Portugal // António Mariano from SEAL on combating precariousness, building organization and the eternal struggle of capital against unions~ 36 min

Image by Duarte Guerreiro

By Duarte Guerreiro

This interview was originally conducted in late December, 2018. A now famous stevedores’ strike picket at the entrance to the port of Setúbal had only recently occurred.

At the time, the government, bosses and State locked arms in order to import scabs and break the picket and the strike of the precarious stevedores demanding long-term contracts. However, after facing the prolonged resistance of the precarious stevedores and the solidarity of their colleagues in other ports, the companies’ reticence in commiting to a deal to end precariousness in Setúbal was overcome.

Now that a collective work contract for the port of Setúbal has been won, we take the opportunity to publish this interview, as it deals with many aspects of the struggle which lead to obtaining the CWC. It also covers many other matters pertaining to SEAL’s (Stevedores and Logistical Activity Union) work. The interview was edited to be more clear and succinct.


  1. Stevedoring work
  2. Trade unionism in crisis?
  3. Decision making and communication in SEAL
  4. Defamation campaigns
  5. Answering campaigns
  6. Setúbal as a diversionary maneuver
  7. National solidarity
  8. International solidarity
  9. Stevedoring and global commodity flows
  10. Organization a bigger concern for companies than precariousness
  11. Precariousness as a national policy
  12. The return of the language of class conflict
  13. The impositions of political correctness

Duarte Guerreiro // A stevedore gets up in the morning and…

António Mariano // And he heads to a workplace that, even if it is pleasant, by the waterfront, it is also quite dangerous. We go into an environment in which we are surrounded by steel, dozens of vertically suspended tons and extremely heavy machinery circulating all around us. On land or aboard ships, we have the notion that we can’t afford distractions from what we are doing.

It is a teamwork labor, where everyone is responsible for everyone else. That is where our spirit of unity begins. Our distraction may cause accidents for others, our comrades.

That is one reason why you must be prepared in order to do this job, and hence our struggle to prevent it from being performed by workers who appear around here sporadically. It is not a matter of corporatism. In fact, we are struggling precisely so that the number of professional port workers with dignified conditions can increase.

What capital intends and what results from the current law is that you only need to work one hour to be a stevedore. But you need preparation to be a stevedore, and I’m not even talking about the matter of the productivity demanded by bosses, I’m talking about obligatory basic notions. That is why we fight against extreme precariousness, in which we have to keep looking at the inexperienced colleague working next to us, who doesn’t even know the danger they are in.

DG // It is also an exhausting work, with companies asking for double shifts that lead to 16 hour work days.

AM // Or 24 hours. It is a matter of poor resource distribution coming out of a work model based on precariousness. Capital’s way of not creating permanent work positions is to excessively resort to overtime, especially during vacation periods, when fewer workers are available. As we usually say, giving everything to some and nothing to others. Some end up with good salaries, even if they are precarious workers, working non-stop. Others don’t even get enough to cover the needs of their family.

Our objective is precisely the contrary: to have a better work distribution, even if with some supplementary work to manage increased or reduced labor needs.

The conditions in which we work are also not the most pleasant. We have to work inside equipment with interior temperatures of over 50ºC during summer, or even in winter, due to inadequate cooling.

We work in environments which are similar to the bottom of a mine, surrounded by ore and coal, or around cereals covered in toxic preservatives while using inadequate masks. Other times we work 15 meters high, risking a fall which sometimes means a deadly accident.

All of these adverse conditions have no sympathy for the work models which capital wishes to impose.

DG // Trade unionism is in crisis in Portugal and all over the world, with low membership numbers and lot of disbelief by workers regarding the possibility of improving their lot by unionizing. How does SEAL counteract this tendency?

AM // First we have to recognize that the crisis of trade unionism is greater in some countries than in others. Internationalism is one of the things which defines us, with constant solidarity and communication with other countries. Examples from outside aren’t always of severe de-unionization like we experience in Portugal, sometimes it is the opposite.

In Portugal, there is a brutal and systematic process of poisoning public opinion against unions, which renews itself with each new struggle. Whatever the reasons or motivations for the conflicts, that is where the controlled social communication directs the conversation.

