CGTP and UGT announce joint strike against austerity measures

A day after the government announced a new package of austerity measures on 29 September 2010 – the third this year – to be included in the state budget for 2011, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers declared a general strike for 24 November 2010, and the General Workers’ Union announced its opposition to the package. On 7 October, both unions announced their intention to call a joint general strike. The last general strike organised by both confederations took place in 1988.

Background

On 29 September 2010, the day of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Day of Action protesting against austerity measures, the Portuguese government announced a new package of austerity measures to be included in the proposal for the state budget for 2011 (in Portuguese). This is the third austerity package announced this year. The previous set of measures, agreed between Prime Minister José Sócrates and the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD), Pedro Passos Coelho, was approved by the government on 26 May 2010. It came into force in June, and had already generated strong opposition from Portugal’s trade union confederations (PT1005029I).

The government did not secure the opposition’s agreement to the latest austerity package, and on 29 September the measures presented in the so-called Stability and Growth Programme (PEC3 (in Portuguese)), were described by the government as emergency measures needed to tackle the financial and economic crisis and to reduce the public deficit. Among the measures proposed for inclusion in the state budget for 2011 are:

  • a 5% reduction on all expenditure on public sector wages, which includes a wage cut of between 3.5% and 10% for the workers whose wages are above €1,500 a month, and the freezing of all progressions and promotions;
  • a reduction in spending on pensions, allowances and other social benefits, including family allowances;
  • higher taxes, including an increase in value-added tax (VAT) from 21% to 23%;
  • the freezing of investment in the public sector.

The government’s goal is to reduce the budget deficit significantly, bringing it down to 7.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of 2010, and to 4.6% in 2011.

CGTP and UGT react strongly against the austerity package

On 30 September 2010, a day after the government’s announcement, the two main trade union confederations immediately opposed the proposed measures. The General Council of the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) declared a general strike against the austerity package to take place on 24 November 2010 and decided to present the issue at the forthcoming plenary of trade unions, convened for 1October on the 40th anniversary of CGTP.

The National Secretariat of the General Workers’ Union (UGT) issued a resolution stating in its first paragraphs that: ‘The main measures for the 2011 budget constitute a brutal attack on workers, especially those employed in the public administration, and will have a very negative impact on employment.’ UGT also declared that the measures demonstrated the government’s incompetence in managing public administration; that they represented a generous concession to those in favour of liberal policies without a social dimension; and that they were a capitulation to pressure from international financial speculation. UGT’s resolution stated: ‘This situation requires an appropriate response of the workers and their unions. UGT and their unions will fight against these measures and are willing to ally with other trade unions to achieve this purpose.’

On 1 October 2010, the plenary session of the CGTP welcomed the decision to call a general strike. In his speech celebrating the confederation’s 40th anniversary, CGTP’s leader Manuel Carvalho da Silva focused on the need for a large-scale mobilisation of workers with a particular emphasis on the mobilisation of young and ‘precarious’ workers such as agency workers and those on temporary contracts. Mr da Silva also said CGTP was aware of the importance of unity for such mobilisation: ‘With a sense of responsibility and mutual respect, we propose a strong unity of action to all trade union organisations who are concerned about the problems confronting the workers and the country and who are willing to fight in their respective sectors, as well as in this general strike, to promote alternative, fair and righteous paths for Portuguese society.’

Following informal contacts between the two trade union confederations, the unions held a joint meeting on 7 October 2010 to discuss possibilities of a common list of demands and a joint general strike.

Unions call a joint general strike

At that meeting, CGTP and UGT decided to organise a joint general strike for 24 November. After the meeting, during which the aims of the strike were discussed, the decision was announced at a press conference by the Secretaries General of the two unions, Mr da Silva (CGTP) and João Proença (UGT).

UGT leader Mr Proença said: ‘There will be a joint general strike. There will be a joint announcement of the strike and we hope this will be enough to mobilise all Portuguese workers for this struggle that concerns all workers in Portugal.’ He added that ‘austerity policies [imposed by the government] always hurt the same people’.

‘It is important to say clearly to the government, the political parties and public opinion that it is essential to change the policies and combat inequality in Portugal,’ said Mr Proença, emphasising that this would require mobilisation of ‘all unions, all workers and all those who feel excluded by these measures’.

Mr da Silva, declared that ‘working life had become hell’ and that ‘the cuts in social assistance are inadmissible’. He highlighted the importance of the protest for young workers, saying: ‘If any strike has great significance for young people, we can say that this is the one.’ He added that the measures proposed by the government ‘will neither reduce unemployment nor create more jobs’. He concluded: ‘We are fully committed to the mobilisation of workers and society.’

Commentary and further developments

The two trade union confederations have only once before organised a general strike together. On 28 March 1988, the two confederations organised a protest against the employment package announced by the then Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva. It has taken 22 years for CGTP and UGT to join forces again.

The proposed state budget was finally presented on 16 October 2010 and its contents suggest that the trade unions will have even more reason to strike since the measures also include a tax increase affecting low-paid workers and pensions. However, the tone of the ongoing public debate does not promise any substantial change in the position of the government. The decision is now up to parliament, where the ruling Socialist Party (PS) does not have a majority, and where none of the opposition parties has shown much inclination to approve the proposals.

The state budget was due to be discussed in parliament on 28 and 29 October, and concluded with a general vote. The initial schedule issued by the Parliamentary Commission for Budget and Finances (COF) envisaged a separate discussion on the budget for 22–25 November, with the final vote on 26 November. If this schedule remains in place, the general strike on 24 November will come at a decisive moment in the debate. However, the COF may still decide to alter the dates.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima, Dinâmia

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