Interview: Portugal’s strike movement

Issue: 178

Raquel Varela

Portugal is currently witnessing its largest wave of struggle since the protests in the wake of the 2008-9 economic crisis. Rob Vinten spoke to Raquel Varela, a prolific author and professor of global labour studies at New University Lisbon, about the ongoing struggle and its relationship to previous movements.1

Rob: Would you describe yourself as an activist? A trade unionist? An academic?

Raquel: I think I am a bit of all of those. I am a historian, and I have published and edited around 30 books, most of them on the history of revolutions. Two of them are translated into English.2 I am very engaged in defending labour rights and in the self-organisation of workers, and I am also president of the Observatory of Labour and Living Conditions. I have participated in a television programme for the past eight years—a weekly debate programme on public television. I don’t have a party affiliation at this moment and I haven’t had one since 2004 or something like that. I consider myself a romantic socialist, part of the tradition of the Left Opposition.3

Rob: Can you tell us a little about the current struggles in Portugal? There are strikes by two teaching unions, the Union of All Education Professionals (STOP; Sindicato de Todos Os Profissionais da Educação) and the National Federation of Teachers (FENPROF; Federação Nacional dos Professores). What is the nature of these strikes and the unions leading them? My impression is that STOP is more radical than FENPROF, which is traditionally close to the Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português).

Raquel: STOP was born in 2018 when the Socialist Party (PS; Partido Socialista) government was being supported by the Communist Party and the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda).4 It said that the traditional union, FENPROF, was not doing anything. The government refused to give back money it had cut from teachers’ salaries. On demonstrations teachers were always saying that they should be paid for their “tempo de serviço”—the time they have worked—as career progression, which allowed them to earn a little bit more, had been frozen.

STOP came into being in this period along with the other unions such as the Union of Automobile Sector Workers (STASA; Sindicato dos Trabalhadores do Sector Automóvel). There were also new unions in the electrical industry, on the metro, among public servants and in call centres. Tanker drivers held two huge strikes, which halted the country, and created a new union, which argued against cuts in wages, the intensification of work and “continuous labour” (that is, losing the automatic right to take Sunday as a rest day). The government at the time, supported by the left parties, ordered military “requisition” of this strike, banning the strike action and using soldiers to drive tankers.

Another important strike in that period was the nurses’ strike. This was referred to as the “surgical strike” (“greve cirúrgica”). They shut the surgery wards, and all the nurses gave to a strike fund to support those taking action. The government decided to ban it with a “civil requisition” order. They said, “The national interest is being called into question; we have to ban this strike.” Of course, this led to repeated crises in the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, which lost votes in subsequent elections. The Communist Party lost support in the unions.

So, after the PS won an absolute majority, spurred on by the rise in inflation, teachers called a strike in December 2022.5 It was a very intelligent strike, because they stopped just for the first hours of the day, which meant that parents couldn’t go to work because they had to stay at home with their kids. In addition, they created a strike fund together with technicians, cleaning staff and all the other people that work in schools.

Rob: That is one thing that differentiates STOP from FENPROF, right? STOP involves a broader range of workers and FENPROF is more just a teachers’ union.

Raquel: Yes. This was also inspired by the dockers’ union, which had decided that all people in the port could be unionised by them.

Rob: When I asked a representative from STOP, they said that STOP is apolitical and doesn’t have a political affiliation. Could you say a little bit more about this?

Raquel: STOP has a leadership that comes from the left. We should not confuse “non-party” unions, which STOP is, and “anti-political” unions. So, STOP defends left-wing, progressive ideas and is a very rank and file-based organisation. It is extremely democratic. This is a country where we had a lot of radical left-wing unions until the workers at the LISNAVE shipyard were defeated in 1986—like the miners in Britain.6 Since then we haven’t had a radical left-wing tradition in the unions. We have an extremely bureaucratic tradition, dominated by the Communist Party, and a neo-corporatist tradition linked to the PS. But now, as the PS government hasn’t answered the demands of the workers, there has been a new radicalisation of the unions.

