From mobilisation to resistance: Portugal’s struggle against austerity

Issue: 138

Catarina Príncipe

Portugal, as one of the countries in the European Union taken hostage by the Troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission), has been subjected to increasingly harsh austerity policies that have led the country into a recession of historic proportions, the result being mass impoverishment. The mandate from the Troika is being compounded by additional cuts being made by the current government in what amounts to the fastest and most brutal neoliberal programme ever introduced in Portugal. The right wing Portuguese administration is using the crisis and the memorandum with the Troika as a pretext to attack labour rights and dismantle the Portuguese welfare state; the demands for further austerity presented by the Portuguese and European ruling classes seem endless.

However, these extreme attacks have not translated into a rising tide of resistance. Moments of mass mobilisation have happened during the last two years—above all in the monster demonstrations against austerity on 15 September 2012 and 2 March 2013. But these were unable to transform themselves into generalised resistance capable of shifting the balance of class forces in Portugal. This article seeks to understand this disconnect by proposing that the mass mobilisations happen almost “apart” from the structures in the country that would be capable of organising a rooted long-term resistance. This gap between the mobilisations and the social structures has occurred because of the decision by the social movements over the last five or six years not to organise in the workplace or local communities. Although this choice was the correct one at the time it was made, its limitations are now being revealed. This article aims to summarise and analyse the story of the resistance in Portugal during the last few years, highlighting both our successes and limitations and contributing to the strategic debate in a spirit of solidarity.

“They want us precarious—We will be rebellious!”

In 2007 a group of activists coming out of the student movement decided to bring the “Euro May Day” concept to Portugal.1 The trade unions with their bureaucratised and closed structures were slow to respond to the growing number of precarious workers. Precarity was seen as a generational problem—older workers were (supposedly) not affected by it and some saw precarity as the fault of young workers unwilling or uninterested in fighting for their own rights. Within the unions this scapegoating of younger workers could also be found. Moreover, precarity was an unknown term for most Portuguese workers, who lacked a collective definition of their working conditions. Many people viewed the issue through a strictly individual lens, saying: “I have a fixed-term contract. I’m not precarious”, or: “I have an individual contract through a temporary work agency, but that’s particular to my profession; it’s not a generalised problem.”

In this political context the decision to import the Euro May Day as a fresh, young and new way of protesting was the appropriate political choice for several reasons:

1) We understood that it was necessary to see precarity as something affecting all spheres of life. The idea of “precarity in life” as a common point of departure allowed us to discuss precarity not only as a labour condition but also to discuss how it related to questions of independence, self-determination and life planning, as well as discrimination and racism.

2) Because of the broad framing of the conflict and the novelty of a new, creative movement led by young people, we were able to change the public narrative on precarity. It was no longer seen as an individual choice, but rather as the result of political and economic processes. This means that today in Portugal there is a collective understanding of what precarity is and how it concerns everyone, no matter what age.

3) Because we knew that precarity was a coming reality for the entire Portuguese working class, we rejected the notion that it was a generational issue. Thus we did not organise Euro May Day in competition with the traditional trade union demonstrations (as was the case in several other countries), but sought to “add struggles to the struggle” by pursuing connections and joining and mobilising for the trade unions’ protests (so, for example, the Euro May Day participants always join the trade unions’ May Day demonstration). This choice helped to form a new connection between the trade unions and the social movements that, however fragile, is very important for the protests against the Troika today.

In Portugal more workers are unemployed than are unionised, and most precarious workers are not unionised. Portugal’s largest trade union confederation, the CGTP, was not addressing this issue adequately and thus left a large political vacuum to be filled. Given the low level of struggle and our lack of connections to the trade unions, we chose at that moment to organise outside of the workplace. This was a correct political choice—at the time.

