Op-Ed: Strikes threaten to disrupt Brazil’s World Cup

Al Jazeera

SÃO PAULO – With just days until the 2014 FIFA World Cup kickoff in Brazil, concerns are growing over whether the tournament will be marred by protests, further damaging the country’s already tarnished image, or whether the “Land of Football” will come together to support the world’s biggest football event.

There is a distinct dearth of telltale World Cup murals and yellow-and-green bunting that traditionally adorns Brazil’s streets every four years. According to a recent poll by Datafolha, a media polling institute, only 48 percent of Brazilians favor their country’s hosting the tournament, down from 79% in 2008.

In June 2013 a 20-centavo hike in transit fares in São Paulo sparked street protests, which drew more than a million people in over 300 cities. The demonstrators were furious over deficient public transport, substandard health care and the poor education system while billions of dollars were being poured into World Cup coffers.

The protests continued for a few weeks at levels not seen for a generation. Activists united across various social classes and voiced a long list of grievances, including insufficient government spending in public services, police brutality and political corruption.

Over time, the protests coalesced into an anti–World Cup effort opposing government spending on the events, tax breaks for companies involved in the games and the effects of real estate speculation. There is now a palpable fear that the violence at protests during the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil could return.

However, despite mounting calls for protests and a general strike, many here say that Brazil will probably get into the mood once the games start. And that Brazil’s performance on the pitch will determine how soccer-crazed Brazilians will react once the festivities commence.

Não Vai Ter Copa

During last year’s protests, rattled officials quickly set out to meet protesters’ key demands: Extra cash was pledged for public services, corrupt politicians were hauled in front of courts and sentenced, political reform was promised, and transit fare hikes were rescinded.

However, small but highly charged protests under the banner “Não Vai Ter Copa” — meaning There Won’t be a World Cup (if demands are not met) — have continued to this day. Repeated clashes between activists and police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, led many people to abandon the cause.

The increasingly measly turnouts — police estimated 500 at the most recent protest, on 1 June in central São Paulo — means the remaining activists had to be resourceful in getting the international media’s attention. Luckily, the media have feasted readily on images of protesters torching World Cup sticker albums and the line that Brazil had turned its back on the tournament en masse.

Those predictions are largely unfounded. For starters, the fact that 60 percent of World Cup tickets were sold to Brazilians disproves this narrative about mass flight. In a country that some say bleeds football, those predicting a slow rallying round are probably going to be proved right.

With unimpressive turnouts for the protests, the Brazilian government and FIFA are confident that the picketers pose little threat to the tournament. FIFA Secretary-General Jérôme Valcke has even labeled them “misguided,” rejoicing, “Vai Ter Copa!” (“There will be a World Cup!”)

Government walking a tightrope

The authorities’ confidence may, however, have recently been dealt a blow. Since mid-May, union-led and wildcat strikes by public sector workers over pay issues and working conditions have been ratcheting up anti–World Cup sentiment as leverage to force the government into better settlements, and unions are threatening further action during the tournament.

Civil servants and street cleaners have staged walkouts in a number of cities, most recently Belo Horizonte, while teachers have been on strike for more than a month and have marched by the thousands, bringing major roads and city centers to a standstill. Yet officials here are more concerned that the police and public transport workers will launch an industrial action.

Recent military police stoppages in the World Cup host cities of Salvador and Recife led to the army’s being sent in to tackle looting and murders. Bus drivers have recently paralyzed a number of cities, for example, leaving some 300,000 commuters in São Paulo without buses for about three days, leading to desperate crushes in the subway system. Metro workers in the city have announced their own strikes starting on 5 June.

Brazil’s haggling season for pay rises has gone beyond normal limits and is expected to grow as the World Cup draws near.

The government has contingency plans and legal options to deter the strikes. For example, June 12 will be a public holiday in São Paulo to reduce the pressure on infrastructure for the opening match.

Brazilian officials are keenly aware of the delicate balancing act they must perform to drive a hard bargain with unions without inciting further industrial action.

The government has bowed to threats by the Federal Police, in charge of airport immigration services, and offered a fairly substantial pay raise, but we have yet to see how other departments will respond to this.

While strikes remain a cause for concern, another organization has recently proved even more adept at causing disruption by uniting large numbers of protesters.

Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) came to international attention after its members occupied private land in the vicinity of São Paulo’s brand new World Cup stadium. The occupiers, who took over an area thought to accommodate up to 5,000 families, say they were driven from their homes by rents inflated by World Cup speculation.

The MTST is demanding that the government legalize the sites occupied by its members throughout the country. Over the last month the group has set about bringing disruption to cities across Brazil to draw attention to their cause. The MTST and its allies successfully blocked six major highways in São Paulo simultaneously, occupied headquarters of companies they accuse of profiteering and led a march that brought 20,000 people to the streets — evoking scenes from last year’s demonstrations. The protest brought together the “Não vai ter Copa” marchers and leftist political groups, which have failed to attract significant numbers of protesters on their own.

The MTST is now vowing a “red June” if the government fails to meet its demands for a fair share of public money for the group’s members.

“FIFA has had their slice of the cake. The construction companies have too,” Guilherme Boulos, an MTST leader, said on May 22. “Now we want our slice, and not just crumbs.”

As the World Cup begins, disparate protest groups, movements and unions appear to be aligning and calling for (or considering) general strikes to inflict maximum pain and embarrass Brazilian authorities. Even without protests and strikes, Brazil’s lacking infrastructure is likely to wobble under the 3 million Brazilians and 600,000 foreign tourists roving among 12 host cities. As the global spotlight turns the country’s way, unless the government plays a very smart hand and the police show restraint, a string of public sector stoppages and new protests could bring major disruptions to cities hosting one of the world’s most watched sporting events.

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