A month before the start of the World Cup soccer tournament, organized labor groups across Brazil have begun a series of strikes and other protests for higher pay and better working conditions.
Associations of police officers, teachers, transportation workers, public employees and security guards have all left their posts or engaged in demonstrations, joining groups of homeless people and political activists also taking to the streets as the June 12 kickoff of the FIFA competition looms.
FOR THE RECORD:
Brazil unrest: An article in the May 18 Section A about labor protests in Brazil only weeks before the start of the World Cup soccer tournament said the U.S. national soccer team is scheduled to play Germany on June 28. The game is scheduled for June 26.
More actions are planned in coming days, adding to the concern that as the eyes of the world focus on the South American nation, it might be paralyzed by widespread protests similar to those in which more than 1 million people participated last summer.
"The government has paid all its attention to building soccer stadiums up to First World FIFA standards, while our schools continue at the lowest standards," said Claudio Fonseca, president of the striking Sao Paulo municipal teachers union, which sent thousands into the streets Thursday. "We need money to raise salaries, build and repair schools."
The most chaotic job action took place in Recife, where the U.S. national soccer team is scheduled to play Germany on June 28. Police left the community unprotected for three days last week. Brazilian media broadcast scenes of looting and violence. At least 17 people were reported dead before the federal government sent in the military to provide emergency security and police called off their strike.
Other police groups have promised a day of national "paralysis" on Wednesday.
The addition of organized interest groups with specific demands to the mix of demonstrations around the World Cup is a new development here. Protests in the last year had mostly consisted of mass marches in which participants vocalized a broad set of sometimes contradictory complaints.
Unions and other groups of workers may be using the period before the tournament, a time when the federal government is desperate to establish order, as a negotiating tool, said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.
"The government is in a very weak bargaining position right now, and any strike will create much more pressure for terms to be met than they would under normal circumstances," he said. "We can expect a lot more strikes over the next three weeks."
For years, officials have promised that the World Cup would serve as an opportunity to improve the lives of Brazilians as well as project a positive image to the world. But opinion here has soured amid accusations of corruption and excessive spending; polls show that a small majority thinks the World Cup will do more harm than good in the long term.
Unlike social demonstrators who say they want to disrupt the event, police and government workers are likely to call off their protests before kickoff.
"We don't want to continue any protest during the actual World Cup. Taking police off the streets during such an event would be unacceptable blackmail," said Janio Bosco Gandra, president of the Brazilian Confederation of Civil Police Workers, which is organizing Wednesday's "paralysis" day involving civil, federal and highway police.
"We want to send the message that the government has had no strategy to improve its security forces, which has left Brazil vulnerable to violence and corruption," said Bosco Gandra. "Before the World Cup, our officers have been given nonlethal weapons, but they don't know how to use them, and they don't know whom they're allowed to shoot them at.
"They received no training at all.... We need new investments and policies to deal with serious problems, including the criminals dressed up as police officers," he said, referring to corrupt or abusive officers.
Police in Brazil are widely accused of human rights abuses, and participation in last year's protests exploded after military police cracked down on demonstrators in Sao Paulo. As the movement grew, the marches increasingly took on themes such as inadequate public education and healthcare, abusive police and excessive World Cup spending.
On Thursday, about 1,500 protesters clashed with police in Sao Paulo, as additional groups of homeless, teachers and fast-food workers carried out separate street actions throughout the day.
Teachers have taken to the streets in Rio de Janeiro, where security guards also continue to picket. City Hall workers in World Cup host city Belo Horizonte remain on strike, as do bus drivers in the interior state of Goias.
Teacher organizer Fonseca said Brazil's educators were locked in a struggle for resources and that the strike was not timed to coincide with the World Cup.
"We have nothing against the World Cup," Fonseca said. "If the government had money left over to pay for everything, there would be no problem."