Portugal: General strike announced for the 24th of November

Growing social war underway

On the same day that the council of ‘Socialist’ Party Ministers was meeting to decide on new draconian austerity measures, tens of thousands of Portuguese workers, from both public and private sectors, demonstrated on the streets of the main cities of Lisbon and Porto. These actions took place as part of the European day of action organized by the ETUC. A number of work stoppages also occurred during that day, especially in the healthcare, education, social services and public transport, but also in the industrial field. Important support for the strike was reported in some prominent metal, automobile and construction companies. An estimated 50,000 people in the capital, and 20,000 in Porto participated in the demonstrations, to protest against the policies of the PS government -supported in that move by the whole European establishment-to impose the burden of the capitalist debt on working class’ shoulders.

A “terrible year” to come

“Socrates announces a terrible year to Portuguese people” was the title of ‘Diario de Noticias’, a daily Portuguese newspaper, commenting on the further cuts and other austerity measures announced on Wednesday evening by Prime Minister Socrates, already the third package of such measures in less than one year time, aimed at drawing the general lines of the next budget for 2011 (to be approved before mid-October).

Obviously, the government was intelligent enough not to announce these attacks before the trade union protests called on 29th September. The scale of these attacks are echoing the warning of a “budget of social bloodbath” described by Socialismo Revolucionário in its material distributed during the demo in Lisbon. They include, among others, cuts of 5% in public sector wages, freezing of all pensions, a new 2% increase in VAT to 23%, cuts in family allowances, further cuts in the RSI (Social revenue of Insertion), spending cuts in healthcare, reduction of transfers of state funds for education and local administrations, freezing of all public investment planned for this year and other measures.

Since 2006, an agreement exists between the bosses, the trade unions and the government to gradually raise the minimum wage (475 €) to 500 € in 2011. Recommending wages moderation in the private sector, the finance minister declared his intention to abolish this agreement, arguing that the conditions for it don’t exist anymore, and that its “it’s difficult to justify wage rises in the private sector given what has happened in the public sector.” Following the national public sector strike in March of this year, the CWI has warned: “The private sector (…) must be involved to counter the divide-and-rule strategy of the political establishment, which tries to portray civil servants as a ‘privileged strata’. In reality, of course, the attacks on the public sector will be used to undermine the wages and working conditions of those in the private sector.”

All this is done despite even official studies, such as the one by ‘Ernst and Young’ warning that the effects of the austerity measures already implemented in the framework of the previous plans are likely to plunge the country back into recession before the end of the year. Commenting on this last study, one commentator was writing, in the editorial of the most influential Portuguese capitalist newspaper: “the trade unions, to come out in the street, no longer need to take the time to study and invoke Karl Marx, they just have to cite the studies of large audit firms.” In fact, Marxists didn’t have to wait for such studies to draw the same conclusions. In May, commenting on the second austerity package (“PEC 2”), the CWI wrote: “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.”

Divisions in the bourgeois camp

Under pressure of international speculators, the country’s borrowing costs have surged in recent weeks to historic peaks. The most “hard-line” sections of the capitalist commentators still think the PS government is “too timid” in the pace and the depth of its’ austerity measures. “These austerity measures are of a poor quality, and they won’t be the last ones” commented ex-Finance Minister, Eduardo Catroga. In the same vein, Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker urged the country to adopt “further ambitious structural reforms, focusing on removing rigidities in the labour market and in wage negotiations.”

Nevertheless, most of capitalists in Portugal fear that such a ‘tougher’ approach, as advocated by the main right-wing opposition party the PSD (which is pushing for deeper cuts, as well as for a constitutional reform aimed at getting rid of the remnants of the welfare state and of the social gains achieved through the 1974 revolution), is going to provoke massive social explosions. This has been the background to the political crisis of recent weeks. The minority PS government has been forced to get at least the tacit approval (through abstention) of the PSD, to pass the 2011 budget in the parliament. The leadership of the PSD has so far been reluctant to accept the idea of raising taxes, advocated by the PS, arguing for more savage cuts in public spending to tackle the deficit.

Despite their political gestures and blackmailing, it is very likely that both parties will find a compromise. Indeed, none of them would be ready to take responsibility, in front of the capitalist class, of plunging the establishment into a serious political crisis, dissolving Parliament and going for new elections which are constitutionally forbidden in the six-months period before the presidential elections taking place in January 2011.

Call for general strike: mounting pressure to take bold actions has been decisive

Whatever the exact content of the next budget, workers and youth need to seriously prepare to fight back against what will be a further continuation of a social war launched by this government against the interest of the majority of the population. The ruling politicians, in their own words, are ready to “do everything” in order to satisfy the diktat imposed by a handful of speculators and bankers.

