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Portuguese unions set stage for broad anti-austerity strike

Portugal’s two largest unions — some 20 percent of the country’s labor force — have signed onto a general strike to protest the government’s austerity policies on June 27.

Portugal’s increasingly militant anti-austerity forces late Monday clinched overwhelming support for a general strike June 27 that promises to be the biggest test for the government so far.

The UGT, Portugal’s second biggest and more moderate trade union, decided to join the general strike in the private and public sector called by its rival and the country’s biggest union CGTP on Friday, while decisive civil society groups representing retired workers and anti-establishment movements piled on their support as well.

The rare show of unity illustrates dwindling patience among the population and foreshadows growing civil strife, especially as most groups are united in their demand that the government resign and call new elections.

The general strike will also test the Europe Union’s ability to manage growing disenchantment throughout the 27-country bloc, especially as all groups are united around the need to renegotiate draconian terms imposed in 2011 as part of a 78 billion euro bailout.

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The EU, along with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, also known as the troika, has consistently conditioned the release of funds on government cuts, the deepest of which have been implemented this year, with still an onslaught of measures pending.

“We say no to the dictatorship of the Troika – that is what we are rebelling against,” said Monday UGT’s chief Carlos Silva in a press conference.

Broad union

Portugal has not been hit by the kind of strife seen in countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain.

The UGT and CGTP represent around 20 percent of Portugal’s labor force of around 5.5 million people. A strike called by CGTP in 2012 was not seconded by UGT, which had worked with the government on a labor reform package, and went largely unnoticed.

The last time both unions banded together was in 2011, when hundreds of thousands marched against austerity, but also to little effect. But in 2010, the first general strike to bring together the two biggest unions in over two decades was reportedly backed by three million workers, more than half of the total work force.

This will be the third time in modern history that both unions convene a general strike, but this time they also have broad support from the other groups. “We are doing this for our country, and we hope that all Portuguese will join us to show our discontent against austerity,” said Mr. Silva.

Retirees, who have been particularly hurt by government pension cuts, tax hikes, and other measures, are also swelling the revolt as a monolithic group that represents another 20 percent of the population.

The also powerful “Que se lixe a troika! Queremos as nossas vidas!” movement, whose earthy name roughly translates into “Screw the Troika! We want our lives back!”, is also leading much of the anti-government protests. The grassroots movement mostly groups the rising poverty-stricken population and people under 25 years who account for another 20 percent of the population, half of whom are unemployed.

On top of severe cuts in the last two years, the center-right government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is proposing to fire 30,000 public employees, to increase working hours to 40 hours a week from 35, and to deduct more from salaries for social security.

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The government also plans to raise the retirement age and impose more spending cuts in public services, further eroding the welfare state. The unpopular policies compensate for a Constitutional Court ruling that struck down proposed reforms equal to around 20 percent of budget cuts in the 2013 budget.

But while the EU has applauded Mr. Passos Coelho, it also conditioned any future flexibility and bailout funds to the government’s commitment to cut nearly 5 billion in three years. The question is how long Portuguese will accept more austerity amid rising unemployment, a shrinking economy, and little respite.