UNIONS CLAIMED that 700,000 public service workers, three quarters of their total membership, joined last Friday’s strike called in protest at government plans to alter working conditions.
Unions said the strike disrupted hospitals and health centres, rubbish collection and street cleaning as well as many government and municipal offices and courts.
The strike arose from a so-called “common front” of public sector unions, including the Confederation of General Workers’ Union and the General Workers’ Union. The first effects of the strike were felt in the early hours of Friday morning when nearly all refuse collectors stayed away from work. The Union of Local Administration Workers said that rubbish collection was halted in at least 14 councils. Adhesion to the strike was said to be 100 per cent in Almada, Amadora, Evora, Barreiros, Loures, Seixal, Moita, Montemor-o-Novo and Vendas Novas, Matosinhos and Oeiras. In Funchal (Madeira) adhesion to the strike by refuse collectors was 90 per cent and in Coimbra it was 80 per cent. Effects of the strike were also felt in the Algarve where hospital operating theatres in Faro and the Barlavento were said to be “virtually shut”, as were many courts and finanças.
Unions called the strike after Prime Minister José Sócrates’ socialist government unveiled measures to rein in the spiralling budget deficit. Sócrates, pledging to cut the public deficit from 6.8 per cent this year to below the euro zone limit of three per cent of GDP by 2008, announced cost cutting measures in June that angered unions and public sector workers. These included the suspension of civil service bonuses and promotions, the freezing of executive salaries and the raising of the retirement age for public sector workers from 60 to 65, in line with the private sector. Teachers and nurses also made their protests known against the plans when they staged their own strike last month, as did 5,000 police officers who demonstrated against plans to reduce their health benefits.
The unions’ figures for adhesion to the strike were well above those of the government who claimed only 30 per cent of workers joined the protest. Finance Minister, Luís Campos e Cunha, insisted the government was available for dialogue with the unions but said there would be no major U-turn on policy. He acknowledged that “the right to strike is a prerogative available to all workers” but stressed that there were “essential strands of the government’s policy that cannot be cast aside”.