CGTP union organisers claimed that the workers, pensioners and young people, who flooded onto the streets of Lisbon on Saturday 11 February numbered over 300,000. This would make the demo, called against the austerity policies pushed by the right-wing coalition government and Troika, the biggest workers’ march in 32 years, since the revolutionary period of the 1970s. These policies are driving the economy and society further and further down the “Greek road”, towards mass impoverishment and default. But, with a general strike now announced for 22 March it is being shown that, as in Greece, the working people will shake the system to its foundations in the fight for an alternative road.
A sea of red flags and banners set off from various points in the city centre, and converged in human sea. Chants of “alternative policies are urgently necessary”, “the struggle will continue on the streets and in the workplaces” were heard throughout, as the mood on the demonstration represented a clear shift in a more militant and determined direction. With the announcement of a new general strike, the stage is set for a period of escalated class battles.
Troika austerity accelerates social degradation
The continual release of economic and social data from last year, paints quite a clear picture, which reinforces the necessity of entering the stage of struggle. This is a picture of spiralling living standards, and an economic crisis which is worsening in tandem with the increasing levels of austerity being imposed by consecutive governments and the Troika. This is confirmed by all the fundamental indicators. Mass unemployment is worsening, with 2011 having registered twice the number of company layoffs than 2010. And on top of this, records show the real avalanche of job losses coming in the autumn / winter period, after Troika representatives had settled in. The dead end of austerity policies has even been registered by capitalist investors. 2011 saw a 25% drop in industrial orders and exports, again with a rapid acceleration of the decline in the last months of the year.
Mass unemployment and attacks on the wages and conditions of workers, with salaries cut across the board and a lengthening of the working week, are combined with rising prices of basic goods and services, such as electricity and transport. The result is a rapid and massive impoverishment, which threatens the fragile existence of the Portuguese middle class. The media has reported on how price rises implemented in the new year led to a new swathe of insolvency and bankruptcy, overwhelmingly hitting the former ’middle class’. The national debt support office (GAS), which provides emergency debt assistance, reported that the overwhelming majority of those seeking aid were university graduates, with an income of over 1,500 Euros a month. This process, leading to a rapid polarisation between a rich elite and an impoverished majority is the spectre which awaits the mass of Portuguese people on the basis of Troika capitalist rule.
However, the most striking illustration of the failure of last year’s bailout package is the situation regarding the debt itself. After almost 1 year of brutal austerity with the aim of reducing the debt and calming the debt markets, Portugal now pays over 3 times the risk premium on its debt than it did before the “bailout” was agreed! The plan upon which the bailout was agreed, with an expected return of Portugal to the financial markets in 2013, has been blown to smithereens by the disastrous impact of these policies. All serious ’independent’ commentators accept that these targets are fanciful, and take for granted the necessity of going back to the Troika for another bailout.
Government sources are eager to deny such a prospect, but these denials are fairly reminiscent of those of Socrates, the previous Socialist Party Prime Minister, who denied the need for a bailout in the first place right up until the last minute, insisting that “everything was under control”. In fact, so ridiculous is the current government’s position, that it has not even been able to keep the truth from escaping its own ranks! Eduardo Catroga, himself a negotiator appointed by the government to deal with the Troika, admitted weeks ago that “at least another 20 billion” was necessary in order to meet obligations. At a recent EU summit, the Portuguese Finance Minister was caught on camera speaking with his German counterpart, who assured him that a “renegotiation” of the package would be possible, once the situation with Greece had became more stable.
How long will it be before the game is up? A 2nd bailout, inevitably attached to even greater austerity would even more clearly push Portugal down the Greek road, with even more miserable conditions imposed on the majority. When the Troika arrived initially, despite massive opposition, there were some hopes that financial aid would allow the worst to be overcome. A layer of people who remembered the IMF’s intervention in 1979, which preceded Portugal’s entry to the European Union, and despite brutal attacks on the working class, gave way to a period of so-called prosperity, had hopes that the Troika’s intervention could have similar eventual results. But these hopes, and the hopes hammered into people since that period by capitalism to the effect that a new era of prosperity of Portugal in Europe had dawned, are being crushed. The reality, that rather than help the ’promotion’ of Portugal into the EU “premier league”, the capitalist EU merely cemented the dominance of the big European powers, is settling in, leading to an explosive mixture in consciousness.
New social movements
The crisis has not been wanting for manifestations of social unrest. Under the misnamed Partido Socialista government, led by José Sócrates in 2010, a set of three packages of austerity measures, notoriously named “Stability and Growth Plans” (PECs) were implemented, which in reality, sped up the process of crisis and impoverishment. The growing pace of attacks and the huge anger amongst the working class led to a general strike in November 2010 which paralysed the economy. But it was followed by a period of demobilisation of the movement by the trade union leaders. Then, in March of 2011, over 300,000 youths exploded onto the streets in the ’Geracao a Rasca’ protests, which, organised through facebook and social networks, were a prelude to the European indignados’ movements. This movement showed a new layer of activists, mostly young people, driven into struggle under the pressures of events.
