The “National Day of Struggles” convened by the unions affected at least 18 states throughout the day, in some of the biggest protests seen in Brazil since mass protests spread nationwide in June, leading to unrest in many cities.
Some analysts believe the unions are attempting to reignite and lead a new wave of mass; others say the unions are flexing their muscles in front of President Dilma Rousseff.
Activity at key ports in the country – including South America’s largest in Santos, south of São Paulo – was at a standstill from early in the morning as unionized dockworkers walked out in a 24-hour strike, delaying contained ships.
At least 80 major roads were blocked by protesters during the day – some protesting a toll charges, as in the southern state of Paraná. The Ministry of Justice said federal highway police would clear the blockades “through dialogue” or “by force.”
In many cities, including Porto Alegre, Salvador and Belo Horizonte, bus and metro services were disrupted by the industrial action, although threats to close São Paulo bus terminals and train systems were not carried out after they voted to abstain from Thursday’s walkout – despite causing major disruption on Wednesday as drivers and conductors joined strike action.
Although the size of crowds was not on a par with those seen in June, they were significant: 5,000 were reported to have joined rallies in Rio de Janeiro and some 7,000 took to the streets of central São Paulo over the course of Thursday, with more protests and road blockages around the state.
Some 8,000 people protested in the northeastern city of Natal, and around 2,000 people were reported to have occupied the Ministerial Esplanade at the heart of the country’s capital, Brasília.
The vast majority of Thursday’s protests were peaceful, but some clashes with police and arrests were reported, including in Rio de Janeiro where reports say ten people were detained and police dispersed a group of protesters with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon.
Rallies reminiscent of June protests
The rallies appeared to be aimed at testing how far the government could be pushed to negotiate with unions, after mass protests sparked by dissatisfaction over public transport in Brazil swept the country in June.
Police in São Paulo say some 4,000 people joined a rally centered at the São Paulo Museum of Art, located on Avenida Paulista, the city’s central business road.
An Anadolu Agency correspondent at the event said protesters there, carrying a variety of banners, union flags and balloons, were virtually all affiliated to a union, but the list of grievances was reminiscent of the mass protests in June, including transport, health, education, political reforms, gay rights, the decriminalization of abortion, and many against the country’s funding of the World Cup in 2014.
However, added to these was a new list of demands drawn up by the unions, including: a shorter, 40-hour working week without wage cuts; a number of demands over pension rights; ten percent of GDP to go to the country’s public education system; ten percent of public funding to be spent on health; and an end to the auctioning of oil fields to private companies.
“I believe now is the time when the workers must come to the street to claim long-fought rights. I work for the government, but there are also people here from the private sector that have being demanding a change in what we consider criminal rules governing pension rights. We’re here to call for a 40-hour week, more respect, better education and health,” Ismael Souza, 30, a public worker from São Paulo told Anadolu Agency.
São Paulo-based accounts assistant Suely Feio, 42, who is a member of the Central General Union of Brazil (CGTB) told AA: “I’m here to call for better education, health and the reduction of interest rates. I’ve had enough of paying bankers high interest rates.”
Rousseff under fire from all sides
Commentators appear divided over whether today’s events mark a rekindling of Brazil’s wave of mass protests, but the authorities will be concerned that the protests have now entered their second month, unabated, with major events on the horizon – some closer than others.
Whichever is true, pressure has against mounted on President Rousseff, who must address protesters’ demands for reforms and better public services, as well as balancing the books within the straitjacket of promises over financial responsibility.
With just over a year until crunch president elections where Rousseff is set to run for re-election, the president’s approval rating has slumped to a record low of just 30 percent. The president was also booed on Wednesday at a meeting of the country’s 4,000 prefects.
The president is also facing unrest in the unwieldy 16-party coalition that her party, PT (Workers’ Party) leads. As well has having to quell popular and party discontent, Rousseff is also only too aware of what is at stake with a raft of major events heading to Brazil over the next three years.
Organizers of a key Catholic youth festival, World Youth Day, which begins in two weeks’ time and involves the first major overseas trip undertaken by Pope Francis, say security has been stepped up as the city welcomes an estimated 2.5 million Catholic from around Brazil and abroad.
Brazil will host the World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2016 – state funding for which has been a major grievance of many protesters, including at today’s protests.