LISBON (Reuters) - The leader of one of Portugal's main nurses' unions started a hunger strike on Wednesday after prosecutors declared unlawful a crippling three-week-long walkout by surgical nurses and threatened to impose penalties on those still taking part.
Demanding better pay and working conditions, nurses in hospitals across Portugal went on strike on Jan. 31, forcing the postponement of nearly 2,700 scheduled surgical operations, according to government figures.
The labour action, organised by the Democratic Union of Nurses (Sindepor) and the Portuguese Association of Nurses (APE), is set to run until Feb. 28, but the prosecutor general's office on Tuesday declared the strike "unlawful", confirming the government's stance on the matter.
One of the unions, APE, gave up the strike on Tuesday, but Sindepor stuck to its guns and its president Carlos Ramalho decided to up the ante by going on hunger strike.
"He wants to raise awareness among all Portuguese citizens about what the government is doing to workers," said Gorete Pimentel, a Sindepor spokeswoman, arguing that striking is workers' fundamental right that should be protected.
The union said Ramalho will continue his hunger strike outside the presidential palace in Lisbon until the government agrees to negotiate on union demands.
"I know this action is extreme but it's also a reaction to an extreme attack by the government," Ramalho told reporters minutes before starting his hunger strike.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Editing by Andrei Khalip, William Maclean)