The World Cup events being held in 12 cities across Brazil are set to begin in several days. Half a million tourists are expected to flood into Brazil. However, instead of the expected celebrations and weeks of national rejoicing in a country long-known for its proud football traditions, there is enormous tension as the events are set to begin on June 12th.
The entire country has been rocked by a wave of strikes and protests of different sections of the working class bringing their grievances forward in the lead-up to the Soccer tournament. Demands for wage increases have led to strikes in various sectors, from bus drivers, police officers, metro operators to teachers throwing major cities into chaos and traffic congestion.
Youth, homeless workers, indigenous people and slum-dwellers in the favelas have also organized protests. The opulence and lavish spending for the World Cup stands in sharp contrast to the poverty and deteriorated services that the masses depend upon. This has created an enormous backlash in Brazilian society. The masses challenge the obvious hypocrisy; if there is $14 billion to spend on stadiums and other associated spending, how can the government refuse to fund transport, health, education, housing and proper wages for workers?
The incompetence of the authorities in regards to stadium building and infrastructure projects that have been delayed or cancelled, seen cost-overruns as well as fatal workplace deaths of construction workers, have only discredited the government further. There is a veritable panic among the President Dilma and the ruling coalition going into the tournament.
The current protests and strikes are arising just one year after the inspiring struggle that shook Brazil in the summer of 2013. The protests last year, which were initially sparked in response to a bus fare hike of 20 centavos (9 cents), were the largest since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985. Last year those demonstrations brought over a million people onto the streets on June 17th alone.
The current movements can only be understood as a continuation of that struggle. Indeed a demonstration has even been set for June 19th to mark the anniversary of the struggle a year ago. Many of the demands initially raised then - for the funding of public transport, education and healthcare - are also being raised today.
What was supposed to be Brazil’s “Day in the Sun” has turned into its opposite for the Brazilian ruling class and Dilma Rousseff. The World Cup festivities have become a focal point for all the burning anger and frustrations in Brazilian society.
A World Cup for Whom?
The hosting of the World Cup was supposed to be a reflection of Brazil’s rise as an economic powerhouse. However, this economic growth was not shared by all. Indeed, Brazil is one of the most unequal countries on the planet. There are two Brazils; one for the rich who have taken the lion’s share of the growing wealth in the country, and another for the workers who have been largely left out.
The social eruptions are a reflection of these contrasting realities. For example, every measure is taken to appease the FIFA bosses. Whatever they demand in regards to spending, specifications, infrastructure and arrangements is granted. Meanwhile the problems of the people are ignored, and their living conditions deteriorate.
While wealthy tourists and political figures from around the world are given the utmost security with some $860 million set to be spent, the masses live in conditions of constant violence and crime. Entire neighbourhoods have been uprooted, evicted and homes demolished to make way for developments.
Every democratic right is being stripped to meet the FIFA expectations. 100,000 police and 60,000 soldiers have been mobilized to provide security during the games and to repress protesters. An additional 20,000 private security have been hired to protect various installations and stadiums.
Entire favelas (shanty towns) have been occupied by military or police “pacification units”. One example is the Mare Favela located near the Rio de Janeiro city centre, which is home to 130,000 impoverished Brazilians. It has been occupied by 2,700 soldiers in the lead-up to and for the duration of the World Cup.
It is enough to simply highlight the cost of tickets to the football matches, with prices for the matches ranging from $300 to $6,000. The majority of Brazilians live on monthly wages of below $215 and cannot dream of purchasing such tickets. The fact that football has a very prominent position in Brazilian culture makes these facts even more insulting.
A mural painting went viral displaying a thin boy seated at a table for dinner and crying, with only a soccer ball served on a plate. The mass sentiment is also reflected in the popular slogan that all Brazilians deserve to live in conditions that are at “FIFA standards”. During the past months support for the tournament has rapidly fallen. According to a Pew Research Centre poll, 61% of Brazilians believe that hosting the game was a bad idea as it diverted resources from public services, and 72% are unhappy with the situation in the country. The masses are asking: who is all of this for?
Workers Enter the Scene
This situation has driven workers to press forward their demands for wage increases and better work conditions. The workers are refusing to accept legal restrictions and court bans on their right to strike and demonstrate during the World Cup. The money being spent on the games is clear for all to see. The sentiment among workers is: on what basis can the government refuse our demands?
