Latin America & Caribbean

Brazil strikes headache for President Dilma Rousseff

Striking public sector workers in Brazil hold up sign saying "On strike" Image copyright Agencia Brasil
Image caption Brazil's public sector workers make their stance clear

Public workers across Brazil are currently involved in what is one of the largest industrial disputes in the country's history, presenting a major challenge for President Dilma Rousseff.

Recently described as the world's third most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, President Rousseff is finding plaudits from abroad do not necessarily make life easier at home.

As many as 400,000 federal officials from some 30 government departments and public bodies - half the total public workforce - have been staging strikes and protests.

The disruption started in May, when teachers stopped work, demanding higher pay and better career prospects.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Not for turning: President Rousseff has given strikers a Tuesday deadline

Their protest was followed by other state employees, including police and customs officers.

The result has been disruption on the roads, in public hospitals and at ports and airports.

In the hospitals, concerns have grown over shortages of essential medicines and delays in scheduled operations.

The industrial action has also strained traditionally strong relations between the trade unions and the governing Workers' Party, and placed growing pressure on President Rousseff's administration, just weeks ahead of important local government elections.

'Traffickers, come in'

At Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, the largest in Brazil, a single queue for immigration has on occasion been taking four hours to clear as a result of action by police officers.

A large protest sign on the main road connecting Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil's two main cities, carried the message: "Police station closed - free passage for drug trafficking and arms."

The sign was later taken down, but similar controversial messages have been seen elsewhere.

The Ponte de Amizade bridge, in Foz do Iguacu, a city on the Brazil-Paraguay border, sees daily traffic of around 35,000 people.

It is usually a key location for police to stop drugs and smuggled goods from entering Brazil.

But even here protesting police officers theatrically tied their hands in a sign of protest over what they see as the government's slow response to their demands.

There have been also clashes between protesters and non-striking police outside Congress and the Planalto, the presidential palace, where Ms Rousseff has her office.

Image copyright Agencia Brasil
Image caption Open borders: Striking police had a strong message for the government

But while the potential for embarrassing the government grows, Ms Rousseff has made it clear she is only prepared to go so far to meet the strikers' demands.

Pricey place

Brazil is currently one of the most expensive countries in the world, and the cost of living has helped to create a large gap between what the strikers want and what the government is ready to pay.

University teachers were offered a 45% pay rise, while for other public sector workers it was a more modest 15.8% over three years.

Other striking public officials have been holding out for demands going up to 78%.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The mood has at time turned ugly as protesters press their claims

Even if the government's "take it or leave it" stance has not yet persuaded striking workers' to end their protests, President Rousseff does not appear willing to throw in the towel soon.

She ordered cuts in the wages of more than 11,500 protesters and also asked for what she regards as specific abuses - such as the provocative banners - to be investigated.

The Brazilian government argues that public sector workers enjoy secure, well-paid jobs and the priority should be to protect private sector employees as the country's economy slows down.

After growing 7.5% in 2010 and 2.7% in 2011, Brazil's GDP growth is expected to dip below 2% this year.

President Rousseff, facing the prospect of less money to share around, has to set the 2013 federal budget by Friday.

In the money

With the clock ticking, she has given those on strike until Tuesday to resolve their dispute.

The government also argues that Brazil's previous leader, President Lula, had already given ample pay increases to all categories of workers in the public sector.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Public sector workers saw their pay increase significantly under Lula

Brazilian economist Raul Velloso, a former executive secretary at the Ministry of Finance, told Brazil's O Globo newspaper that over the past nine years, federal employees had had an inflation-free 33% increase.

Trade unions say workers have a right to a fair share of the country's recent economic success.

Some analysts argue that even if the protests continue, Ms Rousseff has the political strength to impose a solution and ignore any potential electoral fallout.

"Civil servants have always been an important support base for the Workers' Party in Brazil," says Prof Victor Trujillo from the ESPM college of advertising and marketing.

"But I don't think that there would be a significant impact either on the president's image nor on the party's performance in the elections.

"Ms Rousseff is very popular and Brazilians usually choose their candidates based on their political career rather than the party they belong to."

But while the elections are more likely to be dominated by issues such as health and education, there are signs that the public's patience with the current disruptions is wearing thin.

At a time when Brazil is facing a range of economic challenges, widespread industrial unrest is one problem the president could happily do without.

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