Strikes in Portugal over debt crisis austerity plan

PORTUGUESE labour unions mounted a general strike, pressing the government to scrap austerity measures intended to ward off a debt crisis that is spreading through the eurozone.

After Ireland’s decision to seek assistance from the EU and IMF, investors are turning their attention to other financially weak eurozone nations like Portugal.

Any wavering in the Socialist government’s commitment to austerity measures could push up Portugal’s borrowing costs in the same vicious spiral that forced Dublin and previously Athens to seek rescues. A Reuters poll showed a majority of economists expect Portugal to seek a bailout.

As the country’s two biggest unions stopped trains and buses, grounded planes and halted services from healthcare to banking on Wednesday, the spreads of 10-year Portuguese bonds over German benchmarks hit a euro lifetime high.

“It is a bigger strike than the one in 1988,” Joao Proenca, the head of the UGT union that is traditionally close to the ruling Socialists, told a briefing.

“We consider it to be the biggest strike ever.”

The CGTP union said 75% of all workers in the country participated.

Labour Minister Maria Helena Andre said participation varied widely, without providing specific numbers.

“We are facing a very reduced participation in the private sector of the economy,” she told a briefing. The CGTP union said all ports were shut, and check-in counters at Lisbon’s main airport were empty. National airline TAP had cancelled most flights.

No mass protests were expected. Lisbon was relatively quiet as many workers were prevented from going to work but roads in around the capital were choked with heavy traffic as many commuters opted to use their cars. Cafes and shops were open and vans delivered goods as usual.

“What’s coming for the new generation is very sad. I don’t see a solution for them aside from emigrating to other countries where they may have new opportunities,” said Madalena Costa, 66, a retired school teacher as she passed a train station emptied by the strike.

Others were angered by the protest, saying the country could not afford the stoppage, the first general strike by the country’s top two unions since 1988. “This strike is completely absurd,” said Pedro Silva, 36, a biology teacher.

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