Friday, November 26, 2010

Strengths and Limitations of the Portuguese General Strike

On Wednesday, a 24-hour general strike against austerity measures paralysed the Portuguese economy. This afternoon, the Portuguese parliament forced the package through anyway. While Wednesday's action demonstrates the potential social weight of the working class, Friday's vote shows that - as in Greece and France - one day strikes and marches are not going to stop governments submitting to the financial aristocracy.

Wednesday's 'greve geral' was jointly called by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and the General Union of Workers (UGT). It was the first time in decades that both big unions had called out their members on the same day. According to CGTP officials, 75% of Portuguese workers took part in the strike. Significantly, Labour Minister Maria Helena Andre was forced to admit, “We are facing a very reduced participation in the private sector of the economy.” Private sector employees are traditionally reluctant to come out on strikes spearheaded by their public sector counterparts.

The WSWS reports that:
"Portugal’s largest exporter, Volkswagen's Autoeuropa plant, which produces 500 cars a day, came to a standstill. Trains and buses in the capital Lisbon came to a halt. Many shops were shut. Almost all workers employed by city and town municipalities stopped work. No flights took off or landed at the country’s airports. Ports were also closed. Other public services—health care, education, the post office and banking—operated minimal services."
On examination, it is obvious that the general strike was called in order for workers to let off steam, without actually threatening the existing order of things. Union leaders across the globe have shown similar tactics time and again in 2010 - they have talked tough when needed, whilst negotiating with government behind their memberships' backs. One day strikes in Greece, France and now Portugal have completely failed to overturn austerity plans. The symbolic nature of the Portuguese strike is clear from a consideration of its date; the government was aware that they just had to ride out one day, and then they would be free to slash public sector pay by 5%, freeze pensions, and raise VAT by 2%.

However, the financial aristocracy doesn't think even this is enough. Markets are now - in the words of the BBC - "bet[ting] on a Portuguese bailout". Following events in Greece and Ireland, a certain pattern is emerging. First, traders bet that the government in question will default on its loans, pushing the cost of those loans higher. Then, prominent politicians from that country deny that they will be seeking a bailout. Then a bailout is announced, followed by ever more savage austerity measures, to be borne by the social class that produces all wealth - the working class.

This week's Portuguese show of solidarity proved yet again that it is the workers of each country who actually keep economies running, and generate profit for the bosses. Yet they can have no effective say in the shape of those economies, so long as they remain trapped within the confines of reformist union structures.
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