Unions Lead General Strike against Austerity in Portugal

Threatened with cuts that will sound familiar to any Labor Notes reader—a 5 percent pay cut for public sector workers, tax and fee increases that reduce purchasing power 5-10 percent, and a higher retirement age—unions in Portugal have been demonstrating and striking for months to build opposition to the government’s austerity budget. Their campaign built up to a 24-hour general strike November 24.

Transport Workers Union Local 100, the union that represents subway and bus workers in New York City, was invited to express solidarity with this strike and sent a small delegation as guests of the Railway Workers Union and the General Confederation of the Workers of Portugal (CGTP).

Portugal’s unemployment rate is 10.9 percent—the highest since the 1980s, the last time unions there mounted a mass strike. As in Greece and Ireland, part of Portugal’s difficulty comes from its use of the euro, which prevents the country from unilaterally devaluing its currency and thereby pushes the government toward an IMF-style austerity package.

The strike was called by the CGTP, the larger of Portugal’s two federations, but it was supported by the UGT (General Union of Workers)—even though the UGT is closely tied to the Portuguese Socialist Party, which heads the government that is promoting the cuts.

The strike was especially strong in the public sector. In Lisbon, subways were shut tight. Most municipal buses were off the streets throughout the country. Ports and airports were closed. Train lines run by the government were closed, but those run by private companies operated. Schools were closed by striking teachers. Public hospitals had minimal staff.

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The largest private employer in Portugal, a Volkswagen plant, was shuttered, as were many garment and shoe factories. But most hotels and banks, which are unionized in Portugal, remained open. The unions claimed one-third of 10 million Portuguese came out in support; the government said just 20 percent of 800,000 public workers stayed off the job.

In line with a decision to focus on workplaces and keep them shut for a full 24 hours, the union federations did not call rallies the day of the strike, so it was difficult to judge support that way. The Teachers Union of Greater Lisbon sponsored a concert in central Lisbon that evening, attended by a few thousand strike supporters.

The strike was widely seen as a success. Although the government has not backed down from its planned budget, railway unionists and activists from left parties—which hold 13 percent of seats in parliament—feel that the strike raised the fight to a new level and are optimistic that they will be able to force a change in government policies. One striker, referring to the mass upsurge of workers that followed the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1974, said, “The struggle is longer than we expected, but we are fighting for the same democratic goals now that we were then.”


Steve Downs is chair of the train operators division and Frank Goldsmith is director of occupational health for TWU Local 100.