitalist parties. The CWI argues for these parties, jointly with the union movement, to forge together a program of struggle that can serve as a rallying point, and give confidence and perspectives to the mass of people who are showing their will to fight in every corner of the country. A clear call for a 24-hour general strike would be a first and important step in this direction.

We advocate the establishment of democratic committees of action in workplaces and in the communities to build for what will be a prolonged battle, in order to prepare the basis for the establishment of a workers’ government, based on democratically-elected and accountable representatives of the workers, trade unions and social organisations, in the workplaces and in the neighbourhoods. Such a government would put into public ownership the banking and financial sectors, as well as the other key sectors of the economy, and draw up a rational plan of production based on the satisfaction of the social needs of the majority. The starting points for building a new society, free of greed, exploitation and speculation, would then be possible and would represent an immense inspirational example for all workers in Europe.

  • Bail out the poor, not the speculators and financial sharks! We won’t pay for the crisis, we won’t pay the debt!
  • No to wage freezes in the public and private sector!
  • No to tax rises, except on big companies and banks! Abolition of VAT on basic necessities!
  • Fight unemployment, not the unemployed! Nationalisation under the control of workers and their organisations of industries and companies that threaten to sack workers or close workplaces; a 35-hour working week without loss of pay to share out work!
  • Stop all privatisation and Public-Private Partnerships! Full funding of the National Health Service, public education and social security!
  • Public ownership of the banking and financial services under the control of workers and their organisations, to use the wealth to meet the needs of the population and not for the private profits of a minority!
  • Nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy, under democratic control and management, with compensation paid to shareholders only on the basis of proven need!
  • End the dictatorship of the stock exchanges, banks and the rich! For a genuinely socialist and democratic society with a planned economy to meet the needs of all, not for the profits of the rich!
  • Solidarity with workers in the rest of Europe and worldwide in a common struggle against capitalism which ruins our lives and the planet!

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May 2010