Portugal on the edge of chaos: how a mere strike might lead the country to an ‘energetic crisis’?

  • Bernardo da Mata
  • 11 August 2019

In Portugal, the fresh memories of the last hazmat drivers' strike on the 15th of April still haunt the Portuguese hearts and minds.

In Portugal, the fresh memories of the last hazmat drivers’ strike on the 15th of April still haunt the Portuguese hearts and minds. A daunting scenario that might repeat itself on the 12th of August, after the announcement of a new strike for that date by the National Trade Union of Hazardous Materials Drivers (SNMMP). But how did the country went from the table of negotiations to the chaos at the petrol stations?

Failed diplomacy and warning shots

The Independent Union of Goods Drivers (SIMM) and the National Trade Union of Hazmat Drivers (SNMMP) wrote an open letter to ANTRAM and the Portuguese People, on the 9th of July. Both unions were challenging the National Association of Public and Goods Road Transports (ANTRAM) for a TV debate while apologising the Portuguese people for the imminent new strike.

However, the hazmat drivers also appealed the Portuguese people to show some solidarity with their cause. “We know the Portuguese will forgive us for thinking a little bit more in our families. We are Portuguese as they are, suffering the same as they suffer”.

Recall that SNMMP was the union which called the strike on the 15th of April, which resulted in the near shutdown of the country. That strike led the government to intervene and offer mediation between bosses and drivers, ending in a general agreement on collective contracts to be discussed in detail over the following months.

However, on the 6th of July, more than 300 hazmat drivers decided at an assembly to present ANTRAM with a strike notice for an indefinite period starting on the 12th of August. The drivers are demanding the collective contracts to come into force immediately, meaning a basic salary increase of 100 euros over the next three years, among other measures.

ANTRAM reacted by accusing the drivers of acting premeditatedly, adding that “the process of negotiations was interrupted last week by the initiative of the unions that refused to wait for ANTRAM’s counter-proposals.” ANTRAM even alleges that unions dropped the salary increase of 100 euros in 2021 and 2022, but did not inform its members.

Both unions stated that was an attempt from ANTRAM “to manipulate the public opinion” and their strike was an expression of tiredness of “games and diplomacy”.

The government expressed “surprise” for the outcome at the time and appealed to the reasonability of both stakeholders. The Minister of Infrastructures, Pedro Nuno Santos even told the press that “one cannot be in a negotiation while permanently threatening with strikes”. It was through this very same inflammable rhetoric that the country was again pushed to the brink of a new energetic crisis.

“Sacrifice” against the “Dictatorship”

The Portuguese government started as a mere mediator between ANTRAM and SNMMP, but the ghosts of the previous strike put the cabinet led by António Costa in direct collision with the trade unions. The prime-minister even said that “there was a clear sentiment of revolt about the strike” as the Portuguese “could not really understand the motives” after his 2nd of August audience in Loulé with the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

Whether the message is being passed or not, both trade unions are determined to moving forward with the strike, despite the various failed attempts from the government and ANTRAM to return to the table of negotiations. Numerous media outlets and relevant political personalities have been accusing Pardal Henriques, the lawyer who has been acting as the spokesman of the unionists, of political opportunism, recalling that he was invited to run for MP candidate for Lisbon for a centre-right populist party led by António Marinho e Pinto, former MEP.

However, those attacks have not been effective in detaining both unions from striking next Monday as the hazmat drivers allege they will even be penalised for doing it. “We did not have access to strike funds, depending exclusively on our membership’s fee”, Anacleto Rodrigues, the spokesman of SIMM, told ECO today, adding that “we will lose money while we are on strike”. Pardal Henriques, for instance, told ECO that “this is not a matter of fighting for our rights anymore, it’s a matter of honour”, adding the hazmat drivers “have nothing to lose”.

The government had no alternative but to counter-strike by declaring that the country is facing an “energetic crisis” from the 9th to the 21st of August. Before that, the cabinet led by António Costa decreed minimum services for hazmat drivers between 50% and 70%, on top of the 100% decreed for the provision of essential services, which the unions considered an “attack”. Pedro Pardal Henriques went as far as to argue that the “ministers have just announced that we no longer live in a democracy”. This rhetoric guerilla has not kept the government from moving forward with some drastic measures.

Energetic crisis and widespread panic

The disproportionality of this strike places it on the threshold between the admissible and the abuse, according to the government, which decided to put in action a preemptive plan to protect both consumers and the economy.

“From 11:59 pm on the 9th of August of 2019”, “a situation of energetic crisis will be declared” in Portugal to guarantee “the essential energetic supply to the defence, the functioning of the state and the priority sectors of the economy as well as the satisfactory provision of essential services to the fundamental needs of the population” as it can be read on the official communique by the Government.

The following exceptional measures are listed:

  • Ensure that enough fuel is available for priority entities and equivalent vehicles at the refuelling spots of the Strategic Gas Refueling Network (REPA), which corresponds to a special network of refuelling stations.
  • REPA will include exclusive fuel stations for priority entities only and non-exclusive fuel stations for the general public;
  • Exclusive fuel stations should be clearly marked;
  • Non-exclusive fuel stations are required to maintain reserves for the exclusive use of priority entities and similar vehicles at least one supply unit for each fuel type;
  • From 11:59 pm on the 11 of August 2019, petrol stations that do not compose REPA shall supply the general public with a maximum fuel allowance of 15 litres per each vehicle;
  • From 11:59 pm on the 11 of August 2019, 25 and 100 litres shall be fixed as the maximum fuel allowance per each light and heavy vehicle, respectively.

While some applaud the government for taking measures to prevent chaos, others label governmental response as an overreaction, namely the two far-left parties supporting the socialist cabinet in Parliament. Some municipalities anticipated the government’s response and have already imposed limits on fuel supply to vehicles. A maximum of 10 litres per transport unit may be carried in portable fuel containers. However, the fact is that at least 380 petrol stations are already running out of fuel as cars line up to fill their tanks.