The CGTP is a fairly militant trade union confederation and is politically very close to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), but it has a very closed apparatus and a bureaucratised structure and is very suspicious of any activity that does not come from inside its own organisation. Moreover, many of the young activists who started the anti-precarity movement in Portugal are from or close to Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc, the party of the radical left) or from more autonomist organisations, and thus have little or no influence inside the unions. In this difficult situation real collaboration between the union leadership and the movement was more or less impossible. Excluded from the traditional structures of organised labour, the movement was forced to adapt by organising precarious workers away from the point of production. It was a necessary and correct decision to make, but a decision prompted by weakness, not strength. It is the conversion of this necessity into a virtue that holds the movement back today.

The Euro May Day parade has been held in Lisbon since 2007 and in Porto since 2009. Two very important organisations emerged out of these demonstrations: the Precários Inflexíveis (“Inflexible Precarious”) in Lisbon and FerveFartos d’ Estes Recibos Verdes (“We Are Tired of these Green Receipts”) in Porto. These two groups managed to keep the question of precarity on the political agenda all year round (the Euro May Day networks are only active in the months leading up to 1 May) and served as important public platforms to criticise precarity, becoming well known in the media and developing their own campaigns. However, the fact that we continually tried to organise outside the workplace left us in a fragile position of being unable to directly address the workers and their daily problems; having no strength, capacity or resources to organise local struggles, let alone a strike. The core of these organisations is composed of some of the most active and dedicated activists, but lacking a social field in which to intervene, the growth of the organisation is either slow or non-existent. We have no influence in the workplaces and therefore lack the necessary response that a workers’ organisation needs to have. Nevertheless, the core of these organisations was always present in the organisation and mobilisations of the most important protests in Portugal over the last two years.

The “Desperate Generation”

Since 12 March 2011 there were several moments of protest that deserve to be mentioned: the “Desperate Generation” demonstration (12 March 2011), the “Real Democracy Now” demo (15 October 2011) and the two “Screw the Troika” demos (15 September 2012 and 2 March 2013).

In January 2011 a Portuguese folk music group released a song entitled “How Silly I Am” denouncing widespread precarity and lack of perspective among the youth. The song went viral online and inspired a group of four friends to call for a demonstration on 12 March through Facebook. Almost half a million people took to the streets in many cities across Portugal, joining in one of the biggest demonstration since the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5.

The focus of the demonstration was the unbearable situation of a generation without a future. But because the manifesto was very broad, neoliberal voices tried to appropriate it. Confronted with this problem, the main organisers decided to request help from anti-precarity, LGBT and other movements, who provided them with advice and support while respecting their political autonomy. The result was that the movement was able to overcome appropriation by the right and attempts to frame the issue as one of a conflict between generations, fostering displays of genuine intergenerational solidarity. Ultimately the demonstration consisted of young precarious workers accompanied by their parents and grandparents, who attended out of solidarity but also to express their own opposition to the ruling Socialist Party’s (PS) proposed cuts.

Part of the success of this demonstration can be ascribed to the media attention it received—occurring in the wake of the Arab Spring and the debates about the role of the new media in organising protests. Something similar happening in Portugal caught the attention of the media and cast a lot of attention on the mobilisation. Moreover, the PS government of José Sócrates already found itself in a severe crisis of public opinion following the passage of several rounds of austerity. The media opportunistically aided the mobilisation to harm the government, but quickly lost interest after the demonstration

It would be a mistake, however, to credit the demonstration’s success to media attention alone: 12 March also represented a new form of popular mobilisation. Because of its indeterminate character, it attracted a wide variety of people and extended into layers of the population far beyond the normal reach of the unions and left parties, so much so that the unions and the Communist Party initially treated the mobilisation with suspicion, distrustful of a mass movement beyond their control.

It is worth noting that the mood of popular discontent and the popular criticisms of democratic institutions was not reflected in the general election results of 5 June 2011. The content of the Troika memorandum (which was signed by the PS, PSD and CDS2 before the elections) was not made public for a long time, so most voters did not understand what its implications would be at the time of the election. A feeling of inevitability and to some extent a popular belief that the austerity measures were necessary to “save” the Portuguese economy clearly worked to the detriment of the anti-memorandum left: the Bloco’s share of the vote fell from almost 10 percent in 2009 to 5.2 percent, with an abstention rate of around 40 percent. The PCP was able to maintain its result as it has a very established base of support, but was also not able to win new votes. Why the Bloco faced such a drastic defeat at the polls will be addressed later. Nevertheless, the positive experience of the 12 March mobilisation gave the social movements a needed breath of fresh air for the coming year.

