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Portugal Holds General Strike Against Austerity Measures


Men walk past a graffiti calling a general strike for Nov. 24 in downtown Porto, Portugal Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

Portuguese workers launched a general strike today to protest against austerity measures imposed as the price of an EU bailout designed to keep Portugal afloat and stem a deepening euro zone debt crisis.

Planes were grounded, trains halted and public services interrupted as workers across the nation of 11 million protested against job losses, tax hikes and pay cuts agreed between Portugal and the troika of lenders - the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

All international flights to and from Lisbon and Porto were cancelled for the duration of the 24-hour walkout, according to the website of the airport authority ANA, and only minimum services connecting mainland Portugal with the islands of Madeira and the Azores were operating.

"The strike is general, the attack is global!" chanted protesters in a picket line at the Lisbon airport, referring to what unions say is an attack on workers' rights.

Portugal's centre-right government must meet EU conditions for a €78-billion bailout to rescue the country from its worst economic crisis in decades. The previous socialist government collapsed in March after failing to push its own austerity drive through parliament and had to request the bailout.

In Oeiras on the outskirts of Lisbon, police had to escort municipal garbage trucks through a picket line, but there were no reports of violence. Courts ordered that essential public services be maintained throughout the strike.

"With what the troika is doing here, I think we have reasons for the strike. I've paid my social security since 1981, why am I going to be left without part of my Christmas bonus? I think it is wrong," said 45-year-old machinist Carlos Silva.

Portugal was the third country in the euro zone to seek a bailout, after Greece and Ireland, and is now headed for its deepest recession since it returned to democracy in 1974. The economy is set to contract nearly 3 per cent next year.

In its drive to cut the budget deficit and debt, the government has ordered deeply unpopular measures such as cuts in this year's year-end bonus for all workers and cancelling holiday and year-end bonuses for civil servants next year.

Its reforms include spending cuts in everything from health services to public television. It is also reforming labour laws and has extended the working day by half an hour.

For weeks, posters have lined the streets of Lisbon urging workers to strike, while the government insists there is no way out of painful austerity.

Prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho, who came to power in June, said the country's priority was to beat the debt crisis.

"It is up to me to try to mobilise the Portuguese for action every day to contribute to transform Portugal," he said.

Rallies were planned across the country today, but analysts note the Portuguese, unlike other nations such as Greece, do not have a tradition of violent protest, and labour action in the face of the crisis so far been low-key.

But the prospect of deep belt-tightening measures, which kick in with full force next year, may fuel support and make today's strike significantly larger than one held a year ago.

"Although people generally accept the need for austerity, there is a deep feeling of injustice about the distribution of sacrifices, especially in the public sector, so we can expect heavier participation than last year," said Elisio Estanque, a sociologist at Coimbra University.

Under its bailout from the European Union and IMF, Portugal must cut its budget deficit this year to 5.9 per cent of gross domestic product from nearly 10 per cent in 2010. In 2012, Lisbon has promised to cut the deficit to 4.5 per cent of GDP.

Workers' fears, especially in state companies that face heavy cuts, have been fed by unemployment, which stands at 12.4 percent and is the highest since the 1980s.

"I will strike and I'd say that, above all, banks are to blame for our woes," said Jose Baptista (44) an electrician. "My biggest concern is financing and how people, companies and our country have just had their financing cut off."

Such economic concerns and the fact that Europe's leaders have so far failed to stop the debt crisis from spreading to bigger economies including Spain and Italy has prompted deep worries in Portugal, and not just among workers.


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