Massive demonstrations challenge anti-worker policies in Portugal, Spain

Franco and Salazar are long dead, but their spirit still moves among the ruling classes of Spain and Portugal. In both countries, workers are being put through the wringer with austerity measures that include massive cuts in wages and pensions, elimination of the social safety net, privatization of public property and attacks on labor rights. But Portuguese  and Spanish  workers are fighting back to a degree not seen in many years.

In Portugal (population 11 million) on February 11, more than 300,000 workers turned out in the historic Terreiro do Paço (Palace Square) in Lisbon to protest neo-liberal policies imposed by the coalition government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho. This government, composed of the conservative Social Democratic and People’s parties, was elected in June 2011 when voters abandoned the ruling Socialist Party of then Prime Minister Jose Socrates en masse, as a protest against its own austerity polities. (In Portugal, the Socialist Party represents what would be called social democracy in other countries; the Social Democratic Party is a right wing party). The new government merely intensified those policies. The result has been extreme suffering for millions of Portuguese, as wages and pensions have been slashed, thousands of public sector workers have been laid off and the safety net shredded, all quid pro quo for a projected new $103 million European Union organized bailout.

The mass demonstration on the 11th was initiated by General Federation of Portuguese Workers-National Inter-union Coordinator (CGTP-IN) but also supported by other labor, youth and citizens’ organizations.

Armenio Carlos, Secretary General of the CGTP and a member of the Central Committee of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), has demanded that Portugal’s national debt be renegotiated, and that the austerity measures be cancelled.. The PCP summarized the immediate goals of the struggle as follows:

“Better wages, defense of rights, against the closing of enterprises, payment of back wages … against unjust and illegal against irregular [employment] and deregulation, against increased work hours, against making firing easier, for an increase in the minimum wage, for a development of the productive sector, for universal and free public services, against privatization and attacks on the transport sector, for Portugal’s future” 

The CGTP is calling for a general strike on March 22.

In Spain (population 46 million) the dynamics are now similar. Although Spain did not have as big a sovereign debt proportional to its Gross Domestic Product as Portugal, it had been suffering from a very high unemployment rate (now more than 22 percent). The social democratic government of former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) began to implement austerity measures imposed on the country by international monopoly capital. This led to the electoral drubbing of the Socialist Workers’ Party on November 20 of last year, with the conservative People’s Party winning an absolute legislative majority and its leader, Mariano Rajoy, taking over the prime minister’s office. Rajoy has taken his victory as a mandate to roll back a wide range of progressive laws, including ones regarding regional autonomy for ethnic minority areas, secularization of the school curriculum and reproductive rights. Now, workers’ rights are the target.

The labor reform, decreed on February 10, contains almost everything big bosses would dream of. It will be much easier to fire people, because employers found to have fired people illegally will have to pay their victims much less in back remuneration (33 days maximum instead of 45). It will be easier for employers to modify conditions of work in their own favor. Workers on long-term contracts will be in danger of being replaced by younger workers. People receiving unemployment compensation will be forced to do volunteer community service. All this is being done under the pretext of creating new job opportunities for the unemployed, although most observers think the result will be more unemployment, not less. 

When he announced the labor reforms, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy quipped, “This will cost me a general strike”; a remark now gleefully quoted by the Spanish left and trade unions.. On Sunday, February 20, an estimated one million people hit the streets in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and 53 other Spanish cities to protest the labor law “reforms”. In Spain, there was unity between unions of the CCOO (Workers’ Commissions), close to the United Left (IU) in which the Communist Party plays a major role, and those of the UGT (General Union of Workers), close to the PSOE, so both contributed to the mobilization.

In addition to the strikes and demonstrations, United Left is presenting legislation in the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, to stop Rajoy’s labor reform, according to the IU Secretary General, Cayo Lara Moya, a leading figure of the Communist Party of Spain.

However, the Spanish ruling class is threatening to crack down even harder on unions and workers. Jose Luis Feito, a leader of the main employers’ group, the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations (CEOE), said that if he had his way it would be impossible for anybody who refused a job “even if it were in Lapland” to receive unemployment compensation. 

Photo: Thousands of demonstrators march during a protest against the austerity economic measures taken by the Portuguese center-right coalition government, Feb. 11, in Lisbon. Francisco Seco/AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.