Just Say 'Não': Portugal’s Unions Ready To Challenge Austerity Measures
So far, people in debt-laden Portugal seem to grudgingly accept austerity measures imposed by the government. That could change. Two of the country’s leading labor groups have joined forces and called for a Nov. 24 general strike. Is Portugal ready to go
LISBON – Manuel Carvalho da Silva has spent the past two weeks trying to teach the people of Portugal how to say "no." The message is suddenly everywhere, plastered all over the city on posters printed up by the CGTP-In, the country's largest labor union.
"Nâo," is what Da Silva, the CGTP-In's general secretary, is hoping a majority of Portuguese will say to the increasingly severe austerity measures being imposed by both the right and left under pressure from the so-called "troika" – formed by the Central European Bank, the European Commission and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The troika demands the spending cuts in exchange for a 78 billion-euro aid package promised earlier this year.
In an effort to mobilize what until now has been a relatively docile population, Da Silva, an electrician who went on to earn a doctorate in sociology, has formed a historic alliance with the left's other main union, the UGT. The two labor groups have called for a general strike to take place Nov. 24. Between now and then, demonstrations are expected to take place throughout the country. According to the CGTP-In, "things are starting to progress."
Maybe that's because in presenting its 2012 budget last week, the center-right government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho went even farther then the country's major donors demanded. The country's notoriously free market-minded finance minister, Vitor Gaspar, announced that the value added tax would be upped to 23% for commonly consumed products. He also announced a 30-minute extension of the working day – which according to the CGTP-In, amounts to a 7% salary drop – and the cancellation of 13th and 14th month bonuses for current and retired state employees with gross salaries of more than 1,000 euros per month.
"The measures weigh heaviest on workers, who aren't at all to blame for the crisis," says Da Silva. Even worse, he insists, is that the austerity strategy could end up being counterproductive.
What's the alternative?
The son of farmers, Da Silva has been fighting on behalf of organized labor since 1974, the year of the Revolução dos Cravos, or Carnation Revolution. The CGTP-In leader's goal isn't to rouse the masses into violent demonstrations, like the ones that have been occurring in Greece. Instead, Da Silva says he wants to mobilize citizens to "save the economy" and give Portugal's disenchanted youth a reason to be hopeful.
"If there's someone here who is willing to defend the economy, it's us," he insists. Da Silva is convinced that if no one in Portugal reacts to the stiff austerity measures, Portugal will destroy its system of production, its social welfare system and end up where it was 25 years ago, before it really joined the rest of Europe. The austerity measures, he says, will send Portugal hurtling off a cliff.
What Da Silva fails to explain is what alternatives Portugal really has. Isn't Greece, which is also deeply in debt, sinking deeper and deeper into recession as a result of its inability to balance the budget? It's also worth noting that in Portugal, the left – under the leadership of José Socrates – was in power until this past June. Didn't it too implement austerity measures?
Is Portugal really ready for a third, independent movement to take shape? Da Silva is convinced it is. What's not clear is if he'll be able to convince the rest of the country. For most Portuguese the country's inclusion 12 years ago in the euro zone is a major source of pride. And so not being "up to the task" is a hard pill to swallow. In Lisbon, one hears over and over again how Portugal ought to be a "model student."
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