Will Brazil's World Cup showcase striking workers?

Bus drivers in Rio have already gone on strike, and teachers may do the same. Some say other groups - including the federal police - could strike as well amid World Cup attention and the leadup to elections.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Stranded commuters leave a bus station to look for another form of transportation, in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Millions of passengers in Brazil's second largest city were left stranded as Rio's bus drivers began a 48-hour strike Tuesday demanding higher pay.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Perhaps the only group of workers who are sure not to strike here in the coming days are Rio’s trash collectors. During this past Carnival, with torrential rain in the offing, they pushed mayor Eduardo Paes to the wall and got themselves a 37 percent pay hike.

Probably the Military Police will stay on the job. Back in 2012, they went on strike and got a pay raise in addition to an existing plan of increases and bonuses. Even so, they’re unhappy about having their days off canceled this month, in response to rising crime rates.

But the same cannot be said for Brazil’s Federal Police, counterpart of the US Federal Bureau of Intelligence. A group of Federal Police, from whose ranks José Mariano Beltrame rose to his current post of state Public Safety Secretary, demonstrated [Wednesday May 7] for a pay raise and other benefits, while Brazil’s soccer coach announced the makeup of the national team.

Nor can the same be said for Rio’s municipal and state teachers, who vowed to stop work this [week], complaining that their employers have not lived up to an agreement made ending a previous strike, last year.

Bus employees, striking for 24 hours ending at midnight [last Thursday] brought many parts of Rio to a standstill. Local media report the vandalism of 467 buses, but this is only five percent of the city’s fleet of 8,700, as reported by O Globo newspaper. Strikers claim their union signed a 10 percent pay raise agreement without consulting them, but the union says the increase was duly voted on.

The question of just how much a union represents its members has been coming up more frequently, perhaps as a consequence of last year’s street protests. At that time, protesters coined the slogan “não me representa“, as they criticized Brazilian politicians.

There is also the question of just how much the strikers represent real labor demands. Because this is a gubernatorial and presidential election year, some observers suspect that political interests are behind strikes and the violence they spark.

Here too lies a connection with the 2013 protests. Until the death of a cameraman in February, downtown demonstrations featured black bloc members who often brought them to a violent close. Few broad-ranging downtown protests have taken place since then. Instead, poor neighborhoods have increasingly taken to street to protest police violence.

Though there have been accusations made, of political parties and politicians paying protesters, and of drug traffickers forcing favela residents to demonstrate, there is no way to determine to what degree people are truly speaking out and to what degree they are acting at the behest of others. Perhaps the only certainty is that violence is spreading in Brazil.

Notably, in São Paulo protesters have begun to target construction companies, key beneficiaries of Brazil’s mega-events.

While some observers say the public manifestations are an expression of hopelessness, it could also be that pronounced social and economic change over the last decade have raised expectations. Brazilians long kept on the margin may now feel that demands made are more likely to be met; this was certainly the case with Rio’s trash collectors.

An article in O Globo newspaper cites a 2,000-person-sample survey as well as social scientists, who say the violence is spurred by a lack of faith in public institutions and little dialogue between government and citizens. A sociologist compares Brazil to the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, when, he says, middle class growth led to racial conflict.

The federal government says it’s working with respective state Military Police to ensure an adequate public safety response to protests during the World Cup.

Here and now, two-term governor Sérgio Cabral recently stepped aside so his vice-governor Luiz Fernando “Pezão” de Souza, his party’s succession candidate, could have some time in the limelight. With crime on the rise, the central issue of the local election is pacification, the public safety policy that halved the homicide rate and helped to turn around the city’s fortunes, from 2008 to 2012. Should pacification continue? Can it or should it be improved? What sort of additional police reform does Rio need and want?

Despite these tough questions, the campaign hasn’t yet formally begun. Meanwhile, the growing number of street demonstrations and strikes, in addition to crime fighting, pacification needs, and the security demands posed by the World Cup, will certainly keep Mr. Pezão and the state’s police forces on their toes.

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.