Portugal: After the country’s biggest general strike…

48 hours general strike needed in drive to bring down austerity government

Despite attempts in the mass media to downplay the 14 November general strike, it was the biggest and most successful national strike action in Portugal since the 1974 revolution. Even the brutal state violence at the end of the day could not diminish the scale and impact of the action.

The 14 November action (‘N14’) in Portugal showed the anger and determination of workers and youth to bring down the government and fight for genuine alternatives to the government’s austerity policies. But it also showed that to achieve these goals the movement will have to develop a new militant strategy and clear alternative policies.

Militant spirit

Amongst fire-fighters, garbage collectors, metro and some other groups of workers, the strike was 100% solid. At the main postal distribution centre in Lisbon, the picket line developed into a celebration of the strike. Students and workers discussed and sang together for hours.

From 8am on the day of the strike onwards, students, sometimes joined by the security workers, blocked entrances to universities and discussed with people who wanted to get inside the university. Many shops, pharmacies and petrol stations closed down, as the private sector and small businesses also joined the strike.

Unfortunately, the second, smaller, union confederation (UGT – General Workers’ Union), did not call for the general strike, alleging that it was “overtly political” and “sectarian” on the part of the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP – the largest union federation). However, as the strike approached, many UGT-affiliated workers ignored their ‘leaders’ and joined in the action.

Even the union of the UGT’s general secretary – who is also on the executive committee of the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC), which called the day of action on 14N – took part in the strike!

From 12 noon onwards, students organised their own demonstration, walking to Rossio, the central plaza in Lisbon, to join with a march from the militant dockers union, members of the CGTP and from social movements.

During the students’ march, the police tried to provoke clashes but were stopped by the security workers from the universities. At 1pm, the dockers started their demonstration from the harbour, singing and chanting. They were joined by members of social movements, such as MSE – an unemployed movement where members of Socialismo Revolutionário (CWI Portugal) work – together with other Left activists and unemployed people to organise, for example, solidarity with the recent dockers’ strike. Here, too, the police tried to provoke clashes but agent-provocateurs were identified by demonstrators who removed them from the demo.

Lack of leadership

The demonstration of trade unionists, students, precarious workers, dockers, unemployed and pensioners, was characterised by a militancy not seen since the 1974 revolution.

Unfortunately neither the Portuguese Communist Party, the Left Bloc nor the leadership of the CGTP fulfilled their responsibilities to develop the struggle. Despite massive anger on the streets, the union leadership, during rally at the end of the demonstration, refused to call for an escalation of the struggle. It failed to call for a 48 hour general strike before the end of the year, as the next step in a sustained plan of action to bring down the government.

A 48 hour general strike could transform the situation by organising democratic meetings to discuss how to mobilise for it, preparing further actions such as occupations of workplaces and ministries, and spreading the struggle into the neighbourhoods, elements of which have were seen in the March and October 2011 protests that were organised from below.

Compared to a one-day strike, a 48 hour general strike requires new ideas about how to organise pickets, occupations, resistance against the police, food supplies and transport etc.

Reflecting a certain Left turn in the last months, as well as the significant pressure developing from below for coordinated action, the CGTP leadership lead the initiative for 14N. They called on the Spanish unions to join in the action. Eventually, the ETUC took on board this initiative, and called for a European-wide strike and protest day of action against austerity.

Unfortunately the CGTP leadership failed to channel people’s anger over the diktats of the Troika (EU, IMF and ECB) and to call for the immediate resignation of the government.

Here the CGTP leadership could have, again, played an important role. Arménio Carlos, General Secretary of the CGTP, in his rally speech, thanked the social movements for their positive and militant contribution to the 14N strike. However, he could have gone further by asking those present to start preparing and discussing the next general strike.

This would have made clear to all present that the CGTP was promoting a plan of united action, to drive for the fall of the government and expulsion of the Troika. It would have made it clear that the CGTP had a perspective and a plan of escalating struggle to achieve the main demands of both the union and the social movements.

As the class struggle has become sharper in Portugal, the ruling class and its government ministers unleashed a campaign to intimidate trade unionists and worker-activists. Although during N14 we witnessed several minor clashes between picket lines and the police, the general mood of the police was ‘neutral’. But the events in the evening showed an obvious attempt by the state and the police to intimidate and criminalise the protesters.

Police stationed in front of parliament buildings violently prevented several attempts by demonstrators to climb the steps to the national assembly.

The police filmed protesters. After an hour, they suddenly shot firework rockets and firecrackers into the demonstrators causing immediate mass panic. People ran in every direction, chased by police, who beat all those protesters they catch.

Dozens, including young teenagers, were detained by police and were not allowed to phone or speak to a solicitor. Several of them were beaten up. To get released they were forced to sign a blank sheet of paper which the police would fill in later!

General strike red warning

Arménio Carlos correctly blamed the government and the police’s brutal attacks against workers for the escalation of violence. He said that the general strike is a red warning sign for the government to change its policy.

At a press conference, members from several social movements called for the need to organise a demonstration against police violence and the attack on democratic rights.

The CGTP called another demonstration on 27 November, again in front of the national assembly, on the day that the final vote on the government’s budget will take place. This demonstration needs to become a massive event. It is an opportunity to call for a 48 hour general strike and for further steps to escalate the movement.

If such a plan of action and a clear political alternative is put forward – starting from a united front of the Left parties (PCP and BE) and the workers’ and social movements – for a government to implement revolutionary socialist policies, this could decisively change the balance of forces in society and open up a new era for the Portuguese and European class struggle.

This would start European-wide discussions about further steps for the joint international resistance against austerity and capitalism, as a whole.

Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Portugal) participated in several picket lines throughout the previous night and into the morning of the N14 strike. SR members joined with hundreds of trade unionists, unemployed people, students, pensioners and activists from several social movements who also supported picket lines.

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November 2012