Unemployment and class power: the example of Portugal

Socialists in Britain are now working in a context of rising mass unemployment. Here, Portuguese socialist Manuel A speaks to rs21 about what we can learn from how workers in Portugal faced the wave of austerity after the last economic crisis.

Anti-austerity protesters in Lisbon in March 2011. Keywords: unemployed workers organising unemployment
Anti-austerity protesters in Lisbon in March 2011. Photo: i.fernando / Flickr

rs21: In Britain the years after the 2008 financial crash saw an intense attack by the right wing on welfare claimants. What was the politics of welfare like in Portugal in this period, where a huge proportion of the population was out of formal work?

Manuel: In Portugal, the main narrative was not about welfare claimants. It was always focused on the fact that, as a country, we had been collectively ‘living beyond our means’, and that this caused the public debt crisis, which means that now “there is no alternative” other than austerity measures. That being said, some of the austerity measures directly targeted social welfare. There were cuts to retirement pensions, sick pay, unemployment benefits and the RSI (a subsidy for extremely low-income households).

rs21: Do you think the reason that there wasn’t as much anti-welfare rhetoric in Portugal as in Britain is that more of the population were unemployed, so that it would be harder to scapegoat this section of the population?

Manuel: That might have played a role. But I think the main reason is that there was an attack on general living standards going far beyond welfare cuts. In order to justify cutting salaries for state employees, cutting health and education budgets, increasing taxes on the low-income brackets, eliminating 2 out of employees’ 14 “months” of pay (previously you would receive an extra month’s worth of salary for Christmas and one for summer, but these were eliminated), reducing retirement pensions, etc., you need a narrative that goes beyond ‘lazy welfare claimants’, and makes a case that everyone needs to make sacrifices, because we had all been ‘living beyond our means’.

rs21: Portuguese governments have often encouraged mass emigration as a way of dispersing social unrest among young people over mass unemployment. Can you tell us a bit about how this unfolded in the post-2008 period?

Manuel: Between 2011 and 2014, 425,000 people left Portugal. That was around 4% of the population, or 1% per year. This was a larger wave of emigration than than in the 60s, which was, until the 2008 crisis, the largest period of emigration in modern Portuguese history.

As you say, this was actively encouraged by the government. There was a speech by the then-Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, where he urged teachers to emigrate, which has become famous, as well as one where he suggests that unemployment is an opportunity for a change of life. One interesting thing about this is that there was a very dominant narrative about the nature of this migration. This narrative insisted that Portuguese emigrants in the 2010s were completely different from those in the 60s, because they were all highly qualified and were going to work in well-paid, skilled jobs. Social scientists have since shown this to be completely false.

rs21: In any economy with such a high rate of official unemployment, there will be large layers of people, and especially younger people, who are still working, but informally or illegally. Has it been possible for Portuguese workers in these circumstances to organise over the last decade? Have there been many efforts at organising that spans the formal / informal division?

As far as I’m aware, there has been no effort from the mainstream labour movement at organizing informal workers. In Portugal, almost all the labour organising is done by two major trade union federations, a larger and more militant one (CGTP – the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers), and a smaller one (the UGT – General Union of Workers).

UGT is close to the centre-left Socialist Party and only focusses on negotiation; it’s basically not relevant for our purposes here. The CGTP is the larger federation; it has called general strikes, and has close links with the Communist Party. But they would never go outside of their usual activity and attempt to organise informal workers.

rs21: Is that because they’re insular in their outlook – trying to protect what they have, rather than expanding?

Manuel: Yes, I think it’s both those things. They have their way of doing things, which they have been doing for a long time, and they are very resistant to change. Organising informal workers would also mean going outside the legal framework in which they operate.

Most of the organising outside of these trade unions focused on the issues of flexible workers and austerity. The closest thing I can think of to that kind of organising initiative was a movement of the unemployed, the Movimento Sem Emprego. It was relatively small, but worked to organise unemployed people and participated in all the anti-austerity demonstrations.

rs21: Precarious employment became very common in this period; how important were precarious workers to the attempts to push back against attacks on workers’ living standards?

Manuel: Precarious employment was one of the central points of the anti-austerity movement. There were huge numbers of people, particularly young people, working on short term contracts, unpaid internships and most importantly as ‘self-employed’ individuals. In Portugal there are no zero-hours contracts, so a lot of businesses employ ‘independent workers’ who are technically self-employed. In 2012 independent workers represented 25.6% of the total number of employed people. In 2019 this number was still high – 20.4%. Obviously it’s hard to tell how many of these are actually providing ‘independent’ services and how many are doing things like working in a cafe and being paid by the hour. Precarious employment was one of the main drivers of anti-government and ‘anti-system’ sentiment, particularly among young people, as they didn’t feel like they had any kind of stable position in society to protect.