15 October 2011—”Real Democracy Now!”

The “movement of the squares” also took root in Portugal in 2011. It started as an attempt to imitate the enormous occupations of squares in Spain and Greece but on a much smaller scale. Beginning in mid-May in the heat of the electoral campaign some one hundred activists occupied a central square of Lisbon for two weeks. There were also occupations of squares in Porto, Coimbra and Ponta Delgada. Emulating the politics of the Indignados, the demands went from a singular focus on precarity towards a systemic critique. The occupations of the squares linked up with activists from the 12 March mobilisations and established a network to join the international call for a demonstration against austerity on 15 October 2011.

On 13 October the government presented the plan for the 2012 state budget. It called for, among other things, deep wage cuts and the elimination of holiday bonuses for public sector workers. Over 100,000 demonstrators protested against the budget in Lisbon and 15,000 in Porto. In Lisbon the demonstrators surrounded the parliament and conducted an assembly that lasted through the night. Amazingly the assembly decided to call for a general strike, despite many of the participants being completely new to political activism.

Building upon this momentum, Portugal’s two trade union confederations called for a general strike on 24 November. It should be noted that the Portuguese trade unions had also called a general strike against austerity in November 2010. Different this time was the initiative from the movements for the strike, as opposed to the ritualised one-day actions the unions seem to call every year.

The 15 October protests marked several important political developments in Portugal. The clearest was the qualitative change in the political demands since 12 March. The demonstration of 12 March had been politically indeterminate and mixed—the anti-capitalist left was present, and the social movements (feminist, LGBT, anti-precarity, anti-racist), sections of the political right and even some elements of the far-right tried to insert themselves in the demonstration. By October the focus had become clearer: it was not limited to a critique of precarity and an uncertain future, but was a more focused critique of the government and the austerity policies as whole. Quantitatively the October demonstration was smaller, but qualitatively it was much better.

The October demonstrations also witnessed the introduction of other political elements of the Occupy movement. These included: the questioning of parliamentary democracy and democratic institutions; opposition to the rule of the “1 percent”; and a general distrust of established political parties and organisations—a feeling that already existed in Portugal, but not as clear or as loud as now. The terrible electoral results for the left, the 40 percent abstention rate and an ongoing process of institutionalisation of the radical left created a mood and political space for the distrust of political organisations and the trade unions. This is an important fact to understand as it remains one of the major problems continuing to face the radical left today.

The last important aspect is the relation to the CGTP. The process of dialogue between the movements and the unions that began in 2007 has strong limitations. On the one hand, the cooperation between social movements and the union bureaucracy, however limited, is a welcome sign. It shows that movement activists do not oppose traditional workers’ organisations. At the same time, however, the reach of the movement remains very limited. The movements lack any sort of rank and file organisations that could serve as conduits into the wider working class and remain utterly dependent on the bureaucratic leaderships.

“Screw the Troika—we want our lives”

Following the October demonstrations there were no mass protests for almost a year. Portugal saw a general strike on 22 March and some sectional struggles, but in mainstream news media and politics Portugal was portrayed as the well behaved student of the European south. The people of Portugal understood the need for austerity; they agreed they had lived beyond their means and therefore had to make the appropriate sacrifices. The Portuguese people and government were portrayed as embracing the Troika as a good friend.

This portrayal is not completely untrue: the notion that austerity was inevitable was very powerful in the minds of the people. Many thought there was no other way out and initially hoped to weather the coming period through individual solutions. It was also difficult to respond politically, as some of the government’s proposed measures were delayed until 2013, thus mitigating the effects on the population. Portugal seemed to be acquiescing to the demands of the Troika and was held up as a good example in contrast to Greece, whose left was already beginning to transform that country’s politics at the time.