A little video we put together to exemplify the news coverage bias against workers

Though we also have to recognize, in some cases, that the lack of independence of the trade union movement in relation to other agendas, has not been helpful in making worker’s struggles autonomous from other political processes. We have always been an independent union, with over a century’s worth of history. Although we do see ourselves more in line with CGTP [the main trade union confederation in Portugal] in terms of practical action.

Maybe the fact that there are so few positive examples is a reason for the low union membership numbers. Despite the fact that I don’t like to talk about “victory processes”, I usually say they are stoppages of capital’s wishes regarding labor.

When it comes to stevedores, our team work in close proximity, as we operate in very concentrated geographical zones with restricted access as ports are, might permit us to better organize and have membership rates approaching 100% at any port.

I would not like to talk a lot about a war between unions, but it is evident that we also deal with such things in the port sector. There are situations, such as in the port of Leixões, where companies count on the local union – if we can call it such a thing – to agree to everything they want implemented.

We fight against everything that represents. That might explain our growth. In the last two years, we have doubled our membership. It was around 360 as of the 2016 Lisbon process, which ended in a deal.

By the time the stevedores got around to their big protest during the 2016 Lisbon process, a deal had been reached. The demonstration was instead turned into an anti-precariousness protest.

Today we are approaching 700 members in various ports. The workers identify more with what we do and our demands. One of them is about the generational question; workers of the current generation should not have conditions inferior to those of previous generations.

Globally, in terms of salaries, stevedores had a better situation in the past than the ones which are, on average, practiced today. The way we see it, if less professionals are needed because there is automation, heavy equipment and a different productivity in moving containers, nothing justifies that, despite the fact that there are fewer workers in the ports, their salaries are a half or a third of those of older workers. That can only be justified by capital’s wish to cut salary expenses in order to increase profits.

The trade union movement also ends up being harmed by the way legislation deals with collective hiring, unbalancing the forces between capital and labor. For example, in the way unions have been weakened in favor of workers committees. These are all ways to take away power from workers collective organization.

DG // And in terms of union organization, how are decisions and communications handled? There appears to be a big emphasis on plenary decision processes.

AM // Capital and governments usually get a bit irritated with this position of ours. In the 2016 Lisbon and 2018 Setúbal agreements, we always insisted on the fact that our “shareholders” are the ones at the base, they will make the decision. We are only their representatives.

In 2016, the deal was only ratified at 2am, after we talked with the workers in Lisbon. In Setúbal, the deal was discussed until midnight, and at 7am we were there with the workers for it to be approved. It was only signed the following day during the early morning.

This close work relationship is not limited to the moment of reaching an agreement, but extends to the whole process of getting there. The agreement managed to get 56 workers hired in Setúbal, with 37 others having priority in further hirings, and the remaining having priority over those not yet around. Ultimately, it is a way to shield those workers. That was never done before, they were always expendable. They only had to miss a day’s work to disappear from the lists, if that was what the bosses wished.

Naturally, we can’t demand that 150 workers be placed somewhere which can only absorb 100, because we realize that might make companies unsustainable. In order for that not to happen, a work division is being implemented among everyone, which will prove that there is additional employability in the port relative to what currently exists.

The matter of distributing work throughout daily shifts before resorting to overtime was one of the things demanded by workers and which we later took to the negotiation table. I can say it was one of the provisions which capital wanted to remove until late. It did not want to put it into writing, but it is applying it in practice. If it does not, we might have some confrontations over it.

There is a permanent dialog between the union leadership, the delegates and the directors we have on the different ports. We have a decentralized ground level union network with which we communicate and organize frequent plenaries via online conference, especially in ports with greater potential for developing conflicts.

The stevedores participate in the decision process trough that fluid communication we have established, with respect for everyone’s opinions, often with a lot of debate. But that is also what allows, as it was possible to observe in the last few years, for a stevedore to walk up to a camera and be able to explain what is happening and why he is fighting. This is something which goes beyond the union leadership, this spirit of everyone realizing that they are fighting for a cause which is also theirs.

Having said that, this is only if not deviating a lot from our principles. It is evident that, as a union, we won’t allow for more selfish and individualistic ideas to impose on the will of the collective.

DG // Are there any other elements, regarding the internal organization of the union, which might have been important?

