Lisbon waiters add strike demands to the pastry menu

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The Independent Online

If you stroll into Lisbon's sumptuous Café Nicola these days, the waiter will solemnly lay before you a list, not of the range of coffees for which the establishment is nationally famous nor of its equally renowned sticky pastries, but of strike demands.

If you stroll into Lisbon's sumptuous Café Nicola these days, the waiter will solemnly lay before you a list, not of the range of coffees for which the establishment is nationally famous nor of its equally renowned sticky pastries, but of strike demands.

Workers at this elegant art deco jewel in the heart of the Portuguese capital are in dispute with management over long hours and low pay, and are enlisting public sympathy by handing out leaflets to customers explaining their case.

Management wants to foist upon the workers longer hours by keeping the café open later - from 8.30pm until 10pm - without a corresponding pay increase. That is the contention of the waiters who are backing their gentlemanly leafleting tactic with an altogether steelier threat to strike next month if their demands are not met.

The glittering Café Nicola retains intact its 1920s cut-glass and marble splendour, but this dispute is a standard 21st century face-off. The waiters' union demands a seven per cent pay rise, a reduction in working hours from 40 to 35 hours a week and 25 days' annual holiday. They complain they are overworked because management refuses to hire more staff. Seven employees have been suspended for disobeying the new regime.

The Café Nicola, the traditional haunt of politicians, poets and intellectuals, has suffered greatly from disruptive renovation work. No sooner was it triumphantly reopened in 1998 after restoration than the handsome Rossio square on which it sits was convulsed by roadworks that engulfed the area with noise, fumes and scaffolding until last spring, producing a considerable drop in trade.

The café was for decades the hub of political intrigue, where police officers keeping tabs on supposed agitators during the Salazar dictatorship boosted their caffeine intake. But those days are gone, and with Lisbon's once dilapidated centre now spruced up and resplendent, there seems every prospect of a resurgence of café society.

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