More than three million workers laid down their tools on Wednesday as the biggest industrial action ever witnessed in Portugal ground the country to a halt. Aimed at protesting the government’s austerity measures, with wage cuts topping workers’ list of complaints, schools, hospitals and public transport terminals were managed by skeleton staff as union leaders revelled in the unprecedented success of the one-day strike.
The first joint strike staged by the country’s two most influential trade unions was on Wednesday evening termed the biggest in history, as “over three million of the country’s four million workers” laid down their tools.
The government contested the figures presented by the CGTP and the UGT trade unions, who boast to cover most of the country’s civil servants, though Lisbon opted not to present complete figures of their own.
Wednesday was the first occasion unions had joined forces since 1988 - the last occasion Portugal recorded a general strike, which was staged at the time to protest new labour legislation.
Leading up to the strike, UGT leader João Proença said the action was “fair and fundamental in changing government policy”.
“Government policies will have a negative impact on employment. We need policies that give preference to increasing employment”, explained Mr. Proença.
The UGT leader also stressed that the “budget deficit cannot be the first, second and third priority in Portugal”.
Silent in the wake of the action, the Finance Minister was adamant in the days leading up to the strike that nothing, if anything, could be done to appease disgruntled workers.
“I believe there is no need to be agitated about the general strike. Trade unions have called it, they have a right to do so, but that won’t change the government’s mind about what needs to be done”, Teixeira dos Santos said recently.
“The country’s financing capacity is at stake” he said, adding that fiscal consolidation will be “harsh and demanding” but it needs to be done, or “the nation’s situation will be much worse than people imagine”.
“In 2011, Portugal’s growth will be lower than in 2010, both due to the tenuous recovery in the global economy – especially within [Portugal’s] main trading partners – and to the impact of the additional fiscal restraint measures”, the minister argued.
The initial cost of the strike has been set at well over €500 million to the economy, which is just under 20% of the value the government is seeking to save from its austerity budget approved this week.
Meanwhile, those hardest hit by Wednesday’s action, which unions are already promising more of, were commuters attempting to travel to work in major metropolitan areas such as Lisbon and Oporto.
In the capital, the underground was shut down, a situation which was mirrored in Oporto.
Only scheduled flights to the Portuguese island regions of Madeira and the Azores took off, though air traffic controllers did arrive for work in order to guide planes flying through Portuguese airspace.
At Faro airport, hundreds of displeased tourists were put out by the strike.
A group of German passengers who had been scheduled to travel on a 12:50pm Air Berlin flight to the German capital were awaiting coaches, organised to transfer them to Seville, where some of the incoming aircraft had been diverted.
The same procedure was applied to other Air Berlin passengers travelling on flights that day to Düsseldorf and Majorca.
But despite having had alternative transport arranged to ensure flights to get home, the German groups were still facing lengthy delays on arrival times of around five hours.
One lady told The Portugal News she was “astonished” by the situation, while another said she was “very upset” at arriving back in Germany at a much later time, as she was longing to see her children.
Ryanair passengers appeared to be more angered seeing all flights on Wednesday, cancelled which included destinations such as London Stansted, Gatwick, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool and Frankfurt.
According to passengers no compensation or support had been offered by the airline. Unfounded rumours that rival low-cost airline easyJet was footing hotel bills for disrupted passengers did nothing to ease the antagonism.
Melanie Jarvis, a passenger due to have travelled on a Ryanair flight to Stansted on Wednesday morning, told The Portugal News “I’m gutted – we’ve had no help whatsoever.”
Mrs. Jarvis, who was travelling with two young children, only found out about the strike after arriving at the airport.
“If we were sent an email to warn us I didn’t check it because we’re on holiday – you don’t check your emails all the time, do you?”
She was told by the airline’s representatives at the airport that she would have to change her booking to the next available flight, at her own expense.
“The next flight’s not until Friday so it looks like we’re going to have to stay here, at our own expense, and pay ourselves for our tickets to return home. We’ve got jobs to get back to, school…I don’t know what to do next.”
Mrs. Jarvis summed up her opinion of the action by vowing “I’m never coming here again.”
On Monday, Ryanair issued a statement slamming the strike and appealing for the ‘right to stike’ to be removed from all national air traffic controllers.
“So far Ryanair has been forced to cancel more than 2,000 flights and delay more than 12,000, causing disruption to more than 2.5 million passengers, as a direct result of strikes carried out by Belgian, French, Spanish and now Portuguese controllers.”
Ryanair was forced to cancel more than 60 of its flights on Wednesday.
In a statement sent to The Portugal News, the airline’s spokesperson Daniel de Carvalho stressed: “The European Commission must act now to end this chaos caused by air traffic controllers.”