Skip to main content

Portuguese workers walk out to protest austerity measures

By the CNN Wire Staff
Click to play
Portugal strike slows transport
  • The Portuguese government is under pressure to cut its deficit
  • "It's only the workers who have to pay for this," one striker says
  • Unions say 3 million joined the first general strike in 22 years

Lisbon, Portugal (CNN) -- An estimated 3 million workers walked off the job Wednesday in Portugal's first general strike in 22 years, a protest against austerity measures imposed by a government under market pressure to cut spending.

Portugal says it will cut its budget deficit to 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product by the end of 2010 by trimming public salaries by 5 percent, raising value-added taxes from 21 to 23 percent, and reducing pension benefits and other government spending. But with unemployment at 10.9 percent, the country's two largest unions argue that the ruling Socialists' austerity measures will only make things worse.

"We have got 200,000 people in a population of around 10 million who are in soup kitchens," said Aquino Noronha, a flight steward who joined Wednesday's walkout. "This cannot go on. What we feel, those of us who are on strike, is it's only the workers who have to pay for this."

Similar austerity measures provoked new protests by students in Britain and have unions calling for massive weekend demonstrations in Ireland, where Prime Minister Brian Cowen announced another round of budget cuts Wednesday.

Though many stores and restaurants in Lisbon remained open, the strike shut down the country's airports, rail stations and buses and snarled traffic around the capital. At the Cais do Sodre transit station on the city's waterfront, subway and commuter trains, ferry boats and buses were few and far between -- and some commuters said their morning trips were extended by an hour or more.

Portugal's two largest unions estimated that 3 million of their 5 million members joined the strike. The government said the turnout was smaller than unions claimed, but admitted it was a broad-based action.

Some vendors near the station stayed open on strike day, even though there were hardly any customers. Grocer Merialis Camps said workers can't earn anything if they stay home.

"Work, work, work," she said. "The solution is to have everybody work. Portugal has all the land and resources necessary and just needs to make that productive."

But pressure for Portugal to cut its debt is coming from international investors, who drove up interest rates on its government bonds to a record intraday high of more than 7 percent on Wednesday. The country "is under surveillance" amid fears that it will be the next European government to seek a bailout, said Antonio Barroso, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based market research firm.

Wednesday's protests followed last weekend's announcement by the Irish government that it would seek about 85 billion euros ($113 billion) from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Prime Minister Cowen announced a new round of deep cuts in spending, increases in taxes and a cut in the nation's minimum wage in an effort to bring down its debt.

Ireland's financial woes have fueled only scattered protests so far, but the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called for demonstrations on Saturday.

And in Britain, thousands of students marched through central London on Wednesday, disrupting traffic and shouting slogans in another protest against university tuition hikes. The Conservative-led government plans to allow universities to charge as much as 9,000 pounds (about $14,200) a year in tuition fees, three times the current cap of 3,000 pounds.

The protest filled Whitehall, the street that runs past the prime minister's residence toward Parliament. Some students set off firecrackers in the crowd, and others smashed the windshield and spray-painted the sides of a police van.

But the unrest did not reach the level seen during similar protests two weeks ago, when protesters invaded the building that houses Conservative Party headquarters.

CNN Correspondent Al Goodman contributed to this report.