Debate on recognition of police union

Over recent months the debate has reopened in Portugal over the recognition of trade union freedoms for policemen and policewomen belonging to the Public Security Police, or PSP. The debate has focused not only on the legal regulations governing the PSP but also on the deeper issue of the lawfulness of constitutional restrictions on union rights for members of military and paramilitary forces.

The struggle to form unions in the PSP

The debate on reforming the law to permit trade unions in the PSP - in relation specifically to policemen and women - broke out again in Portugal at the end of 1996, and has been continuing ever since. The debate, fully covered in the media and commented on by the main political parties, culminated on 21 April 1997 with a meeting of PSP members, many of whom wore their uniforms. The meeting turned into a public demonstration at the Ministry of the Interior- the Ministry in charge of that particular police force - with harsh words being shouted at the Minister.

The events appear to be a repeat of those that took place in 1989. Those events led to another public protest at which PSP members - again, many of whom were uniformed - were even involved in confrontations with their colleagues. Over recent years there have been regular episodes in which leaders of the pro-union association of PSP members have publicly rebelled against the banning of trade unions in their police force and have subsequently been disciplined.

With the election of the socialist government, measures were taken to bring an end to the disciplinary proceedings under way, and it was hoped that this would pacify the conflict. However, since the end of 1996 the debate has reopened, and once again extreme positions have been adopted.

The legal framework

Article 270 of the Portuguese Constitution allows for the limitation of the rights - specifically of organisation and demonstration - of members of the military and paramilitary forces, and it is under that provision that the police in question have been refused the freedom to form a union and the right to strike. Those rules are directly applicable to the paramilitary police forces, such as the Republican National Guard, whereas in the case of members of police forces with a civilian structure, such as the criminal investigation bureau, there has been no question of their rights not being recognised.

However, it the very status of the PSP that is in doubt. It is not clear whether it is a civilian body with a paramilitary structure or a paramilitary force per se. The matter appeared to have been resolved from a legal viewpoint with the passing of Law No. 6/90 of 20 February 1990, which laid out the rights of PSP staff. That law, enacted following the trade union rights movement of 1989, gave staff with policing functions who were full-time members of the PSP the right to form nation-wide professional associations to protect their interests. Significantly, the law was accompanied by another, Law No. 5/90 of the same date, which granted an amnesty for breaches of discipline that took place as part of the 1989 rights movement. However, it prohibited those associations from affiliating to national trade union confederations, and they were not granted the rights to which trade unions are entitled, the right to strike being expressly forbidden. Law No. 6/90 was supplemented by Decree-Law No. 161/90 of 22 May 1990, which set out detailed regulations for the process of forming and organising professional associations, in substantially different terms from those contained in trade union law. In addition, the foreword to the law stressed that personnel carrying out police functions were paramilitary officers.

Commentary

To a large extent, the question of allowing policemen and women of the PSP to form unions revolves around an essentially technical option regarding the way in which that police force is organised. Moreover, directly associated with the problem of trade union rights is the relationship between the PSP and the military, particularly in relation to appointments to command positions.

The importance of this debate for society lies firstly in the fact that it is taking place within an organisation concerned with security in towns and cities and secondly in that it has engendered a serious level of conflict. However, another debate, which has arisen in the comments of political and union leaders, is involved as well, namely, the role of trade unions in the military and paramilitary forces. Any bending of the law might foreshadow a struggle to allow trade unions in those forces too.

(António Nunes Carvalho)

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