Portugal: General Strike on 24 November

A warning of things to come

On 24 November, the General Strike called by the Trade Unions, with the support of the 15 October Platform (which had put huge pressure on union leaders through it’s call for action) and many other social movements took place, in the context of the crisis and the Troika (IMF, ECB and European Commission) “bailout” and austerity deal. This was one of the largest general strikes in the country’s history, demonstrating the clear will of the working class as well as many other activists to fight these draconian measures.

This strike was important in several aspects. First of all, for being the first one organised against the implementation of cuts by the PDS/CDS Government, which took power in May, with PS (“Socialist” Party) consent in “opposition”. The austerity measures usually go even further than planned in the deal with the Troika, and some of them have already been applied this year (the increase in the VAT for basic services like electricity and gas, the general increase of public transport prices etc). But the worst is yet to come; the year 2012 will see the incomes of families, small business-people and agricultors savaged even further. Traditional aid and charity institutions already say that they are not sufficiently prepared for the increase in requests for assistance that these policies will mean. The cutting of Christmas “bonuses” is the most hated of these attacks among the population. But others will come, such as the imposition of 30 minutes of unpaid work every day (17 working days per year), which means 17 days of slave labor. This demonstrates the predatory nature of capitalism and the rule of the bankers and speculators.

The struggle, like we saw in Greece, will escalate, as lower living standards become more tangible. The average salary in Portugal is behind rising inflation, with higher taxes and charges imposed by the government. Families and companies that usually take out loans to pay off older debts now have more difficulty in doing so, since the banks restrict access to credit. Thus, the capitalist system shows its true nature, after the illusion of easy credit and the injection of funds by European institutions during the 90’s.

This General Strike was also innovative, in two ways. Firstly, in that it was accompanied by numerous demonstrations up and down the country on the same day, which has not been a feature of past strike days. Many Portuguese workers and activists wanted to couple the general strike with a showdown in the streets, to avoid the scenario of last year’s general strike, during which the decision of the trade union leadership not to organise street protests undermined the strength of their action.

Examples of other countries such as Greece, where general strikes are always accompanied by large demonstrations, have proved that there are no excuses not to hold mass protests on the streets during a general strike.

In Lisbon, tens of thousands of CGTP (main TU federation) members and demonstrators from different organizations and sectors (indignados, students, ’Anonymous’ and others) took to the streets.

Demonstration in Lisbon

The second point was the fact that the Strike and the Demonstration were called, not only but the trade unions as usual, but also by the 15-O platform (which is composed of various organizations and individual members). This set an important precedent, with the involvement of important broader layers of the population in the working class’ struggle.

Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Portugal) considers those two aspects very important for the evolution of the class struggle in Portugal. The proposal for demonstrations and assemblies on days of general strike, supported by Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI) in the union movement over the years, proved to be correct, clearly demonstrating, through the involvement of broader sectors of society in these protests, the necessity of an escalation in the struggle, which should take place on the streets in an active and militant way.

Role of the “indignados” movement

The role of the “indignados” movement is crucial. In this single movement, we see a new generation of people starting becoming involved in the struggle, as well as some union activists, who understood the need to take part in the strike and the demonstration. This shows the support of the wider population for the workers’ and unions’ struggle. In this struggle, the coming together of every sector of the working class is necessary if we want to really improve the situation and achieve a real transformation of society.

For example, the participation of non-workers in the picket lines of the Carris (public company that provides the bus service) workers will set a precedent for the future. On the CTT (public postal services) picket, there was visible progress in the struggle of workers. Last year, the picket was mainly composed of trade union activists, but also of “outsiders”, including CWI members. This example had a positive effect on a broader layer of workers for this year’s strike: many workers were this time present to defend their picket line, with a real, grassroots mobilization. This shows how the experience of struggle can raise the level of preparedness and consciousness of working people.

In the public-cleaning sector, only 11 out of 118 trucks circulated in Lisbon on strike day. The fire-fighters were 94% solid, following their protests in previous months, denouncing the cuts and lack of operating conditions for the service. The CGTP’s report from the strike is extensive and demonstrates its impact on the different sectors, both public and private. The Government alleges that only 3.8% participated in the strike, but even the UGT union, usually more conservative, classifies those numbers as “unrealistic”.

