The beginning of 2023 saw an escalation in the class struggle against the Socialist Party government in Portugal. With the deepest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s, the Socialist Party is trying to impose austerity and war economy costs on the working class, with the help of trade union bureaucracies.
The Portuguese workers’ struggle is fueled by the same international crisis that has driven millions of workers across Europe to protest against rising prices and falling wages. In France, this led to a direct confrontation between the working class and Macron’s government.
In Portugal, strikes spread across the country and to almost all sectors of the working class. In the first quarter of the year, strikes increased by 148.1 percent in the private sector and 112.9 percent in the public sector compared to 2022. They have continued into the second quarter, as union bureaucracies seek to end one strike after another.
Portuguese hospital technicians and assistants went on strike on 19 May, demanding better working conditions and recognition of their special expertise in the career advancement system. According to the unions, more than 90% of the sector’s 30,000 workers joined the strike, not to mention those on whom the Socialist Party government imposed a reactionary minimum service.
The Portuguese Nurses Association has been subject to a minimum obligation to serve. He is now trying to break up the struggle by announcing two new strike dates, June 28 and 30, more than a month after the first day of the strike.
Portuguese public sector pharmacists will go on strike on June 22, 27 and 30 to protest low wages and precarious working conditions.
A call to strike was widely followed by judicial officials, paralyzing more than 10,000 court cases. Last month, 100% of EasyJet’s cabin crew also went on strike. More than 380 flights have been cancelled.
Railway workers will strike on Wednesday to demand an increase in their wages and working conditions. Rail network operator Comboios de Portugal (CP) has warned of “serious disruptions” to rail traffic between 30 May and 1 June due to the strike.
Strikes in the transport sector are increasing throughout Europe, which indicates the enormous weight of this section of the working class. This movement includes: the ground handling strike at Italian airports scheduled for 4 June, following the 24-hour general strike on 26 May that affected bus, tram and metro services; Air and train strikes in France, as part of the major June 6 demonstration against Macron’s pension cuts; the strike by French air traffic controllers in March; exit of security personnel from Glasgow Airport in Great Britain; and Spanish pilots on 29 and 30 May, then on 1 and 2 June.
The Confederation of Inspection, Inspection and Border Inspectors (SIIFF) called off the strike of the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF) inspectors after the success of the May 22 strike at Humberto Delgado Airport in Lisbon, which 100% joined. of workers.
The SS tried to dispel the effect of a strike that would have paralyzed all Portuguese airports and border crossings, including the sea stations. He planned strikes on different days in May and June, each at different airports around the country.
José Luis Carneiro, Portugal’s Minister of the Interior, thanked the unions, saying that the lifting of the strike “was the result of considerable work within the government, but also of an in-depth dialogue with the representative structures of SEF workers”. But he issued a warning: “This long and arduous journey is far from over.”
The explosion of strikes is explained by the increasingly difficult conditions faced by the Portuguese workers. In 2022, inflation has surpassed records with an increase of 7.8 percent and the forecast for this year is 5.4 percent, figures that have not been reached in the past 30 years. The situation is much worse for workers, as food prices have increased by 20 percent over the past year, while real estate prices have increased by 18.7 percent. Rents are up more than 20 percent, and by 35 percent in big cities like Lisbon and Porto.
The fundamental problem facing workers is the role of trade union bureaucracies, in particular the General Confederation of Workers (UGT), linked to the PS, and the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP), linked to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). They suppress the united economic and political offensive of the working class against the government of the Socialist Party and the Portuguese capitalist state.
Last year, the General Confederation of Workers signed an agreement with major companies and the PS government for an increase of up to 3.6 percent in the public sector and 5 percent in the private sector, well below inflation. The CGTP did not sign this agreement, but although it led most of the strikes, it did all it could to isolate them, calling them in different sectors and on different dates, in order to prevent a united struggle.
The CGTP has now called for partial strikes on June 28, in a move to release pressure and halt protests over the summer period, hoping they will evaporate in the fall.
Dissatisfaction with these unions led to the creation in 2018 of a teachers’ union called STOP, which has been involved in teachers’ strikes since November. Although he defines himself as “truly democratic” and says he opposes signing agreements “without democratically listening to teachers first”, he has not proposed an escalation of the teachers’ struggle nor a unified action with other sectors.
Dissatisfaction with the role of unions leads teachers to seek organization outside of them, underlining the objective need to form rank committees.
A 23-year-old teacher said it was “never seen before… It was a very democratic moment. We have the feeling, this time, the fighting is in the hands of the teachers and not in the hands of the unions.” Another teacher said, “There was no compromise with one federation, but between all, because discontent is real, and people think the demands are fair and therefore we will not stop hitting us.”
Terrified by the rise of militancy, the pseudo-left party Bloco de Esquerdas (BE) and the Stalinist People’s Congress tried to drive the movement into a dead end through a policy of pressure on the PS government. They have created the “Juste la Vie” movement, which they present as an independent citizenship platform, to call on the PS government to tackle accelerating inflation.
These powers, however, have been widely discredited. The first “Juste la Vie” demonstration on February 25 only gathered a few thousand people, despite the great publicity provided by the media. We are far from the demonstration of 150,000 people in defense of teachers on the same dates.
The reasons are not hard to find. From 2015 to 2021, these elements supported the austerity measures of the Socialist Party government, while cooperating with unions to prevent any response from the working class. In the 2022 elections, they both saw their electoral support drop. The most recent polls have given them historically low percentages of the vote, just 5 percent each.
The danger is that, under these circumstances, the far right will capitalize on discrediting organizations that the capitalist media falsely portrays as “left”. Funded by sections of the Portuguese ruling class, the neo-fascist Shiga party won 13 percent of the vote, more than the Bloc and PCP combined.
Austerity measures and corruption scandals caused the Socialist Party government to decline in popularity, paving the way for snap elections and the possibility of fascists entering Sisi’s right-wing Democratic Party government. This will be the first time that the far right returns to power after the fall of the Estado Novo dictatorship in Portugal in the Carnation Revolution of 1974.
The main lesson to be drawn from this wave of strikes across Europe is that, to embark on the counterattack, workers must coordinate their struggles independently of the corporate union bureaucracy and in political rebellion against it. To facilitate this development, workers should set up collective strike committees at every workplace. These committees must be independent from the trade union body, both organizationally and politically. This is the only way to mobilize the working class in a broader struggle against the war economy, austerity, fascist regimes and the police.
(Article first published in English on June 2, 2023)