Lisbon municipal workers started protests on the eve of the strike against the government austerity measures [EPA]

Portugal's two biggest unions held their first joint general strike since 1988, in a bid to weaken the debt-laden government's austerity measures expected to cause wage cuts and job losses.

Unions stopped trains and buses, grounded planes and paralysed major ports on Wednesday.

The strike, in which for the first time in more than 20 years, private and public sector workers have come together, also hit media and halted services from healthcare to banking.

Jose Socrates, the prime minister whose government is struggling to quash speculation that Portugal will be the next European country to need a bailout after Ireland and Greece, has pledged to stay the
course on public-sector wage cuts and tax hikes to cut the budget deficit.

Portugal's main opposition party said on Tuesday it would not block the government's 2011 budget, paving the way for its adoption on Friday.

It aims to reduce the deficit from 7.3 per cent of GDP to 4.6 per cent next year in a bid to quell growing international unease over the state of its finances.

Unpopular measures

The austerity measures are widely unpopular with the Portuguese.

"We are protesting against the cuts because they mean we wont be able to meet our basic needs, pensioners wont have enough money for medicine," Leonore Pedro, a striker, told Al Jazeera.

"It's the workers who are paying for the crisis, not the bankers nor the shareholders of big companies," Leandro Martins, a pensioner, said.

Portugal has suffered from years of low growth and waning competitiveness which economists
say undermines its ability to ride out the debt crisis.

Even though the economy is growing this year, economists now fear it will slide back into recession next year.

Unemployment, is already at its highest since the 1980s at 10.9 per cent, could rise further.

The Portuguese strike follows similar stoppages in other troubled euro economies such as Greece and France, as governments are forced into unpopular cost-cutting programmes.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies