Fuel tanker drivers’ strike paralyses Portugal – Where next for the Left?

Portugal's Prime Minister, Antonio Costa (Creative Commons)

Less than two months before a general election, in the middle of the tourist season, Portugal was brought to a standstill by a five-day strike of fuel-tanker drivers.

Strikers are members of new union, Sindicato Nacional de Motoristas de Mate’rias Perigosas (SNMMP). They transport some of the most profitable cargo on the planet but are having to fight for every increase in pay they can get and for end to insecurity and abuses by the employer. Many drivers are working long hours but receiving only basic pay. Bosses refuse to pay overtime, they delay wage payments and steal wages outright, to which workers are entitled. These exploitative practices workers in many countries will recognise.

The strike action has been extremely effective and has demonstrated the crucial role these workers play in society. At least a quarter of petrol stations were empty during this second instalment of a campaign that began in April, with a four-day strike. At the time of writing, the union has suspended the action in August for talks with the employer but has threatened a third strike, in September, if their demands are not met.

In the meantime, the SNPVAC union called out its members in Ryanair, including in Portugal. This added to a strike wave, this year, which began with determined action from surgical nurses in January. The strikes could mark a turning point in the situation. Before the last general election in 2015, five general strikes against the austerity demanded by the Troika (the bloc between the International Monetary Fund and the EU’s Commission and Central Bank) rocked Portugal. But the movement slowed after the election of a new minority government. Many workers hoped that the so-called, Socialist Party (PS), supported in parliament by the Left Bloc, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Greens, would reverse the attacks of previous right wing governments.

The CWI explained, at the time, that those hopes would be disappointed. Prime minister Anto’nio Costa said the government would do “everything” to ensure petrol supplies are maintained, and – rare for capitalist politicians – fulfilled his pledge by enlisting the army to scab and drive the tankers, despite having no safety training to carry the dangerous materials they transport. Thirteen workers who did not turn up for work were also threatened with prosecution if they were absent again. Picket lines were broken up by force by police.

Disgracefully, all three of the disputes mentioned above have been attacked by the government. The PS used restrictive labour laws against the drivers and pilots to try and force striking union members to go back to work. They try to enforce a so-called “minimum” service, which, in fact, far exceeds any reasonable definition of “minimum”. The nurses’ strike was declared illegal, outright.

The left has weakened its support in the working class by remaining silent on the government’s attacks. Worse still, Communist Party leaders even joined in. The PCP’s, Jero’nimo de Sousa, said nurses were “subverting the right to strike” while fundraising to support their action.

During strike action, the trade union movement has always made “life and limb” exceptions to ensure that genuinely essential supplies and services are provided to working people who rely on them (emergency services, in hospitals, for example). It should always be the workers’ movement, however, which decides to make these exceptions – not the bosses. It is astounding hypocrisy for a representative of the pro-capitalist PS to feign concern for the disruption caused to the lives of people. After all, it was the PS that signed up to the memorandum with the Troika, in the first place, bringing brutal and disruptive austerity into the lives of working class people.

PS politicians have postured during the strike, claiming to be acting in the “national interest”. It is not the whole nation but the super-rich within it which benefits from the undermining of workers’ action. The SP government has left these anti-trade union laws on the statute books. The government used them against striking workers to limit the share of wealth the working class wins in its struggle with the bosses.

The industrial temperature is rising in Portugal, as any illusions that workers had in the PS government are slipping away. Workers have watched, with growing anger, as the rich profited under Costa, while the rest of the population have been told always to wait.

Economic mirage for workers

The Portuguese economy has grown faster than most European countries in the recent period. This is not as the result of a boost to the spending power of the working class (Costa’s handouts have been far too miserly to have a considerable effect). It is mainly as a result of a tourism boom fueled by instability at other destinations, and the inflation of a property bubble based on that (temporary) boom. The vast majority of the benefit of this windfall is being handed over to capitalists who have no intention of using the money for productive investment.

