Portugal: 3 million paralyse economy in “biggest general strike ever”

This is only the first step!

Over three million workers laid down tools in Portugal on Wednesday, as a massive general strike ground the country to a halt. It is already being termed as the country’s “biggest strike action ever”. After months of growing resistance, strike actions, and massive demonstrations during the year, this general strike is a major turning point that will lift up to a new stage the raging class battle of the Portuguese working class against the market-dictated policies of the massively rejected ‘Socialist Party’ (PS) minority government.

The freezing of the pensions, raising of VAT and various taxes, 5% cut in public sector wages, further attacks on welfare benefits, cuts of 15% in operational costs of public hospitals, and new road tolls are among some of the new measures planned for the 2011 austerity budget, which was approved in Parliament on Friday. This was done with the tacit approval by abstention of the main right-wing opposition party, the PSD, very happy to give the main responsibility for this dirty job to the so-called ‘Socialists’, while waiting in the corner, with the possibility of coming back to power through snap elections, as a fresh and more stable card for the national capitalists to apply more of the same anti-working class policies.

Almost every day, Portuguese newspapers are announcing new attacks against the living and working conditions of the majority. The mainstream politicians, the media and their so-called specialists, the European Commission, the IMF, the bankers and the bosses, all repeat in chorus that “there is no alternative” to endless sacrifices, massive spending cuts and new austerity measures.

For several months, Socialismo Revolucionário, the CWI’s group in Portugal, had pointed out that the successive avalanches of brutal austerity packages from the PS government, as well as the genuine will to fight expressed many times by workers and young people (including a strong national public sector strike in March, and a gigantic 300,000-strong demonstration in Lisbon last May), demanded from the left and the trade unions bolder initiatives, in order to unite the struggles and the different sectors into a 24 hour general strike, as a first step in the building of a massive fight back.

After the European day of action on 29 September, and under increasing pressure from below, the decision to organise a general strike was eventually announced by the CGTP, by far Portugal’s largest trade union. Pushed by a radicalising base, even the small and PS-aligned UGT union subsequently joined that call, an unprecedented move considering that their political “partner” is in the government. On 6 November, as a sort of ‘aperitif’ to the general strike, 100,000 public servants demonstrated in the streets of the capital.

Historic turnout

Wednesday’s General Strike drew impressive levels of involvement and support all over the country, being seen by many workers as a historic opportunity come together to display collectively their strength and will to fight back. For weeks, huge banners, placards, and graffiti were displayed across the country to urge workers to join the “Greve Geral” to fight against measures aimed at making the poor paying the price of a crisis not of their making. As a result, over 3 million workers stopped work, much more than the 1.7 million strikers registered in the 1988 general strike (the last one to have been called by a common front of the CGTP and the UGT).

And this is despite the fact that many more people – especially in the private sector where the trade unions influence is weaker, jobs contracts much more precarious, and threats and intimidation from the bosses stronger – wanted to join the strike, but did not do so for fear of losing their jobs. In a situation where unemployment is at the biggest level ever registered (11.5% officially, with a rate approaching 25% for young people, and 54,000 jobs destroyed this year alone) and the government is slashing en masse the access to unemployment benefits, this factor played undoubtedly a role in the overall participation in the strike, especially in medium and small sized private companies. Figures show that about a third of privately employed workers do not have permanent contracts.

For these reasons, the strike was more solid in the public sector. Public transport workers in particular were highly involved. Not one plane took off from or landed on Portuguese soil on Wednesday, the whole metro system was shut down in Lisbon and Porto, while buses, boats and trains were massively disrupted. Also, in public administration, education, healthcare, and justice, unprecedented turnouts were reported. More than 2,500 public schools were closed because of strike actions, and everywhere, uncollected rubbish in the streets testified to the massive participation of refuse workers. But strong, sometimes unprecedented, paralysations occurred in the private sector as well: the Volkswagen factory of AutoEuropa for example, the biggest industrial plant of the whole country, registered 98% of strikers from among its 3,400-strong workforce, preventing the production of a single car during the whole day.

Every sane person who was in Portugal on Wednesday knows that the figures given by the government, which spoke subsequently of a 29% participation rate, is nothing but pure propaganda. The Ministry of Labour noted, in support of the governmental figures, the fact that energy consumption in the country was “practically the same” than on a normal day. In response to this, Carvalho da Silva, Secretary of the CGTP, declared ironically: “If this is true, we need to conclude that planes don’t spend any energy, that boats don’t spend any energy, and that a lot of private companies don’t spend any energy either. This is a phenomena.”

