Tony Cliff

Portugal at the crossroads

The masses enter the arena

The mass of the workers did not wait for the Government or for the labour leaders to tell them what to do, but immediately and effectively entered upon the historical arena. The collapse of fascism raised their expectations. Revolutions are impatient, and the revolutionary masses are impatient. The downtrodden were looking for radical changes in their lives, for enlarged horizons.

Revolutions break the wall between the partial economic struggles and the general political struggle. Each kind of struggle reciprocally encourages the other.

The weeks and months following 25 April 1974 proved to the hilt how wrong were those who see a Chinese wall between partial struggle for economic reforms and the political struggle for revolution, and how correct Rosa Luxemburg was when she pointed out that in a revolutionary period the economic struggle grows into a political one and vice versa:

The movement does not go only in one direction, from an economic to a political struggle, but also in the opposite direction. Every important political mass action, after reaching its peak, results in a series of economic mass strikes. And this rule applies not only to the individual mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole. With the spread, clarification and intensification of the political struggle not only does the economic struggle not recede, but on the contrary it spreads and at the same time becomes more organised and intensified. There exists a reciprocal influence between the two struggles. Every fresh attack and victory of the political struggle has a powerful impact on the economic struggle, in that at the same time as it widens the scope for the workers to improve their conditions and strengthens their impulse to do so, it enhances their fighting spirit. After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles. And the reverse also applies. The workers’ constant economic struggle against capital sustains them at every pause in the political battle. The economic struggle constitutes, so to speak, the permanent reservoir of working-class strength from which political struggles always imbibe new strength. The untiring economic fight of the proletariat leads every moment to sharp isolated conflicts here and there from which explode unforeseen political struggles on an immense scale.

In a word, the economic struggle is the factor that advances the movement from one political focal point to another. The political struggle periodically fertilises the ground for the economic struggle. Cause and effect interchange every second. Thus we find that the two elements, the economic and political, do not incline to separate themselves from one another during the period of the mass strikes in Russia, not to speak of negating one another, as pedantic schemes would suggest. [9]

After 25 April 1974 the immediate task was to recover from the years of fascist repression and unite the workers split up by the multitude of unions in a particular plant, and a multitude of plants and small production units throughout industry.

The Portuguese working class took the task of unification into their own hands. In factories all over Portugal workers’ committees were elected to lead rank and file struggles, not only on a local basis but also for whole industries and throughout monopolies.

In the electronics industry a combine has been formed which has workers’ delegates from all the electronics firms – Plesseys, STC, ITT, etc. Many factories and sections of workers are regularly producing newspapers and bulletins for the rank and file. In some cases, such as the wool and textile industries, the docks, and the steel industries, these papers are produced for the workers of entire industries.

These are not alternative trade unions, but are made up of delegates elected by the rank and file of the trade unions in the plants, and are designed to give a responsive, democratic leadership to the factory. The factory committees coordinate the struggles on a day-to-day basis and all policy decisions are taken by mass meetings. Negotiations with the management are reported to the rank and file.

From the start, political and economic demands have been closely linked in the workers’ committees. Saneamento (purging) meant much more than simply locking up the secret policemen. Effectively and thoroughly carried out, it means to virtually destroy the structure of the bourgeois state. Because the corporate state meant control over every level of social life, banks, churches, schools, universities, offices and factory managements, a complete saneamento would mean the destruction of the entire social hierarchy from board of directors right down to foremen.

In the big companies, multinationals especially, economic demands went alongside struggles for the purging of all members of the management or administration that were in any way connected with the fascist regime: “In some places this means the sacking of them all”. [10]

During May 1974 alone over 200,000 workers in the key sectors of textiles, shipbuilding, transport, hotel and catering, electronics, the post office, and banking, were on strike for better wages and conditions as well as for saneamento.

In Lisnave 8,400 workers went on strike, occupying the shipyards of Margueira and Rocha do Conde de Orbidos. Main demands were £130 minimum wage per month and a 40-hour week.

In textiles, about 6,000 workers of the Lanificios of Corvitha, Tordozendo and Unhais de Serra decided to begin a strike on 12 May in order to back their demand for a £13 monthly increase. The strike spread to several factories in Porto, Castanheira de Pera, Castelo Branco, Cebolais de Lima, Lisbon, Portalegre, Mira d’Aire and Arelar.

About 1,600 miners in Panasqueira began a strike on 13 May. Demands were a £100 minimum monthly wage, an annual bonus of a monthly wage, free medical care, the purge of all people linked with the fascist regime and one month’s holiday. The strike ended on 20 May and all the workers’ demands were met.

