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In Brazil, strike season kicks off as World Cup nears

A civil police officer detain young suspects after a store was looted during a police strike in Recife, May 15, 2014. Road blocks and marches hit Brazilian cities on Thursday as disparate groups criticized spending on the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament and sought to revive a call for better public services that swept the country last June.

IGO BIONE/JC IMAGEM/REUTERS

The firefighters in Recife are on strike. The bus drivers, civil engineers, bank security guards and school support workers of Rio have walked off the job. The teachers of Sao Paulo are picketing and the train workers are marching. Police in Pernambuco are off the job. So are City Hall employees in Belo Horizonte. Nationwide, employees of the public pension fund and museum employees are striking; internationally, the staff of embassies and consulates.

In the words of a blaring headline in the Rio newspaper O Globo this week: Strike Season Has Arrived. There are, at a conservative estimate, 60 separate labour actions under way now in Brazil, and dozens more unions (including federal police, airport workers and pilots) have threatened to stop work in the next few days.

It is also, of course, FIFA World Cup season. One of the sporting world's great festivals begins in Brazil in less than a month, and the country's workers are seizing a moment of powerful leverage.

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"They are taking advantage of the World Cup because the government is very worried about the image of Brazil – the government doesn't want to see more bad news about Brazil, or you will have people cancelling their plans to come," said Hélio Zylberstajn, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Sao Paulo.

Many of the strikers – such as bus and train workers – negotiate their collective agreements with individual municipalities "so probably Dilma is calling all the mayors saying, 'For God's sake, please give them some money and stop the strike,'" he said, referring to President Dilma Rousseff, whom many Brazilians call by her first name.

The strikes already under way are causing considerable disruption. In Rio, for example, the lack of buses left much of the city paralyzed for two days this week, many schools are shut and most bank branches have not been operating for weeks due to the lack of security guards.

The current strikes are perhaps borrowing a leaf from the book of Rio's trash collectors, who went on strike in March during Carnaval – an event that brings even more tourists into the city than the Cup will.

The streets soon flooded with waves of empty plastic water bottles and beer cans. In days, the city administration caved and gave the workers a 37-per-cent wage increase (and doubled their lunch budget.)

"It's not that industrial conflict is deepening – it's a strategic decision," Prof. Zylberstajn said. "The workers are not dumb. They are using their bargaining power."

Miguel Torres, president of Forca Sindical, one of the largest unions in Brazil, insists the strikes aren't because of the Cup, but because the dramatic slowdown in the economy is leaving workers in trouble.

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Four hundred unions, with four million members, are currently renegotiating wage agreements, he said, adding: "And the negotiations are not going very well." Employers are not offering rises in wages that even keep pace with inflation, he said. "Of course we are going to take advantage of the international publicity."

Prof. Zylberstajn said it is unlikely the economy can sustain the kind of wage demands workers are making – and may get, since the government is under pressure to quell the wave of strikes.

"It's too much," he said. "For more than six years, agreements have provided workers with significant real increases. … We are almost at full employment so workers have a lot of bargaining power, but at the same time the economy is doing very badly – so it's just a matter of time before an unemployment increases and we see a lot of dismissals." The problem is equally grave for public and private sector workers, he said.

Brazil's astoundingly complex labour laws are not helping matters. The laws date from the 1930s, said Ana Virginia Morera Gomes – who teaches the subject at the University of Fortaleza – and reflects the influence of the then-authoritarian state which, in the name of protecting workers, essentially removed their autonomy.

There is almost no negotiating in contracts here, because the law defines almost every aspect of the terms of employment. This removes the need for collective bargaining; trade unions are state-controlled as well and and tend to have very low actual support from their membership, who are compelled to join.

These days, many workers feel their union leadership is corrupt – too close to employers; union leaders unilaterally accept or reject wage offers, without needing a membership vote. "It's a very unique case – the unions themselves [in some cases] oppose labour reform that would allow for greater freedom of association," Prof. Gomes said.

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That, columnist Elio Gaspari argued this week, is driving workers to more radical action. Bus drivers in Rio, for example, have set fire to more than 500 buses, in a labour action that is only a week old, but more hostile than anything seen in the past. "Having unions run by your friends doesn't guarantee [an employer] peace," he wrote in Folha de Sao Paulo.

The Cup leverage is being used by workers even outside Brazil. Employees of LAN-TAM, Latin America's dominant airline network, across the continent are threatening to strike.

"The last thing Ms. Rousseff wants is a pilot strike," said Prof. Zylberstajn. "And Brazilian embassies and consulates in 17 cities are on strike – if you need a visa, you can't get one right now." At least not quickly – a few workers in each site remain on the job.

But the government's chief preoccupation is a strike by police during the World Cup. During a three-day police strike in the city of Salvador in April, 39 people were killed, 60 cars were stolen and there were countless other robberies. (The city's usual homicide rate is five a day.) There is widespread expectation in Brazil that protesters of all stripes will take to the streets to capitalize on the international attention during the Cup (more than 50 demonstrations are scheduled already), and the government is determined to keep those protests from disrupting the event.

A superior court here ruled on Tuesday that federal police cannot strike during the Cup, but police can still appeal that decision.

"I think it's going to get worse," predicted Prof. Gomes. "People imagined that when Brazil had the World Cup it would be a big party – they never imagined people would be so aware of expectations and so critical."

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail. After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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