On the other hand, it is also necessary to adopt a critical perspective of the events. The time between the beginning of the CGTP demonstration and the indignados’ one was excessive. This created a gap between the two demonstrations, when joining up in one single bloc would have been desirable. The demonstration of the union confederations being disbanded shortly after the arrival of the “indignados” to the Parliament. But despite this, many workers remained there in an impressive showing of solidarity and unity. This is coming together is an example of the bridges that should be encouraged, in order to escalate the struggles and to create a genuine alternative uniting workers and youth in political struggle.

"Against exploitation – General Strike"

Of the picket lines in which we took part (municipal cleaning service, buses, post office and public television), some were more effective than others. But in a general sense, the participation of workers and sympathizers fell short of that which is desirable and necessary. It is imperative to encourage a greater involvement by rank and file trade unionists and workers in the preparation of the strike, but also a growing participation by non-workers, aiming to draw services users, the unemployed, students, pensioners and precarious workers into the struggle as well. Above all, there has been a lack of bold socialist proposals which could give the struggle a perspective for the future.

A sustained programme of action is also necessary to take the struggle forward. Last year’s strike showed how the bosses and government will do everything possible to ignore mobilisations and continue with their savage policies anyway. The struggle to bring down this hated government and its policies will require a programme of further action, including a series of general strikes, including of 48 hours. Such a plan should be democratically discussed and decided upon in assemblies and committees of action in workplaces, communities and universities and schools.

During the demonstration in front of the ‘Assembly of the Republic’ (AR), SR was the only group to mount a table and distribute printed material, spreading the ideas of the CWI and seeking to build our forces. In the mainstream media the spotlight was given to the skirmishes on the streets between some demonstrators (clearly isolated and small groups) and the police. The use of riot police and civilian clothes agents was widespread during the general strike and the demonstration. The fall of the fence which protected the parliament stairs from the population demonstrates the determination of the people to “take” the steps, for the Public Assembly scheduled that night (like after the 15 October demonstration). But at the same time, it demonstrated the disorganization between the many small groups present, the presence of unidentified police officers only increased the confusion.

Demo infront of Public Assembly building – Placard reads "Don’t worry, it’s all ’good’"

The downgrading of Portugal’s credit rating to “junk” and the announcement of the payment of 34.4 billion euros in interest attached to the 78 billion euro “bailout” deal with the troika, clarify even further the depth of the capitalist economic crisis and the system’s lack of a way out. The same policies were applied in Greece, Ireland and Iceland (which is seen in Portugal as an example by some layers of the organised left and indignados) without any real economic results.

The spiral of poverty will continue, and the will of the people to find new alternatives will increase. It is up to the left to prevent the growth of nationalist movements, and arm the struggles with a real political alternative. The statements of employers’ (Industrial Association of Minho) and leaders of the capitalist parties (PSD and PP, especially the latter) criminalizing the resistance in the name of the "best interests of the nation" can – in the absence of a independent workers alternative – develop a potentially dangerous nationalist current, which enter into open confrontation with the trade union and social movement.

This is also why arguing for a clear alternative to the payment of the debt and the dictatorship of the markets is essential. The mass left parties in particular – the Communist Party and Left Bloc – have an historic responsibility in this. Such an alternative can only be realised in a struggle for a government of working people and the youth, based on a total repudiation of the debt, on public ownership of the banks, the financial sector and the most important companies and industries, democratically planned and managed by workers and consumers and their organizations.

Popularising the genuine ideas of revolutionary socialism is essential, as we see a many “indignados” searching for a solution. Despite a certain rhetoric of “neither right nor left” from some in the movement, in practice the experience of the crisis and the struggle will bring workers and youth towards conclusions about the need for a new left alternative.

Socialismo Revolucionário aims in the short term, to strengthen its presence in the trade union movement, contributing to grassroots, democratic, and combative trade unionism, but also to participate and drive actions among the youth, especially within the Students’ Associations of Universities and High Schools. We also assume the task of stimulating and supporting international solidarity, which highlights the common struggles that workers and young people in Europe and the world are fighting, and promote the awareness that an alternative to the current system is only possible and sustainable on a global scale.

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December 2011