Brazil: Rio street sweepers win with wildcat

Opposed by the media, the city government and their own union, street sweepers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second largest city, won a 37% raise and an increase in benefits on March 8 after an eight-day wildcat strike that left streets littered during Rio's famous Carnaval celebrations. The settlement reached by the municipal government and the strikers' committee increased the sweepers' base monthly pay from 802 to 1,100 reais (US$338.61 to $466.64). The sweepers also gained an increase in their daily meal tickets from 12 to 20 reais ($5.09 to $8.49), payment for extra hours, and increases for medical and dental care. The settlement included a guarantee that no workers would be fired for taking part in the strike.

The Union of Employees of Cleaning and Conservation Companies of Rio de Janeiro Municipality (SEEACRMJ) had previously made a settlement with the city for a 9% pay raise, but a group of workers walked out on March 1 to demand an increase of 50%. According to the strike committee, 6,000 of the city's 15,000 sweepers participated in the wildcat, but Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, from the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) dismissed the strike and its supporters, calling them "marginal and criminal." The city's Municipal Company of Urban Cleaning (Comlurb) at first tried to squelch the walkout by firing 300 strikers; later Paes threatened to lay off 1,100-1,200 strikers, in effect admitting that participation was more than marginal. The government also claimed that the strikers were using the threat of violence to get other sweepers to join them. Under this pretext, police "escorts" accompanied the sweepers who continued to work; strike supporters said these agents were in fact sent to keep the sweepers from participating in the walkout.

The strikers claimed they had broad support from the public, despite constant hostility in the media and the problems the strike caused for Carnaval, which ran from Feb. 28 to March 4 this year. There was similar support for a lengthy strike by Rio teachers last summer and fall, reflecting the public's anger over police brutality and inadequate health and education services, which led to massive protests throughout the country in June 2013. After the settlement was announced, strike committee member Bruno Lima said the movement had motivated the sweepers to follow up with more grassroots organizing. "We're very happy," he said, "but we're aware that this is a process that isn't ending here." (Agencia Púlsar, March 10; Adital, Brazil, March 10, March 13; Global Voices, March 11)

The national government has been trying to contain the recent upsurge in protests, with the Senate considering a bill that would designate some types of violence at demonstrations as terrorism. The São Paulo State Department of Criminal Investigations (Deic) has been carrying out an inquiry since Oct. 9 that supposedly targets the anarchist Black Bloc tendency, which the police consider responsible for acts of vandalism by masked youths at demonstrations. The investigation has been very broad. For example, 40 youths were given summonses to testify on Feb. 22; they were asked questions about their political beliefs and even how they voted in the previous election. Summonses were also given to 10 members of the Free Pass Movement (MPL), a group whose protests against high transit costs helped spark last year's demonstrations. The Deic decree authorizing the investigation indicates that the department plans to charge protesters with "criminal association" under Article 288 of the Criminal Code; the crime carries a prison sentence of one to three years. (Adital, March 10)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 16.