This government is responsible for economic devastation and a deep recession…

According to agency reports, Brazil’s transportation, schools and businesses were brought to a halt on Friday, 28 April, as the country’s unions launched a full-scale general strike to protest President Michel Temer’s austerity measures. The first general strike in Brazil for twenty years was called as part of a union-led campaign against government plans to make sweeping changes to labour laws and to cut pensions.

The pension measures include delinking them from the minimum wage, abolishing special provisions for public sector workers, and raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 62 for women. The so-called “liberalization” of labour laws include allowing companies to outsource any job, extending the maximum length of temporary work contracts from three months to nine months, and ending the eight hour working day. The proposals also attack workers’ rights in respect of holidays and  overtime.

The struggle against austerity takes place against the background of worsening conditions for ordinary Brazilians, despite the government’s view that the economy is turning the corner.

According to Agence France Presse (AFP), Brazil’s economy shrank 3.8 percent in 2015. The figures for 2016, says AFP, are expected to reveal a contraction of a further 3.5 percent, making this the country’s worst recession in a century.

Unemployment, says AFP, hit another new record of 13.7 percent for the last quarter, up from 13.2 percent. Fourteen million Brazilians are now out of work.

The miserable economic news coincides with Brazil’s worst ever corruption crisis. The so-called “Car Wash” probe has uncovered a huge network of embezzlement and bribery at the heart of the country’s economic and political elite. Eight of Temer’s ministers are under investigation. The president himself has been accused of chairing a meeting during which his PMDB party negotiated a $40 million bribe from the Odebrecht engineering conglomerate. Naturally, Temer and his allies deny any wrongdoing but the combination of greed at the top and suffering among the great mass of workers is fuelling protest and action.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city and financial powerhouse, striking transport workers brought work to a standstill.

In Rio de Janeiro, protesters lit fires on a major bridge, disrupting commuter traffic, while police had to use tear gas to force a small crowd of protesters from outside the main bus station.

Bus and metro services were hit in most of Brazil’s major cities and towns, including the capital, Brasilia, as well as Rio, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Joao Pessoa, Curitiba and Porto Alegre. Bus services continued to run intermittently in Rio, but access to ferry boats and other public transportation was blocked. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters outside the city’s main bus station.

Protesters blockaded highways across the country, and police had to use tear gas to clear highways.

The major Rio-Niteroi bridge was impassable for half an hour during the morning rush hour, while a confrontation between security forces and protesters ensured that roads servicing Rio airport were blocked. Flights were delayed or cancelled in regional and international airports throughout the country. Many banks were closed.

Teachers in both private and public schools, who will be hit hard by Temer’s proposed social security measures, declared support for the strike and suspended classes.

The Temer government threatened to retaliate against public-sector workers who joined the strike, and the city governments of Rio and Sao Paulo followed suit. But threats to fine unions to force a return to work were generally ignored.

Unsurprisingly, support for the strike was greatest in traditionally unionized parts of the economy, including the post office and hospitals, as well as transportation and schools. And while Temer has majority approval in Brazil’s congress for the reforms, the strike is likely to encourage rebel voices within the ruling party and its coalition partners.

“We can’t keep quiet anymore with a government that is not legitimate, which wasn’t elected to dismantle the rights of workers,” a striking bank employee in Sao Paulo told AFP.

The labour reform bill was approved by Brazil’s House of Representatives two days before the strike but still has to receive support from the Senate. A fifth of the representatives from the ruling coalition voted against the bill, and there is likely to be more opposition within the Senate.

A former Senate leader, Renan Calheiros, who now leads the PMDB in the Senate, believes that the Senate will not support the labour reform bill. He has criticised the bill as “sloppy” and damaging to workers’ rights.

The social security reform bill has yet to come before the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the global labour movement is paying attention. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) issued a message of full solidarity with the workers of Brazil. Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said “This government, which took power illegitimately, is responsible for economic devastation … [and] a deep recession. A small cabal of immensely wealthy businesspeople are the only beneficiaries of what is in effect a scorched-earth economic policy involving a huge transfer of wealth to Brazil’s oligarchs.”

More details

Brazil: First general strike for 20 years‘, IUF, Geneva, 28 April 2017.

Brazil General Strike‘, ITUC, Geneva, 28 April 2017.

Rosa Sulleiro with Sebastian Smith, ‘Anti-austerity strike snarls cities across Brazil‘, AFP, 28 April 2017.

Brazil crippled by general strike‘, Xinhua News Agency, Beijing, 28 April 2017.

Dom Phillips and Jonathan Watts, ‘Brazilians fight back against corruption– with the help of a purple plug-in‘, Guardian, London, 27 April 2017.

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Gary Herman