Recent labor reforms and austerity measures proposed by the Brazilian government ignited the biggest national strike in decades this week. The protests, which were the result of an inflammatory call to action put out by various labor unions and social movements, inspired thousands of Brazilians to take to the streets of Brasília and other major cities on April 28th. Teachers, transportation managers, healthcare professionals, and public servants all joined the strike, leading to the closure of several post offices, banks, and public transportation systems across the country. The auto industry in São Paulo was dramatically impacted – almost all manufacturers halted production. According to Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the largest workers’ union in Brazil, 35 million Brazilians did not attend work the first day of the strike.
The protest started early morning, with the help of the Homeless’ Workers Movement (MST), and was poignantly planned for the weekend ahead of Brazil’s national Labor Day. Although protesters relied mostly on traditional non-violent tactics, such as barricading streets and highways, some of the protests turned violent. Some individuals burned buses or broke property and police forces fired back with tear gas. Hundreds of protesters were detained.
Since the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff in August of last year, Brazil has witnessed wave after wave of protest and organized civil resistance. The new administration, under President Michel Temer, has been extremely unpopular because of the latest President’s attempt to rollback social security and other globally advanced labor laws. The country formerly promoted its specialized labor courts and its own labor public prosecution office. According to Jessica Lima, an employee of the Labor Public Prosecution Office in the city of Maceio, “The labor law reforms will take away social rights that were long fought for, and only big businesses will win. And as for the social security reform, I believe it is needed, but not how the government has acted on it.”
Temer argues his government’s reforms are necessary to rescue Brazil from its ongoing recession, the worst on record for the country, but the public understands that the new policies will only take away rights from workers and provide more power to employers. For instance, the new reforms intend to tighten and restrict the collective agreements made between employers and employees, which could lead to workers having to accept disadvantageous terms at the threat of facing dismissal. Additionally, the administration seeks to end the prohibition on preventing pregnant and lactating women from having to work in hazardous environments. The new labor laws extend the workday (without matched compensation) and propose to increase the minimum retirement age.
Although the protests had astounding participation rates, the government and Brazilian state media (which is mainly controlled by families close to right-wing political parties) downplayed the significance of the strikes and the protests. Emanuelle Brandao, a Professor of Communications at the Federal University of Alagoas, claimed that, in regards to press coverage of the strike, “The traditional media has contributed to the angst in Brazil by demonizing social movements and by focusing only on protester’s violent actions and the resulting disorder.”
Although the office of Temer stated the reforms will supposedly go through untouched, discussions on restricting social security have been postponed, a testament to the power of the strike.