Portugal: the general strike and the tasks of the left

On November 24, the working class paralysed Portugal in a general strike against the latest austerity plan of the Socialist Party government.

Portugal is one of the weakest links of European capitalism. After the Greek economy was put under the control of the European Union and the IMF in March, the pressure has increased on Ireland and Portugal. In fact, Ireland has just accepted the intervention of international economic agencies after falling prey to the blackmail of the financial markets. Portugal seems to be the next target. According to Barclays Capital, quoted by Diário de Notícias, it is likely that Portugal will have to be bailed out during the first months of 2011, with an approximate amount of 34 billion Euro, which represents 20% of Portuguese GDP. The budget deficit (9.6%) is less than the two digits figures of Greece, Ireland or Spain, but the Portuguese economy is in a critical state that invites attack by these financial sharks known euphemistically as "the markets". Public debt is near 85%, when EU rules only allow a 60% maximum, but the problem is that companies and individuals are heavily indebted , bringing total debt (public, corporate and household) to a staggering 223% of GDP. Portuguese risk premium peaked at 406 points, very close to the Irish and twice that of Spain. In addition, the latest unemployment rate figure just released is 10.9%, an historical high.

The vultures have smelled blood, and after winning over Ireland, international speculators are prepared to repeat the experience in Portugal, so they will increase their pressure. If this happens, it is highly likely that the EU, IMF and European Central Bank will impose a "rescue" plan which will mean the adoption of draconian austerity measures: cuts in public spending, cuts in pensions and wages of civil servants, higher taxes, and reforms to "liberalize" the economy. The problem is that these attacks, which places the burden of the crisis on the working class will only deepen the cuts already approved by the Portuguese government in successive adjustment plans since March. First was the so-called Stabilization and Growth Program (PEC), which envisaged the privatization of public assets, freezing the wages of civil servants and social spending cuts as well as tax increases and cuts in benefits. This plan soon proved to be insufficient in the eyes of the European bourgeoisie and the markets demanded more cuts. Thus, in May, coinciding with the plan of adjustment in Spain, the Socialist government of José Sócrates (ruling without an overall majority) was forced by the EU to raise taxes, especially VAT, in order to further reduce the deficit .But this was still not be enough and so the Portuguese Parliament, with the votes of the PS and the abstention of the right wing PSD, adopted on 3 November, as part of the budget for 2011, a new plan that cuts civil servant wages between 3.5 % and 10%, freezes pensions in 2011, slashes social spending and further increases VAT tax. These measures would lead to a sharp reduction in purchasing power in a country where the average wage is less than 800 Euro.

Airport workers on strike. Photo: CGTPAirport workers on strike. Photo: CGTP We are witnessing the acceptance by the Socialist Party government of the blackmail of speculative markets and their political agents in the EU. But the Portuguese trade unions have been pushed to the limit with these measures and have said enough is enough. They are refusing to collaborate in this dynamic in which only the workers pay. The UGT and CGTP reacted to the last package of measures with a call for a general strike on 24 November, the first joint strike in 22 years. The general strike had been prepared with a demonstration in Lisbon on November 7 which according to the unions saw 300,000 workers marching against cuts.

According to the unions, more than three million workers, out of a work force of 5.6 million, took part in the strike on November 24. Commuter trains, ferries that carry thousands of people on both sides of the Tajo river, buses and trams, were all paralysed. The Porto Metro closed down and in Lisbon only one line was open. Schools, universities and the justice system were brought to a standstill. But the most striking image of the strike was at the airports, where 90% of flights were cancelled. In the private sector, the strike was widely followed in the industrial hub of Palmela, where Autoeuropa, the massive Volkswagen factory is located, and in sectors such as cork production, engineering and energy. Manuel Carvalho da Silva, leader of the CGTP, the communist trade union, which represents a majority workers in Portugal, said:

“From now on we will be more demanding and strong in defending our demands such as the minimum wage, compliance with the agreements on defence of workers and the unemployed, and the demand for different policies.”

Other sectors, such as health care, also experienced high participation. In the case of nurses, during the night shift, participation in the strike was over 73%. Teachers also joined in, shutting down hundreds of schools, leaving thousands of students at home. Indeed, according to the teachers union, this was the largest participation ever of teachers in a strike. Even in areas such as call centre workers, mainly young and without trade union traditions, participation was 80%.

