“Long live the General strike of the 12 February" was the slogan plastered throughout Portugal. Huge banners decorated the docks and large factories proclaiming the General Strike. Managements, afraid of antagonising the militant workforce, were unable to remove them from the factory gates.
The defiant banners symbolised the new militancy in Portugal. The strike—the first national general strike in Portuguese history—has enormously increased the self-confidence of the working class.
Determined to struggle against the attacks of the rightwing coalition government of Francisco Pinto Balsemao, the strike was rock solid in the factories. Called by the 1,600,000 strong CGTP trade union Federation, under the pressure from the rank and file, the 24-hour stoppage registered a 60-90% success.
All along Lisbon's industrial belt, factories ranging from the shipyards to soap manufacturers and armaments came out to a man. The Federation itself claimed that 2,5 million members struck, out of a total workforce of 3,5 million!
Socialist programme of action to link up struggles
The mood of the workers hardened as visored police, armed with shields and riot batons, clashed with strikers in Lisbon's central square. Hoping to break the strike, the government hired 500 taxis and 400 buses in an attempt to keep the transport system going in Lisbon—in vain.
The February General Strike was the culmination of a prolonged strike wave affecting all sectors. Recently, strikes had broken out involving train drivers, transport workers, tobacco workers, dockers, port pilots, stevedores, and merchant seamen.
Again on 11 May a one-day general strike took place in protest over the deaths of two young workers and those injured on May Day when riot police opened fire on a demonstration in Oporto. The mood in the factories reached boiling point. The strike once again led to clashes with police.
New stage in the revolution
After a temporary lull, with the capitalists attempting to roll back the gains of 1974/5, these general strikes are opening a new stage in the Portuguese Revolution. Aimed to defend the workers' interests and oust the right-wing coalition from power, they have assumed a direct political character. They are a continuation of the mass demonstrations of last December against the Government's wages ceiling, but on a far higher level.
Since the 1974 Revolution and the large scale nationalisations of March 1975, the capitalists have been successful in eroding many of the gains made. The blame for this must rest with the labour leaders who have failed to mobilise the movement for the complete transformation of society. Now, however, the tide is definitely beginning to turn.
Portuguese capitalism is in dire straights. The jacking up of prices and charges has pushed inflation up to around 25%. In February alone prices rose by 3%. In April, Balsemao introduced a 30% increase in bread prices. One pound of beef costs five times its pre-revolutionary price, and potatoes and other vegetables ten times!
The workers' militancy has grown as wages are pegged to a 17% ceiling. Wages are the lowest in Western Europe and are 33% lower than those of the Spanish workers!
As the Economist (24/10/81) commented: "A big attraction for foreign investors is Portugal's low wage costs, by far the lowest in Western Europe... Real wages fell steadily from 1976 to 1979, even though the GDP was growing at around 4% per year. Labour's share of national income is now down to around 55% (in 1976 it was about 65%—RS)."
Something like 25% of the workforce are either unemployed or semi-unemployed. The worsening economic crisis will mean further austerity measures against the working class.
Overall growth is down to 1.5%, the lowest since 1974. With industrial production stagnant, and a fall in agricultural production by 8%, the coalition government has been forced to borrow, resulting in a foreign debt of $10 billion—equal to half the Gross National Product!
Government on the rocks
The crisis has resulted in enormous political instability. The present government is the 14th since April 1974. The capitalists look with absolute hatred at the extensive nationalisation carried out in March 1975. Ever since then, a series of right wing governments have eroded the gains of the Revolution, but have not been able to go all the way.
Recently the President of the Confederation of Portuguese Industry, Ferraz de Costa, blamed the ills of the economy on the events of 1974 and demanded firmer action from the government. Yet they are frightened by the strength and resilience of the working class, an astonishing 83% of whom are trade union organised! Thus the moves towards counter-revolution over the past six years have been painfully slow.