For people who attended the monumental 300,000-strong demo in the capital four months ago (which represented the biggest trade union demonstration in Portugal since the revolution), questions arise about the comparatively poor attendance at the recent mobilization on the 29th demonstrations. The attendance figures don’t reflect the underlying process. Anger is widespread throughout society. Many workers have expected bolder initiatives from the trade union leaders. Indeed, the question of a general strike has been implicitly posed for months by the whole situation. As SR argued, in the aftermath of the success of the 29th May, the situation was ripe to rapidly call a general strike. But the CGTP leaders refused to call one at that stage. Several opportunities have already been missed.

Much more could have been done by the union leaders to build for the protests on Wednesday. Once again, the pressing need for the general strike was not responded to properly. Despite the tremendous opportunity to call a general strike on the same day as the Spanish general strike. While new plans of attacks and cuts were dominating the headlines of the mainstream media on a daily basis, the publicity around what the CGTP named vaguely a “great day of action” was almost non existent until the last minute by the majority of union leaders. The Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc hardly used their influential position to mobilise people or publicise the protests. This minimalist approach (the CGTP had a target of 30,000 for the Lisbon’s demo, ie 10% of what had been achieved in May) clearly had a decisive impact on the scale of the mobilization.

Despite that, the pressure among the rank-and-file was mounting, and this radicalization began to be more widely expressed by a number of local and sectional trade unions affiliated to the CGTP, which have been arguing for a general strike from inside the union structures. Some also publicly (notably the STML, -Union of Workers of Lisbon Municipality-, in which SR members occupy influential positions) have called for a general strike.

In his speech, Carvalho da Silva (CGTP general secretary), at the end of Wednesday’s demo, spoke of the need for “a much stronger struggle, ultimately of a general character”. Then following a meeting of the national committee of the CGTP a general strike has finally been called on the 24th of November. This is a direct expression of the genuine understanding and demands, by an increasing number of workers, for the need for, decisive mass actions in face of the attacks raining down on them from the capitalists and their government. “The general strike is in the head of all workers”, pointed out Libério Domingues, leader of the Lisbon Trade Union. The irresistible pressure amongst the membership is such than even the UGT, the PS-influenced trade union, the least combative, is considering joining the strike call. That would be the first time that the UGT would call for a general strike in its history. However, trade union and left activists must now make sure that this general strike is not just a “one-off” operation, but the start for a sustainable fight back, built democratically from below.

We call on the CGTP and the left parties, namely the PCP and the Left Bloc, to join their forces in order to provide the mass of working class and youth a clear plan of action. The potential for building a powerful movement exists. A lot of sectors have shown their willingness to struggle on numerous occasions this year.

Following Wednesday demonstrations, mass public meetings, rallies and general assemblies need to be organised in the workplaces, schools and communities. Not only to mobilise the mass of working people into the battle, but also to allow everyone to participate democratically in the organization of the struggle and the working out of a strategy for struggle and to build for the strike. The formation of democratically elected committees of action, organized at a rank-and-file level, could also help to structure the movement.

The CWI is fighting for democratic working class control and management of production, to make sure that the wealth and services being produced by the workers are not looted in the interests of a tiny rich elite, but used in the interests of the majority, for social needs, public works and a plan to combat poverty.

Socialism Revolucionário –the Committee for a Workers’ International in Portugal- welcomes the decision to call a 24 hour general strike. This is an essential part of the strategy to build effective resistance against the attacks of the bosses and their government.

This general strike can become a fundamental step to organize a broad movement of resistance, and an important point for the construction of a workers’ alternative to the capitalist austerity.

The general strike must be built with the full mobilization and active participation of workers, pensioners, immigrants. In this process we must encourage and support the struggle and organization of the most vulnerable sectors of workers, notably the poor, the unemployed and the immigrants.

Trade unions and workers’ organizations should call directly to the participation of students, workers’s children, to raise their own demands and to support the workers in struggle.

In this mobilization against austerity and social injustice, it is important to involve social organizations of residents, users and other grassroots and popular organizations, giving expression to the indignation and outrage growing against the PECs and the government capitalist policy.

For a Socialist Alternative for the working class

In the building for the general strike and its follow-up, it is essential that the parliamentary parties of the Left, the PCP and the BE, initiate together with other left groups and social movements, particularly with the largest social movement in Portugal, the CGTP, a dialogue for building a workers’ political alternative to the destructive logic of capitalism.

As a contribution to the debate, Socialismo Revolucionario is advocating:

  • No payment of the debt to the big capitalists! This debt is not our debt: we can’t pay it, we won’t pay it! Open the books of the banks and big companies, to see where the money has been going!
  • Nationalize the banks, the insurance companies, the key industries and other monopolies under the democratic control of the working class and consumers organizations. This would allow a dramatic raise in the living standards of all, massive investment in public services including health, education, social security and emergency projects, like social housing.
  • Reduce the working week without loss of pay, to provide decent jobs for the unemployed
  • Enough with the casino and anarchic market system: for a government by and for the workers and the poor, based on a rational, socialist, plan of production fulfilling the needs of the millions, not the profits and greed of millionaires!
  • For a massive and participative 24 hour general strike – for international unity and solidarity of the working class
  • Fight the bosses European Union – for a socialist Europe!
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