Rio de Janeiro
Brazil's labor movement is passing through a particularly pivotal period. A general strike called for yesterday - only the second since Brazil's return to civilian rule two years ago - was largely disregarded by workers.
The strike was called by Brazil's two largest trade union confederations to protest the government's economic policies.
Hours before the planned one-day walkout began, most bus drivers here and in Brazil's other major cities voted to stay on the job. So did unionized workers in almost all other sectors of the economy. But there were several important exceptions. Rio's subway, ferries, and commuter trains did not operate, and some banks were forced to close in other cities. In Bras'ilia, bus drivers joined the strike.
At press time yesterday, concern was growing that the strike would turn violent, after police detained several dozen strikers who were said to be caught slashing bus tires and throwing rocks. Troops and tanks were dispatched to prevent disturbances at Rio's main train station.
Meanwhile, however, politicians, businessmen, and even many union leaders called the strike a failure. They said the lack of support by most workers could have serious consequences for the labor movement. Some analysts said the poor turnout was the natural result of the previous 21 years of military government, during which most labor organizations were disbanded. Others said the Brazilian economy, the world's eighth largest, is too massive to be stopped by strikers.
The strike came as congress debated whether to write important labor guarantees into a new constitution. Congress was expected to use the strike to gauge the strength of union demands among workers.
Anticipating an unfavorable result for workers, opposition leaders blamed the government for undermining the strike.
The federal government said it would not interfere with the strike. Yet, officials warned that public employees who refused to work would have their salaries docked, a legal recourse in Brazil.
Apart from such pressures, union leaders conceded that their own divisiveness added to the strike's problems. After arguing for more than a month over the best date for the walkout, they continued to disagree publicly over their demands, even as the strike began.
Moderate labor leaders also shunned a call by leftist colleagues to include political questions among the movement's list of demands.
Still, there was no doubt among union leaders that workers have ample reason to be angry. A third of Brazil's 55 million workers earn the minimum wage of 2,220 cruzados ($48) per month, which unionists say is lower in real terms than the 1952 minimum wage.
Moreover, the inflation has touched off a recession in some quarters of the economy, leaving tens of thousands of workers jobless in Sao Paulo alone since the beginning of the year.
With production sagging, many workers feared their employers would target those who joined the strike as the next to be fired, labor leaders said.