AM // Speaking of communication, I think it was a terrain where the stevedores have always been massacred. We are an easy target for capital because stevedoring is isolated from the world, as if a barrier existed between society and the port, especially because access is becoming more closed off – it is an international territory, like a border. You need a permit from the Foreigners and Borders Service just to work there.

Additionally, there have been impressive campaigns against stevedores and their forms of struggle. Maybe because a lot of money moves around in ports, a lot of capital, a lot of liquidity, and so it is possible for these campaigns to appear. And they have shocked public opinion a lot, with a few very effective ways of doing so.

What we have been doing is the work of taking these campaigns apart.

DG // Before we talk about the reply, what are some examples of these campaigns? For example, during the fight in Lisbon, the supposed 5000€ salaries of the stevedores were much talked about. Since you have already observed several of these campaigns, what is their anatomy?

AM // That is an easy way to talk. A lot of times, the ones who talk of 5000€ have 50 000€ to run that campaign. Or salaries of 10 or 20 000€. But nobody asks them what their situation is.

The matter of numbers is not only used here. I remember that, two years ago, they were also used in Spain. It is a way to pull the population, such as in Portugal, subject to very low salaries, to the abyss of 600€ – not even the 1000€ which were talked about before – by saying that any profession who has managed to fight for superior conditions is privileged. That is the pettiness that such campaigns toy with.

I have difficulty in judging the value of each profession. I think each one must fight for itself collectively, by organizing. The salaries practiced in ports are the result of decades of struggles.

When asked about it, I usually replied to the matter of the 5000€, that if I did the work of three stevedores, I might be able to get such a paycheck. That is the question. The truth is most stevedores in Portugal, right now, and despite the qualitative jump in the port of Setúbal, are being payed much less than 1000€. Or even 800€.

When we hear those campaigns about high salaries, there probably is someone who is holding a receipt for that amount in their hands, except you don’t know how it was made. If it was by working 16 or 24 hours per day, which has happened in certain functions. It is not as important to communicate that most stevedores who move cargo in ports have miserable salaries and work under daily contracts, something we previously only had until 1979. From 1993, it was reintroduced in ports. That is omitted to try to turn the population against us.

There is another aspect. It is not only the matter of high salaries. Just today I heard it said that unions control the admission of labor. That only sons and friends get in. I’m probably part of the last generation – I got in in 1979 – when such a bosses’ union existed which effectively had control over the selection.

In 1980, when we started having indefinite contracts and tripartite entities (State, bosses and unions), that control disappeared. Private capital companies have been carrying out the selection, recruitment and training processes for over 20 years. The unions do not have anything to do with it for decades. At least ours. I can allow that in the port of Leixões, the so-called model port, that it might still be true. That is not the union model we defend, but we are the ones attacked because another is the model example.

What we are concerned about is avoiding victims in these processes resulting from conflicts. For example, in Setúbal there are 10 people who buckled and signed contracts before there was an agreement. They are most certainly not the best professionals in that port. That obviously caused other good professionals to be left behind. What we wished was to have the possibility, regarding those workers they selected, that we could reconsider some situations of greater seniority, or of workers who were more visible during the process and which could be left behind for speaking their mind in front of the television cameras.

That last part did not actually happen, but there are some injustices regarding seniority situations. Workers with half a dozen months on the job were picked, yet workers with 17 or 20 years of seniority were not.

What we did was, in order to not delay the process further and get to the next stage, we ended up abdicating from choosing anyone. All the choices which exist today on the ground were by employer option. We still don’t have anything to do with it, excepting a list which was sent without preferences in which we said “If you won’t send preferences, we have seniority as the only criterion we can use”. We can’t say that someone who has been working for 10 years has a right to an indefinite contract and someone who has been working for 20 does not.

DG // And in answering these campaigns, what has the union’s strategy been?

AM // On the one hand, as I said, it is to have the whole of the stevedore world be well informed about what is going on. They start off informing friends and family about reality. But of course, the campaigns against us are so massive that we also must try to answer on the same scale.

We have been using social networks for some time now as the most effective way to make our message reach the greatest number of people. Not only Portuguese, as the matter crosses borders. We follow the struggles in Chile, Greece, Sweden, and they follow our struggles and what we write.

Internally, we have a press office in which we have been investing more and more for the past few years. I was making comparisons the other day and we have as much communication as all the other union movements in Portugal put together in terms of social networks.

