Half-million public workers strike in Portugal

By André Levy, Workers World, 18 July 2005, 10:24 PM

Portugal's Common Front of Civil Service Unions (FP), representing 700,000 public-service workers, held a one-day strike July 15 to protest pension cutbacks, a freeze in wages and higher taxes. The workers are from diverse sectors: trash collection, urban transport, hospitals and health centers, courts and the state offices in general. There was a strong response, with 75 percent participating, according to the FP, which promises the struggle will continue during the summer with new actions aimed at reversing the government´s program.

More than 85 percent of nurses had struck in June, paralyzing a number of hospitals and health centers, to protest an increase in the retirement age. Tens of thousand of civil service workers had marched through Lisbon to the Parliament on June 17, calling the new prime minister, José Sócrates, a liar, contesting the government's aggressive measures and demanding it negotiate with their unions. Then, on June 22, even security personnel—including police officers, the national guard and the maritime police—hit the streets against the government measures.

A new day of protest is planned for July 28, when Parliament will discuss a proposed increase in the retirement age as well as health benefit reform for the security forces.

This strike wave, especially of government workers, may be surprising since the present government was elected just this past February, but the Socialist Party (PS) government has failed to deliver on its electoral promises. It has not satisfied the deep desire for change and socio-economic improvements expressed in what was an election debacle for the right-wing parties.

In addition, the government has repeatedly tried to create divisions and alienate workers who are simply struggling to defend their rights. During a recent teachers´ strike, which took place in the exam period, the government accused the teachers of harming students and families. This attack merely revealed the true face of this government, which uses slander freely while attacking worker rights.

Electoral defeat of right-wing parties

It has been only three decades since the overthrow of fascism on April 25, 1974. During the last couple of decades, the Portuguese government was formed either by the PS or the openly pro-capitalist Socialist-Democrat Party (PSD), occasionally in coalition with the rightist Popular Party (CDS/PP).

Despite this alternation, it was an uninterrupted period of right-wing, neoliberal policies, obedient to the directives imposed by the European Union (EU). This has meant a gradual erosion of the most progressive social, economic and political measures implemented shortly after the 1974 revolution.

The previous legislature and PSD-CDS/PP coalition government entered a period of crisis when Prime Minister Manuel Durão Barroso assumed the position of president of the European Commission. The succeeding government, led by Santana Lopes, was wrought with executive blundering and unable to gain the confidence of workers and capital alike, forcing President Jorge Sampaio to call for early elections.

The overwhelming victory of the left-wing parties, namely an absolute majority of the vote to PS, but also an increase in parliamentary seats for both the Communist Party (PCP) and Left Bloc (BE), reflected the demand for a true change in policies. A majority wanted to relieve the growing inequality between rich and poor, correct the uneven development of different regions of Portugal, and reverse the process of destruction of the backbone of the Portuguese national economy.

It did not take long, however, to realize that once in government the PS had begun to carry out a right-wing program. The government´s policies included a number of measures that clearly contradicted its electoral promises: an increase in sales tax, fuel prices, rents; attacks upon workers' rights, including the right to collective bargaining.

Instead of trying to balance the budget by taxing profits and combating tax evasion, the government opted to impose sacrifices upon those already suffering social injustice and exploitation.

PS gov't tries to divide working class

Claiming it was faced with a budget deficit much larger than expected (6.8 percent), and much larger than members of the Euro zone are allowed (3 percent), the government argued it had no choice but to impose harsh measures. Civil servants were particularly hit hard, with the elimination of 75,000 jobs, a freeze on promotions, an increase of the retirement age to 65 years (or 40 years of service)—the second such increase in the last two years—and a limit on wage increases of 2 percent for the next four years.

Were it not enough that hard-won rights were eroded, these were referred to as civil service “privileges.' With these insults, the government was trying to divide civil servants from workers in the private sector.

Successive governments have asked for sacrifices to balance the budget, but the sacrifices are not shared equally. Despite the so-called crisis, large economic interests and financial capital continue to accumulate huge profits. The five largest banks had a 45.7-percent increase in profits in 2004. The group Sonae had a 135-percent increase in profits in the first quarter of 2005. Yet banks pay only half the corporate tax paid by small businesses.

Between 1985 and 2004, tax evasion accounted for a loss of nearly $150 billion in revenues. The government could collect $5 billion over the next three years if it ended the illegitimate privileges (and here the term is appropriate) granted to financial institutions and operations. Meanwhile, Portugal is the EU country with the lowest wages and pensions, unemployment affects more than 10 percent, or 500,000 workers, and more than 2 million of the 10.5-million population live in poverty.

What the country needs is a genuine investment in rebuilding its economic structure with respect for workers' rights.