Unions protest at government attempt to jeopardise right to strike

The general strike on 30 May 2007 focused attention on the government’s attempts to limit workers’ right to strike through indirect mechanisms. This affected mainly the transport sector and the public sector, where the capacity to strike is generally greater than average due to the strong presence of trade unions. However, in the end, the Portuguese Data Protection Authority rejected the government’s demands.

The national day of general strike action against the policies of the socialist government that took place on 30 May 2007 (PT0706029I) has focused attention on government attempts to limit, through indirect measures, workers’ right to strike. These measures included the definition of minimum services during strike action and the government’s new demands concerning the assessment of the number of public sector employees participating in the strike.

Call for minimum services during strike action

A stricter definition of minimum services that must be maintained in the case of strike action could limit the extension and impact of a strike. In Portugal, compulsory arbitration courts may decide on this definition, in cases where minimum services have not been defined by collective agreement or when the parties did not agree on a definition (PT0702029I). In the case of the general strike on 30 May, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) issued a complaint to the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity (Ministério do Trabalho e da Solidariedade Social, MTSS) and to the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications (Ministro das Obras Públicas, Transportes e Comunicações, MOPTC) regarding the definition of minimum services. CGTP felt that the decisions of the arbitration courts regarding the definition of minimum services in companies such as the ferry operator Transtejo/Soflusa and the metro service Lisbon Metropolitano included many more activities than those that the law considers essential. This list of activities would require the continuous and almost normal functioning of those companies, thus restricting the workers’ right to strike.

Threatened dismissals

According to the newspaper Jornal de Notícias (JN), two days after the general strike, some of the 12 companies that demanded the definition of minimum services threatened the workers who refused to perform such services during the strike with disciplinary procedures that could result in dismissals. At Lisbon Metropolitano, 40% of the 142 workers who were asked to perform minimum services refused to do so and participated in the strike. According to JN, their absence from work will be considered unjustifiable. According to the Labour Code, this could lead not only to a simple warning but also to dismissal. The same situation emerged at Transtejo/Soflusa and at Lisbon’s bus and tram operator Carris, with management informing workers that they would face disciplinary procedures if they did not comply with the requests for minimum services.

Procedures for public sector

In the public sector, disputes arose over methods used to calculate the number of workers who take part in strikes. A notice was issued on 15 May 2007 by the Minister of State and for Finance, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. The notice defined the procedures to be adopted by public services in order to calculate the number of public sector workers who participate in strike action. Among the procedures, a database was created in which the public administration services are required to register the number of workers employed and the number of those who take part in strikes. Furthermore, the data must be made public in each service, and the General Directorate of Administration and Public Employment (Direcção-Geral da Administração e do Emprego Público, DGAEP) must produce an overall database, with data concerning each ministry, that is online on the day of the strike.

Following this decision, the General Directorate of Taxes (Direcção-Geral dos Impostos, DGCI) and the Director of the Human Resources Management Service, issued two notices on 16 and 22 May. The notices demanded data on the number of workers employed and the number of those participating in a strike and individual data concerning the workers taking part in a strike. Such demands could increase the pressure on individual workers in the public sector, thus discouraging public sector employees from taking part in a strike.

Trade union reaction

The public sector trade unions reacted strongly against the government’s demands: the Technical Civil Servants’ Union (Sindicato dos Quadros Técnicos do Estado, STE) submitted a complaint to the Portuguese Data Protection Authority (Comissão Nacional de Protecção de Dados, CNPD). The complaint concerned the government’s intention to collect personal data on the workers who joined the strike on 30 May and on those who may participate in future strikes.

Decision of data protection authority

As the final decision on the use of data lies with the CNPD, the authority issued a resolution (Deliberação No. 225/2007 (in Portuguese)) prohibiting the personal identification of workers on strike. Opposing the notices of the General Directorate of Taxes and the Human Resources Management Service, the CNPD stated that ‘the public administration workers’ participation in strikes reflects a public opinion’ and ‘the autonomous treatment and identification of the workers who joined the strike constitutes a discriminatory procedure’.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima and Reinhard Naumann, Dinâmia

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