25th Feb 2020

Anti-austerity general strike hits Portugal, UK students protest cuts

  • British students protest tuition fees climbing to as high as £9,000 (Photo: Anna Tesar)

Portuguese workers shut down the country on Wednesday (24 November) in a general strike mounted against the centre-left government's imposition of austerity measures.

The one-day, largely peaceful industrial action organised by the two main union centrals, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and the more moderate General Workers' Union (UGT), aimed at staying the hand of the government, which is due to pass further austerity measures in a budget vote on Friday.

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Significantly, the two union centrals struck together, the first time this has happened since the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 that overthrew the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. It is also the first time that the UGT, which his close to the governing Socialists, has ever struck against a centre-left government.

Transport, education, healthcare and other public services were particularly badly affected, although there was heavy participation in the strike by private-sector workers as well, with a reported 95 percent of workers at Volkswagen's Autoeuropa plant on the outskirts of Lisbon downing tools and shutting the factory.

Flights in and out of the country were cancelled or delayed with both ground staff and air traffic controllers joining the picket lines. All ports were closed

Buses, ferries and subway services in the capital were stilled, while some 80 percent of rail services were halted.

Small businesses, particularly shops, restaurants and cafes however remained open for the most part.

The government is pushing through measures intended to convince markets of its determination to bring down public debt levels and bring down the cost of borrowing so it is not forced to follow in the path of Greece and Ireland and apply for what could be the eurozone's third rescue package.

The country's bond spread over 10-year German bonds climbed to an all-time record of 481 basis points on Wednesday. The cost of borrowing is growing much higher than the relatively low premium attached to tapping a eurozone bail-out fund.

The fear of the markets is almost certainly more worrying to cabinet members than any pressure from the streets and the minority government is widely expected to pass the measures easily as the right-wing opposition has decided to abstain.

Meanwhile in the UK, tens of thousands of students across the country also tried to get their voices heard, protesting hikes in tuition fees that in some cases could go as high as £9,000 (€10,650) for a year of study.

An estimated 130,000 students took part in demonstrations in major cities, the second such action in two weeks.

Largely peaceful as well, in contrast to the occupation of Tory headquarters by London protesters during the last protest, some skirmishes and vandalism did however occur in the capital.

A police van was attacked and a number of windows smashed, resulting in 32 arrests, according to police.

Students have occupied their universities at 12 institutions around the country.

Correction: This article originally described the CGPT and UGT as respectively public sector and private sector union centrals, when the distinction is more ideological than sectoral.

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