Thousands of strikers at Brazil’s biggest steel mill on Thursday staged a violent demonstration to protest the deaths of five workers after 800 army troops moved in to try to end a three-day walkout.
At least 43 people, including three soldiers, were wounded in the army’s assault late Wednesday night on the government-owned National Steel Co. in Volta Redonda, about 100 miles west of Rio.
Police said three workers died Wednesday night, two of them from bullet wounds, while the third had been bludgeoned.
Two more strikers died of their injuries Thursday morning, according to police and union officials.
They were the first reported deaths in clashes between the army and striking workers since the end of military rule in Brazil in 1985. President Jose Sarney on Thursday summoned an emergency meeting of the military-dominated National Defense Council.
According to a steel company spokesman, about 3,000 striking workers armed with rocks and iron bars were holed up inside the plant and refused to leave.
Troops began to move in to disperse the strikers and were hit by rocks and firebombs, the spokesman said. The troops responded by opening fire with guns and tear-gas launchers.
On Thursday, about 30,000 steelworkers and their supporters gathered in front of city hall and awaited autopsy results on the victims.
Later, thousands of workers marched through the city, stoning soldiers and army trucks, authorities said. No injuries were reported.
Workers went on strike Monday to press for wage increases and better working conditions. They want a six-hour shift in accordance with a new Brazilian constitution that went into effect last month.
The average wage for steelworkers at the plant is about $160 a month, considered fair by Brazilian standards.
The National Steel Company produces 4 million tons of steel annually, nearly one-fifth of the nation’s total output.
Brazil has been beset by soaring inflation that erodes buying power. Sarney, the first civilian leader after 21 years of military rule, has been unable to check it.
The cause, most economists agree, is a federal deficit caused by overspending. But the government’s response has been to lower salaries, despite the fact that most workers earn less than $30 a week. The result has been a crippling wave of strikes.