Faced with this lull in activity, organisers from the anti-precarity movement together with others—some of them public figures—called for a demonstration on 15 September 2012. The timing corresponded to the “restart” of the political year when the state budget for 2013 would start to be discussed. Simultaneously, these activists knew the beginning of the school year would bring with it discontent, since thousands of teachers were not going to have a job due to government cuts in education. The demonstration was mainly called through Facebook and once again the media gave it significant coverage.

On 7 September prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and finance minister Vitor Gaspar announced the austerity measures contained in the 2013 state budget. Alongside further cuts to wages and pensions and the elimination of holiday bonuses, the budget also foresaw a dramatic increase in social security taxes. In practical terms it would mean the transfer of one month’s salary a year from the workers to the bosses, a further drop in internal consumption and the penalisation of the poorest members of society.

These measures prompted a wave of resistance in society. After the announcement of the new measures the call for a demonstration grew massively on Facebook and in the media. The informal network of people that called for the demonstration also established contact with the trade unions, from whom they got no answer. It is important to say that although the trade union bureaucracy decided not to actively be part of the organisation of the demo (though the general secretary stated on 14 September that he would individually join the demonstration), the rank and file activists and members joined the demonstration in a massive way.

“Screw the Troika—We want our lives” was the motto for the demonstration that took place on 15 September in Portugal. Roughly 1 million people took the streets of 40 cities around Portugal (in addition to solidarity demonstrations across Brazil and Europe). At the end of the demonstration the organisers called for a popular general strike and decided to establish contact with the trade unions in order to make this demand possible.

The reactions to the announcements regarding the social security tax were deeply negative. No one publicly supported this measure, not even members of the Troika committee. At the same time the Portuguese constitutional court declared the measure unconstitutional in the public sector. The government decided to retreat on both proposals and said that they would announce new measures soon.

Meanwhile, the CGTP decided to call for a demonstration on 29 September. This demonstration mobilised more than 200,000 people in Lisbon. The leader of the CGTP, Arménio Carlos, announced during his speech that the unions would meet the widespread demand for a general strike, though without setting a specific date.

On 3 October the finance minister announced new measures while speaking on television. Having been forced to retreat on the two main measures—the changes to the social security tax and the elimination of holiday bonuses—the government instead presented the biggest single income tax hike in Portuguese history, amounting to an increase of 35 percent. Essentially the government sought to compensate for the cuts they could not enact with tax increases.

After this brutal attack the CGTP called for a general strike for 14 November and its Spanish counterparts announced their intention to participate and suggested an Iberian general strike. The European Confederation of Trade Unions met on 16 October to discuss the possibility of widening the wave of general strikes throughout Europe. These discussions resulted in the first multi-state general strike in European history.

The general strike of 14 November had a strong impact in Portugal, not only because participation was extremely high, but also because it gave an international perspective to the struggle and was the first step to developing protests against austerity on a European scale. One of the most interesting things in this process is that the impetus for a strike emerged from the mobilisations that preceded it and were organised by groups outside of the trade unions. At the same time, it clearly shows the weakness of these movements—although there were one million people on the streets, the organisers have no influence in the decisions of the trade unions and had to wait for the leadership of the CGTP to support the strike to make it possible.

The weaknesses of the resistance

These three moments of mass mobilisation in Portugal have clear similarities: the three of them came from “rootless” organisations, they showed that the potential level of participation is much bigger then the number of people who are already organised, they happened as a momentary reaction to a concrete political proposal from the government and they all received above-average media coverage. The incredibly positive response to the movement’s critique of austerity underlines what possibilities lie on the horizon for Portugal’s radical left. So what is the problem? Why are we not seeing any big mobilisations now? Why has the working class not been able to exert pressure on the government through sectional struggles or sympathy strikes? Why has the impact of austerity not generated a mood of resistance? These are the most important questions for the Portuguese resistance right now.

