On 27 June, Portugal lived its 5th general strike in two and a half years. It was the fourth general strike against the 2-year old right-wing coalition government (PSD/CDS), and only the 4th since the revolution of April 1974 to unite both Trade Union federations (majority CGTP and smaller UGT) in action.
It came as the culmination of a rising tide of struggle over the last months, which passed through the unprecedented mass demonstrations of 2 March, and countless strikes and protests in individual sectors and workplaces. With this strike, Portuguese workers and youth, as they have done without fail, dispelled the doubts of the cynics and faint of heart as to their determination to resist the savagery of the Troika and its puppet government of PSD and CDS (traditional right wing and Christian Democrat parties). Over the last years, any and every serious opportunity to resist and mobilise presented to the Portuguese people has been enthusiastically taken up by the masses, who despite the grinding difficulty of day to day life and impoverishment display an inspirational reserve of determination and will to struggle. Now, the decisive question is whether this enormous display of power and energy, as on previous occasions, will be allowed to dissipate into nothing, or can serve as the point of departure for a struggle which continues and escalates until achieving its objectives: the sacking of the Troika’s government and the opening up of a new chapter in the country’s history.
The strength of the strike and the struggles that led to it
The general strike was yet again a success in terms of generalized paralysation. While no official general figures have yet been given, analysts point to an overall participation of over 80%. Official figures for individual companies in the key sectors of the economy (transport, health, education, industry etc) all show a stoppage between 70% and 100%, featuring a strong participation of the private sector. This success can be explained not only by the huge austerity imposed in the last period, but also by the rising wave of struggles in the last month. Starting with a mass demonstration of the 25th of May, the last weeks also saw the election of a new leadership in the UGT based on a more radicalised mood and a certain (limited) break from the extreme collaboration-ism of the outgoing Proenca leadership. The new leadership of Carlos Silva called, initially, for a public sector general strike on 27 June, which was then followed by the CGTP and transformed into a joint General Strike.
Also key was the struggle of the Teachers, one of the most attacked sector of public servants, who waged a very successful strike during the period of evaluations and exams, culminating in a mass demonstration, the biggest since 2008 when the country of shaken by a huge Teachers’ struggle. This struggle succeeded in making the government retreat in the most hated attacks, and this provided a boost in confidence, key to make the general strike of last Thursday a huge success. Also important was also the struggle of the postal workers from CTT, against the closure of hundreds of offices and privatizations, who succeeded in keeping open a number of offices through strikes and occupations over the last weeks. It was, again, one of the strongest sectors during the general strike, with a paralysation of around 94% according to the CGTP.
Disappointment of demonstrations. Potential for mass demonstrations during general strikes
Unfortunately, the demonstrations seen on Thursday didn’t reflect the true strength of the strike. Is it because workers, unemployed, youth and pensioners are not mobilized for this kind of fight? No. What failed here was the lack of a serious mobilization on behalf of the trade union movement and the Left.
In fact, layers inside in the trade union burocracy have opposed for years the calling of demonstrations on strike days, saying “there are not the conditions”. In 2011, for the first time, a demonstration was called for the day of a general strike, and largely because of the pressure from the new social movements, which coincided with the pressure from the bases within the unions. Still, these actions were never taken seriously, and never saw a really solid mobilization.
But why is it so important, and possible, to organize mass demonstrations of the days of general strikes? Why is it so important to combine that with strong picket lines in the workplaces? A strike is not a holiday, it’s a day of struggle and action, a day when workers get together and gain consciousness of their united strength. So, for a worker to stay a home during a strike day is a poorer experience which will not help him or her to develop their consciousness of the collective power of their class, so essential to the success of the struggle. On the other hand, if that worker takes part in the picket line at his/her workplace, where he stands together with his colleagues to defend his strike, and in the afternoon takes part in a mass demonstration where he can feel the collective strength of his/her class, it is something completely different. The demonstration is also a time to give a fighting and generalized visibility to the strike towards the whole of society, and a place where the workers demands (including against the conservative plans of their union leaders) can be give a loud and fighting expression.
Organizing mass demonstrations on strike days is therefore not only possible, with a serious mobilization – where transport workers can organize themselves to bring the people to the demonstration – but also desirable. Examples from other countries like Greece or Spain (where over 4 million people are said to have marched during the general strike on 14 November 2012) are evidence of that. Now we need to make that clear in our trade union movement.
For a plan of action to bring down the government of the Troika. What to do next?
The general strike of 27 June cannot be an end in itself. Despite being the 5th in less than 3 years, by itself it will not, as with previous occasions, be able to accomplish its main objective: the fall of the government. Therefore, it should be part of a Plan of Action that maintains the mobilisation, spreading the struggles, linking the thousands of local and sectorial battles on a national and international scale, radicalizing them and basing them on the fight for a clear alternative to the austerity of the governments of the Troika. This strike was also set out from the rest for the reason that, at least on the part of the CGTP, it was called on the basis of the slogan to bring down the government. However, if the CGTP, which organises the most decisive power in Portuguese society (the power of the majority of the organised working class) is for the fall of the government, then the government should not be able to remain in power. But for this to happen, a plan of action must be developed in order to give this power a full expressio and make the government’s life impossible.
Such a plan needs to be democratically developed by the trade union and social movements with the active support and participation of the Left, through public assemblies and elected committees, in the workplaces, factories, schools and communities. These assemblies and committees should work side by side with the trade union movement, and include its activists. Such a plan of action must include not only strikes – including longer general strikes, or 48 hours for example – and mass demonstrations, but also other, more radical, forms of struggle that were used in working class history and are being used internationally, like occupations of workplaces and factories facing closure, boycotts of unfair taxes and street blockades. It should only stop when the government falls, the Troika is expelled from the country and an alternative government, of and for the workers and youth government replaces it. As a next step in such plan a new general strike, of 48 hours, should be immediately prepared and mobilized for.
We know the difficulty of organizing longer strike action, and the toll it takes on worker’s wages, but the alternative – letting the government continue to rule – is a far worse option; therefore we can’t allow it to do so. This also raises the issue of trade unions creating fighting funds to sustain workers and their families during strikes, which will be key to the success of such actions.
For a united front of the left parties, trade unions and social movements. For a government of working people and the youth
The government is very unstable, with its social base of support practically gone. It’s an illegal government that rules against the Constitution it swore to defend. However, the struggle to bring it down raises immediately the question of what kind of government should replace it. The so called “Socialist” Party (PS) is clearly no alternative, it signed the Memorandum with the Troika in the first place and defends the very same class interests as the current government does, and as the rest of the old international "social democracy", is a party with “socialist” facade but with neo-liberal policies. We need a government of working people and youth that rips the Memorandum to shreds and cancels all austerity and starts to implement policies in the interests of the majority, refusing to pay the debt and bringing the wealth, the banks and key sectors of the economy into public ownership to be democratically planned in order to serve the recuperation of the economy and living standards. Such government is possible. The Left – Communist Party and the Left Bloc – has been consistently scoring over 20% in recent polls. Together, and based on the struggle of the trade unions and social movements, it has the potential to become a force that can fight for government. Such an United Front, based on a socialist programme that can truly answer to the crisis of capitalism, would galvanize society, and give a concrete perspective of a real alternative to workers and poor in Portugal.