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Portuguese strike and march against austerity plan Special Report

Ceasefire's Sebastião Martins reports exclusively from Lisbon on yesterday's general strike and popular marches against austerity measures, and the heavy crackdown by riot police that left protesters and journalists injured.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Saturday, March 24, 2012 6:15 - 2 Comments


CGTP calls general strike

(Photo - Sebastião MartinsCeasefire)

Portugal’s major labour union, the 600,000-strong CGTP, made a virtually unilateral call for a general strike yesterday, 22 March, with mobilisations in 35 locations across the country against austerity measures enacted by the centre-right government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

These measures were a condition of a €78 bn euro bailout approved last year in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) – and backed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Socialist Party (PS) – to tackle Portugal’s most severe recession since the end of dictatorship in 1974.

In December 2011, amid rising taxes and spending cuts, the Portuguese government raided an estimated €5.6 bn in pension funds and holiday subsidies to meet a fiscal deficit target of 5.9 per cent of the country’s GDP as set down in the terms of the EU/IMF €78 bn bailout package.

From December 2011 to early 2012, official unemployment rates reached a record high of 14 per cent, while the government expected the economy to shrink 3.3 per cent this year.

Meanwhile, the country’s main energy supplier EDP announced this month its best annual performance yet, with profits in 2011 reaching a record €1.125 bn. Bad news for workers at large and good news in the national corporate stage have contributed equally to popular discontent.

Despite the fact that the country’s second largest union, the UGT, did not back Thursday’s strike, as it ratified recent labour market reforms which strikers reject, CGTP Communist leader Arménio Carlos commended  the ‘great mobilisation’ of workers.

However, protests saw a lower turnout in comparison with those of November 2011 and with last month’s peaceful rally, the latter mobilising some 100,000 people.

Transportation highly affected

While the general strike rallied less support from workers than expected, there was considerable mobilisation in the transports sector.

The government sent a directive Wednesday to several public transport companies, forbidding them from disclosing specific information related to the impact of the strike on transportation services.

In the nation’s capital of Lisbon, underground transportation was brought to a full stop until the early hours of Friday, while bus, maritime, mail and garbage collecting services were severely affected, as well as public schools, with overall transportation adhesion estimated between 70 and 100 per cent.

Yesterday’s protests did not affect the private sector considerably, with Lisbon’s airport and the airliner TAP both functioning, as well as the country’s main exporter Volkswagen’s AutoEuropa plant.

City buses were operating every 30 minutes, and discontent was visible among those who did not join the strike.

‘Everyone wants to change things,’ one Carris driver told Ceasefire as he waited for a long queue of passengers to fill an overly crowded bus. ‘Some try to make it better, but others make it worse,’ he added.

‘They are making it worse for everybody else that wants to work and do their part in these tough times,’ one passenger accompanied by his wife and infant child stated.

For retired Maria Rosa, 71, who had been waiting at a bus stop for over a half an hour, ‘everything should have been brought to a halt’. ‘They [the strikers] are risking their hides fighting for all of our rights. Everybody else should have stayed home if they did not want to join,’ she said.

‘I am not a communist, a socialist or a rightist,’ Rosa added. ‘My party is, like many people out there today, not having enough money to pay for my bills or my medical prescriptions’.

Strikers march on the Assembly of the Republic of Portugal

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The CGTP’s march started in Rossio, where several other labour groups of workers (STML) and professors (SGPL; FENPROF) concentrated at around 2 pm.

‘This strike is against wage reductions, cuts in holiday subsidies, health pensions and retirement pensions which are not raised while the cost of living soars. It simply cannot go on like this,’ CGTP member Mónica told Ceasefire.

‘For the Communist Party [PCP], this strike represents a protest against the austerity packages backed by the IMF and the country’s two major parties [PS and PSD],’ said high profile PCP representative and MP Francisco Lopes.

