Portuguese public workers battle austerity plan

LISBON, Portugal — A two-day general strike brought this nation to a standstill Nov. 9-10 as 750,000 public workers protested the government’s plan to impose vicious wage and benefit cutbacks at the insistence of the Brussels-based European Union.

This reporter and more than 100 other participants in the ninth annual Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties arrived in Lisbon as the struggle was raging.

We were bused to a solidarity rally in the town of Almata the night of Nov. 11 to express solidarity with these workers and all other working people in struggle around the world. A capacity crowd jammed a theater, waving red flags, singing and chanting.

At issue was the national budget and union-busting labor legislation that Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates was attempting to ram through Parliament. While the workers picketed their job sites across the country, the 14 members of Parliament from the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and Green Party denounced the draconian legislation on the floor of Parliament. The two parties have joined in what they call the Unitarian Democratic Coalition, which garnered nearly 600,000 votes in 2005, electing 12 Communist and two Green MPs and 203 local officials.

In an interview at PCP headquarters, Ameri Costa, a member of the PCP labor department, told the World that an estimated 80 percent of public employees — transit workers, school workers, health care and most national and local government agency workers — joined the walkout.

On top of that, oil workers struck Nov. 2-3, idling all the nation’s oil refineries. Lisbon’s subway system was stopped Oct. 30 and again Nov. 7-9, protesting the government’s drive to privatize the public sector as well as the 15.7 percent utility rate increase imposed so far this year.

Costa charged that the government seeks to strip Portuguese workers of all the gains they won in the April 1974 “carnation revolution” that overthrew the Salazar fascist dictatorship. “The government wants to change all the labor legislation, the social functions assigned to the state which we won in the April Revolution,” he said. “They want to push through new legislation that is against public workers, against workers in general and against our national interests.”

The government proposed a 1.5 percent salary increase even though inflation is over 3 percent. Public employees have not had a raise in eight years. All career promotions would be frozen in the Socrates plan. Co-payments for health care would be increased, and for the first time retirees would be forced to pay 1 percent of their pensions for health care.

The government is also demanding restructuring to eliminate 100,000 workers, and outright termination of 187 government agencies and institutes.

“Of course these policies are carried out at the insistence of the European Union in Brussels,” Costa said. “The Portuguese government is blindly obedient to Brussels and their demand for austerity policies even though it has a drastic negative impact on the Portuguese economy. It has greatly reduced the living standards of the Portuguese people. It has limited greatly investment in the public sector so Portugal’s economic development is very, very weak. There are 2 million people in Portugal who live in terrible poverty. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider. The number of unemployed is rising.”

He added, “The government calls these cutbacks ‘reforms,’ but in fact they are ‘counter-reforms.’”

Popular support for the general strike was strong, Costa said. “We verified a much greater sympathy and understanding by the population. People put off visits to hospitals and clinics and other social services. Even the press displayed much more understanding with little hostile commentary. Most of the media coverage was sympathetic.”

One reason is the energetic work of the PCP, which played a leading role in mobilizing a march and rally of 100,000 in Lisbon Oct. 12 to protest the government’s austerity plan. “People came by bus from all over Portugal,” Costa said. “The party must work to create conditions so that this struggle will continue to grow bigger and broader,” he said. “Many trade union leaders now believe that a nationwide general strike of all workers in Portugal is possible.”

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