By Axel Bugge
LISBON (Reuters) - The trains ran and the buses, too. Staff made it to work and shops and banks opened across Lisbon. Weak backing for a transport strike on Thursday reflected a broader lack of appetite for militant action by workers concerned for jobs threatened by Portugal's growing debt crisis.
Already facing its worst hardship in decades, Portugal has come under increasing pressure over the last month on fears it will be forced to seek another bailout beyond its current 78-billion-euro lifeline or restructure its debts like Greece. Italian, Irish and Spanish bonds rally, but Portugal's remain mired in doubt Lisbon can handle its debt.
Government austerity measures are biting. Unemployment is above 12 percent and expected to rise further in the poorest country in western Europe. However, the strike appeared to have little impact.
Trains and buses were running. Only Lisbon's metro and ferries shut down.
"They are raising the prices and now there is a strike as well, this is annoying," said Rosario Mendes, a janitor waiting for a bus to return home from her early shift. "We can't go on strike, there are no jobs."
Shops and commerce was functioning normally in Lisbon.
Even union officials acknowledged the strike was weak.
"We are analyzing why (train and bus) workers didn't mobilize as we had expected," said Jose Manuel Oliveira, a coordinator for the FETRANS transport union.
The Portuguese have so far shown little passion for the kind of violent protests and strikes that have hit Greece during its crisis. Portugal has few traditions for widespread protest.
The situation is similar in neighboring Spain despite 23 percent unemployment. A general strike in November 2010 had limited impact. Spain's unions have lost clout and credibility. There is also wide-spread sentiment in Spain that families and the government lived beyond their means during a 10-year-long housing and construction boom.
Nor has there been much sign of widespread militancy in France or in Italy.
Thursday's strike in Portugal was aimed at government efforts to restructure public transport companies, which have huge debts and will almost inevitably lead to job losses. The government has not yet detailed its plans.
"This strike was premature and badly explained by the organizers, as the government has not yet outlined its plans for the transport restructuring," said sociologist Elisio Estanque at Coimbra University. "So it does little but caricature and vulgarize the strike movement."
UNION SIGNS LABOUR REFORM
Portugal's second-largest umbrella union, the UGT, reached an agreement with the government and employers last month on labor reforms that will make it easier to hire and fire workers, boosting competitiveness.
UGT chief Joao Proenca said his decision to sign up to the agreement was motivated by his view that Portugal's lenders -- the European Union and IMF -- are under pressure to listen to unions in order to avoid a failure like in Greece. That should give unions greater clout in future reforms of the economy.
Since Portugal's crisis began there have been only two general strikes -- one in November last year and one in November the previous year.
There have been some sporadic strikes, such as train drivers and port workers, but they have related to specific issues in the sector, not in general against austerity measures.
But, as Portugal enters the harshest year of austerity and recession under its bailout there are still risks that social protest could flare up, especially if the government decides to adopt further cost-cutting measures to meet budget goals.
It has already effectively eliminated two months' pay for civil servants, cut health and pension spending and raised taxes across the board. Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said this week he would meet the terms of the bailout "whatever the cost."
Another factor that could have undermined the union movement
is a split between the moderate UGT and the more radical CGTP, which refused to sign the labor reform agreement with the government and is affiliated to the small Communist Party.
"Prices are soaring, they are robbing the people and sinking the country. Reject the pact of aggression," read Communist Party banners plastered around Lisbon, in reference to the labor reform accord.
Economic reality -- whether the slump deepens or the first signs of recovery appear this year -- may well end up being the key factor in deciding whether more workers join protests.
Still, the challenges have only increased since many investors started believing Portugal may have to seek more bailout money, putting Lisbon further behind the recovery seen in Ireland, the euro zone's other bailed-out country.
"If we manage to get closer to Ireland and not Greece, strife should subside, but if more draconian austerity measures are imposed, there will be a limit after which popular discontent will spill over to the streets," said Estanque.
(Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip and Miguel Pereira)