The Government, through the Minister of Labour, Helena André, gave very different figures, and assured journalists that only 20% of public employees had gone on strike, although she admitted that in some sectors such as transport had been almost totally paralysed. However, according to Spanish newspaper Público:

“Portuguese media refuted this official optimism, endorsing the figures given by the unions. The only that functioned where those required to by law as essential services, such as medical emergencies, energy, fire fighters and fuel and water supply, and the professions that are banned by law from striking, such as judges, parliamentarians, the military and the security forces.”

In a display of cynicism, the government accused the workers of making the country lose 500 million Euro. This statement is part of the discourse of fear and national unity, along the lines of, “we are all in this together and only together will we emerge from the crisis”. However, it has become clear that Portuguese workers, like the Greek, have broken radically with that idea. We have entered a stage at the European level where the class is entering the struggle with its own demands. So far, these demands have been mainly defensive in character with a view to preserve rights acquired in many decades of battles. But the Portuguese political scene has some interesting features compared to other European countries.

The Portuguese left

One of the most interesting features of Portugal is the existence of two strong parties to the left of social democracy, the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). Between the two they have 31 seats in parliament, 16 for the BE (9.8%) and 15 for the PCP (7.9%) obtained in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The PCP is a party with strong roots in society, an important network of members in the factories and it plays a dominant role trade union movement through the CGTP. This is reflected in its municipal election results, where it get almost 10% of the vote. However, its leadership is very sectarian towards the ranks of the Socialist Party and other left organisations, which limits them in expanding its social base. But the movement itself imposes unity, as in the case of the general strike.

Bloco de Esquerda is a different kind of party. It comes from a fusion between Maoists, Trotskyists and the former Euro-Communist sector of the PCP in 1999. It has between 4000 and 7000 members (about 10% of the membership the PCP claims), and its trade union roots are much weaker, mainly amongst teachers. However, it has been shown capable of gathering the vote of important sectors of the Portuguese urban youth. Their results at national level have been very good, but they go down to 3% in the municipal elections. The Bloco has taken controversial decisions lately, such as voting in favor of the Greek rescue plan in the Portuguese parliament. Such decision cannot be justified, neither from a Marxist nor from an internationalist point of view, and seems completely illogical. Digging a little deeper, however, we can see that one of the problems that the BE has is its inability to transform its votes into actual members, which means an increasing dissociation between its rank and file and its parliamentary group, together with a growing electioneering orientation. Undoubtedly, there are two contradictory pressures within BE: a reformist one, oriented towards the parliamentary arena, which suffers heavily from the pressure of bourgeois public opinion, and a more radical one, from its voters, which are looking for an alternative to the pro-capitalist policies of the leadership of the PS and the Stalinism of the leadership of the PCP.

Another issue is the support for Alegre in the forthcoming Presidential Election. Alegre is a left-wing Socialist leader, who once opposed the leadership of the PS, but that has already gone back to supporting the pro-capitalist policies of the social democracy. The leadership of the Bloco has decided to support him in the upcoming presidential elections, with the excuse of avoiding the re-election of the right wing Cavaco Silva. Thus, the BE finds itself in a peculiar and contradictory political position: while raising the banner of not managing the system with the social democracy, it supports the same presidential candidate as the PS. This decision obviously has not sat well with the ranks of BE, least of all at a time when the PS leads the attack against the Portuguese working class. On the other hand it has to be said that the PCP was not exactly in favour of a joint left candidate: the leadership of both parties has failed in offering a united workers' alternative able of standing up to the bourgeoisie and its agents.

Louça, the BE leader, told Viento Sur:

“If one party participates in elections it must learn to exercise the mandates it obtains in an exemplary way, through its proposals, its ability to innovate, the attitude of its elected representatives, the consistency of the positions defended and loyalty to the program it proposed to the voters. It must demonstrate an ability generate conflicts and mobilizations on which the struggle can be developed. But by having elected officials and participating in the institutions is also learns and thanks to this the Bloco is now much stronger, it knows reality better and is actually even more prepared to carry out the struggle for hegemony in all areas.”