As previously stated, when we started the anti-precarity mobilisations in 2007 we made a correct political choice that allowed the creation of a collective identity and an important pole of political attraction in Portuguese society. However, the choice to organise outside of the workplace was made out of weakness: we had no capacity politically to influence the trade unions and no networks inside the union structures. Besides, the trade union bureaucracy has little interest in creating grassroots networks of rank and file activists that could potentially slip out of their control and challenge the stability of the system. The Portuguese CP views the fight against the Troika as a struggle of “national liberation” and proposes a “patriotic left government”. It sees the political and economic struggles as occurring in different, separate spheres. In such a context this rootless social movement—of workers but not rooted in the workplace—is at the mercy of the leadership of the CGTP. The potential pitfalls of this situation were demonstrated both on the 15 October 2011 and on 15 September 2012 when, although they were the biggest demonstrations in Portugal since 1974, their organisers had to wait for the leadership of the CGTP to put the general strike in motion and had very little power to actually influence this process. This is part of the reason why the general strikes in Portugal have been organised “following the calendar” and never as a confrontational struggle in a specific political moment to challenge the government’s agenda.

It is also helpful that the anti-precarity networks have been able to create a vibrant political space in Portugal—unfortunately this space is more virtual than concrete. These groups work very efficiently with new media: they have established a series of blogs and websites used by precarious workers to share experiences and discuss politics and have also built up good relations to the traditional media, allowing them to highlight demands and campaigns in the mainstream news. But the core group of organisers is small and has grown very little through the years, precisely because of their rootlessness.

The political situation in Portugal is unstable and liable to change rapidly. Rootless networks such as our own are not always capable of giving fast answers—this was clearly the case when Angela Merkel visited Portugal on 12 November: one month after a demonstration of over 1 million people and two days before a European general strike only around 100 people showed up to the demonstration.

Since 2007 the anti-precarity activists have been at the heart of the resistance. The group of activists from Precários Inflexíveis has not dissolved into the broader movement but persists as an independent organisation and initiates its own projects, one being a national petition in support of a law against austerity. This demanded a lot of the movement’s resources, as such a petition requires the signatures of 35,000 people to be valid and cannot be conducted over the internet—this is only the second time in Portuguese history that such a signature drive has been undertaken. The group also became a legal association, allowing membership and offering an organisational response to the isolation and atomisation of precarious employment. However, the core of the organisation is still very small and has not grown. The movement has punched above its own weight on multiple occasions, giving many of us the illusion that we are stronger than we actually are. This is a problem as it means we neglect building rooted sustainable networks of resistance in the workplaces and communities, but rather focus on large one-off demonstrations that are not followed up with further struggle.

Precarity and traditional forms of workers’ organisation

Precarity pushes workers into a life of constant instability and to an uncertain future. The precarious condition, starting in the degradation of the labour relations, affects all dimensions of life. It is also important to explain what we in Portugal understand as precarity. Precarity is not only temporary work: it is the so-called “false green receipt”3 used massively by the Portuguese state that denies a labour contract to hundreds of thousands of people; it is the subcontracting companies which retain around half of the worker’s wage; it is the reality of informal work. Half of the Portuguese active population fluctuates between different forms of precarity, underemployment and unemployment.4 Above all, precarity makes collective organisation more difficult through the individualisation of the work relation and the blackmail of unemployment. Precarity is growing in all professional sectors and it is intergenerational; it’s a labour and social recomposition of huge dimensions based on super-exploitation and the permanent blackmail of unemployment.

For these reasons, we don’t understand precarity as an emerging class in opposition to the working class, but as the rapid destruction of the labour relations gained by the workers’ mobilisations of the 20th century: the eight-hour workday, the right to leisure, the freedom of association and expression, the right to protection in sickness and unemployment, the right to paid holidays, the right to contracts with rights and guarantees, the right to collective bargaining and contracting, the construction of the welfare state that grants access to health and education to us all. In this sense, precarity is about all of us and the working class is, in fact, the class most affected by precarious conditions.