In practice, the participation in the general strike exceeded every prediction. Part of this exceptional turn out was the involvement of new layers of workers who were engaging their first strike action, or sectors who have usually not been very active in previous mobilisations. In Lisbon and Porto, art workers surrounded theatres in big human chains composed of hundreds, shouting “General Strike, the struggle continues!” and in the capital, engaged in militant street blockades in front of a totally impotent police force.

Social tensions rising

The Portuguese ruling class is clearly sitting on social dynamite. Even the middle classes have expressed sharply their outrage against the present state of affairs. One commentator recently wrote: “If, as generally accepted, democracy relies on the stability of the middle class’ position, then in Portugal democracy is committing suicide”.

Significantly, in order to avoid to sparking popular anger, Prime Minister Socrates remained enclosed in his Sao Bento palace for the whole day, not daring to come out, contrary to what happened in 1988 when the then right-wing head of government, Cavaco Silva, visited factories during the general strike. This is for an obvious reason: Socrates’ approval ratings stand at 21.7%; even the hated French President Sarkozy is doing better! Those figures contrast with the popular support for the leading figures of the Left Bloc (Francisco Louçã) and the Portuguese Communist Party (Jeronimo de Sousa), who stand at 32% and 28% respectively.

Overall, the capitalist state dealt extremely cautiously with the general strike. The government decided to avoid any provocation that could fuel the movement in one way or another, and did not utter one word to confront the trade unions on that day. This is not to say that repression and strike-breaking operations by the state machine did not occur. One of the most prominent confrontations took place at the CTT Postal depot of Cabo Ruivo, the biggest of the Lisbon area, where the police intervened in order to protect scabs empoyed illegally by the management through a private company to replace the jobs of the 270 out of 276 workers who were on strike. The attempt by a more than 50 police, armed with helmets, shields, sticks, tear gas and pepper spray, and assisted by a private security force, to break the picket was resisted and prevented for 4 hours with bare hands by a courageous and collective effort of about 80 workers and trade unionists, assisted by a few Socialismo Revolucionário and other CWI members present there.

In its ongoing social war, the ruling elite will try to use every means and argument to attack the right to strike. This includes evoking the constantly repeated “right to work”. What hypocrisy! When, in the recent weeks, Portugal’s largest handling company, Groundforce, declared the ending of its operations at Faro airport and announced – overnight, and by email – the sacking of 336 workers, some of whom even learned the news first through the media, not many voices were heard defending their “right to work”.

Attempts to roll back the right to strike will increase in the next period, and must be clearly opposed and offensively challenged by the trade unions. This includes the operation of “minimal services” in some sectors considered “imperative social necessities”. These measures are justified by the idea of “preserving the general interest”. What is the general interest when the majority of the workers are engaged in a general strike? The trade union organisations must have complete control over such measures, not letting governmental and bosses agencies to decide arbitrarily how and where they can undermine the efficiency of strike actions.

Trade unions declare “victory”…but the fight is only starting

The massive will of the Portuguese working class to lead a consistent fight back is unfortunately held back by its own leaders. The leadership of the trade unions chose a date for general strike action which was far too late, allowing the mainstream parties to discuss extensively in order to find an agreement on the austerity budget approved on Friday. Behind this decision lay the fact that the trade union bureaucrats did not want to bear the blame for a collapse of the government and the subsequent political crisis in ruling circles that such a scenario would have triggered. Instead of having their eyes concentrated on building an independent mass resistance from below, able to defeat the budget and the government, they succumbed to the siren of “national responsibility” and put all their efforts into avoiding that the budget be seriously opposed.

The UGT pushes this absurdity to the extent of claiming that the general strike was “against the austerity, but not against the government”. Instead of proposing clear measures to make the capitalists and the banks pay for their crisis, the leaderships of both trade unions, to varying degrees, are asking for a more equal share of the sacrifices. “We can not let only the workers pay for the bill of the crisis” stated the general secretary of the UGT. This sums up the poor ambitions of the trade union apparatus.

Also, Wednesday’s successful general strike could have had much more impact if the trade union leaderships had not refused to organise proper demonstrations during the day. This was clearly a bureaucratic attempt to prevent momentum building up between the different sectors involved in the strike. The result is that no real space was offered for the workers from the various sectors to connect with each other, to bring their demands onto the streets, to exchange the experiences of their workplaces, etc. Also, without demonstrations, the layers who could not go on strike (the unemployed, the pensioners, etc..) did not have the possibility of getting directly involved in actively supporting the movement. In Lisbon, the vacuum left by this bureaucratic decision was filled by a group of anarchists who, despite their small numbers, were able to gather more than a thousand young people, but also many workers, in an anti-capitalist march through the main streets around the city centre, with slogans like “O povo unido nao precisa um partito” (“People, united, don’t need a party”).

