Brazil: unions respond to protests with general strike

Tens of thousands of Brazilian workers participated in a one-day general strike in 20 or more cities on July 11, with strikers holding generally peaceful rallies and marches that blocked highways and bridges at dozens of points throughout the country. The strikers’ demands included the reduction of the work week from 44 to 40 hours; a speeding up of the agrarian reform program; greater public funding for health and education; control of inflation; and changes in economic policy. The action, the National Day of Struggles, was called by the six main labor confederations, including the Unified Workers Central (CUT), which is affiliated with the center-left Workers Party (PT) of President Dilma Rousseff. The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and the National Students Union (UNE) backed the strike. 

The action was an effort by the union movement to bring labor demands to the spontaneous, largely middle-class protest movement that swept Brazil in June. “We were in the streets 30 years ago,” CUT president Vagner Freitas said, referring to demonstrations in the 1980s against the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. “Brazil only changes when the working class takes to the streets. That’s how we have won our rights, and how we’ll go on winning them.” In addition to the joint demands of the six confederations, the CUT called for support for a political reform proposal that President Rousseff sent the National Congress in response to the June protests. While significant, the turnout for the July 11 general strike fell far short of the participation by a million or more in the largest of the June protests. Union supporters considered that the day represented an advance for the labor movement, since it was the first national action called by all six confederations. They noted that general strikes are unusual in Brazil: the last large general strikes were the actions against the dictatorship. (A June 1996 general strike called by the CUT and two other federations to protest economic policies was described as a disappointment.)

The Coordination of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) marked the National Day of Struggles by sending Rousseff an open letter in the name of 305 Brazilian indigenous groups representing a population of some 900,000 people. The letter expressed the groups’ rejection of any measure by the legislative or executive branches that would set back their movement for rights; they specifically opposed a proposed constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to demarcate indigenous territory, a function now carried out by the executive. (Reuters, July 11; La Jornada, Mexico, July 12, from AFP, Xinhua, Reuters, DPA)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 14.