On the other hand, there is a quick and efficient link between the press office and the conventional social communication network. There we try to act very quickly regarding attacks against us. In many cases we try to create the agenda of what is happening ourselves, as sometimes it is important to stay ahead and not have to correct ideas thrown out there. We believe we have become more effective, and today the idea people have of stevedores in Portugal is clearly not the same idea they had 10 or 15 years ago.

DG // I think that was quite visible in terms of the support that this last strike received, especially on social networks, by other unions and by parties. Is this also a strategy conceived by the union, or something which arose spontaneously?

AM // If we did a little flashback, the 2016 process was a veritable bombardment upon us, and we trailed behind. The 2018 process, here and in the whole country, which is still ongoing and ended with an accord in Setúbal but not in all other ports, was precisely the opposite.

There was an attempt by the State, the government and capital to almost make this strike on overtime work invisible. Up until it was impossible to keep hiding the dimension of the problem being created due to the fact that we were only doing a single daily shift. It is not easy for capital to fight back against this kind of strike.

Well, we kept following our path, denouncing and informing about what was going on. Until things exacerbated when capital made a strategic option to divert attention to Setúbal. In Setúbal we were working every day, 180 workers doing their shift. Thus, there was not any kind of blockade on Autoeuropa [a Volkswagen plant in Setúbal]. There was an accumulation of Autoeuropa vehicles due to engine certification, not because of the stevedore strike – the automobiles kept moving out, as did all other cargo.

That was when we really had to use all means of information and clarification at our disposal, during the conflict and until we reached an agreement. And even after reaching an agreement, we still had to explain what was going on because the other side kept not wanting to follow the strategy that the workers practically forced upon them, regarding hirings and everything else still left to negotiate in ports, like an end to the harassment of our associates.

This is why I do not like to talk about victories, there was a good result in a battle, but we continue to follow closely what is happening because capital still does not want what we stand for, which is to have port labor be mostly permanent. It wants to keep abusing precarious labor. We are going to have a continuous war about that.

DG // Regarding solidarity from outside groups, was that part of an active strategy by the union or something that arose spontaneously?

We are conscious that we have some specificities at our workplace, as I said. It is not as easy to carry out a teachers’ plenary, as they are spread all over the country, in the same way it is possible to do so with stevedores. But today we already have the technological means to do so. Therefore, in fact, it is perhaps a matter of organization.

First of all, it is obvious that we are focused on solving the problems of stevedores in the various national ports. That is, let us say, *laughing* our core business. We also do not ignore that what we are doing is increasingly seen as an example by other sectors and social struggle movements, who convey to us that recognition.

For example, journalists themselves. We know there is a very similar fight against precariousness going on at RTP [the State’s broadcaster]. They accompanied us at the port of Setúbal and with local stevedores. They are hundreds of workers who are also in a situation of precariousness. Anyone talking of RTP can talk of other activity sectors.

It would be pretentious to act as teachers and educators. The truth is that, as I said at the Assembly of the Republic, this fight is against the precariousness which is only permitted due to excessively permissive legislation. It has no reason for existing; we have a model in the port of Lisbon which practically dispenses with precariousness in the future.

We managed to prove that precariousness is not necessary and that this kind of work by daily contract does not have to exist, as it does not allow people to have any quality of life. We recognize that what we are doing is being observed by other sectors and individual workers, who must take steps towards their own organization, mobilization and construction of efficient and active structures.

I’m thinking of strike funds. They are, fundamentally, an insurance that workers build so that in conflict situations they might resist capital. And we have followed that practice for many decades now.

DG // In terms of solidarity, we previously touched upon the matter of international coordination between stevedores. How is this coordination achieved and what is its potential and limits?

AM // We already have practical examples of that support in our processes. It was determinant during the 2014 process. A ship loaded by scabs in Lisbon was blocked. During the Setúbal process, there were also a few ships which were intervened, especially in Spain and also in Germany. These are one-off situations. In terms of international solidarity, it all depends on whether it is possible to act within each countries’ legislation.

A Nordic country or a southern country often have different ways of showing support, in formal terms, in legal terms. In some cases, political solidarity actions are allowed, in others they aren’t. It is undeniable that the possibility of providing support to a labor conflict in another country and another port, is always something which has its weight in a balance of forces which does not usually exist between capital and labor. But, there you go, economic groups keep getting bigger. In the port sector, terminals are increasingly in the hands of a smaller number of global groups.