Lopes added: ‘It is a protest against the changes in labour laws [which make it easier to hire and fire staff], the liberalization of unemployment and the destruction of public services. It is also a show of indignation by demanding a political rupture from the status quo and the implementation of a nationalist policy of the Left which will alter the course of the country in benefit of the disenfranchised worker’.

Shortly after 3 pm, protesters began their march towards the Assembly of the Republic of Portugal, shouting ‘the IMF does not rule here’ and bearing banners and placards which read: ‘Against the troika government’; ‘Against the rising cost of living’; ‘No to forced labour’; ‘Troika and the IMF: + unemployment, + misery, + hunger’.

As protesters converged on São Bento where the Assembly of the Republic sits, some thirty police officers were spread along the stairs leading up to the building, ringed by a 2 m tall steel fence.

At the end of the mass of strikers which spread along the street, a CGTP stage was set, where Communist leader Arménio Carlos addressed the crowd, congratulating fellow activists for the ‘sucess of this protest’.

He described the strike as a mobilisation ‘of all and for all Portuguese workers’ and hailed it as ‘an example of determination and courage’.

Carlos further highlighted that the austerity measures are ‘unsustainable’ for the population, but maintained that there are political ‘alternatives’ which should be sought.

‘In 2003, our level of precarity sat at 9 per cent, below the European average. Today we have 23 per cent of precarity, after Poland and Spain,’ he stated, adding that there are now ‘1 million and 170 thousand people who are jobless’ and ‘2 million and 700 thousand […] in a situation of poverty’.

‘The struggle will continue,’ he said, anticipating another strike scheduled for 31 March.

Current labour legislation will be reviewed by Parliament on 30 March.

Despite assurances from the government that deficit and budgetary targets will be met and that a second bailout will be unnecessary, in an interview to German newspaper Der Spiegel yesterday CEO of Pacific Investment Management Co (PIMCO) Mohamed El-Erian stated that a second bailout is inevitable for Portugal and that the country could follow Greece into financial chaos.

Clashes between protesters and riot police

While there were no incidents reported at the CGTP’s march, the same could not be said about the protest organised by the ’Plataforma 15 de Outubro’ and attended by hundreds of students demanding better education and social benefits, where clashes erupted between protesters and members of the riot police near the ‘Brasileira’ cafe in the Praça do Chiado.

According to local testimonies, incidents took place after several protesters threw objects against members of the police (PSP). Dozens of riot police stormed the area, dispersing protesters towards the Praça de Luís de Camões.

During the clashes, one protester was arrested and several people were injured, a first aid serviceman at the scene told Ceasefire.

Tiago Carvalho, 31, said he was ‘hit with batons and pepper spray’ as riot officers rushed towards the back of the march. His shirt was stained with blood from a head injury he sustained. ‘They started hitting everyone indiscriminately,’ he stated.

Portuguese news agency photographer Lusa José Sena Goulão withstood multiple head fractures after authorities charged against him and threw him on the ground. ‘They just came at me repeatedly,’ he said as he lay waiting for an ambulance. ‘I kept telling them I was a journalist.

A third person also sustained injuries, later identified as a police officer, and was rushed to a local hospital shortly after the clashes.

Two AFP and France Presse photographers were also reported to have been injured by police forces.

In a formal statement sent to PSP director Paulo Valente Gomes, Lusa ‘protested most vehemently’ against ‘the agression’ by authorities of its ‘duly identified’ photographer, saying that it constituted ‘a crime and a grave violation of elementary rights’.

PSP has said it will investigate the aggressions which took place against photojournalists to ascertain their legitimacy.

PSP spokeswoman Carla Duarte told reporters that yesterday’s protests by ‘Plataforma 15 de Outubro’ reached ‘a high degree of hostility’ which required the intervention of security forces, maintaining that ‘any protester can […] say he is a journalist’.

Sebastião Martins is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge and a journalist for www.pulsamerica.co.uk, www.irlandeses.org and The Cambridge Student.


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