Portuguese airline TAP to strike as budget protests grow
* Rallies, labour protests against cuts
* Economy minister to be given "one-way ticket" out of Portugal
* TAP strike partly coincides with Iberia's
LISBON, March 4 (Reuters) - Staff at Portugal's national airline TAP will strike on March 21-23, unions told the government on Monday, adding to growing protests against budget, pay and job cuts in the bailed out euro zone country.
Following massive rallies in Lisbon and dozens of other cities on Saturday to demand the austerity-minded government's resignation, a railroad workers' strike against pay cuts is also planned for Wednesday and Thursday.
The TAP strike is also likely to exacerbate regional air transport problems caused by intermittent stoppages at Spain's Iberia, the final round of which is scheduled for March 18-22. TAP operates around 180 daily flights.
Protesters plan to hand a symbolic one-way ticket to Toronto to Economy Minister Alvaro Santos Pereira, who studied and taught at Canadian universities before joining the government.
Azores-based airline Sata will also be hit by the strike, the first to be backed by all eight unions representing pilots and workers at state-owned TAP.
They demand that they be spared pay cuts of up to 10 percent that went into force across the public sector in February.
"We are inserted into a blind policy of public sector cost cuts even though TAP has always been managed as a private company and is one of Europe's most efficient airlines," Jaime Prieto, head of the civil aviation pilots' union, told Reuters.
TAP's core air transport business has made profits in the past two years, helped by increasing passenger numbers, but the company is weighed down by large debts and poor results at an aircraft maintenance hub in Brazil.
The unions argue that those losses for now are being absorbed within TAP's own finances, which have long been independent from state budgets and point to plans to privatise the company under the Lisbon's international bailout.
But the losses - which ultimately saddle the state with more debt - do give weight to politicians' arguments that everyone should contribute to cutbacks aimed at making Portugal more competitive.
The Economy Ministry declined to comment on Monday. Transport Secretary Sergio Monteiro said last week "strikes in the transport sector are not the best way for workers to preserve their jobs" and the government is open to negotiations.
"It's pure populism, the government just wants to set an example by enforcing pay cuts at TAP. It's practically Stalinist policy," Prieto said as the unions were preparing to hold a protest in central Lisbon.
Prieto and other union leaders said they were still open to negotiations, but "doubt that the government will be humble enough to acknowledge that it is wrong". They claim flying staff have already seen salaries fall 26 percent over the past three years, which have driven many to take jobs abroad.
A TAP spokesman said the company will take measures to minimise losses and discomfort to passengers, but would not estimate how much traffic it will be able to maintain.