In the past, FENPROF used to negotiate with the government against their own rank and file workers. STOP says on the television that they won’t negotiate without listening to their rank and file, which irritates the capitalists a lot. When the journalists ask what they are going to decide, they say: “I don’t decide. It is the rank and file who decide.” All this is based on strike committees in each school. Even when they don’t call them strike committees, they have their own organisation in each school.

So, you have strikes like the one I have talked about in the schools, which only happens for the first hours of the day. The government simply doesn’t care about education; thousands of students were without teachers even before the strike because there are not enough teaching staff. People do not want to teach for 1,000 Euros a month.7 They care that parents cannot go to work. Hence, they care about these strikes, because a strike in a school for small kids during the first hours of the morning impacts the economic sectors in which the parents work.

That’s why there is all this tension around the strike. What is so impressive is that the population, according to all the data, still supports the strike after four months. People clap when there are demonstrations. There have been five demonstrations, and three of these included practically all the teachers in Portugal. Between 100,000 and 140,000 demonstrated.

Rob: Yes. I went to the demonstration on 11 February 2023. I walked down Avenida da Liberdade to film the demonstration coming down and then walked slowly back up. There was still an enormous crowd up at the assembly point, Praça do Marquês de Pombal. By then, I think the front of the demonstration must have already reached Terreiro do Paço, and there was a crowd at Marques de Pombal for more than an hour after the demonstration had started. It was an enormous demonstration.

Raquel: STOP is as inspiring as the dockers, but the struggle is massive because there are some 140,000 teachers. There are just 300 dockers, although they are very strong—this 300 can grind many companies to a halt because of their “just in time” logistical models.

Oh, I have to add that the government—this “left-wing” government—approved a state of emergency in the early days of the pandemic. This forbade strikes, and half of the dockers were dismissed on that day. They destroyed the dockers’ strike, which had served as an example. This is very important.

Rob: I had read that there was still activity by dockers and that there are dockers acting in solidarity with strikes elsewhere.

Raquel: The union operates because it has members in Setúbal and Madeira, However, some 150 workers, half of the entire workforce of the port who were participating in the dockers’ dispute, were dismissed on the first day of the state of emergency. They have not been reinstated.

Rob: There are more strikes planned as well, aren’t there, by the railway workers? More are happening in March.

Raquel: Yes, you’ve had railway workers almost permanently on strike in different areas over the past two months. Plus, a strike among doctors and nurses. The first strike in this wave was in the automobile industry, I believe, in November 2022, before the teachers’ strike. There is also a kind of permanent strike, as regards certain tasks and working overtime, among workers who run the courts and prison guards and other sectors.

Rob: Can you tell me a bit about the Vida Justa movement, which calls for limits on prices of essential goods? They marched with up to around ten thousand people on the Portuguese parliament on 25 February. There was a demonstration with about 50,000 people held by STOP on the same day, which marched to the prime minister’s residence, just behind parliament, and then came down to parliament to show solidarity with Vida Justa.

Raquel: Vida Justa is a movement whose leadership comes from organisations close to the Communist Party. It is linked to non-governmental organisations based in workers’ neighbourhoods, especially those for black workers with very bad working and living conditions. But it is a very small movement. Until now they have only had one demonstration. I was there and had the feeling that the number of workers from those neighbourhoods was small; it was mainly a demonstration of left activists.

Rob: I quite liked the fact that it met up with the STOP demonstration—that there was solidarity between the two demonstrations.

Raquel: But this was a rank and file solidarity. When the STOP march arrived at the parliament, the Vida Justa leaders, including parliamentarians and public figures from the Communist Party and Left Bloc, left the event. This is odd and sectarian. However, the rank and file of both protests sang against prime minister António Costa together: “Costa hear us, the people are united”.

Rob: Did they ban the display of political party placards? I noticed the Left Bloc were there, but didn’t hold placards or banners identifying themselves as such.

Raquel: There is a very naive and stupid idea in Portugal, which comes from Communist Party pressure, that you don’t take your flags to a unity protest. It is nonsense. In other countries in Europe and elsewhere, you go to a unity protest, which is a wise thing to do, but you take your own flags and have your own programme.

Rob: My impression is that the recent demonstrations by the teachers and the series of strikes by rail, health and media workers constitute the biggest wave of workers’ struggle in Portugal in at least a decade. I was in touch with somebody at STOP who said it is the largest action by teachers since 2008. Would you agree?

