Portugal: Huge general strike marked by several firsts

June 29, 2013

The June 27 general strike in Portugal, the fourth since the country became an economic protectorate of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund “troika” in 2011, was marked by several important firsts.

It was the largest general strike to date, with 80%-100% support from public sector workers and a clear rise in support from private sector workers.

Government spokespeople rushed to claim that “Portugal did not stop”, but the deserted airports, railway, bus and ferry terminals and the city centres near empty except for the 50 protest marches told a different story.

It was the first general strike where the two main trade union confederations, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and the General Union of Workers (UGT), called their members out on the same day.

Traditionally aligned to the Portuguese Communist Party and Socialist Party (PS) respectively, their history had previously been one of total non-cooperation. But the pressure for united action against the government and troika finally forced a minimum of collaboration.

It was also the first preceded by a call from the main Portuguese business organisations for the right-wing coalition government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho to reverse its economic policy.

In the public sector, the strike featured: 100% stoppage in public transport and of ports; 80% to 100% absenteeism in public education; near complete closure of the postal service and public administration; and only emergency services working in the hospital system, with increased participation by health workers in the strike (typically between 80% and 100%).

Despite greater employer intimidation and rising unemployment, the higher participation in private industry showed in stopped production in areas such as paper production, food and drink processing, plastics, ceramics, printing, electronics assembly, furniture manufacture and waste recycling. Major supermarkets in many centres had to close for lack of staff.

CGTP general secretary Arménio Carlos and UGT general secretary Carlos Silva both said that the strike had enjoyed greater support than its three predecessors. Silva put total adherence at 50% of the workforce.

Silva described it as “a cry against the enforced impoverishment of the Portuguese”.

Since the troika’s inspection teams took over in Portugal, real wages have fallen by 9.2%, household spending by 10% and Gross Domestic Product by 5.5%.

As a result, 430,000 have joined the ranks of the unemployed (taking the official rate to 17.7%), public sector debt has exploded from 94% to 123.6% of GDP, and 250,000 people, mainly the young, have emigrated.

Carlos told the CGTP mass rally in Lisbon — in which the sentiment of solidarity with the Brazilian revolt was also strong — that “nothing will be the same as before” because “the workers are more united” and conscious of their goals.

The CGTP resolution for the day demanded that President Carvaco Silva dismiss Passos Coelho and call fresh elections.

The UGT did not demand the dismissal of the government but an end to austerity. However, that looks like being the last option in Passos Coelho’s mind.

Certain of being thrashed in any the new poll, the ruling coalition of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) and Democratic and Social Centre (CDS) has decided it has nothing to lose by driving austerity even harder.

The government has drawn up a new plan of attack after important elements of this year's budget were found to be unconstitutional. In the firing line are public sector jobs, remaining worker and union rights, spending on health, education, public housing and welfare, as well as tax rises that will hit workers hardest.

The government also has the undisguised support of the president, who is essentially acting as a member of cabinet and against the constitution he is meant to safeguard.

But Passos Coelho is losing other powerful friends. On June 24, the country’s four main business umbrella groups launched their “compromise for economic growth”.

They said: “The crisis is getting worse, purchasing power is falling, as is the quality of life of the vast majority of the population … It is time, once and for all, to recognise that fact and to dare to abandon a recipe that is not the solution for Portugal, and the continuance of which could lead into a blind alley.”

Which poses the question: how long can a ruling-class government last when it starts losing favour with key sections of the ruling class?

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