By Axel Bugge and Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese unions halted public transport on Thursday in a peaceful one-day strike against austerity measures which have led to the worst economic slump since the 1970s and sent unemployment to record levels.
Trains, metro services and many public offices shut down. But restaurants and shops opened as hard-up Portuguese who could not afford to miss a day at work opted to go by car, clogging many entry points to Lisbon with traffic jams.
Strikes and protests over the tough terms of a 78-billion-euro bailout by the European Union and IMF in 2011 have been mostly peaceful in Portugal, unlike the unrest in countries such as Greece, or more recently Brazil and Turkey.
The Portuguese are fed up with austerity and the sharpest tax rises in living memory this year but they are more fearful of losing their jobs with unemployment at record levels near 18 percent and three years of recession.
"It's simple - if I don't work, I don't eat. The government disgusts me, the austerity is stifling us, but protesting won't feed my family," said Augusto Nery, a 53-year-old electrician.
Unions hope the fourth general strike in two years will force the government to boost economic growth and ease the belt-tightening. The government won an easing of tough budget deficit goals from creditors in March and has said it could request further flexibility if the economic outlook worsens.
"What we have is an exceptionally large strike," said Armenio Carlos, head of the CGTP union.
CGTP and UGT unions leading the strike altogether have more than 1 million members.
"These austerity policies punish the country, violate the people, penalize workers and pensioners, so the strike will be a cry of resistance to these policies," said Carlos Silva, leader of the 500,000-strong UGT union.
In keeping with previous practice, the government declined to provide estimates on the size of the strike.
Many bus routes were suspended, forcing those who chose to go to work into longer, alternative journeys that were served by fewer buses than usual. At one bus terminal on the outskirts of Lisbon police broke up a picket line.
Rubbish collection was stopped in many cities and towns, town halls were shut and the fishing fleet in the southern Algarve region stayed in port.
The airport management company ANA said 37 flights had been cancelled so far in the Portuguese airports out of several hundred daily flights, while journalists at state news agency Lusa stopped reporting.
In the private sector, the CGTP union said Volkswagen's Autoeruopa plant outside of Lisbon halted production completely on Thursday, ceasing to produce 600 cars. All workers of the Lisnave shipyards in Lisbon downed tools, it said.
But with the hottest weather so far this year affecting Portugal this week, many young people simply went to the beach rather than taking part in protests.
"I came to the beach today because of the strike," said Vinicius Guedes, who is unemployed. "They had to suspend the classes I'm taking and I took the chance to spend some time with my son."
Still, the unions have planned protests for later in the day even though analysts doubted anything will change.
"Given the level of public discontent with the coalition, the demonstrations will generate considerable noise. Yet, the protests will probably not affect the government's stance," said Antonio Barroso, a London-based political analyst at advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, in a research note.
The centre-right coalition government holds a comfortable majority in parliament and there is no indication it will change course from its goal of ending the bailout deal by mid-2014.
However, Portugal still faces financial problems after yields on its government debt rose sharply in recent weeks, overshadowing the plan to resume financing its budget deficit fully by borrowing on debt markets.
($1 = 0.7691 euros)
(Additional reporting by Wilma Faget,; Editing by Angus MacSwan)