Strikes have spread across the country. In Sao Paulo, there has been strike action by teachers, metro workers and bus drivers. This has created a congestion disaster in Brazil’s largest city, which only worsened due to a strike taken by the traffic police!
In Rio de Janeiro teachers, engineers and bank security guards have been out on strike. There has also been a very militant bus drivers’ strike in Rio. In Salvador, police and bus drivers have been on strike. In Belo Horizonte, thousands of municipal workers, including garbage workers, have been out on strike since May. In Recife, the police and firefighters have been on strike. There have also been protests of military police and their families for higher pensions.
At the moment there are approximately ongoing 60 labour actions. Police strikes have reached 14 states, including in six cities which are hosting World Cup games. Additionally, some 4 million workers are currently in the midst of contract bargaining.
Airport workers and pilots have threatened strike action over the next weeks. Federal and state police, as well as immigration officials, have threatened a strike and declared their refusal to follow an injunction banning them from doing so for the duration of the tournament.
In addition to the workers’ movement, there is significant mobilizations of others sectors of society. In Sao Paulo, there was a protest of 25,000 held by the Homeless Workers’ Movement who proceeded to occupy land demanding it be used for housing. On May 27th, a protest of 2,500 indigenous people was held in Brasilia.
There have also been riots in the Favelas in response to police killings. In a favela near the Copacabana beaches (where the English team will be staying), riots and clashes with police erupted in response to the police murder of a well-known dancer from the neighbourhood.
Universities have also been closed early as a means to prevent the campuses from being a centre of youth organizing. Despite this, there are significant youth campaigns in various cities continuing the fight for free education, health and transport that started in 2013.
Metro Strike & State Repression
Perhaps the most notable strike has been the Metro strike in Sao Paulo. Transport workers went on strike on June 5th demanding wage increases. The Metro is the major means of transportation to the World Cup stadium in the city where the opening game will be held. The workers defied a court order that deems the strike illegal on the basis of the workers performing an “essential service”. The trade union has also been slapped with a fine, set to increase by $220,000 for every additional day that the strike continues.
The police were also sent to crush the strike using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. A union spokesperson explained that three workers had been injured in the initial police attack. In response the union declared the continuation of the strike “indefinitely”. The union president Altino Melo dos Prazeres has even threatened that "if the beating continues, we are going to talk to all the sectors. If our people bleed, we are going to ask for help from the metalworkers, from the bank workers, and have a day of general strike at the opening of the cup".
The strike itself has attracted significant support and displays of solidarity in Sao Paulo. This includes various social movement organizations including the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) which joined the metro workers in their protests.
The workers are clearly emboldened by the general mood of anger and mobilization in society. The economic slowdown of the past 2 years has created significant insecurity. The ruling Workers Party (PT) government of Dilma Rousseff has made clear its intention to carry out austerity cuts. Additionally, annual inflation of over 6% constantly eats into the wages of the workers.
This situation is pushing a radicalization and growing mood of militancy among the workers. They correctly feel that they will be made to pay for the capitalist crisis and the economic slowdown in Brazil, and are therefore feeling the need to begin holding their ground. The workers see the hypocrisy of government spending for the World Cup while refusing to make wage concessions, and feel that they have additional leverage in taking industrial action now.
The response of the Dilma Roussef government has been to effectively militarize society with massive security spending. This has meant using all legal means to ban protests and strikes. It has meant the military occupation of various favelas. Court orders are constantly being made declaring particular strikes to be illegal and threatening fines on various trade unions. This has included a campaign of intimidation and harassment of left-wing organizations, such as the Brazilian Marxists of Esquerda Marxista, who have faced visits from Military Police and the firebombing of their offices.
However, none of this has held back the movement. These measures are serving to further expose Dilma Rousseff and the ruling Workers Party (PT), and are only angering and emboldening the workers and youth onwards. It should be remembered that it was precisely the brutal police response to the bus fare protests in the summer of 2013 that caused a relatively small movement to develop into immense proportions and gain popular support.
Workers Moving Beyond the Reformist Leaders
The ruling PT government is steadily discrediting itself among the workers. The PT is a party that is historically linked to the organized trade union movement. The previous leader of the PT and president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, was a trade unionist and metal worker.