This political understanding—that it is important to unify those affected by precarity in articulation with the traditional forms of the organisation of the working class to strengthen and amplify class struggle—was what made our articulation with the trade unions possible.

The trade unions are still today the most representative associations of workers. However, there is an urgent need for a change inside the trade unions and their structures. The fact that in Portugal workers can only become unionised by their work sector (in the sectoral trade unions) leads to the difficulty of organising those who live in precarious conditions changing sectors frequently. Also it is not possible for someone who is unemployed to become unionised. Informal work relations also do not allow workers to organise, and this is also the experience of many migrants. Moreover, closed and bureaucratised structures add many limitations to the struggling possibilities of rank and file members. But to force an antagonism between those who are detached from the experience of organisation and the workers’ organisations is a path that will lead nowhere and that weakens the whole of the working class. Therefore precarity challenges the trade unions to transform their structures and their activity into a more combative, more open to dialogue and more articulated struggle which has to include the strength of the precarious, the underemployed and the unemployed workers

The Bloco and the movements

It is also relevant to discuss the role of the Bloco. It was formed in 1999 by three small radical parties and a wide layer of independent activists. It aimed to be an oppositional party and to occupy the political space to the left of both the Stalinist CP and the social liberal Socialist Party. The Bloco sought to bridge the gap between the emerging anti-capitalist milieux and the social base of the Socialist Party (people who have been in the Socialist Party for many years but are unhappy with its neoliberal turn). The Bloco’s relation to the social movements was to be one of mutual respect and collaboration. The activists from the Bloco would participate in and build social movements in a comradely fashion, respecting and debating with other political currents and building the movement for the movement’s sake.

From 1999 to 2009 the party’s electoral fortunes went up and up, peaking in 2009 with a result of around 10 percent. However, in the snap elections of June 2011 the result dropped to 5 percent. This prompted an intense strategic debate within the party, where it was clear to most militants that Bloco was sending contradictory messages to its supporters. On the one hand, there was an attempt to be a “respectable” party and try to win over the disaffected supporters of the Socialist Party, which was in power until 2011. On the other hand, it was important to maintain Bloco’s image as a different kind of party and try to still be seen as an alternative to the existing political system. This led to the party being seen as too radical by some and not radical enough by others, throwing the party back to the results of 2005. Out of this debate emerged the party’s current line: a call for a government of the left based on four points of unity:

1) Annulment of the abusive debt: reduction of the debt to 60 percent of GDP, renegotiation of deadlines and interest with all the lender institutions, public and private, national and international.

2) Reversal of all wage cuts and guarantee of essential social goods: public education, public health system, public social security system.

3) Nationalisation of all the banks receiving bailout money from the state, redirecting of investment for the public good and reversal of the nationalisations of formerly public economic sectors (energy, telecommunications, etc).

4) Strengthening of financial regulations, fighting of fiscal fraud and a shift of the burden of taxation from labour to capital.

These four points are to serve as the basis for a possible left government, which is to be formed by any and all political forces who agree to the four points. Given that the Bloco received only 5 percent of the votes in 2011, the call for a left government (which can include the CP and the Socialist Party if the latter is willing to renegotiate the memorandum of the Troika) cannot be seen as the result of any electoral calculus but is rather an attempt to open new political avenues in Portugal entirely. However, this proposal has short-term (let alone middle and long-term) limitations. The CP is extremely sectarian and unwilling to support a project it cannot control (and has always approached the Bloco with suspicion at best); the PS is not in power (as opposed to Pasok when Syriza called for a left government in Greece) and would not accept the four proposed points anyway, since it also signed the memorandum and is itself in the middle of a small rhetorical shift to the left. The PS leadership is talking left in an attempt to marginalise the Bloco – why should it join a government of the left?

These political calculations aside, the greatest limitation lies in the lack of sustained grassroots resistance in Portugal. If the call for a left government rests upon the assumption that there has to be a seismic shift on the Portuguese political map spurred on by growing mobilisation and resistance, that resistance has to come before any potential government could even have a social base. The Portuguese left has had extremely important moments of mobilisation but they have not yet turned into organised resistance. To fight against this weakness by proposing an institutional/parliamentary solution is to put the cart in front of the horse—before we can talk about a political sea change, we need to be laying the groundwork.

