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Portugal hit by general strike against austerity cuts

Public transport crawled to a standstill in Portugal on Thursday as unions staged their fourth general strike in two years against government austerity measures adopted in return for an international bailout.

Rush hour traffic was thicker than normal in the Portuguese capital as commuters had to make their way to work without regular bus or train services.

Flights across the country were delayed or, including those departing from the main hub in the capital Lisbon, Portugal’s airport operator ANA said on its website.

“We expect a large number of workers to take part, a huge participation that will further weaken the government,” Armenio Carlos, the head of the country’s biggest union, the Communist-led General Confederation of Portuguese Workers said on the eve of the strike.

Portugal’s second largest and more moderate trade union, the General Union of Workers that had worked with the government on labour code reform, was participating in the strike, the first time it had joined a general strike in a year and a half.

The show of unity by the two unions is a sign of dwindling patience with the impact of sharp spending cuts and tax increases imposed by the government to rein in the deficit.

The last time the two unions banded together in a general strike was in November 2011, just five months after Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre-right governing coalition came to power.

Main issues of contention include the slashing of 30,000 civil service jobs, a longer work week and higher social charges.

Rallies are scheduled to be held in Lisbon and Oporto, Portugal’s second largest city, as well as in Faro, the capital of the southern province of Algarve, one of Europe’s top tourist destinations.

Portugal’s economy, which has been propped up since May 2011 by a bailout package from the European Union and International Monetary Fund of 78 billion euros ($100 billion), is expected to contract 2.3 percent by the end of the year while the unemployment rate has soared to a record 18.2 percent.

Portugal has agreed with lenders to bring its public deficit to 5.5 percent of output this year, four percent in 2014 and 2.5 percent in 2015, below the EU’s ceiling of 3.0 percent.