However, the class collaborationist and reformist policies of the PT leaders are leading to one betrayal after another. The excessive World Cup spending and the carrying out of anti-democratic laws and repression demanded by the FIFA gangsters is only the most recent betrayal of the PT leaders. The PT’s policies over the past years have been one of privatization of state-owned assets and the awarding of lucrative contracts in the resource sector to multinationals. It has governed during a period of the massive expansion of inequality in Brazilian society.
Among the youth there is a significant anger and bitterness towards to the PT leaders. It was precisely the PT that is responsible for the sending of Military Police to beat-down and teargas protesters during the mass movements that were sparked by the bus fare hikes last year. This mood of anger at the PT and President Dilma is now spreading to the broader working class and to the organized labour movement.
Indeed President Dilma and FIFA head Sepp Blatter have announced that they will not be making speeches at the opening ceremonies of the World Cup. They fear that they will be booed and jeered at by the crowds (as occurred during the Confederations Cup one year ago). This would be the first time that the World Cup opening ceremonies did not include speeches from the head of state. The ruling PT is discrediting itself by protecting the interests of the rich. This is leading to a greater willingness of workers to enter into struggle including against the PT itself.
There is a pressing need to unify the struggle of the working class and the youth. Instead of disparate protests and strikes, there is a need for a united struggle that could bring hundreds of thousands or even millions into the fight for wage increases and for free public transport, health and education. The CUT (Unified Workers’ Central) representing some 7.5 million workers has enormous social power at its disposal. The calls by the metro workers in Sao Paulo is absolutely correct, a one-day general strike is needed to challenge declining real wages, austerity cuts and repressive anti-democratic measures.
However, the leaders of the CUT are themselves also tied to the reformist policies of the PT and presently have little perspective beyond collaboration with the bosses. The alliance of the PT, and the CUT, with the parties and organizations of the capitalists is a tremendous obstacle for advancing the current struggles of the workers and other toiling people of Brazil.
Capitalism in Crisis - Brazil on the Brink
The past period of a booming economy in Brazil meant that the PT government, under then-president Lula, could offer concessions to the workers. Collective agreements would generally result in wage increases, while poverty programs lifted millions out of poverty. This lent itself to social stability and to the significant popularity of Lula.
From 2004 to 2008, growth rates averaged around 5%. Despite a brief drop during 2009 to -0.3% in the aftermath of the financial collapse, Brazil bounced back to 7.5% growth rates in 2010. Many mainstream commentators presented Brazil as a miracle economy.
Since then, growth rates have collapsed standing below 2% in the country and the forecast is for the downward trend to continue. The Brazilian miracle has become a nightmare. As export markets, particularly China, Europe and the USA slow down, the repercussions are felt in Brazil. This is in line with the process across the so-called “emerging economies” of the BRICS and others that have seen rapid drops in growth in the last few years.
The economic slowdown has meant that the material basis that allowed for concessions to the working class has narrowed down significantly. Unemployment is set to rise. Growth in Brazil was also dependant on the expansion of readily available credit. Government and household debt is high. Dilma has therefore made fiscal responsibility a major plank of her policies.
Instead of concessions, the PT will be forced to carry out austerity, oversee rising unemployment and the rising cost of living if it refuses to break from capitalism. This is the logic of reformism in the era of capitalist crisis. If you accept the capitalist system you must also administer its crisis, which means attacking the working class. It is these attacks which explain the growing anger and distrust that is developing against the leaders of the PT.
A recent poll showed that 84% of Brazilians see Lula, the previous president, in a positive light. However Dilma, who until recently enjoyed a similar popularity is only viewed positively by 48% of the population. The capitalist crisis is showing the inability of reformism to protect the working class, and instead is pushing the reformist leaders into collision with the workers. The usage by the PT of state repression over the last few days (and last summer) against the trade unions and the youth is a striking expression of this.
These events are having a profound effect on the consciousness of the Brazilian masses. The youth and an increasing layer of the workers are radicalizing. Comparing the current protests to the ones a year ago, the key difference is the entry of the Brazilian working class into the struggle. This is a warning of what is to come in the future.
While workers certainly participated in the movement in 2013, the working class did not enter the struggle decisively at that time in an organised manner. The involvement of powerful trade unions, engaging in collective strike action, is now giving the movement a distinctly working class character. This creates the possibility for the movement becoming much stronger and to go much further. The historic struggle which began in 2013 is moving to a higher level.
Note: Metro workers in Sao Paulo suspended their strike today to allow for negotiations. The union has announced that strike action would resume on Thursday if its demands for wage increases are not met.