In 2012 a survey was published about the quality of democracy in Portugal.5 The results are very interesting and provide some clues to how we can formulate our strategy: 78 percent of the respondents agreed that politicians are only concerned with their own interests, and 77 percent said that major political decisions favour large corporations. There is also a clear distrust of political parties, and social movements are considered to be more able to voice the people’s concerns. Public trust in democratic institutions is continually decreasing, aided by the perception that the Portuguese government is essentially held captive by international institutions. In this situation, a purely or even primarily institutional answer is an even more problematic and limited one. Elections and parliamentary manoeuvring do not fundamentally transform society—what changes people’s relationship to politics is activism, collective experience and organisation.

The Bloco needs to use the immense capacity of its activists to build local branches capable of organising broad campaigns to defend local institutions and public goods. Especially as local elections approach, this could prove phenomenally successful. At the same time the Bloco needs to be more present in the movements and strengthen solidarity networks to, for example, prevent evictions or organise collective kitchens. This would not be with the aim of replacing the obligations of the state but to be able to in practice communicate that collective problems (like unemployment, poverty, hunger, the lack of housing) cannot be dealt with individually. It is also important that the activists from the Bloco are able to contribute to addressing the political challenges of the movement by broadening the understanding that this is not a temporary problem but a systemic crisis. The party must articulate the possibility and necessity of alternatives to capitalism and help people believe that they are possible if we build them together.

From mobilisation to resistance—a few conclusions

The biggest challenge for the Portuguese left is to turn the spontaneous and uneven moments of mobilisation into organised resistance. It is necessary to rethink our relationship to the traditional workers’ organisations, how to negotiate the new reality of precarious employment and how to challenge the political line of the trade unions to see past the artificial division of political and economic struggle. We need to grow roots and bring new experiences to the workers’ and the social movements: re-energising the rank and file, organising the unemployed and building networks of solidarity with sectional struggles. Ultimately it comes down to growing roots and being able to turn a feeling of generalised discontent into organised action and collective experiences.

The group of activists that organised the demonstration on 15 September broadened the organisation and prepared a new demonstration for 2 March 2013. According to the organisers, there were 1.5 million people on the streets of Portugal, making it one of the biggest demonstrations in Portuguese history. There are two differences in the success of this demonstration: the media attention wasn’t as great as during the lead up to 15 September, and the government hadn’t presented any new austerity measures in the preceding days—2 March 2013 therefore marked a clear qualitative growth in the capacity of mobilisation of the social movement in Portugal. It is also important to note that the leader of the CGTP publicly supported and called for the demonstrations, a change in Portuguese political dynamics. Moreover, the anthem of the revolution of 1974-75, “Grândola, Vila Morena”, was the demonstration’s main slogan: the memory of the revolution is becoming more and more tangible, allowing the recovery of a more radical political standpoint as well as the opening up of a wider field of possible alternatives. This demonstration is a new lease of life for the resistance in Portugal. However, from this experience new forms of organisation and mobilisation have to come forward in order to transform periodic mobilisation into new forms of active resistance.


1: “They want us precarious-We will be rebellious!” is one of the most important and well known slogans of the anti-precarity movement.

2: Social Democratic Party (PSD): the right wing party now in power; Christian Democratic Party (CDS): the conservative party now in power in coalition with the PSD.

3: The false green receipts are a form of independent contract used illegally by many employers and the state to avoid permanent employment and paying for social security, illness, holiday and unemployment funds.

4: Numbers given by the association Precários Inflexíveis with data from the National Institute of Statistics. It can be found at:

5: Pinto, Magalhães, Sousa and Gorbunova, 2012.


Pinto, António Costa, Pedro Magalhães, Luís de Sousa and Ekaterina Gorbunova, 2012, A Qualidade da Democracia em Portugal: A perspectiva dos Cidadãos (ICS-UL),