Firestone workers in Lisbon, Alcochete, Porto and Coimbra began a strike on 13 May and occupied the plants. They demanded the purge of elements of the administration connected with the fascist regime and went back to work on 20 May. [11]

By the end of June significant advances had been made. Saneamento, although by no means complete, had resulted in the most compromised and prominent right wingers being cleared out of offices, newspapers, radio and television stations, local government structures, churches and factories throughout Portugal, the most sustained and far-reaching purging being conducted in the factories where the repression which followed the wave of strikes preceding the coup was still fresh in the memory of the class.

For the multinationals the legislation of a national minimum wage by the government in June, and the militancy with which the working class fought to enforce it and with which shop floor organisation developed, meant the end of the era of super-exploitation of cheap and repressed labour. Companies such as Plesseys, Timex and ITT started repatriating capital, and attempted to close down parts of their operations and move out. Many of the small and medium enterprises have gone bankrupt and closed down or simply been abandoned by their owners.

The struggle against redundancies began in June 1974. By September 1975 there were 300,000 out of work in the industrial sector alone. The harsh facts of Portugal’s capitalism continue to drive the working class to defend itself.

Many factories have been taken over by the workers, and the workers’ committees, which were elected soon after 25 April 1974, have started to run them. But the bosses didn’t give up without a fight. They tried to bring in the Strike Law against the workers. In Charminha, a small garment factory outside Lisbon, they tried to pay salaries with bounced cheques. The Austrian manager fled the country, and the workers, mainly women, set up a cooperative to sell their work to the people. In Eurofil, which makes plastics, fibres, rope and sacking, etc, and was run on 40 percent casual labour, the management tried to make the company go bankrupt. The workers occupied the factory and continued production. They have kept out the bosses and are demanding nationalisation without compensation under workers’ control.

In Tintura Portugalia, the biggest network of dyers in Portugal, the bosses answered the list of workers’ demands with a list of redundancies and a lockout. The workers occupied the factory and started a work-in. The bosses, who claimed the company faced a critical financial situation, nevertheless started to run a highly expensive campaign of smear and slander against the workers in the national press and radio. Their plans were foiled by workers in the radio station who blacked the campaign and broadcast the workers’ version of the struggle instead.

A new wave of very bitter redundancy struggles has been sweeping Portugal since January. In the first six weeks of this year there have been more than 250 struggles around this issue.

Strikes are no longer the main tactic being used in these struggles. Instead, an ever growing number of factories have been occupied. Some, like the Nutripol supermarket chain, are being run under workers’ control, and in a number of cases workers have demanded nationalisation – in the CUF, a sprawling conglomerate that has now been nationalised, and the Nefil Furniture factory where a spokesman for the workers’ committee explained the tactic as follows:

We do not have any illusions in workers’ management under capitalism. We are using it as a weapon, as an emergency solution. We started to run the factory because we had to in order to survive after the management had abandoned the factory on 27 December ... We are thinking about demanding that the government nationalise the firm – under workers’ control. We do not want a phoney nationalisation which only helps the bosses.

In the ITT-owned factory of Standard Electrica at Tascais 150 redundancies were announced out of a total workforce of 1,800, with the rest to go on short-time working. There was an immediate mass meeting, which was attended by delegates from other electronics factories, and which adopted the following demands: that the government take action to stop redundancies and that all sacked workers be reinstated; the immediate withdrawal of all troops from the overseas territories; government legislation to control profits made by multinationals; the creation of new jobs; and that steps be taken towards freeing Portugal from imperialist domination.

In the first week of May 1975, 150,000 workers went on strike for better pay and conditions. They were mainly from the chemical industry and from the hotel and catering industry who, as in Britain, are amongst the lowest paid sections of the working class.

Again, 280,000 wool weavers and garment workers throughout Portugal have recently been involved in a go-slow. They are demanding a 40-hour week, rest day on Saturdays for wool weavers and on bank holidays for garment workers, and a minimum wage of £20 a week.

A great many of these workers are employed by multinational companies (both Courtaulds and ICI have interests in Portugal). They work with imported raw materials and a high proportion of the goods manufactured with their cheap labour is then exported to Europe. The workers have held demonstrations of several thousands in Oporto and the textile town of Covilha. [12]

On 25 June over 3,000 workers of TAP, the Portuguese airline, surrounded the main administrative offices and trapped the company managers in their offices, demanding the settlement of their 15 month old wage claim. [13]

To gauge how far the workers’ struggle went, one must mention that it is estimated that some 300 undertakings have been taken over by the workers! [14]

Struggle for control of the media

One of the foremost working-class battles – important economically, politically and ideologically – was over control of the media.

First the battle over Jornal do Comercio.

