LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese workers’ general strike halted public transport and some factories in many parts of the country on Thursday and thousands marched to protest against austerity measures imposed as the price of an EU/IMF bailout.
The 78 billion euro ($100 billion) rescue fund is designed to keep Portugal afloat and help stem the euro zone’s debt crisis, but the spending cuts have sent the country into its worst recession in decades.
Thousands of protesters marched in Lisbon, with many chanting: “Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, our struggle is international!” referring to spending cuts across Europe. “Let bankers pay!” said some banners.
Highlighting Portugal’s economic woes, Fitch Ratings on Thursday cut its credit rating to junk.
Police moved picketers to allow a few buses and garbage trucks to leave packed garages but, aside from some pushing and shoving, there was no violence. Minimum public services were maintained under court orders.
Planes were grounded, trains halted and most 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.
“There is a strong sentiment of outrage, which has to make us reflect a lot about the situation,” said Manuel Carvalho da Silva, head of the 750,000-strong CGTP union.
He said participation in the strike was high in the transport sector, including Volkswagen’s Autoeuropa where car production was halted, and there were “different rates of participation in various parts of the country.”
International flights to and from Lisbon and Porto were canceled for the duration of the 24-hour walkout, the website of airport authority ANA said. Lisbon airport was deserted.
For weeks, posters lining the streets of Lisbon have urged workers to strike, while the center-right government insists there is no other way out. Portugal’s previous government collapsed in March after failing to push its own austerity drive through parliament and had to request the bailout.
To cut the budget gap and debt, the new government has halved 2011 year-end bonuses for all workers and canceled 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 labor laws and has extended the working day by half an hour.
“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 percent next year.
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 mobilize the Portuguese for action every day to contribute to transform Portugal,” he said.
Despite the protests, an opinion poll by Marktest pollsters on Thursday showed support for the ruling PSD party rising four percentage points from last month to 45 percent. The government’s solid backing contrasts with Greece, where a national unity government was formed to push through measures to stave off bankruptcy.
Analysts also note the Portuguese, unlike nations such as Greece, do not have a tradition of violent protest, and labor action in the face of the crisis has so far been low-key. But the prospect of deep belt-tightening measures, which kick in with full force next year, may change that.
Authorities reported no serious incidents on Thursday although police said vandals had smashed the windows of three tax offices in Lisbon.
Portugal must cut its budget deficit this year to 5.9 percent of gross domestic product from nearly 10 percent in 2010. In 2012, Lisbon has promised to cut the deficit to 4.5 percent of GDP. Workers’ fears, especially in state companies that face big cuts, have been fed by unemployment, which stands at 12.4 percent and is the highest since the 1980s.
Additional reporting by Axel Bugge and Miguel Pereira; Editing by Rosalind Russell