There is no “national interest” between workers and a corrupt government, sold to the capitalist class

Facing the growing threat of a bail-out from the IMF and ECB, the preservation of the “national interest” of the country will increasingly be used as a diversion to make Portuguese workers swallow the pill of austerity more easily. Such a logic can only be countered by the organisation of an international fight back of the working class. The left must make this point clearly, instead of echoing this nationalist propaganda, as the PCP is systematically tempted to do.

Obviously, like we have seen with Greece a few months ago, with Ireland more recently, or with the intervention of the IMF in Portugal in the 1980s, the intervention of the IMF in Portugal would undoubtedly be coupled with new savage austerity conditions, all for the purpose of reassuring the bond speculators that their gambling operations are in good hands and that their orgy of profits can continue. The possibility of such a bail-out will be used as a Damocles sword upon Portuguese workers’ heads… to impose more drastic cuts anyway.

The reality is that with or without such a bailout, the austerity policies have no end in sight, as long as we leave intact the present profit-driven system, in which the economic levers are controlled by powerful private hands, and workers’ lives depend on an immense and anarchic casino.

The present wage cuts and tax increases, which they dare to call “courageous measures”, are the shortest road to plunging the country back to recession, with all that that implies for workers and the poor. All serious economists warn that the planned cuts will choke any possibility of already anemic growth, and slide the country back into recession from next year. The OECD and IMF both predict similar scenarios for Portugal, and even the Portuguese Economic Minister has openly declared that the present measures will have a “recessive effect”. And these are the same people who want us to believe that these measures are necessary to preserve jobs and living standards! It is like a doctor giving poison to his patient, then warning him that he is going to die, and at the same time continuing to tell him that the poison is good for his health!

This shows blatantly once again that the capitalist system, in Portugal as elsewhere, has failed, and is driving the majority of ordinary people into the wall, provoking growing misery, mass unemployment, squeezed services and a return to 19th century working conditions as the only distinctive future. In those conditions, the only “courageous measures” would be to expropriate the banks, the financial institutions and the commanding heights of the economy, to put them under public ownership and democratic control of the working class, and to start the building of a democratic socialist society, based on the rational planning of the economy to satisfy the social needs of all.

This General strike was only the first step

The General Strike has demonstrated the potential power which exists on the workers’ side to impose such a programme However, many workers also expressed doubts and skepticism about the possibility of similar actions to really change the course of events. This goes back to the strategy and proposals coming from the trade union leaders and the left, most of them only seeing the strike as a symbolic action, (Francisco Louçã from the LB even declared that the general strike was “a party”!) or at best as a means towards further negotiations with the government.

Such illusions must be dissipated. Actually, the government itself is clearly stating that there is nothing to negotiate, and that the margin for change in its current policies is “zero”. In a situation when the European establishment and the capitalist class in Portugal is demanding the stepping up of the so-called “reforms”, the time is not for negotiations, but to step up the independent organisation and resistance of the working class to defeat the slaughter agenda of this government. Local general assemblies in all workplaces must be organised as soon as possible, in order to allow all workers to discuss and decide together, and democratically, the next steps to take to continue and strengthen the struggle in the following weeks and months.

Socialismo Revolucionario thinks that the general strike announced in Greece for 15 December represents the perfect occasion to build upon the success of 24 November and to concretise a sentiment which is shared by an increasing number of workers in Portugal: the necessity for coordinated strike action on an international level. Joint General strikes in Greece and Portugal on the same day would have a powerful impact, boosting the confidence of the working class in both countries to a new level, and would have strong repercussions for the outlook of the whole European working class.

The determination of the all governments in Europe to continue, to satisfy their capitalist and speculator masters will require a determined and consistent programme of struggle by the working class, including by preparing a European-wide general strike response. This fight, at a certain stage, will pose the question of an alternative system to the crisis-ridden capitalism. SR wants to address consciously this question now, prepare the forces and build support for the genuine ideas of democratic socialism. We call on the Portuguese left organisations, especially the PCP and the LB, to start a dialogue between each other to draw the lines of a common fight against the unprecedented assault which is taking place against the future of millions of ordinary people.

As a contribution to the debate, SR is advocating:

Refuse to pay the debt created by the capitalists ! Open the books of the banks and big companies, to see where our money has been going!

• Down with the hedge funds and professional speculators! Nationalise the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions under the democratic control of the working class and consumers’ organisations!

• Reduce the working week without loss of pay, to provide decent jobs for all the unemployed!

• Enough with the casino and anarchic market system: for a government by and for 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 massive and joint 24 hour general strikes in Portugal and Greece on 15 December!

• For international unity and solidarity of the working class! Prepare for a European-wide general strike!

• Fight the European Union of the bosses and banks – Fight for a socialist Europe!

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November 2010