By Axel Bugge and Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese unions halted public transport on Thursday in a peaceful one-day strike against austerity measures that 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 obtained in 2011 have been mostly peaceful.
While the Portuguese are fed up with austerity and the sharpest tax rises in living memory, with unemployment at record levels near 18 percent and recession in its third year, they are more fearful of losing their jobs.
"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.
The CGTP and UGT unions leading the strike together have more than 1 million members.
"What we have is an exceptionally large strike," said Armenio Carlos, head of the CGTP.
Carlos Silva, leader of the 500,000-strong UGT, said: "These austerity policies punish the country, violate the people, and penalize workers and pensioners, so the strike will be a cry of resistance to these policies."
In keeping with previous practice, the government declined to provide estimates of 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.
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 out of several hundred flights had been canceled so far, while journalists at the state news agency Lusa stopped reporting.
In the private sector, CGTP said Volkswagen's Autoeuropa plant outside Lisbon had stopped completely on Thursday, preventing production of 600 cars. All the workers at the Lisnave shipyards in Lisbon downed tools, it said.
With Portugal experiencing its hottest weather of the year so far, many young people went to the beach rather than taking part in protests.
"They had to suspend the classes I'm taking," said Vinicius Guedes, who is unemployed. "I took the chance to spend some time with my son."
A peaceful protest outside parliament in the afternoon drew just a few thousand people, one of the smallest turnouts since Portugal secured its bailout in 2011.
"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 center-right coalition government holds a comfortable majority in parliament and there is no indication it will change course from its goal of financing its own budget deficit fully by borrowing on debt markets from mid-2014.
However, that plan has been put into some doubt by a recent sharp rise in yields on Portuguese government debt.
($1 = 0.7691 euros)
(Additional reporting by Wilma Faget; Editing by Kevin Liffey)