Portugal prepares to strike

By Axel Bugge Time of article published Mar 20, 2012

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Lisbon - Portugal is bracing for its third general strike in two years on Thursday against sweeping austerity, but divisions in the union movement and a lack of public appetite are likely to make it a subdued affair compared with the violent protests seen in fellow bailout recipient Greece.

Portuguese, with no real history of widespread protests, have so far shown little passion for the kind of seething protests and frequent strikes that have hit Greece during its debt crisis. However, w i th Portugal facing its worst recession since the 1970s, and with unemployment at a record high above 14 percent, tension is rising.

The strike, called by the country's largest CGTP union, aims to garner workers' opposition to harsh government spending cuts, which have been imposed by the 78 billion euro EU/IMF bailout Portugal secured last May.

Placards and posters plastered across Lisbon call on workers to join the strike. “Occupy the roads, block everything,” reads one poster.

Industrial action comes as the country faces renewed scrutiny in financial markets about its ability to tackle its debt burden, with the chief executive of bond fund giant PIMCO warning in the past week th a t Portugal will have to follow Greece by the end of this year in a debt restructuring and seek additional bailout money.

A dispute between Portugal's major unions, however, risks undermining the strike, as happened with industrial action by the transport sector in February, which flopped.

The country's second-largest union, the UGT, split with the CGTP early this year when it signed up to labour market reforms proposed by the government under the terms of the bailout, diluting opposition to austerity policies.

“This strike runs the risk of being trivial,” said political analyst Viriato Soromenho Marques. “It runs that risk because not all the unions are included.”

For Madalena Ramos, a 46-year-old cleaning worker, the strike is just an obstacle in getting to work.

“However many times they go on strike, it does not resolve anything. People end up losing anyway,” she said as she waited for a bus by the ferry landing in Lisbon, referring to the fact that public transport services are likely to be affected.

Ramos said she will have to car pool with friends on Thursday to get across the River Tagus.

The CGTP, which has a new leader, is undaunted, insisting that the Portuguese must fight back to maintain social benefits that are being rolled back due to the demands of the bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

“We are facing a problem and we must respond,” CGTP head Armenio Carlos said on Monday, calling on workers to join Thursday's action. “We have to take action against any form of vandalism against our (worker) rights.”

Carlos' main point of disagreement is a labour market reform agreed by the government in January, which will make it easier for companies to hire and fire and cuts compensation pay for workers.

Carlos, who has called for a renegotiation of Portugal's debts to overcome its crisis, is hoping that the severe recession this year, when the economy is officially forecast to shrink by 3.3 percent, will lead to bigger protests.

NO SECOND BAILOUT

The deepening recession will make it harder for Lisbon to meet deficit targets agreed under the bailout and Portuguese bonds have missed out on a recent rally in peripheral euro zone bonds, with government bond yields staying around 14 percent.

Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar, however, reiterated the government's stance this week that Lisbon would not seek a second bailout and current bond yields do not reflect the country's economic conditions.

“The problem of the strike movement in Portugal is that it is organized by the same main unions and not by the more decentralized social movements by the likes of the Indignados (in Spain), so there's nothing new about this strike,” said Antonio Costa Pinto, research professor at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon. Indignados was the organizer of recent big demonstrations in neighbouring Spain.

Events in Greece may also be discouraging the Portuguese, who have closely watched crippling strikes and violent demonstrations in Athens as the country's economic crisis deepened, and are fearful of a repetition at home.

“The example of Greece does little to stimulate people to strike,” said Costa Pinto.

Reflecting that, Portugal's centre-right ruling coalition government, which was elected last year promising tough times ahead, retains high support despite austerity.

In a poll this weekend, the two coalition parties - the Social Democrats and rightist CDS-PP - scored a combined 48 percent of voting intentions, close to the 50 percent of the ballot they garnered in last year's election, and way ahead of 29.6 percent for the opposition Socialists.

Analyst Soromenho Marques said a lack of support for strikes in Portugal may be caused by the perception that austerity is widespread across Europe and protesting at home will have no real impact.

“This programme is part of austerity at the European level, the Portuguese government is simply executing a European policy,” he said. “A general strike in Portugal doesn't have much impact, there should be strikes at the European level.” - Reuters

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