Raquel: I have no doubt that we are experiencing a wave of workers’ struggle the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2008, and this even has some characteristics that maybe we didn’t see before. I will explain why.

We had huge demonstrations in 2008 and 2009. There were the truck drivers, the teachers and a movement, let’s say, very similar to what happened with Occupy and the demonstrations that the surrounded the parliament in Spain.8 There were mass demonstrations in Portugal. At their height, on 15 September 2012, these had one and a half million people on them, around 15 percent of the entire population.

These protests were in opposition to austerity measures during the Troika intervention.9 In my opinion, at that time, the demonstrations had grassroots, precarious and young workers at their vanguard—but also factions of the capitalist class in favour of foreign intervention in the banking and construction sectors. The first demonstration against the bailout, known as “geração à rasca” (“generation without prospects”), really came from below. It was unorganised and spontaneous. It started on social networks, though these social networks had no control over it. The second one was mobilised by important sectors of the capitalist class against changes to taxation and social contributions. Mass demonstrations were used to wage fights between the ruling class but, after this huge protest of one and a half million people, around 100,000 people continued to protest in a more radical direction. So, it got a bit out of the control of the ruling-class factions. They were very worried by this.

Another intense moment of fighting was the so-called European general strike on the 14 November of 2012, which involved countries in southern Europe. After that, you saw action from the most important sector at that time, the dockers, who had a radical left-wing union. They were very influenced by the dockers’ strike in Liverpool in the 1990s.10 The leader of the strike had been in Liverpool, and he also had a lot of contact with radical trade unionists from Sweden, the United States, France and Spain. The dockers’ union played an important role because it was the only union that never gave up the fight against the Troika. They were on strike for many years, refusing to accept any precarious workers into the ports. They said, “If you put a precarious worker in here, we will stop work.” This went on for years until the state of emergency during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While all these Troika attacks were taking place, there were huge workers’ struggles against the privatisation of passenger transport, the TAP Air Portugal airline, and public transport in Lisbon. Plus, there was near permanent revolt among teachers. The dock workers were an inspiration for others.

In 2015, the PS came to power with the parliamentary support of the Left Bloc and the Communist Party. The Left Bloc is a party with media support but no grassroots or strong links to the organised working class, and the Communist Party is a very Stalinist party with a grassroots membership in the unions. It controls the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP; Confederação Geral Dos Trabalhadores Portugueses), the biggest union confederation.

Rob: Can you say a bit more about how new, more radical union organisation emerged from this period?

Raquel: The “geringonça” (contraption) is the odd name given to the first PS governments. I call these governments of national unity, although they were seen as left-wing governments abroad. The idea was to form a government that could bring social peace to the country by attending to some of the demands of workers. So, TAP Air Portugal was not privatised, but rather semi-privatised. Public transport continued to be in public hands and was placed in the control of the municipality of Lisbon, and the Lisbon Metro was not privatised. The teachers got back a small part of the wage cuts made under the Troika. They didn’t reverse all the cuts to pensions, which amounted to 10 percent or more, but they stopped making further cuts. So, they didn’t return the money they slashed during the Troika period, but they stopped making further cuts. There was intense propaganda saying that the government was giving the workers what they needed.

But the Troika had also demanded that overtime payments should be cut by half and had set a maximum redundancy compensation at the equivalent of 12 months’ pay.11 These two laws were never touched by the geringonça government. Rank and file workers were very upset with this. Portuguese people have some of the lowest wages in Europe, and everybody has a second job or works overtime. More than half of the working class officially works between 50 and 70 hours per week at present, according to national statistics. There is burnout and exhaustion. People are despairing. Lots of unions that were traditionally under the control of the Communist Party went to the dockers’ strike, talked to the dockers’ union and went to speak with left-wing intellectuals, saying, “We want to create new unions. We don’t believe in traditional unionism.”

