A general strike disrupted major cities across Brazil on Friday as union workers protested President Michel Temer’s proposal to loosen labor rules and trim pension benefits. In Sao Paulo, protesters blocked some of the city’s main roads and highways and hindered access to Guarulhos Airport, the biggest in the country. Later in the day, thousands marched toward the city hall. Access to Rio de Janeiro’s downtown was blocked early in the day, with traffic jams stretching 9 miles (14 kilometers) out from lines of strikers and rows of burning tires. Many people walked or biked to their jobs.
”We must defeat the labor and pension reforms because it is the return of slavery, and you’ll have to work until you’re 100, 200 years old” said Iran de Paula, a lawyer who belongs to the Movement for Roofless Workers. Protesters in Rio massed in front of the Guanabara Palace, the seat of the Rio state government. University teachers demanded the government pay back wages owed them. Thousands of state workers haven’t been paid in months because of an acute budget crisis.
At the end of the day, about 6,000 people gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro with banners denouncing Brazil’s government and demanding the ouster of Temer and of Rio Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezao, who are both from the same party. ”Brazilians are happy even when protesting, but the moment will come when we’ll have to hit harder, with more violence, against those thieves that govern us,” said 70-year-old Ivete Franca, a retired history professor. With her pension payment on hold, Franca said she is already living out of her emergency funds.
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Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstration after a few protesters started burning piles of garbage. The strike also affected other big cities, including Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and the capital, Brasilia. Temer’s work rule proposal before Congress would make it easier for employers to hire temporary workers and pay fewer benefits.
The pension overhaul that he is pushing would raise the retirement age and trim payments. Currently, many public workers can retire at age 54 with nearly full benefits. The proposal would set a minimum retirement age for the first time in Brazil at 65 for men and 62 for women. The proposals are unpopular and it’s unclear if even watered-down versions will be passed because of Brazil’s deep political crisis set off by sprawling corruption investigations that have brought charges against many top politicians, including the president.
Temer has been charged with bribery, and the lower Chamber of Deputies in Congress will soon begin reviewing allegations against him. If two-thirds vote that the case has merit, Temer would be suspended for up 180 days while the country’s top court conducted a trial. Temer denies wrongdoing.