It is a fiction – widely reported in the international press – that austerity was ended in Portugal when the PS came to power in 2015. For the whole period, Costa’s government has remained obedient to the Troika. In real terms, wages have fallen for the whole period of the so-called “Geringonc5a” or “contraption” between the PS and the parliamentary left. Incomes are at less than half the European average. What relief there has been for the working class – tax cuts and the reversal of some pension cuts, for example – were bought by mortgaging the future and strangling public investment.

The IMF reports that public investment is so low it does not even pay for the upkeep of existing infrastructure, let alone the upgrading of it, and prospects for further investment are getting worse. This is the real reason the gap between productivity in Portugal and other economies in Europe is widening.

A substantial part of what little investment the country has seen is down to the influx of funds from China (Fernando Ulrich, a banker, called Portugal, “a Chinese aircraft-carrier in Europe”) which has dried up as a result of the developing trade war.

Economic growth in Portugal is already slowing, and the rest of the EU, on which Portugal depends for 70% of its exports, is heading for recession. There is little prospect of Portugal actually posting a surplus next year, as Costa claims, or paying off its huge debt (which increased to 131% of GDP last year – in the EU, only Greece and Italy have higher debts), or of reaching the hallowed goal of investment grade international credit rating. There is no capitalist road to rebuilding Portugal’s economy: it is even less prepared to weather the economic storm which is about to break over Europe.

Ever-wider layers of the Portuguese working class are reaching the conclusion that there is no road out of economic crisis for Portugal but the road of struggle. Increasingly the conclusion is drawn that that struggle should be for an alternative which has the potential to win support for a socialist alternative.

New unions like the SNMMP and the dockers’ union, SEAL, engaged in determined, militant action. Their example is putting pressure on the main Portuguese union confederation, the CGTP, whose leaders have held back struggle in the last period.

The rising industrial temperature would energetically propel a new left political force forward, if it is prepared for the return of workers’ struggle. But the situation is more complicated due to the entrapment of left political forces in a parliamentary alliance with the capitalist SP.

There is no automatic guarantee that the workers will look to the left to satisfy their aspirations. Drivers’ Union leader, Pardal Henriques, for example, announced that he will stand for new liberal capitalist party, the PDR.

The far-right has not at this stage made a breakthrough, as it did recently in Spain and has in several other European countries. However further economic shocks could radically alter the political situation. Some are looking to far-right forces in Brazil and neighbouring Spain and Portugal. We could see similar developments in Portugal, if the left squanders its opportunities and ties itself to the establishment.

It was correct in 2015 to have allowed the PS to block the return of the right wing Coelho government. But the left parties should also have immediately gone on an offensive to fight for anti-austerity and socialist policies and voting against anti-working class policies. This would have clearly exposed the PS leadership’s pro-capitalist policies.

Left acts as prop to pro-capitalist government

Instead, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party tied themselves to propping up the PS government. They signed an agreement to support the PS for the whole parliamentary term, limiting them to occasional verbal criticism that never threatened the SP’s position.

The Left Bloc and the Communist Party must go into October’s election clearly stating that in the economic storms ahead, the PS cannot be trusted to defend the interests of the working class. The must pledge not to repeat the 2015-19 bloc with a government that has attacked workers taking strike action. Independent workers’ action through the unions should be championed. This entails coordinated action, including an initial 24-hour general strike on pay and insecurity, in defence of the right to strike. It means fighting for the scrapping of the Troika’s labour laws, as the first step in a programme of action, drawn up by the unions, to fight for a substantial rise in the minimum wage, the defence of collective bargaining and the restoration of full rights, including the right of all workers to take strike action.

Trade-union rights in Portugal have been breached because the representatives and apologists of capitalism claimed that the economic crisis meant it could not afford to allow workers to organise effective action to defend their incomes and living standards. It is capitalism, which hands over the wealth workers create to exploiting bosses that we should sacrifice.

Portuguese workers should refuse to play by the international rules of a system that is rigged against them and in favour of profit. The colossal debt should be repudiated. The financial system should be nationalised to prevent capitalist sabotage, such as Greece faced, with the other big corporations and industries that dominate the Portuguese economy also taken into public ownership, coordinated and planned.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is committed to the construction of the revolutionary socialist force that is necessary to make that programme a reality.

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August 2019