It started in April 1974, straight after the coup, and went on for five long months. The workers presented the administration with demands over wages, working conditions and, above all, the expulsion from the firm of the fascist supporters of the previous regime. Journalists, printers and office workers were unanimous on one point – all the demands were negotiable except for the expulsion of the director, Carlos Machado. He was accused by the workers of being reactionary and incompetent, and of exploiting the workers.

The refusal of the administration to sack Carlos Machado led the workers to strike and occupy the Jornal do Comercio.

During the occupation the workers published a “strike paper” in spite of being told by the army not to do so. Following the issue of this strike paper the army sealed Jornal do Comercio off. Pickets were organised and the workers devised ways of communicating with the people and raising funds, through public meetings, shows and the publication of a booklet on the strike. Their unity and class consciousness prompted solidarity action from many sectors of the working class, including a 24-hour solidarity strike of all Lisbon and Oporto dailies except O Seculo. Workers from many firms contributed one day’s pay to the strike fund, and the mass media workers gave space and time to publicise their fight. [15]

On 29 August the army occupied Jornal do Comercio.

The strike ended when, on 28 September, during the abortive right-wing coup, the owner of the paper, who was deeply involved, fled the country. The workers of the paper took it over.

A second battle for the media was fought out in Republica.

The Republica affair started in early 1975 when the print workers became concerned at the paper’s declining sales. They feared redundancy and asked for discussions about safeguarding their jobs. They asked for information on the overall situation including the political line of the paper.

The editor, Paul Rego, refused any such discussion. Instead he started sacking workers. Some 17 journalists, who in one way or another opposed what was going on, were forced out.

Paul Rego is an interesting man. He is one of the top leaders of the Socialist Party. He was Minister of Information in the Spinola government, in which office he suspended publication of four newspapers; one of them was Republica itself. He also fined the paper. So he was not very popular, to say the least, among its workers.

Under Rego’s editorship the paper moved away from being an independent, non-party “paper of information”, as it is registered, to a journal more and more closely allied with the Socialist Party. It went as far as to exclude statements from any other political organisation, or gave them very small space during the general election campaigns. Rego’s arrogance drove the workers to strike action on 2 May.

After long negotiations, on 7 May an agreement was struck between the management and the workers. It contained, at the request of the printers, the following paragraph: “The newspaper will not be a party newspaper, in the sense that it will not reflect the predominance of a particular party in its column. All progressive parties should have identical treatment, coverage depending only on the importance of the events connected with each party.”

Rego broke the agreement. When the workers threatened to take it over Rego asked the MFA to shut it down.

When COPCON came to give him the keys to reopen Republica, Rego demanded that they come down with him and help him sack some 15 workers, a number which suggested that he was out to sack the entire 15-strong workers’ committee.

The COPCON major concerned would not go along with this. He went down to Republica, sought out a Socialist Party member of the workers’ committee and gave him the keys to reopen.

The whole international campaign of the capitalist press describing the battle round Republica as a battle between the Communist Party and the Socialist Party is a lot of rubbish. As a matter of fact Communist Party members are in a minority on the Republica workers’ committee – two out of 15. Republica on the whole reflects very much the views of the extreme left and very often is highly critical of the Communist Party.

Another very important battle for control of the media was waged by Radio Renascenca.

This radio station had always been in the hands of the Catholic Church. Even after the collapse of fascism it still held to its strong right-wing bias. For instance, on the arrival of Soares and Cunhal at the airport after the fall of the fascist regime, Radio Renascenca refused to broadcast their statements. In the following few months a number of clashes took place between workers and management, largely caused by the sacking of workers.

On 19 February 1975 an all-out strike started throughout Radio Renascenca. But on 11 March, when the right-wing coup broke out, the workers decided to go back to work, and they put the station at the disposal of the working class.

The workers expected that, since their boss was one of the most reactionary in Portugal, they would now win their case. But that was not to be. On 14 March the government appointed a mixed committee to run the station, with a delegate from the Ministry of Labour, the government, the technicians, and so on.

The workers were so dissatisfied that on 27 May they occupied the Lisbon station. The Oporto station remained in the hands of the Church hierarchy.

On 17 July the government told the workers that the station would be returned to the Church. The workers refused to hand over the station. During the next three days a number of mass demonstrations took place in support of the Radio Renascenca workers.

Then the Supreme Revolutionary Council of the MFA countermanded the decision of the government.

The workers took over complete control of the station. Their leadership was largely that of the revolutionary left. The programming of the station is done by a general assembly. Reports of struggles all over the world are regularly broadcast. The struggles going on in the factories, tenants’ committees and so on are given a wide hearing.

The ideological/political importance of Jornal do Comercio, Republica and Radio Renascenca is that both contending forces – the revolutionary left and the reactionary bourgeoisie – see them as symbols of their power.

