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Portuguese Strike Falls Short on Effect

A national strike by Portugal's largest labor union disrupted public services Wednesday, but the protest against the government's economic reforms largely fell short of its anticipated impact.

The Lisbon subway and ferry services into the capital across the River Tagus shut down, but suburban commuter trains and city buses ran on nearly normal schedules.

The General Confederation of Portuguese Workers, the country's largest labor grouping with around 800,000 members, called the 24-hour work stoppage to protest the center-left Socialist government's attempts to cut public spending and make it easier to hire and fire workers.

Mostly public sector employees joined the strike. Refuse collection and mail deliveries were hardest hit. Government offices had fewer staff on duty, some schools canceled classes and many hospitals postponed scheduled surgery.

The private sector was largely unaffected.

"This is a partial strike with limited consequences," Labor Minister Jose Vieira da Silva told reporters.

The government came to power with a landslide election victory two years ago after promising broad reforms to modernize the country and halt its economic decline.

The reforms are part of an effort by European Union countries to sharpen their global competitiveness.

The government has cut welfare benefits for state employees, increased the retirement age and raised taxes to bring down the country's budget deficit -- the highest of the 13 countries using the euro currency.

The government says its policies are paying dividends. Portugal recorded its fastest economic growth in five years in the first quarter, when the gross domestic product expanded by 2.1%.

However, unions say the gains are being made at the expense of workers as the unemployment rate increased to 8.4% at the end of last year -- the highest rate in 21 years.