Such is the case in Portugal as well. The Turkish group which controls most of the shipping container terminals in Portugal is now almost one of the top 10 biggest terminal managers in the world. If on the one hand that gives great power to capital, on the other hand our organization also allows us to give an answer regarding conflicts going on somewhere else, even on another continent. That happened a lot in the past between the United States of America, Australia and South Africa. It is something that unions must look at as a way of fighting with more equal weapons.

When we moved towards organizing at the national level, it is precisely because there is no other way to have some balance between us and the companies present in every port. That can’t be fixed with fragmented local unions. That was the practice in Portugal. In the past we managed to have over 20 unions in Portuguese ports.

We don’t want to be the sole union, but we want to show what it is we defend that is different. If, in the end, that leads us to be the sole union, that is OK. Now, what we can’t accept is for small unions, which many times are built by the bosses themselves, to be used to sign whatever contracts bosses want signed. That we will always fight.

At the national level, we want a force which is capable of facing the big economic groups present all over the country. At the international level, the principle is the same. If we can’t fight them using only the force we have in Portugal, then – both resorting to outside support but also providing it – when we are asked to give support we will do so, as was the case for a process in Spain two years ago, when we said we would not load any ships diverted from Spain while the conflict was going on.

Many times, the pressure comes from outside the European Union. In the Spanish case, some terminals are being bought by COSCO, Chinese companies. We will have the same problem in Portugal in the short term. Big groups and great powers are going to want to install themselves, probably with bad conditions, salaries and contractual links. That is how Portuguese ports are still being advertised.

We will keep fighting to ensure that does not happen.

DG // We talked about a series of advantages and disadvantages specific to stevedoring. It also has the advantage of being super important within the current economic model. Everything is planned to make sure that commodities arrive just in time, to reduce storage expenses. If you put a break on that transportation line, you jam factories, commerce, everything.

Cargo ships waiting out the 2015 Los Angeles’ port strike. Photo by Mike Kelley.

Are these advantages somewhat misleading about the potential of the organizational model, if it was transplanted to another sector?

AM // Yes, such a direct and immediate effect is missing. We stand at a crucial point in commodity circulation, and thus of globalization. As you said, with factories on zero stock and dependent on a container arriving with parts or raw materials. That evidently helps, as does the fact that the container which we loaded is going to be unloaded by our comrades in another port. Here we have an almost direct and emotional relationship – other stevedores are going to handle the same container which we put in place, or which a scab worked – and they have the capacity to refuse to handle it.

But the truth is that every sector, be it education, health, transportation, some more than others, can achieve results when organized and willing to resist. I say again that it also requires them to have reserves, because processes can drag on. And the surrounding solidarity in international terms is still important. Several kinds of production are increasingly concentrated – not all – and thus doing something in one country accompanied by action in another ends up having an enormous weight.

The distribution economic groups, either from the energy sector or others, are increasingly a part of global networks serving the interests of capital. Therefore, I think it is possible. Of course, it depends on each sector studying at each moment what is the best way to act.

We ourselves don’t have the same conditions in every port. Some economic groups are present in all ports, but others have their particularities. We must always think of a strategy for each port.

Each sector must also analyze, think and decide on its internal national articulation. Without looking for disaggregation and fragmentation, as I don’t think that is the way to go. The workers must choose the best teams to head organizations, that is fine. But I don’t think things will be solved by the atomization of structures.

There are also adequate means, even inside the country, of speaking with all the professionals in each trade. If I was here today representing an activity spread all over the country, it would only be a matter of saying “everyone be online Tuesday, so we can talk”. And in the case of international connections, today we can talk with the whole world at almost no cost.

Therefore, people must dedicate themselves to that. They must dedicate a part of their time to organize at other levels in order to contact people and achieve visible results beyond the confines of the desk or the room where they usually work.

DG // Going back a bit to a topic we touched upon previously, how has the relationship with the companies evolved, as well as their anti-union practices?

AM // That question probably leads us to the reasons behind the latest conflicts. There are two phases – one in which the unions merged in order to have a regional representation, and from there we reached a phase in which we are more organized in territorial terms than capital itself.

