The Spot

Brazil Is Facing an Unprecedented Labor Crisis With the World Cup Just Days Away

Public transportation users invade subway tracks in the Corinthians Itaquera station.

Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

With the World Cup set to start in São Paulo on Thursday, Brazil’s largest city has been racked by work stoppages that have created an unprecedented crisis for the country’s already fragile labor system.

After a Friday in which striking mass transit workers brought the city to a grinding halt, São Paulo’s labor court ruled on Sunday that the strikes were not legal, reports the AFP. This was the first time in the history of the court that it had been opened on a Sunday to issue such a ruling, says labor judge Homero Batista Mateus da Silva.

Homero works on São Paulo’s labor court, but in a different division than the one that decided the fate of the striking workers. 

“Everybody is afraid of waiting for Monday or Tuesday,” Homero, who is also a professor of labor law at the University of São Paulo, told me over email. “This is amazing and for us is a brand-new world.”

“The court ruled the strike was abusive. We are going to have an assembly [this afternoon] and vote whether to continue the strike or not,” said union spokesman Thiago Marcelino Pereira after the ruling was announced.

Even though the court ruled against the strikers, enforcing the ruling may be a challenge. The subway union has already scoffed at $44,000 fines levied by another judge for each day of full strikes.

(Update, June 9, 2014, 8:30 a.m. EST: On Sunday, the labor court increased the fine to $220,000 per day going forward. The subway workers voted to continue striking indefinitely despite the ruling.)

“The fines are not sufficient, nor respected,” said Homero. “They pay it five, 10 years after, so it is not effective.”

A major problem is that the Brazilian legal system had not been set up to resolve public-sector labor disputes until last year when the Supreme Court ruled that a 1989 national labor law that had been restricted to private-sector employees was now applicable to public-sector ones.

“This decision came as a huge surprise, since the Supreme Court has avoided it for a long time, but the huge silence from Congress for the past decades has forced the U-turn,” said Homero.

Still, because the 1989 law was written with the private sector in mind, it is a poor mechanism for authorities to negotiate with public employees. 

Homero said that because public-sector employees have largely been unable to access the labor courts to resolve disputes via arbitration, “their strikes are much more violent, widespread and long” than in the private sector.

Police unions have said that they may ignore a Supreme Court injunction not to strike during the World Cup. The government of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing re-election in October, has said it would call on the military to prevent protests from disrupting World Cup matches if it came to that. Brazilian police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades against subway workers during Friday’s strikes.

“The absence of [strong public labor] laws is responsible for many problems,” Homero said. “As far as I know, some unions are not intimidated [by threats of military force]!”

The subway workers were asking for a pay hike of 12.2 percent, having rejected an offer from the state government company that runs the subway system for an 8.7 percent raise.

The past two months have seen strikes from teachers unions, police unions, and bus unions. Federal police who had threatened to go on strike received a 16 percent raise, while striking bus drivers received a 10 percent pay increase.

Striking workers cite salaries that have suffered under inflation as a main cause for the stoppages, with government statistics released on Friday showing that the country’s consumer price index rose 6.37 percent in the last year. They also note the enormous bill—more than $11 billion—the country has footed to pay for the World Cup and wonder why more of that money hasn’t been spent on public employees.

“[The] World Cup has turned out to be a tremendous opportunity for wages and better conditions efforts,” said Homero. “Even those who have been quiet for some years, as the buses and trains drivers, have awakened.”

The subway system is supposed to be the main mode of transportation for fans planning to attend Thursday’s World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia.

The country’s labor minister, Manoel Dias, has described recent work stoppages as crass opportunism. “Many strikes are inexplicable,” Dias said after a series of strikes two weeks ago. “Workers have had higher-than-inflation salary increases.”

Public-sector strikes in Brazil are not uncommon, and are beginning to frustrate citizens. “Ordinary Brazilian people are so tired and so disgusted that they do not count any more that the essential public services will be available the whole year,” says Homero. “Public teachers’ strikes are on an annual basis, evolving from 30 to 90 days. Parents are used to seeing their children at home many working days a year.”

The lack of ability by the political system to negotiate effectively with public-sector employees has partially to do with Brazil’s shoddy historical treatment of labor. Prior to the 1988 Constitution and the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, strikes were treated as a “crime and then as an un-Brazilian activity,” according to Homero.

“I have a feeling that the way Brazil has treated strikes during [its military dictatorship] has proved to be wrong and has backfired,” Homero said. “Any president or politician that dares to make a speech about the need of some rules are immediately considered right-wing or [an] enemy of the workers. That’s why civil servants (and the military included) have absolutely no rule concerning strikes. No rule at all. They can do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

Homero said he empathizes with workers seeking better conditions, and that’s why he wishes that a better arbitration system were in place to resolve such disputes.

Concerns about this World Cup had centered mainly on fears of a repeat of last year’s mass demonstrations, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest the billions that were being spent to host the tournament instead of being spent on infrastructure needs for the creaky education and health systems. The work stoppages that have taken place have involved many fewer participants, relatively speaking, but have still proved to be disruptive. A recent poll showed that a majority of Brazilians now view the nation’s decision to host the World Cup as a bad one. The tournament kicks off this Thursday at São Paulo’s Arena Corinthians, which was still incomplete as of last week.