The Portuguese government – which some hail as a model of left wing success – has sent soldiers to drive fuel tankers to break an indefinite strike.
The government also issued an emergency “civil requisition” decree. It means strikers can be prosecuted and face up to two years in jail.
At least 14 tankers driven by soldiers left the Sines refinery on Monday for the Algarve, where petrol stations are running dry at a peak time for tourism.
Petrol rationing is now in force.
Striking tanker drivers are pushing their bosses for a pay rise and better working conditions. They say outstanding issues were not resolved after they struck in April.
The National Union of Dangerous Materials Drivers wants a £90 rise in monthly basic pay to £740 in 2020, and to £830 in 2021.
It also wants a 20 percent rise in average overall pay, which includes extra payments, from £1,300 a month this year to £1,600 by 2021.
The Socialist Party (PS) government of Antonio Costa warned of an “energy crisis” and moved to stockpile fuel supplies for essential services. The strike is now “restricting operations” at Lisbon airport.
Under Portuguese anti-strike laws, the government can demand drivers meet “minimum service” requirements. Pedro Pardal Henriques, vice president of the main drivers’ union, said drivers would work normal eight-hour shifts as required by the order, but no extra time.
“This means they will do about half their normal hours,” he said. “Gradually the filling stations will run empty.”
Catarina Martins is coordinate of the Left Bloc, a radical left party. She said, “Decreeing the civil requisition at the request of employers is a mistake and is a limitation of the right to strike.”
She added that there are “absolutely wild working hours” in the freight transport sector and “a widespread evasion of social security contributions” by bosses.
But Martins did not say the drivers’ demands should be met. Instead she demanded only that “all parties sit at the table without precondition”.
The government claims the strike is being manipulated in the run-up to a general election scheduled for 6 October. It’s true that Pardal Henriques is a leading candidate in Lisbon for a liberal party.
But anger at the government goes much wider than a section of the right.
The PS came to office as a minority government in 2015, promising to reverse austerity. It rested on support from the Left Bloc, the Green Party and the Communist Party in key votes.
It made some small changes such as improvements in pensions and the minimum wage, and positive changes to abortion laws. But in general it has maintained a tight hold on public spending, implemented privatisation and curbed wages.
This sparked a series of public sector strikes involving groups such as teachers, nurses, firefighters, postal workers, dockers, oil refinery workers, court officials and judges.
There have also been walkouts in the private sector.
New unions, such as the one now leading the drivers’ strike, have called some of the strikes. Over 20 unions have been formed in the last four years. Just three have signed up to the confederations headed by the Socialist Party or the Communist Party.
The use of troops and police against strikers underlines how limited Costa’s changes are – and the need for independent socialist organisation.