The dockers were an inspiration for us. We had other incredible strikes during the period when the PS government was supported by the Left Bloc and the Communists. The country’s model firm, Volkswagen, was run by a workers’ commission, and the leader was a Left Bloc supporter.12 Once he left the company, there was another guy close to the Left Bloc in charge. The company sought to impose “continuous work”, and the Left Bloc leader in the factory supported this, meaning you could be made to work on Saturday and Sunday. It was compulsory. The workers held four mass meetings, with almost 4,000 workers across them, and rejected this. The only thing the “left-wing” government said was that the workers had to accept the change and that the state could open a kindergarten at the factory at weekends. This led to the birth of a new left-wing, combative and democratic union at Volkswagen.

Rob: I want to ask a more historical question. I’ve heard stories from the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 about people taking over the land and factories, and I still find it inspiring now. I enjoy going to the demonstrations every year on 25 April, the anniversary of the revolution. My sense is that the revolution had a lasting impact on Portugal. Spain didn’t have a revolution, and I think that has affected Spanish politics negatively in some ways. For instance, there is a clearer rejection of António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal than there is of General Francisco Franco’s rule in the Spanish state. Does that sound right to you?

Raquel: Yes, this is absolutely true. Portugal had a revolution, and this had a huge impact on the end of Francoism. In the first year of my PhD, I published several pieces of research on this. You can’t understand the end of Francoism without grasping the impact of the Portuguese Revolution and the downfall of the colonels’ dictatorship in Greece. I think that abroad people underestimate the impact of the 1974 Revolution. It was the most inspiring process for the left for many years.

It was amazing because it was a revolution that started with anti-colonial revolutions. The base of the anti-colonial revolts were the peasants. They are the social base of this process.13 Then it became a revolution in the metropolis. Over 19 months, the banks were expropriated and the workers came to control more than 600 companies, which were occupied or turned into cooperatives. Dozens of huge companies were under workers’ control, and hospitals were occupied by doctors. Schools, including the private ones, were occupied by teachers. Some of these hospitals and schools are today public schools and public hospitals.

So, it was an amazing process. It is one of the most inspiring revolutions of the 20th century. As Paul Sweezy used to say, and I totally agree with him, it was the first revolution of the 21st century because it was a revolution involving huge participation by both the industrial working class and the service sector: teachers, doctors, nurses, physicians, scientists, musicians and so on.14 These sectors, together with the organised industrial working class, were involved in the Portuguese soviets, which were known as workers’ commissions.

Raquel Varela is Professor of Global Labour Studies at the New University Lisbon. She is the author of A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto Press, 2019) and A People’s History of Europe (Pluto Press, 2021).


1 The interview was conducted on 7 March 2023 and has been edited for clarity.

2 A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto, 2019) and A People’s History of Europe from World War I to Today (Pluto, 2021).

3 The Left Opposition, led by Leon Trotsky, was an anti-Stalin faction of the Russian Communists.

4 Since 2015, the social-democratic Socialist Party (PS) under António Costa has led three governments. The first two, from November 2015 to March 2022, were minority governments. Since then, the PS has sustained a majority government. The Left Bloc is a radical left-wing party, founded in 1999, and has some representation in parliament. It engaged in a “confidence and supply” agreement to support the first of Costa’s governments.

5 In elections in early 2022, the PS won 120 out of 230 seats in parliament. The Left Bloc saw their representation fall from 19 to just five seats, while the Communist Party lost half of its 12 seats.

6 The defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike was a historic setback for the British working class.

7 About £870.

8 In the wake of the 2008-9 economic crisis, a number of movements involved the occupation of public squares and similar spaces. These include the “indignados” (indignant ones) in the Spanish state and the Occupy movement, which began on Wall Street in the US and spread globally.

9 The Troika consisted of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund. These bodies policed the austerity programmes imposed on countries such as Greece and Portugal when they were bailed out during their economic crises.

10 In 1995, a group of around 300 dockers on Merseyside were locked out by their employers in a dispute that continued for 28 months. The dispute attracted attention from trade unionists and campaigners around the world.

11 Workers get 12 days’ pay for each year they have worked up to this maximum.

12 The Volkswagen plant in Palmela represents Portugal’s largest foreign industrial investment.

13 The revolution was partly triggered by revolts in Portuguese colonies such as Angola.

14 The US Marxist economist Paul Sweezy was associated with the periodical Monthly Review.