Protesters lit buses on fire, blocked roads and clashed with police during a general strike that brought transportation to a halt in many cities across Latin America’s largest nation. The strike was to protest major changes to labour law and the pension system being considered by Congress, but it was also a raw display of anger by many Brazilians fed up with corruption and worried about the future amid a deep recession and rising unemployment.
In Rio de Janeiro, after hours of clashes with police in front of the legislative building, several buses were torched. In Sao Paulo, thousands marched toward the home of President Michel Temer, throwing rocks at police who shot stun grenades when protesters tried to go beyond barriers set up. Millions stayed home, either in support of the strike or simply because they were unable to get to work. The tens of thousands who took to the street raised questions about whether Mr Temer will be able to push his proposals through Congress, where they had previously looked likely to pass.
Mr Temer’s administration argues that more flexible labour rules will revive a moribund economy and warns the pension system will go bankrupt without changes. Unions and other groups called for the strike, saying the changes before Congress will make workers too vulnerable and strip away too many benefits. In a statement on Friday night, Mr Temer characterised the protesters as “small groups” that blocked the roads and streets. He said his administration was working to help Brazilians workers overcome the country’s economic malaise.
Earlier in the day, most commuter trains and metro lines were stopped in Sao Paulo during the height of morning commute, and all buses stayed off the roads. Buses ran partial service during the morning in Rio but later began returning to normal. The metro was closed for the day in the capital of Brasilia. Some protesters also set up barricades and started fires in the streets, including on roads heading to the main airports in Sao Paulo. In Rio, protesters created confusion by running through Santos Dumont Airport, and others blocked a major road.
Some plane mechanics joined the strike, according to the National Aeronautic Union, but the impact was minimal, with only a handful of flights cancelled or delayed at the two cities’ airports. “We are demanding our rights, as workers, because the president of the country proposed a law for people to work more and live less, so you will only receive your pension when you die,” said Edgar Fernandes, a dock worker who was protesting in Rio.
The CUT union said around 35 million Brazilians did not show up for work on Friday, more than one-third of the working population. But government officials downplayed the strike, insisting that many Brazilians were still at work. “We don’t have a strike, we have widespread riots,” justice minister Osmar Serraglio said on Joven Pam radio.
Brazil’s economy is in a deep recession, and many Brazilians are frustrated with Mr Temer’s government. Mr Temer, whose approval ratings are hovering around 10%, has argued the proposed changes will benefit Brazilians in the long run. But with so many out of work, many feel they can ill afford any cuts to their benefits.