As I said, companies merged into economic groups. Today we have 3 or 4 in national ports; the State of Singapore in Sines, the Sousa group in the Madeira connections, a national group called ETE and the Yilport group which bought Tertir’s entire business from Mota-Engil.

Those are the 4 groups that essentially dominate the national port scene. We had a strategic vision that we must go national in order to have a possibility of some equilibrium in the talks between labor and capital.

From there, the problem of high precariousness in the port of Setúbal, which was really absurd, started to get resolved. It was also promised that the matter of the harassment of SEAL members in Leixões and Madeira would be resolved. But it was easier to fix the problem of precariousness than fixing the question of harassment.

When capital harasses workers for their union choice, that means they do not want to see the union organization grow, even if they need to violate the law. Our members’ salaries are half of those of other local workers. Capital is saying “you people, SEAL, can’t grow”. This is the tug-of-war which is not visible but is behind the entire process. You can solve situations of precariousness, because we are going to solve them all sooner or later, but you can’t stop persecuting our members.

The 2018 stevedores’ demonstration in Lisbon was against precariousness, but also against the persecution of its members in ports like Leixões. One of the stevedores who gave a speech mentioned that the bosses had sent people to film them during the protest.

DG // Speaking of precariousness, I think the Setúbal struggle revealed how precariousness is a national policy. There is a plan that spans governments, in which the country must function on the basis of precariousness and low salaries. This was demonstrated by the government’s willingness to poison public opinion on social communication and make available the repressive apparatus to remove the workers carrying out the strike picket at the port of Setúbal.

AM // It also had the merit of showing, and perhaps this wasn’t in their plans, that precarious workers, with some support, even if only moral, of those with permanent contracts who are taking less chances, can organize and fight this scourge. I think that in symbolic terms, what happened in Setúbal was very good. The 150 workers, who in fact control the factory production which is the port, had the capability of saying enough and it stopped.

Well, that struggle could only be perverted by what happened, the intervention with the use of force and the illegalities which were committed, or through intimidation processes, to try and break that unity. Because otherwise, they managed to stop the factory. After that it is only a matter of time until we have a deal.

DG // And regarding the idea of precariousness as national policy?

AM // As could be noticed ever since we started selling the idea in China and its whereabouts that Portugal is a country of low salaries and precariousness, that sooner or later we were going to be pushed in that direction. Our struggle is exactly against these aspects; to prove that precariousness is not necessary and that with some overtime the oscillations in demand in ports can be accommodated.

Operestiva was in parliament the other day. They were asked how many hours the workers did at present. They didn’t answer, right? I answered yesterday. They did on average 1500 hours during the year 2018. Permanent workers did. Meaning, if there was no strike on overtime, they would have reached December with 2500 hours. That is what companies want, to give some all and others nothing. Keeping precariousness while the other workers are accommodated with good salaries resulting from having no personal life because they are working for the company around the clock.

In the last few years, governments have done everything possible to make those situations happen, by creating the legal possibility of hiring like this. In practice, if we go to court on a case by case basis, the court is going to say that there is nothing illegal there. The worker was hired for that turn, even if he does the same thing for 20 years; probably no case has ever won, so the legislation is what’s wrong. A legislation which was created to allow exactly what is being announced in the East; come invest in Portugal, because precariousness is a given and we are going to take care of low wages next.

As I say, in 1993 we were all employees, with permanent contracts. Our wage levels were where they are today. At around 2000€, in round figures. Why is it that these future generations must work for 700€ when fewer stevedores are needed for operations? This is a rational matter. Of course, capital is not rational, capital wants to squeeze out more and more. Our fight is to say that the legislation must change, it can’t allow what it does right now in port work, things which it does not allow in other sectors of activity.

It got to the point that a law was approved in 2012, 2013, saying that port labor recruitment companies can recruit in temporary labor companies. This is not possible in other activity sectors. It is a crime. Yet here they go so far that even that is possible.

In order to take precariousness to the extreme, any kind of contract is allowed: intermittent work, by the day, by the hour. The legislation permits all. That must change. It shouldn’t exactly be union organizations that then have to keep entering into conflicts, carrying out strikes and other processes. Because that is the only way they have to defend themselves from the legislation which is made exactly to push workers into the unacceptable situations which are not worthy of the XXI century. Not in human terms, not in social terms.

