THE ECONOMIC CRISIS OF 2008 and the brutal austerity over the workers that followed, opened a deep process of political and union reorganization in Portugal.
By Maria Silva (Em Luta) – International Courier 22 (Special Edition on Europe)
The rise to power of the PS government, supported by the PCP and the BE – the so-called Contraption – helped intensify the experience of the labor movement with its reformist leadership. The organizing process did not begin with the economic crisis. The fall of the Berlin Wall (and its impact on the PCP) or the rise of neoliberalism (and its impact on the PS) were essential for the emergence of the Bloco de Esquerda (Left block ,1999), which became a new reformist party of reference in the country.
But the economic crisis and the intervention of the Troika in Portugal meant a new level of attacks on workers and experience with their leadership. The UGT (directed by the PS) participated directly in the agreements for the sale of rights. The CGTP, the main trade union central led by the PCP, did not organize a fight plan to defeat the attacks. It became visible that bureaucratic and bargaining unionism was not willing to bring the fighting to the end.
The contraption experience deepened the reorganization. In 2015, the rise of the PS government, sustained by the PCP and the BE, led to a quality leap in the commitment of those two parties to the plans of the government and the bosses. At the beginning of the government the illusion prevailed.
But the maintenance of austerity and the aggravation of workers’ living conditions led to important conflicts that directly put the government and the traditional leadership of the trade union movement in check. That was the case in the social movements, particularly in the struggle of the black movement against racism, which did not obtain any response from the PS, instead it found the opposition of the PCP, and a BE that claimed to defend demands such as the right to nationality but at the moment of truth it stepped back and voted with the PS, always prioritizing the reconciliation with the government institutions, to the mobilization of the movement. However, it is in the trade union and labor movement that we find the main struggles, which are worth seeing again to better understand the process.
Volkswagen-Autoeuropa: against mandatory weekend work
In 2014, Volkswagen decided to expand the business and, to that end, in 2017 it imposed new schedules that made weekend work mandatory . The factory, which was already running shifts from Monday to Friday, now had a kind of continuous work, not because the service it provided could not stop but because it wanted to grow profits at the expense of workers.
The Workers’ Commission (CT), led by the BE, accepted the imposition, but was overcome by a base rebellion, which rejected in plenaries several preagreements with the administration ,and imposed a day of strike. The majority union of the sector, led by the PCP, marked the first strike, but refused to continue the fight and carry out a new strike approved by thousands of workers in well attended plenaries; both the union and PCP lost many members. The government campaigned against the “exaggerated” claims and offered daycare pay for factory workers who were willing to work on weekend.
The previous CT lost and a new one was elected, with representatives of the PCP who ended up negotiating a new pre-agreement behind the workers’ backs. In this process, a group of workers organized to make proposals in plenary for the continuity of the fight and also follow up at the judicial level against continuous work.
This process eventually forced the company to propose better conditions for continuous work, but did not defeat the imposition. The need to continue the fight and defend the workers led a sector to create a new union: the STASA.
Dock workers: hired and paid by workday in the 21st century
In the Port of Setúbal about 90% of the work was paid daily. It was against this situation that they decided to go on strike towards the end of 2018. They had the support of the independent trade union of the sector (SEAL), which guaranteed strike funds to extend it up to a month. It happens that this is the port that exports Autoeuropa cars, with direct impact on the country’s exports.
In response, the government mobilized riot police to guarantee the entry of strikebreakers hired by the port to embark the multinational’s cars. BE and PCP said they were with the longshoremen against the repression of the strike but, a few days later, they voted in favor of the budget to sustain the “strikebreaker government”. An agreement between the union and the port guaranteed stability for most dock workers and a plan for regularization of the remaining workers. The determination of the strike and the existence of an independent, democratic and combative union were fundamental in the outcome of the conflict.
Hazardous materials drivers strike
In April 2019, the country was paralyzed by a hazardous materials drivers strike, for an increase in base salary and against cuts made in overtime pay in a sector that works about 14 to 15 hours per day, but whose retirement and Medical leave was calculated only on the 630 Euro base.
Taken off guard by the force of the strike organized by an independent union, from trade union centrals, the government mediated an agreement with the employers’ association, which led to the end of the strike. In August, faced with the breach of the bosses, the drivers decided to return to the strike. The government decreed minimum services at almost 100% to prevent the impact of the strike; used the army to replace strikers, and applied the civil requisition law that forces all those summoned to go to work under threat of imprisonment.
The BE said it was against the attack on the right to strike, but did not bring any solidarity to it.
The PCP attacked the drivers’ union and the strike, saying they were giving reasons for the attack on the right to strike, instead of blaming the government. The transport federation (FECTRANS), led by the PCP, did not join the strike and instead negotiated with the employers’ association of the sector (ANTRAM) a collective contract with values well below those demanded by the fight, behind the backs of the workers. The strike ended up being lifted.
The bosses’ government and the failure of the union and political leadership
These conflicts were not the only ones, there were very important processes also in teachers and nurses, for example. All have in common the fact that strikes arise, whether from grassroots rebellions or from new unions that are not tied to traditional union centrals. In all cases, the failure of bureaucratic trade unionism and negotiation is demonstrated, unable to respond to workers’ wishes, directly betraying the struggles, and attacking strikes and strikers outside their control.
The “contraption” clearly showed that it was just one more government, administrator of the interests of employers and multinationals, in addition, brutally attacking the right to strike after the revolution of April 1974, using civil requisition three times , and using the police and army to break the workers’ strikes.
These conflicts also showed that you cannot be with the government and with the workers at the same time. BE and PCP always sided with the government and, more obviously or for lack of support, against the workers.
Labor and the political process
This process of union reorganization goes side by side with political reorganization. The fact that the last Portuguese elections have brought three new political forces to parliament (a pro-EU reform party [Livre], a liberal right-wing party [Liberal Initiative], and a populist extreme right party [Chega]) is only a distorted expression of that.
Both PCP’s trade union betrayals, in the case of Auto-Europe and of the Hazardous Materials Drivers, led to the disaffiliation and political breakdown of several of its militants and the crisis of this party during the contraption , are another expression of the same phenomenon. In that sense, this is a phenomenon clearly marked by polarization, left and right, and it is clear the need for dispute and a strategy in this process.
It is essential to fight against the newly elected government and unite the various struggles. For this, it is necessary that we are not attached to representatives who sell workers rights, we need an alternative trade unionism, whose principle is the independence from governments and employers, and workers’ democracy. The Trade Union House, bringing together dock workers, Autoeuropa workers, teachers, public employees, airports, among others, has served as a small and initial pole of support for these struggles and their coordination.
But it is clear that that is not enough, because there is also an exhaustion of the social pact (led by the bourgeoisie and executed by the PS and the PCP) that defeated the 1974-1975 revolution and the bourgeois democracy model that emerged , putting on the agenda the need for a more strategic and antisystem response. That is only possible by fighting for a new revolution against capitalism and for the construction of a socialist society, without exploitation and oppression. Therefore, the struggles and the construction of trade union alternatives have to walk side by side with the construction of a revolutionary workers’ alternative.