Have the parliamentary group of BE and its leaders been consistent with these words? Or do they know base themselves only on considerations of short term electoral gains? It is true that the BE has strongly supported the general strike, along with the PCP (their respective leaders even left the parliament to participate in the picket lines). BE also supported the censorship motion submitted by the PCP against the Socrates government and opposed PEC austerity plans. Their presence in the unions is weak, however, due to its lack of systematic orientation to the working class. Such an orientation is not a guarantee that an organization will wage a serious fight against capitalism (there are dozens examples, such as the Italian or French CPs ). The two factors must come together: correct ideas in the struggle against capitalism and an organized presence in the working class, the only force materially capable of putting these ideas into practice.

The enormous potential of the Portuguese left, and its tasks for the future

This situation in the Portuguese left, which is relatively strong compared to its counterparts in countries such as Spanish, is based on a politically very turbulent few years, where the presence of a social democratic government has not acted as a brake for working class mobilization, even if this government had broad electoral support. These movements began in 2006 and took the form of huge demonstrations against Sócrates, three in one year, with tens of thousands of demonstrators, culminating in a general strike against the government's policies. These demonstrations were called and organised by the CGTP. One of the factors that explain the roots of the PCP in the labour movement is its hegemony within the CGTP. The orientation of the PCP towards the labour movement expresses itself in the presence of Communist worker cadres in factories and workplaces. The importance of this fact is shown when organisation of demonstrations takes place, in the participation in picket lines, rallies, etc. This strong relationship between party and union is comparable to that of the KKE in Greece. Interestingly, these are the two Western Communist parties which broke with Euro-communism and have maintained working class traditions that have been mostly lost by other organisations of the communist and post-communist left, although at the expense of maintaining a Stalinist structure and ideology. In the case of the PCP this is true both of its internal regime as well as the distinction it makes between the supposedly “progressive bourgeoisie” and the reactionary one.

The trade union militancy has allowed the Portuguese left to arrive with great potential at the outbreak of crisis. This has been reflected both in the electoral front as well as in rank and file organisation, although in this regard, there is still a lot of work to be done. Above all, it needs to break with the idea that there is a way out of the crisis within capitalism. The BE and the PCP speak of "neoliberal capitalism", but the problem is not one kind of capitalism but the system itself.

The mobilizations and their continuity: for an internationalist solution

The example of the recent movements in France and Greece show that in the current situation is difficult to stop the adjustment and austerity plans and in general attacks on the working class. The objective economic situation pushes the capitalist ruling class to a policy of permanent austerity. The situation is compounded by the existence of the Euro which prevents each country from applying monetary policies more suited to their needs. The attacks of the "financial markets" against the weakest economies in the Euro area are a reflection of the impossibility of apply the same monetary policy to very different economies.

Under these conditions, in order to face the attacks of capitalism the trade union movement needs a serious strategy of struggle which increases the intensity of the movement. In the case of France we saw how the trade union leaders refused to call an indefinite general strike, which would have been the next logical step after a series of very militant national days of action. In the case of Greece we saw how calling for 24 hour general strikes one after another led to wearing down the movement. In Portugal, if the government makes no concessions after the November 24 general strike, the trade unions should raise the call for a new general strike, this time for 48 hours, accompanied by mass demonstrations in the streets to demonstrate the strength of the working class.

At the same time, we must break with the dynamics of nationally isolated struggles, raising the idea of European-wide mobilizations. This is a realistic perspective. The attacks are similar if not equal in most of the EU countries. The reasons are the same and also , the European Central Bank is playing a key role in the imposition of such adjustment programs.

Moreover, it is important that in these demonstrations, the Portuguese left adopts a program that emphasizes the idea that these attacks are the consequence of the crisis of the capitalist system and therefore require a genuinely socialist program to fight them. One cannot propose half-way measures such as the creation of a public banking sector, as a solution. Actually, this bank would be a financial appendix of the bourgeois states, and, as such, it would be, as they are, vulnerable to the blackmail of international capital. We need to raise the slogan of nationalization of the banking system as part of the struggle to stop the cuts.

The Portuguese left, forged in major mobilizations and with powerful loud speakers in Parliament, has a real chance of stopping the wave of attacks waged by the European bourgeoisie, with the complicity of the parasitic Portuguese bourgeoisie .The general strike on November 24 has helped the working class become aware of its strength and the role it can play in the future in an alliance with the European working class, raising again the banner of April 25 and its revolutionary traditions in order, as the song of Zeca Afonso says to "esganar a burguesia" ("destroy the ruling class").

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