Portuguese Workers vs. Austerity

Against the Current, No. 158, May/June 2012

Joana Mortágua

THE GENERAL STRIKE of March 22, 2012 was the second called by the Portuguese trade unions since the IMF/European Commission/European Central Bank (“Troika”) intervened a year ago to impose austerity measures that almost forced the country to its knees. This is the third strike since the financial crisis took hold.

Austerity is a strategy to attack our wages and benefits, and transfer part of them straight into the financial markets through the public debt. Rather than a redistributive tax policy that builds a strong network of social services, tax revenues now feed financial speculation. Thus we bailed out private banks like the Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock in the United Kingdom, the Irish banks, IKB and Commerzbank in Germany, Ethias, Fortis and KBC in Belgium, ABN Amro in The Netherlands and BPN in Portugal.

At first the attack was most intense in the peripheral countries of the Euro Zone — Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain — as the U.S. rating agencies of Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch lowered their ratings and drove up the rate of interest to be repaid on government bonds.

As the economy shrinks, the only way to put a brake on these destructive policies is to build a social majority through protests and strikes led by the workers’ movement. Yet these actions are different from those that took place before the Troika’s intervention. Today they are not against some specific measure, or only for a certain economic objective. The resistance is a combination of a mass struggle, deeply political and without an immediate result or victory.

In this era technocracy imposes the interests of capital brutally, thrusting aside any pretense of democracy and plundering the economy. A new political cycle has arisen, and we now have to fight not only the government but the whole conservative rhetoric about “the inevitable” budget cuts, “the inevitable” growth of unemployment and “the inevitable” impoverishment.

In the name of democracy we refuse the international financial intervention and the renegotiation of the debt. We fight against the Goldman Sachs agenda and technocratic takeover.

Attack of the Troika

Portugal’s main trade union federations — both the CGTP and UGT — called the first general strike on November 24, 2010 in opposition to the Socialist Party government that was approving the 2011 budgetary law (known as the 3rd Stability and Growth Program), including wage cuts and tax increases. Three million people came out on strike (out of a population of 10 million).

A series of sectoral strikes and demonstrations broke out around the country during the first months of 2011. On Facebook, young “precarious” workers [i.e. without secure employment — ed.] and students called for an indignados protest and more than 300,000 occupied the streets of Lisbon and Oporto on March 12. A week later a union protest followed.

The government resigned a few days later when the parliament refused to approve the 4th Stability and Growth program. As they left office, the Socialist Party — along with the support of two right-wing parties — gave in to the pressure of the financial markets and asked for financial intervention. Two months later the same right-wing parties won the general election and took office.

By the beginning of 2012, and as a result of the austerity measures imposed by the Troika and implemented by the government, the official unemployment rate in Portugal stood at 14%, with youth unemployment at 35.4%. Tax revenues fell 7.9%.

What We Have Learned

Over the past three years there has been a wave of general strikes in several European countries: the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Ireland, Belgium, twice in France and Italy, three times in Spain, strong sectoral strikes in Germany, and 18 times in Greece. Greece has taught us an important lesson: this struggle will be long and tough.

Every now and then some sectors of the workers’ movement engages in conciliatory strategies. This has been true for the UGT, which is linked to the Portuguese Socialist Party. It did not call for the last general strike and actually approved the last austerity program. Such divisions in the movement will only be solved by the continuing struggle of those who are committed to the Europe-wide fight for employment, wages and public spending.

In this context it is not possible to believe any one strike will result in a final victory. But each is a small action aiming toward the final heart attack of the austerity regime. The resistance is a long path, but it builds a broad workers’ movement and a democratic left political alternative.

May/June 2012, ATC 158