The Times (26/4/82), in a sober assessment on the 8th Anniversary of the Revolution, wrote: "In spite of all the disillusionment over the revolution there are no signs that the mass of ordinary Portuguese would wish to go back to things before April 1974." The capitalists are still forced to bide their time.
In the meantime the right wing Democratic Alliance government made up of Social Democrats, Centre Democrats and Monarchists, is on the rocks. Split by internal bickering and squabbles, it has become more impotent with the rising militancy of the working class.
First the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party introduced censure motions in parliament throughout March and April in an attempt to topple the government. The recent strike wave has shaken it to its foundations.
Attempting to rally the right-wing, Balsemao has placed high hopes on drastically amending the radical Constitution of 1976 which sanctioned the gains of the Revolution.
The Constitution, framed in the period after 60% of the economy was nationalised, states (article 273) that it is the duty of the armed forces to "secure the continuation of the revolution" and "ensure the conditions under which Portuguese society may effect a peaceful and pluralist transition to democracy and Socialism."
A 'watchdog' "Council of the Revolution," staffed by left officers, was established to safeguard the Constitution. It has repeatedly blocked attempts by the government to introduce "economic reforms."
With the move to the right the armed forces were purged and reduced from 100,000 to 35,000. Now, with the growing mass radicalisation, a left mood has begun to reappear. Colonel Melo Antunes, chairman of the Constitutional Committee of the Revolutionary Council, declared recently that the only way out for Portugal was a left government of socialists and communists.
The revolution also introduced very strict hire and fire laws, which has hampered attempts by big business to declare redundancies. As the Economist (24/10/81) explained:
"Labour legislation is less attractive. Under the present law, workers cannot be fired. That law is under review, and planned legislation will allow more flexibility. Bosses will be able to fire workers who are: in-competent; alcoholics; chronic absentees; or [ominously] acting against the interests of their company or country." (My emphasis—RS)
However, this legislation has now been put off due to the increased tension on the shop floor!
The AD government has pledged itself to constitutional 'reform' but needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority to do so. It has managed to get the support of the right-wing Socialist Party leaders for the abolition of the 'Council.'
Yet the proposed changes have led the government into conflict with President Eanes who sees it as a threat to his powers. Such was the rift that he threatened to resign, establish his own Presidential Party and stand for Prime Minister!
The friction between Eanes and the government illustrates the divisions in the ruling class over how best to deal with the situation. Eanes, an astute capitalist politician, realises the strength of the workers, and prefers to bend with the wind a little. He stands for caution as a head-on confrontation will make matters even worse.
In the past, each move towards reaction saw a counter-blow by the workers, which almost resulted in the overthrow of Portuguese capitalism in 1975. Even Balsemao has realised this up to a point: "The Government is in no hurry to return its own nationalised banks to private ownership. Denationalisation would cause a political row''! (Economist, 24/10/81).
New elections likely
The new strike wave has raised the Labour Movement onto a higher level. In this critical situation a united front should be formed between the CGTP and the UGT trade union federations in a campaign to bring down the government.
As new elections appear increasingly likely, fresh layers will enter the workers' parties, above all the Socialist Party, to help defeat the capitalist opposition. A radicalised Socialist Party will demand from its leaders measures in the interests of the working class. Attempts to tinker with Portuguese capitalism will solve nothing, as was illustrated by the last Scares Government.
Despite the large-scale nationalisation in March 1975, capitalism has managed to hold on to its power. Although the top ten companies are now state-owned, still more than half of industrial production remains in private hands.
A majority Socialist/Communist Government would have to nationalise the rest of the commanding heights of the economy and introduce workers' control and management. A national plan could then be drawn up using the full resources of the country for the benefit of the working people as a stepping stone to a Socialist Federation of the Iberian Peninsula.
Over the years, the Portuguese working class has proved its capacity for struggle. This qualitative change will inevitably reflect itself in the political field. Objective conditions are favourable for a rapid growth in the ideas of Marxism. The task that the Portuguese workers have before them is the transformation of their organisations into effective instruments capable of carrying through the socialist transformation of society.
June 4, 1982