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October 2, 2014
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Striking workers, police clash in Sao Paulo

Subway train operators and activists from social movements clash with riot police in front of the Ana Rosa metro station, in an ongoing subway strike, in Sao Paulo yesterday.

Industrial action temporarily suspended, but protesters threaten to cause chaos on opening day

SAO PAULO — Protesting subway workers dramatically suspended a strike at press time last night that has crippled traffic in Brazil’s biggest city, but warned they could resume their walkout on Thursday — the opening day of the World Cup.

International fans arriving in the city earlier yesterday were met by daunting traffic jams, a stuttering metro system and other delays. Earlier in the day, police had used tear gas to disperse the striking workers after clashes turned violent. It was the fifth consecutive day of salary protests.

The walk-out added to widespread concerns over whether Brazil’s government can prevent street protests and other simmering labour disputes from disrupting soccer’s landmark tournament, which begins in just two days when Brazil and Croatia face off at a controversial new stadium in Sao Paulo — the country’s current hotspot of social unrest.

In a statement on the union’s website, leaders said they were calling a two-day suspension of the industrial action, but added they would hold a vote today to determine if their strike would resume Thursday — the day of the tournament’s first match.

The union is seeking a 12 percent wage hike but the government says it won’t offer anything above 8.7 percent. Meetings between government officials and union representatives yesterday stalled on that point.

Union officials said the success of continued negotiations, and any decision to resume the strike, would hinge on whether the dismissed workers are rehired.

Authorities are deeply worried about the strike because the subway is the main means of transportation for fans who will attend the tournament’s first game. The stadium is about 20 kilometres east of central Sao Paulo, where most tourists stay.

The strike caused giant traffic jams again yesterday, creating huge delays for soccer fans trying to get into the city. Many waited for around two hours in lines for taxis at the city’s international airport and spent another two or three hours to reach their hotels.

“If this continues, it’ll be chaos,” said Miguel Jimenez, a fan from Mexico, ominously.

Sao Paulo, also Brazil’s business hub, will host five matches after the opener, including a semi-final.

Drawn criticism

Brazil has drawn criticism at home and abroad for failing to complete key infrastructure projects on time. It is expected to put on a good World Cup, but many Brazilians are angry over how much was spent and how the country still struggled to be ready.

“We’ve known this (the Cup) was going to happen for years, but nobody solved these problems,” said Ricardo Fars, a Brazilian manager for a technology company.

Police fired tear gas at metro workers at the city’s Ana Rosa station yesterday morning, and the state metro company later said it had fired 42 striking workers, although the local Brasil247 agency reported that figure was 60.

Sao Paulo state’s transport secretary, Jurandir Fernandes, told local reporters that 60 striking workers had been fired, and union officials began hearing of their members receiving telegrams announcing the dismissal.

“This is the way they negotiate, with tear gas and repression,” Alexandre Roldan, a union leader, said as he and others strikers regrouped outside the station following the confrontation.

Bruno Everton, who sells tickets at a subway station and is one of the union’s regional leaders, received a letter saying he had been dismissed.

“It’s an embarrassment that Brazil is depriving the workers of their rights,” Everton said. “This is an illegal firing. The government is trying to provoke us... threatening us.”

Altino Prazeres, president of the union leading the strike, said almost all of the 8,000 subway employees had walked out in the past few days. He said they were not interested in disrupting the World Cup.

“I love soccer! I support our national team. The point is not to stop the Cup,” he said. “We want to resolve this today.”

Prazeres said workers were willing to negotiate a lower raise if the state-run subway company offered more benefits, but managers have refused to agree.

Fifteen people were arrested in the violence, said Brasil247, which also reported that 400 people protested outside the city’s Transport Ministry.

Becoming a Battlefield

Other groups, including teachers and bus drivers, have staged strikes in Sao Paulo in recent weeks to demand higher pay. Analysts say the city is becoming a battlefield for dissenting political views, hurting its economy and creating a climate of unease ahead of the World Cup.

Frustration with broken promises and the ballooning cost of new World Cup stadiums contributed to widespread protests that drew over a million Brazilians into the streets during a soccer tournament last year.

World Cup organizers got a boost yesterday, however, when the homeless worker’s movement, which has organized most of the protests of recent weeks, said it had reached an agreement with the government and would not take to the streets during the tournament. Brazil’s government said it had agreed to build public housing units near the stadium as one of several concessions.

Back in Sao Paulo, however things got worse after part of a monorail under construction collapsed on to a busy thoroughfare below, killing at least one passerby, local TV reported.

Herald with AP, Reuters

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