The fall of Jose Sócrates’ government and the elections which followed seemed to put a temporary break on these new movements, but the new coalition government of right-wing parties soon faced new mass oposition. The ’15-O Platform’ mobilised 100,000 young people in October and has given way to the continued, although lower scale, activity of various social movements, such as the Portuguese indignados, Occupy, Anonymous etc.
Part of the basis for the explosion onto the surface of these new social movements was the failure of the trade union movement to profile itself as a dependable and democratic fighting force, after the experience of the 2010 general strike. However, the re-entry of the trade union movement onto the stage with the 24 November 2011 general strike of massive proportions, followed by the election of a new leadership of the CGTP (main union federation) which is seen as more militant, and Saturday’s demonstration, the organised workers’ movement seems to have re-taken the momentum. However, the fundamental tasks posed by the new social movements, of opening up the unions on the basis of democratic control from below, unionising the young ’precariat’ and the building of a united movement of workers, youth and the unemployed, remain unsolved.
Another expression of the unstable situation and unrest has been the consistent rifts in the state apparatus, with army staff and sergeants’ associations in open conflict with the government over cuts and changes to practice. A recent war of words took place between the Minister of Defence and the sergeant’s association, when the former demanded that those in the armed forces who wanted to protest “look for another career”. This was replied to with a defiant open letter from the sergeants’ union, in defence of the right to protest. The trade union and social movements must support all attempts by soldiers and sergeants’ organisations to resist the attacks of the government, and make appeals for them to join in a united movement, including the defence of their right to take strike action. Such an approach could be vital in the coming period of class confrontations, to weaken the capacity of the capitalists to implement their brutality by force.
The government’s and Portuguese capitalists’ shameless attempts to isolate Greece and portray the Portuguese situation as completely different are reminiscent of a slave who flogs his friend to please his master! The capitalist press are full of hypocritical attacks on the Greek people “who borrowed more than they could pay back” etc. One of their boasts has been that unlike Greece, they have established a “social pact”, on the basis of which the Troika deal can be implemented. But they forget to mention that this “pact” does not include the biggest trade union federation in the country! As opposed to the smaller UGT federation, the CGTP has refused to sign up to this ’Tripartite’ deal. Reports now indicate that there is a substantial movement of UGT members and rank and file leaders towards the CGTP, as it becomes seen as a more militant point of reference. This was followed by the election of Arménio Carlos as new CGTP secretary. Arménio began his leadership with a series of fiery speeches, and there are hopes amongst the CGTP’s rank and file that he will implement a new strategy, distinct from that of sporadic strikes and demonstrations to let off steam, pursued by the previous Carvalho da Silva leadership.
The following up of last Saturday’s mass demonstration with the announcement of a general strike on 22 March is a good start. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Portugal) , while welcoming the opportunity which the new leadership represents to fight for an alternative policy, demands that the class struggle be democratically controlled from below, not leaving the top leadership with the unchallenged power to call and call off actions and mobilisations. The general strike should be democratically built for by mass assemblies and strike committees in workplaces, communities universities and schools, with the drawing up of a plan to defeat the government and its policies, involving a series of general strikes of escalating duration, linked to alternative policies, such as the non-payment of the debt to the bankers and speculators and for massive investment of society’s wealth in jobs and socially useful projects. Such bodies should also be open to UGT members who want to participate in strike action, and to non-union workers.
For a political answer to the blackmail
SR members intervened on Saturday’s demonstration selling copies of our newspaper and seeking to build support for our ideas. Now more than ever, a clear political answer to the blackmail of the capitalist parties and Troika is necessary. However, it is tragic at this crucial stage that the leaders of the mass left parties continue to confine their demands to a “renegotiation” of the debt. But on the basis of what re-negotiation would the debt be acceptable, or sustainable?? Look at Greece, where the debt has been renegotiated, with a 70% “write off” of private sector debt. This goes much further than the type of renegotiation demanded by Francisco Louca of the Left Bloc at the time of the Troika intervention, when he called for renegotiation to lower interest rates. And even this has done nothing and will do nothing to reverse the process of devastation in Greece.
From the organised working class movement and the left parties which should represent it, there can be no other position than a repudiation of the debt. With the nationalisation of the banks and key sectors of the economy under democratic control, we could develop an emergency plan to combat the crisis and the poverty spiral. On the basis of mass struggles and of campaigning for such a positive programme, a united front of the left parties (especially the PCP and Left Bloc) could popularise this programme, and the alternative of a workers’ government to transform Portuguese society along socialist lines.
To those who say that this would turn the Euro powers against us, we say that the international offensive of the capitalists and EU must be met with working class internationalism. International action and struggle is key to any alternative to the current crisis. The upcoming mobilisations in Southern Europe, with a general strike in Italy on 9 March, a brewing battle over new labour reform legislation in Spain, and the ongoing turmoil in Greece, must be coordinated with the movement in Portugal. A coordinated general strike in these countries would transform the situation, give confidence to the working class and display the power of the workers, young people and unemployed when mobilised internationally. On the basis of such a power, an alternative Europe of the workers can be built to the capitalist EU.