In terms of workplace organising, the only organization which focused only on this group were a precarious workers’ group called Precários Inflexíveis (‘Inflexible Precarious Workers’). They started around 2010, 2011. They started organising May Day demonstrations on 1 May that were an alternative to the main CGTP demos. They became a very important force in the austerity movement, using disruptive actions to get media attention and build mass demonstrations.

A protester holds up a blown-up version of a piece self-employment paperwork. Keywords: crisis great recession depression organising
A protester holds up a blown-up version of a piece of self-employment paperwork. Photo: i.fernando / Flickr

rs21: What were some of the tactics they used successfully in their active period?

Manuel: Creative and disruptive tactics, like interrupting a session in parliament by singing Grândola, vila morena, or heckling government ministers wherever they went and there was a camera, to the point that one minister was forced to resign.

They used these activities to promote large, indignados-style anti-austerity demonstrations, which appealed to people who didn’t trust political parties. The largest one had roughly a million people (in a country of 10 million). These demonstrations were very appealing because they seemed to be something new, not coming from the traditional parliamentary left.

Unfortunately, the movement started to collapse after that large demonstration, because the group of people that called it couldn’t agree on a way forward. The demonstrations were organised by a coalition of people calling themselves Que Se Lixe a Troika (‘Fuck the Troika!’) which included members of the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, but also other smaller left parties and social movements, including Precários Inflexíveis.

There were also mass general strikes, called by the main trade union federation, but with a lot of support from social movements – especially, again, the precarious workers’ movement. The social movements were organised around the strike, sending people to support picket lines and to block busy roads in the city.

rs21: Can you think of any lessons to draw from this for socialists in Britain looking to organise resistance to neoliberal policies here?

Manuel: I guess the advice would be: work towards general strikes – although I suppose this is illegal in the UK – and help organise autonomous precarious and unemployed workers movements.

Also, doing things that cause disruption and draw a lot of attention (e.g. interrupting parliament, or harrassing ministers) can be a really good way to get attention and build a mass demonstration, especially if you manage to get media attention.

Anti-austerity protesters in Lisbon in 2013. Keywords: Portugal unemployment austerity
Anti-austerity protesters in 2013. Photo: Bloco de Esquerda / Flickr

rs21: Has organising among informal workers connected with migrant justice demands at all?

Manuel: There is a movement of migrants in Portugal, whose central demand is legal status for everyone, but there is currently no connection between them and other people working informally or illegally.

rs21: In 2015 Portugal had a change of government, with the Socialist Party taking office but depending on the support of the further-left Left Bloc and the Communist Party. To what extent do you feel these formations were able to capture the hopes and resentments of younger working-class people and direct them into waiting for parliamentary change?

Manuel: In the beginning of the Socialist Party government there was some hope, but mostly just relief that the austerity nightmare was over. They reversed some of the neoliberal measures of the previous government, for example stopping the privatisation of public transport in Lisbon.

But they didn’t reverse some of the fundamental changes of the austerity years, like labour laws that hurt workers, and very low levels of public investment. There are also still huge amounts of public money being put into a bank, Novo Banco, that was created by the state in 2014 in order to rescue one of Portugal’s private banks, the Banco Espírito Santo. And generally the standard of living is still worse than it was before the crisis.

Since the elections in October 2019, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party have lost most of their negotiation power, because the Socialist Party (who are a party more alike to Keir Starmer than to Jeremy Corbyn) got a larger share of the vote. In fact, the Left Bloc announced just a few weeks ago that they will vote against the new budget, although it will still pass, because the Communist Party will abstain. There is also growing support for the far right, with a recently created populist far right party, Chega (Enough!), winning a seat in parliament. This is the first time this has happened since the revolution.

Currently, I think the hope that was there in 2015 has gone, but also the anger that was there against the previous government hasn’t come back, or at least it’s not manifested in mass mobilization. Since most social movements and trade unions in Portugal are in the sphere of influence of the Left Bloc or the Communist Party, there has been relatively little social struggle since 2015. There are some exceptions in specific labour struggles, for example stevedores, truck drivers, nurses and taxi drivers against Uber. Recently there was a big explosion in the climate justice movement, following the global trends with the appearance of Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion. There were also some large anti-racist demonstrations, the largest one with around 6000 people, following the BLM uprising after the murder of George Floyd. The question of housing has also managed to mobilise large numbers of people.

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