SAO PAULO, Brazil – It’s as if nothing happened. A day after police beat back striking subway workers with shields and batons and fed-up Paulistos broke through picket lines and stormed over inactive turnstiles, the longest service interruption in the history of the city’s Metro transit system is over and everyone is back on the train like it’s an ordinary Tuesday.
In Rio de Janeiro, the threat of another strike hangs over a 6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday night at which Metro workers will vote on whether to begin a work stoppage of their own. But no one in São Paulo bats an eye. Riders purchase tickets at the billheteria, move through the gates and wait on their trains as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
Various groups throughout the country, including teachers, bus drivers, police, sanitation workers and students, have been on strike, protesting against and in conflict with the government or their employers for more than a year now. It’s the Brazilian way.
During last Thursday night’s bus strike, passengers on the Omnibus Premier airport shuttle who were stuck in the middle of an impromptu demonstration by bus drivers simply sighed. “Greve,” a woman in the bus’ front seat said with a roll of her eyes, using the Portuguese word for "strike" before unloading her bags to walk the six blocks from where the bus was idled to the closest Metro station.
In cities such as São Paulo and Rio, residents have grown accustomed to blocked off streets, closed subway stations and bus terminals with no buses to take them to their next destination. But as the World Cup approaches and the expected 600,000 soccer fans arrive from around the globe, will Brazil’s seemingly inescapable feuds between management and labor undermine its reputation on the world’s biggest stage?
While government officials and striking subway workers reached a tentative truce in São Paulo Monday night to restore service to Brazil’s largest metro system, subway operators in Rio announced that they would vote on Tuesday to determine whether they will go on strike. It took until the late hours of the night in São Paulo for State Secretary of Metropolitan Transportation Jurandir Fernandes and leaders of the Metro operators to end the subway strike. Unfortunately for Brazilians and those traveling to the country for the soccer spectacular, the suspension is set to last only two days.
Workers agreed to suspend the strike and return to work on Tuesday and Wednesday, days after a federal justice deemed the five-day work stoppage and blockade of metro stations abusive and allowed transportation officials to fine the union R$500,000 ($223,000) per day and begin dismissing striking workers. The government terminated 60 of them.
The two sides will hold another meeting on Wednesday night to determine whether or not the Metro operators will go on strike Thursday, a day that just happens to coincide with the opening game of the World Cup.
Public transit is crucial in Sao Paulo, which sprawls across 588 square miles. To put that into perspective, it is more than 100 square miles larger than New York City and 85 square miles larger than Los Angeles. To deal with the strike, many travelers took two and sometimes three or four different subway trains to make it to their destinations, arriving often hours after they left. The back and forth has worn out Sao Paulo commuters such as Claudermir Boas.
“I worry if it continues,” Boas told International Business Times. “The city entered a different movement because of the games, due to the tourists. Still, you can count on transport problems to generate chaos.”
An estimated 4 million people take Sao Paulo’s Metro to work every day, and the government predicts that more than 24,000 fans will ride to Thursday’s World Cup opener.
After first largely supporting striking bus drivers and Metro operators -- who joined teachers, police officers and citizens who had been forcibly removed from their homes -- in protests against the government, public sentiment seems to be turning against the unions. Some Brazilians who have not been able to get to work or return home to see their children have met some demonstrating union members with violence.
Boas says he and others in the city believe that the strikes are a bit of “oportunismo” by the unions in advance of the Cup, and that most blame them for the disruptions.
“I'm not being so affected with the lines … but I have changed a few times to not have problems coming home,” Boas said. “People who work with me and live far have suffered enough.”
The unions still have some leverage. Brazil has already spent a reported $11.5 billion on the Cup, and CMSP, the government-backed transportation company that operates the Metro, is likely staring down the barrel of multimillion-dollar losses. Though costs from the most recent strike have not yet been published, a 24-hour work stoppage in 2006 by metro workers in São Paulo cost CMSP R$3 million ($1.4 million) in lost revenue, local daily Folha de São Paulo reported at the time.
That strike occurred when fares were R$2.10 and the Metro was used by an estimated 2.5 million residents a day. With a 60 centavo price increase and 1.5 million additional daily riders -- plus a predicted infusion of thousands of World Cup spectators -- the cost of further strikes could easily be well upward of R$6 million ($2.7 million) per day.
In Rio, the metro operators are seeking an increase in the minimum wage and an increase in salaries tied to the National Consumer Price index. Currently, the minimum wage is R$750 per month (about $340), and prices around the city are increasing substantially. Most of the city’s restaurants have prices written in pen or chalk, and they’ve been increasing almost daily.
Salaries had been the main sticking point in Sao Paulo, but as the talks get set to resume on Wednesday night, the battle has turned to rehiring the fired workers, who were dismissed for alleged vandalism and misconduct.
São Paulo Metro workers' union President Altino de Melo Prazeres Júnior said the union members’ immediate return to work Tuesday was a show of “good faith in wanting to negotiate,” but he threatened another strike if the workers aren’t rehired.
“The other demands aren't a priority anymore,” he told the Associated Press. “The priority is the reinstatement of the 42 comrades.”
Marco DaCosta, a Brazilian congressional adviser, described the strikes as simply “election year political unrest.” An adviser for the ruling Workers Party (Partido do Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, DaCosta believes the strikes are business as usual ahead of a worldwide event that also coincides with Brazil’s upcoming national elections.
“We are a few months from the general elections -- president, governor, congress and senate," DaCosta said. "It’s normal that the unions are using the visibility of the World Cup to try to [apply] pressure, and some unions are connected to candidates, mainly of the opposition. Brazil is governed by the same party since 2002, and the opposition now is more than one decade out of the palace.”
DaCosta pointed to similar strikes in South Africa and France, the hosts of the last two World Cups, respectively, that made headlines ahead of the event but were resolved, more or less, without interrupting the games.
“I don't think we will have any strike during the World Cup,” he added. “All of the strikes, like in France and South Africa, occurred weeks or days before, as a pressure to get benefits. I think [the] majority of the strikes now are [at] the state level or city level. But the federal government has plans, and during the Brazilian games, nobody works, so the traffic and transportation will be reduced.”
Fernandes had previously announced “alternative plans” for transporting fans and residents to their destinations on Thursday. Those plans included working with FIFA to open the gates of the stadium an hour early and using additional buses and bus drivers in place of the Metro. But heading into Monday night’s talks, he said he was confident there would be no need to discuss those plan further.
“I do not want to give the slightest impression that we’re concerned with Thursday, today,” Fernandes told reporters before negotiations concluded. “We will work with FIFA to open the gates an hour before.”