Wave of protests sweeps Portugal

Portuguese capitalism is one of the sick men of Europe. The "cure" the capitalists have in mind involves severe attacks on wages and working conditions. But now a backlash is taking place with huge strikes and demonstrations shaking the country, which is also producing radicalisation on the left.

Portugal is in crisis and has been for seven years. This can be seen not only in the measly indexes of GDP growth (always below the European average, registering even negative growth) but also in the increase in unemployment, which is more than likely higher than 10%, and massive increase in casualisation of labour, which already affects half the workers under the age of 35.

PortugalConsequently, after the revision of the Labour Code by the right-wing five years ago, a new initiative of the "Socialist" government is under way - a new offensive against the rights of the workers and their ability to organise trade unions. This attack comes under the form of so-called "flexi-security", which the workers rightly call "flexi-sacking". The offensive is also reflected in the wage freeze and the inevitable loss in the purchasing power of the working class: last year saw the biggest fall in the last twenty years. Meanwhile, the cost of living has not stopped rising.

Similarly, the welfare state has come under intense attack: an increase in the age of retirement, transforming the education system into a system for the elite, privatisation of healthcare, the erosion of social security, etc. It is a never-ending series of cuts and attacks; in a context in which one out of every four Portuguese people lives below the poverty level.

Parallel to this worsening of the living conditions of the masses, we see an orgy of profits on the part of the big capitalists, the winners being those in the financial sector (banks, insurance companies, stock exchange...) whose profits have risen by 37% in the last year. The average salary for company directors that trade on the stock market has tripled in the last few years. Each director of the Banco Comercial Portugués receives three million euros annually, while the minimum wage is not even 400 euros a month. Portugal has the widest social differentiation of all the European countries.

Protests spread

Obviously, the capitalists' "recipe to overcome the crisis" had the effect of radicalising the working class. In general, the Socialist government (which has a solid majority in parliament) has followed on the path established by the right wing when it was in government between 2002 and 2005. (It was removed from power in early elections in 2005).

For the first eighteen months of Socialist Party government, the working class, in a state of resignation, accepted this continuation of the "sacrifices for the crisis" which was made even worse by the financial policies that the European Central Bank had imposed. But after eighteen months, the workers are now saying "enough" in an increasingly loud voice.

The effect has been an increase in struggles and protests that have not been seen for 20 years, since the difficult times of the "normalisation" that followed the defeat of the Carnation Revolution. In the last year there was a general strike on May 30, 2007, the trade union demonstration with more than 200,000 workers participating during the European Summit in Lisbon on April 18 of the same year, and recently the teachers' demonstration on March 8, 2008, with some 100,000 participants (almost two in three teachers were present!).

The Communist Party, despite not having an alternative to the capitalist system, but because of the roots it has amongst the workers' and popular movements, has experienced growth which was visible in the Communist demonstration of 50,000 people that took place a few weeks ago in Lisbon. This is further undeniable proof of the militant mood of the working class.

Future Perspectives

In general, the crisis that Portugal has suffered for the last few years is far from over. With ups and downs, the next few years will see a sharpening in the conflicts and a further radicalisation of the working class.

Another significant fact is that because of the magnitude of the protests and the pressure from the rank and file, there has been a crystallisation of a "left wing" inside the Socialist Party around the MP and socialist poet Manuel Alegre. In 2006, he put himself forward for elections without the support of the party, which had its own official candidate, and obtained 20% of the votes in the presidential elections, ahead of Mario Soares, the founder of the Portuguese Socialist Party. Alegre has no clear idea of what he wants (beyond a return to the "good old days") but he has capitalised on the discontent which is widespread amongst the social base of support of the Socialist Party.

Even so, all this is only a pale reflection of the deep convulsions and transformations that the traditional organisations of the working class - the trade unions and parties - will undergo with the return of the workers' struggles in Portugal and throughout the world.

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