Community action

As one factory after another was occupied by its workforce, and workers’ committees were elected to run them, there was a growing number of examples of workers mobilising on a neighbourhood basis in order to take control of other areas which affect their lives such as health, transport, education and housing.

Soon after the coup of 25 April, the families living in the shanty town of Bairro da Boavista in the outskirts of Lisbon took over a housing estate that had stood empty for three years. This housing estate, like many other new estates in the outskirts of Lisbon, was part of a speculator’s plan to rehouse families living in the centre of the town in properties of high speculative value which would then be demolished and give place to high rise blocks that would house the posh headquarters of some bank or a first class hotel.

An army company, fresh from the events of 25 April, was deployed to force the families back to the corrugated iron lean-tos of the shanty town. The officer in charge, a member of the young Armed Forces Movement, faced with determined opposition from the whole community, followed the routine practice of any operation in the colonial wars of Africa and went straight to what he thought was the weakest link, an old widow who had just moved with her six sons to a two-bedroom flat with electricity, water and toilet. She replied, “You better shoot me right here. All my life I have had the earth for a floor. At least I will die on a proper floor.” The officer stood there for a moment. Outside the men, women and children who had assembled to resist any eviction were speaking with the soldiers: “This could be your shanty town! Remember that you too are the people! Turn the guns on the speculators, and not on your brothers and sisters!” The officer understood and, taking the company with him, left the estate. The occupation had been “legalised” by the AFM.

In a country where over 2 million people live in slums and shanty-towns, houses are no longer being allowed to stand empty. They are being occupied. Left-wing parties, trade unions and broad-based neighbourhood assemblies are all behind a movement through which hundreds of houses and buildings either unused or misused have been occupied and transformed into nurseries, social centres, clinics, old people’s centres and a multitude of other purposes tailored to the needs of the community.

On 9 March a general assembly of local residents in Oporto decided to occupy a four-house complex of 24 flats owned by the Ministry of Justice, which had stood empty for 15 years.

In Cascais, a suburb of Lisbon, local workers occupied an exclusive sports club and formed a local residents’ committee to run it as a day nursery.

In Areiras de Cima a mansion belonging to an absentee landowner was taken over on 27 March by local people. They formed a committee to transform it into a clinic, nursery, cinema and cultural centre.

In Lisbon workers in the Portuguese Institute of Rheumatology converged on a building in the city centre, empty for nine years, and in it are setting up a proper therapy centre for a disease which up until now has had inadequate treatment in Portugal.

Another empty building in Lisbon, the dilapidated Frankfort Hotel, empty for two years, was the target of Lisbon shop workers who occupied it on 7 April. They organised groups of workers to clean it, repair it and to guard it by night. They issued a communiqué stating the aims of the occupation. They intend to create “a nursery, library, canteen and common rooms where workers can discuss, read and in different ways create a better class consciousness, a better political consciousness and a better spirit of cooperation”.

In Corroios, another luxury hotel was occupied on 7 March by local people. A member of the occupation committee commented:

The working people will devote their time to transforming this luxurious hotel complex of the rich into a place for workers to enjoy themselves – into a people’s canteen, a child care centre and an old people’s centre. The workers want to show their exploiters and prove to themselves that they are capable of solving their own problems.

Not only empty buildings, but local services, especially clinics and hospitals, have been requisitioned by neighbourhood committees, who through them are running a people’s health service suited to the needs of the local community. [16]

A group of workers in Mafra decided to occupy a large building because they felt the need to have a place where they could leave their children during working hours. The workers distributed leaflets to the population, explaining the purpose of the occupation, and urging the people to participate in the occupation itself and in organising the creche.

A neighbourhood committee in Ajuda occupied a mansion which belongs to the Azevedo e Silva family, owners of an electrical material firm. For the last five years part of the mansion has been used as a warehouse for the firm and the other half has not been used at all. The mansion is going to be used as a creche for the children of the workers who live in the area. The workers are demanding the immediate removal of all the materials still in the mansion and immediate expropriation without compensation.

The residents of Alhandra have occupied a local squire’s mansion and surrounding grounds to establish a much-needed nursery and junior school for local children. A voluntary committee has been set up to run the nursery, which already caters for 57 children. [17]



9. R Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften (Berlin, 1955), vol.1, pp.201-202.

10. Antonio Martins dos Santos, an official of the Lisbon Metal Workers Union, interviewed in Socialist Worker, 27 July.

11. Our Common Struggle 1, 1974.

12. Our Common Struggle 8, June 1975.

13. Our Common Struggle 9, July-August 1975.

14. Morning Star, 21 August 1975.

15. Our Common Struggle 2, October 1974.

16. Our Common Struggle 7, April 1975.

17. OurCommon Struggle 8, June 1975.


Last updated on 24.4.2003