For the Portuguese government, the tourist season – which is also mere weeks before a general election – is the worst time of year for fuel-tanker drivers to strike. But for the National Union of Dangerous Goods Drivers (SNMMP), which represents fuel-tanker drivers, this unique window embodied the best leverage to negotiate better salaries and working conditions. The SNMMP launched a nationwide strike on August 12th – but called it off last Sunday.
However, in an unexpected twist, a new walkout was called just three days later by fuel-tanker drivers, after government-mediated talks with employers came to a standstill. The newly called strike is set to take place between September 7th to 22nd – but this time, it will affect overtime, weekends and public holidays, which according to Francisco Sao Bento, president of the SNMMP, sheds light on the fact “that companies are built on top of these workers’ overtime work”. Sao Bento claims that many drivers have already worked up to 500 hours of overtime in this year alone.
The strike puts the SNMMP, who are joined by the Independent Freight Drivers’ Union (SIMM), against the employers’ association ANTRAM, with drivers demanding higher wages and better working conditions.
According to Anacleto Rodrigues, spokesperson for SIMM, fuel-tanker drivers are subject to dangerous and precarious conditions, including fifteen hour-long shifts, a base salary of 600 euros and the fact that overtime payments do not compute as social security contributions – something unions are fighting to change.
Following the onset of the initial strike called by the SNMMP, the Portuguese government imposed fuel rationing at petrol stations to prevent a nationwide paralysis, and stave off a fuel emergency at the peak of what is deemed the most lucrative season for Portugal’s tourism industry.
However, declaring an energy crisis until August 21st, ahead of the strike, allowed the government to mobilise security forces while ensuring full fuel supplies to ports, hospitals, airports, and other vital services as well. The public, on the other hand, was restricted to fifteen litres of fuel per purchase at strategic filling stations and 25 at others; limits which have since been lifted.
“The energy crisis aims to guarantee essential energy supplies for defence, functioning of the state and priority sectors of the economy”, the government said in a statement.
The evidence suggests the Portuguese government made the right call as far as rationing goes. According to one monitoring website, more than 460 (about 30 percent) of the country’s total 3,000 petrol stations ran dry before the first day of the strike was over.
However, the strike’s sudden ending came as a relief to Prime Minister António Costa as he had warned that the country “cannot live permanently in a situation of minimum services”.
In the short time the strike was on, the government ordered fuel-tanker drivers to go back to work in different parts of the country where minimum services had not been met. The order meant that drivers who refused to comply could face criminal charges, including up to two years of imprisonment.
“The government has no alternative but to resort to this civil order”, he said. But Pedro Pardal Henriques, Vice President of the SNMMP, said this order was “an attack on the strike, because these people (the drivers) delivered minimum services”.
Environment Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes said that fourteen drivers were being accused of carrying out a crime of disobedience, and some drivers had been threatened with dismissal if they did not respect the decree. “We have to stop this joke. We have drivers threatened with arrest and prosecution”, Mr Mendes told the Observador website.
A similar strike by the same union back in April left 40 percent of Portugal’s petrol stations without any fuel. Back then, things calmed down after four days. Yet, subsequent talks on a pay deal fell apart, leading to the current predicament. SNMMP members have vowed that they won’t yield until their demands were met – entailing annual wage increments that would raise the drivers’ basic wage from the current base to one thousand euros by 2025.
“We will strike for a day, a week, a month, as long as it takes”, said Pedro Pardal Henriques, the SNMMP’s vice president.
While the initial strike was a lot shorter than anyone that mattered anticipated, it seems, it is far from resolved.
The walkout came just as Portugal’s politicians are gearing up to campaign ahead of the general election on October 6th. The governing centre-left Socialists (PS) hold a 14-percentage point lead over the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), but the confrontation between fuel-tanker drivers and employers threatens to erode public goodwill and the PS’ electoral lead.
Costa has been criticised by his coalition’s left-wing partners for limiting the right to strike by imposing such robust minimum services requirements. Fuel-tanker drivers were required to ensure 100 percent of normal fuel supplies to “critical service” areas, such as fire stations, hospitals, airports, police forces, as well as to more than 350 petrol stations designated as part of a wider emergency network.
On top of that, supplies to public transport operators, as well as water, energy and telecom services had to be maintained at 75 percent of normal levels. The Portuguese Prime Minister was also criticised of being too slow to respond during the April strike, during which drivers were panic-buying fuel – a mistake he did not make this time around, when pre-emptively declaring the fuel emergency.
On the other hand, the short duration of the first strike and the established contingency plans could reflect well on the administration and pan out for them in the polls, too. The way Costa handled the deeply unpopular strike both cemented his authority and helped maintain order, which may lead voters to hand him an outright majority – compared to the current situation where the PS must rely on support from the anti-establishment Left Bloc and Communist Party to govern.
Luís Marques Mendes, a political commentator and former PSD leader, spoke on television, noting that, “This strike could help the government in electoral terms, especially in obtaining its goal of an absolute majority.” The atmosphere of “political tension and dramatisation” that the strike caused would also help mobilise voters, he added.
“The government isn’t a hostage of the elections”, Costa said in comments broadcast by SIC Noticias television channel. “We will carry out duties as we should regardless of the electoral cost that those measures might have.”