martedì , 11 Maggio 2021

General strike and mass-protest in Portugal… and the limits of mobilization

14NPortogallo-300x300by ISMAIL KÜPELI – Porto

Updating and revision of the article published in the October edition of Analyse&Kritik

As in March 2012, only the CGTP, the communist trade union, called the strike on the 14th November, after the Spanish trade unions and the European Trade Union Confederation called for a day of mobilization for the 14th of November. The social-democratic trade union (UGT) declared that it wouldn’t take part in it. Nonetheless more people took part in this general strike than in the one in March 2012. In the firms involved, between 40% and 90% of the workers participated in the strike, going beyond the reach of the CGTP, because independent trade unions and even sectors of the UGT union mobilized. The public sector was paralyzed, in particular the transportations, where the unions are better organized. In the private sector, the general strike, as in all the previous general strikes, was considerably weaker. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that here the workers are more hit by dismissals. Moreover, in the private sector wage labor is very often disguised as a form of self-employment.

Along with the general strike numerous demonstrations, with tens of thousands  people, took place in many Portuguese cities. While the protests were running peacefully, a part of the demonstration in Lisbon reached the Parliament, clashing with the police. Many demonstrators were arrested and many were wounded. The question how the CGTP will react to these facts is still open.

The strikes and the general strikes as well as the concomitant demonstrations are organized mainly by the trade unions, especially by the CGTP. There are also actions realized by the indignados and other groups (like for example the movement of the unemployed), and some anarcho-syndacalist groups, such as the Associação Internacional dos Trabalhadores – Secção Portuguesa (AIT-SP). But the trade unions remain the hegemonic subject of the protests.

During the days of protest there is a coexistence between actions that are organized by left opposition parties and by the trade unions, and actions called by independent subjects and which develop a mobilization that is sometimes very big and sometimes small. In the independent spectrum there is not a growing and established organization. Even though there is currently a network of independent and radical actors, a general debate and a general strategy is missing.

Moreover, many migrant and precarious workers can’t take part in the mobilization. In the trade unions it is hardly considered the problem that only a part of the workers can get on strike. Migrant workers in Portugal are, on the one hand, very fragmented and, on the other, work mostly in precarious conditions. They don’t appear in the protests organized by traditional subjects. Only in radical left actions, such as the May Day, they gain more space, but it is an exception. Among the precarious workers, there have been some initiatives, such as for example those organized by the “Movimiento sem Emprego” or the “Precàrios Inflexiveis”, but they were not a very visible group in the general strike.

The strike of 14th November came after a period characterized by a strong renewal of the resistance against the neoliberal policy of the crisis. On the 15th of September in 40 cities more than 500.000 people went into the streets, in order to demonstrate against the programs of cuts of the public spending. The causes of the protests are the intentions of the conservative government of raising the charges for workers and imposing heavier privatization of welfare.  As a consequence, welfare will be financed more by the workers’ contributions, while their employers will receive tax breaks.

The hitherto unknown network «Que se Lixe a Troika! Queremos as nossas Vidas» (Fuck Troika! Reclaim our lives) started the protests. No one could foresee how extensive it would be, because similar calls in the previous months did not find such an adherence. A reason could be that in the meanwhile many people were disappointed because the government didn’t stand by its promise of not hitting the population with more cuts. Therefore the worsening of living conditions appeared without end.

The atmosphere in these last months has been significantly tenser than before and the demonstrators show explicit hate against the government and the Troika. Banners and plates that wish the death to individual politicians (particularly the prime minister Coelho) are always more present. Nationalist and populist watchwords can be heard in the protest against the crisis, while more people wave Portuguese flags – something that did not occur during the March 2012 protests. It is difficult to say, whether this rests on the fact that more of the former conservative voters went on the streets, thus shifting the political tendency of the movement of protest. In any case, the majority charges the political and economical elites with the responsibility of the worsening of the living conditions. Neither Germany nor Europe are seen as an enemy. And the growing cooperation and networking between Portuguese and Spanish actors points to a positive direction.

The rage against the Portuguese government and against the Troika has solid grounds. Poverty and unemployment are growing and the economic capacity is shrinking. Even from a neoliberal perspective the management of the crisis carried on till now is a failure. The government can’t offer any way out of the crisis. As with the protests of March 2012, the mass protests since September have caused tensions in the coalition of government. The small conservative party CDS-PP criticized the new austerity measures, in order to present itself in the next elections as the most liberal of the two conservative parties. Even though the verbal stand-off did not have any immediate consequence because in the Parliament the CDS-PP voted in favor of the measures, the crisis of the coalition is not to be ignored.

In the meanwhile, the government, under the pressure of the protest, had to revoke the most recent austerity measures, such as the reordering of the welfare state. Nonetheless the protests continued. On the 29th of September the CGTP call for a unitary demonstration, in which 100.000 people took part. The demonstration took place simultaneously with other actions in European lands, for instance in Spain and Germany. Afterwards the CGTP has organized between the 5th  and the 13th of October a series of demonstrations that, starting from different Portuguese cities, would meet in Lisbon.

The mass-protests and the general strikes in which more than one million (a tenth of the population!) took part, are impressive. So it is not very surprising that the German left looks at the South of Europe with envy. Still, a more precise insight shows also the weaknesses and limits of a protests that hasn’t been able until now to achieve lasting effects, in spite of the singular spectacular moments of mobilization. There are not stable networks that organize the struggle against neoliberal politics regularly and with long term strategy. In many cases, the mass-protests seem to be “evaporated”.

In order to explain the limited political consequences so far, two aspects must be underlined. First, the majority of the Portuguese votes the social democrat or conservative parties and thereby the parties that are for the continuation of the neoliberal politics. Neither the communist party (PCP) nor the left-social-democrat Bloco de Esquerda (BE) have been able to gain votes from the discontent towards the policy of the government. The Bloco de Esquerda has even lost votes.

The second factor has also to do with the PCP and BE. Both parties haven’t been able – due to different reasons – to establish a cooperation with the other subjects of the protests. The PCP doesn’t want to (or can’t) give up its claims of leadership and tries in many cases to displace or to absorb the actions of networks and organizations independent from it. On the other hand, the BE tries repeatedly to cooperate with the social-democrat party (PS), for instance declaring the possibility of entering a government coalition that would follow a neoliberal austerity program. Of course, the thousands of people that protest and strike against these programs are not willing to vote the Bloco de Esquerda or to cooperate with it.

Nowadays it is not to be foreseen if this vicious circle will be solved and the protest against the neoliberal policy of the crisis could obtain an ultimate political significance. Fortunately the populist or fascist appeals haven’t drown much attention, as is the case for Greece. It is still uncertain which of the existing tendencies will predominate.

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