DG // I’ve noticed that in your interventions on social communication, the somewhat absent language of class struggle has reappeared. In the union sphere as well, theoretical tools are needed to interpret what is happening. A few years ago there was still an embarrassment in talking about capital, about labor…

AM // About scabs.

DG // Has the union done any theoretical work to recover those analytical tools?

AM // Today SEAL is more than one person, even more than the team which heads it. There are many workers that, in their workplace and even as precarious workers, already have this notion of reality and who gave excellent interviews during this process. I was listening to them live from a distance and recognizing their capability to respond clearly about the situation. But none of them has ever studied Marx. Neither have I. If I studied something, it was in engineering.

What we do is coldly analyze what is going on. As such, the conclusion that we are all maybe arriving at is that independently of the more or less political and sociological education we might have, we are facing concrete questions, and those don’t depend on great theorizing. They are processes of class struggle.

Here is an example: the law we currently have was introduced by the initiative of PSD, but it was approved by PS. I’m not going to say that there are no differences between Right and Left, I don’t want to enter into that debate. Naturally, I understand that they exist. What is going on right now is a fight between labor and capital. Capital is increasingly concentrated, which gives it much more power.

In the port sector, they even call themselves cartels. Whether at the level of shipowners or of port terminal management, they increasingly want to concentrate more and, when they unable to, they ally. What we have is an increasingly organized capital on the one hand, and what we intend is to have labor increasingly organized on the other. And there is a collision, right? There is a collision, and it becomes stronger and harder but we still think that organized labor has a lot of strength, independently of the kind of capital it is facing. As we usually say, we can also choose to work or not work.

In that attempt to simplify discourses during the more habitual conflicts, class struggle words appear, like talking about mercenaries who replace striking workers, it all ends up becoming much more simplified in our language. Not because of our education, but by confirming that things end up being simpler on the ground. You don’t need a big degree to figure out what is happening in this area.

DG // By osmosis, people end up understanding these relationships.

AM // I would put like this: these processes are so intense, so absorbing, and at the same time so creative, that we end up focusing exactly, in each situation, on what needs to be done, or the best strategy to do it. We don’t have time to read books, we have time to consult the base, understand what is the best scenario for each conflict and find the best solutions, find a strategy, have a direction.

Others study this, and we are naturally grateful that they do it. We ourselves often can’t reach all the conclusions and interpret everything going on because we are the ones building that process.

DG // One last question, perhaps somewhat malicious. How do you look at a certain image policing, coming from the Right but also visible on the Left; this idea that stevedores curse and have an uncouth appearance, as if to say their demands are void because they don’t present themselves as…

AM // As politically correct, let’s say.

DG // Yes. I mean, if someone has been screwed for 20 years, with no workplace rights, I think the last thing that should occur to anyone is to be bothered because they insulted the minister or the prime-minister or whoever.

AM // Yes, well-behaved children we shall never be, also because of our historical roots. Because of our activity, in conclusion – isolated as we are, with our own way of talking – once we even had our own vocabulary. Naturally, we don’t like it when limits are crossed, because that can turn against us, individually and collectively. But to be honest, we don’t take much action regarding that.

Stevedores from all over Europe bothering tourism in Lisbon with their rude manners (2012)

One things we do know; by representing other stevedores, especially in a few ports: Setúbal, Lisboa, Figueira, almost all in fact, we also represent workers from different political quadrants. It is also as part of this process that we must function. On the one hand we want to be independent and we invest in that, because we know that any more direct connections, in political, ideological terms, also leave out or sets against the collective certain constituencies. We must take those precautions.

On the other hand, as I say, while not defending the extremes, we also understand that our somewhat rebellious image, of some provocation, sometimes with some language excesses – this was even referred to in court judgements – can be understood as part of the stevedoring language, as part of a demonstration of force. Be it because of color or movement.

I would put it like this: I would not like a well-behaved stevedoring. We have an image, and that is not something we are going to change. I don’t think we have to be politically correct, because the fact of the matter is that the politically correct are very incorrect with working people, for decades now. It would be best if they thought about that and stopped going around trying to denigrate the image of a collective which might just be right about everything it demands.

The work of the Stevedores and Logistical Activity Union can be followed at their blog and Facebook page.

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