Brazil in crisis as truck drivers strike

A strike by Brazil’s truck drivers has brought the nation’s economy to a standstill.

Striking truckers have been blockading the country’s highways since Monday causing food and fuel shortages in cities.

The strike has caused key industries such as auto manufacturing and meat processing to shut down.

The lack of transportation has caused supplies of sugar, one of the country’s leading export items, to dry up at ports.

Airlines have had to cancel flights because some airports don’t have enough jet fuel.

Brazil’s President Michel Temer had hoped to resolve the crisis brought on by the strike by agreeing to a deal with unions representing the truck drivers, but as the truckers’ strike entered its fifth day on Friday, the deal apparently did not sit well with many truckers.

The truckers are striking because of the rising prices of diesel, which has made it difficult for them to meet expenses and have enough left over to support their families.

Temer on Thursday agreed to eliminate taxes on diesel and reduce diesel prices by 10 percent at the pump in hopes that truckers would return to work.

But the price reductions promised by Temer would last only for one month.

Because it was only a temporary reprieve, Abcam, the truckers’ largest union, rejected the deal, and instead of returning to work, strikers on Friday closed more highways. On Friday, 521 highways were blockaded by strikers up from 402 on Thursday.

When it appeared that the temporary concessions that Temer was willing to make wouldn’t get the striking truckers back to work, Temer said that he would use the armed forces to break the strike.

After Temer threatened to use the army, Abcam urged its members to return to work.

At this writing, it’s not clear whether the truckers will heed Abcam’s call to return to work.

The increase in fuel prices that caused the strike, began two years ago when Temer became acting President while the sitting President Dilma Rousseff was defending herself against impeachment proceedings.

One of Temer’s first acts was to appoint Pedro Parente as CEO of Petrobras, the national oil company in which the government owns a majority share.

Prior to Parente’s appointment, Petrobras subsidized fuel prices for truckers and other Brazilian consumers.

But Parente with the blessing of Temer and the country’s investor class ended that practice and let fuel prices rise to market levels.

Over the last two years, Brazil’s fuel prices doubled.

Increased fuel prices hurt consumers especially truck drivers whose livelihoods depend on the price they pay for fuel.

But Petrobras shareholders reaped a bounty from Parente’s and Temer’s decision. The value of Petrobras stock increased from $3 a share in 2015 to more than $12.70 a share by May 2018.

During 2018, fuel price increases have been especially steep. Bloomberg reports that diesel prices have increased by 50 percent in 2018.

Most recently, the Brazilian currency, the real, has lost value in relation to the dollar.

The currency’s devaluation plus the increases in the global price of oil caused Petrobras to recently increase diesel prices by 16 percent and then by another 17 percent.

It was the latest steep increases in the price of diesel that set off the strike.

The truckers’ strike has led Fitch’s Rating, Inc., one of the world’s big three credit rating services, to become concerned about the strike’s impact on the national economy.

“The truckers’ strike has elevated concerns about the ability of Brazilian corporates to maintain just-in-time supply chains, as well as to export products in key sectors, such as agriculture,” Fitch said.




ITUC calls for solidarity with Brazil’s Lula

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) urged workers around the world to stand in solidarity with Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s Workers Party nominee for president, who is under attack by the country’s financial oligarchy.

A Brazilian appeals court on January 24 will rule on whether Lula, as his is known, can run for president in 2018.

Polls show that Lula is the most popular politician in Brazil and would likely win Brazil’s October election for president.

To stop him from becoming president, the government, which is controlled by an oligarchy-friendly president, legislature, and judiciary, charged him with corruption.

The charges, which Lula says are false, are based on allegations that he took bribes while serving as Brazil’s president between 2003 and 2011.

Mark Weisbrot in an opinion piece appearing in the New York Times writes that “the evidence against Mr. da Silva is far below the standards that would be taken seriously in, for example, the United States’ judicial system.”

ITUC’s Sharon Burrow in a widely distributed e-mail said that the actions against Lula seem eerily reminiscent of Brazil’s period of dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.

“Lula’s lawyers have listed a number of violations of fundamental rights in the campaign against him, including deprivation of liberty, illegal phone tapping and leaking of correspondence, interception of his communications with his lawyers, the presumption of guilt without any evidence or trial, and the absence of an unbiased judge and of fair legal proceedings,” writes Burrow. “Powerful forces in Brazil are seeking to turn the clock back, undoing the progress his government made and returning the country into the hands of a small but all-powerful elite.”

Brazil’s drift away from democracy began in 2016 when Lula’s democratically elected successor Dilma Rousseff was ousted by what ITUC calls “a group of corrupt politicians led by Michel Temer.”

Rousseff says that she was ousted because she refused to implement austerity measures that the country’s financial elite were demanding.

Temer succeeded her and, with the help of a legislature stacked with supporters of the financial elite, imposed a 20-year austerity program that slashed spending on health care, education, and social welfare, cut pensions, and reduced labor standards.

The Guardian reports that Temer’s austerity policies switched government spending priorities away from the working class and toward the country’s creditors, both national and international financial institutions.

The austerity measures sparked widespread unrest and dissatisfaction with government.

Lula decided to run for president in order to reverse the austerity measures and re-establish government policies that helped working people.

While he was president, Brazil increased spending on health care and education and implemented policies aimed at lifting low-wage workers out of poverty.

Two of his most notable policies were the Bolsa Familia, which provided a basic income for low-wage workers and free education for their children, and the Fome Zero, a wide-ranging social development program aimed at eliminating food shortages for working class people.

Lula’s pro-working class policies, according to ITUC, lifted 30 million people out of poverty.

As the appeals court prepares to make its decision, there is mounting tension in Brazil’s major cities. The government has called the Army in hopes of discouraging street protests that might erupt.

Burrow said that international solidarity has never been more important, not just for Lula but for Brazil’s working class.

“The Brazilian people have seen the possible. With the leadership of Lula, the taste of shared prosperity gave everyone hope,” said Burrow. “Yet since Temer’s business cronies took the reins, 22 million people are now under the poverty line and one in every five families have no income! This is unbelievable in a rich country.

“The elite and the corrupt of this nation cannot be respected if we are serious about healing our fractured world, about peace, democracy and human rights. The international labor movement stands with Lula for the fight for the Brazilian people and their democracy.”




General strike mobilizes 40 million to oppose austerity in Brazil

An estimated 40 million people took part in a general strike in Brazil. The April 28 general strike was called to protest austerity measures proposed by Brazil’s President Michel Temer.

The austerity measures include changes to the country’s labor law that will result in Brazilians working longer hours for less money.

Temer also wants to reduce pension benefits and freeze spending on social programs.

Temer says that his austerity measures are needed to end recession that has lasted more than two years and increased the country’s unemployment rate to 13.7 percent.

But supporters of the general strike had a different take on Temer’s austerity proposals.

“We are demanding our rights, as workers, because the president of the country proposed a law for people to work more and live less, so you will only receive your pension when you die,” said Edgar Fernandes, a Rio de Janeiro dock worker as he explained to the Associated Press why he was on strike.

President Temer came to power one year ago after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached on dubious charges.

Her impeachment was engineered by the country’s financial, commercial, and media elites because Rousseff refused to enact the austerity measures that Temer is now trying to advance.

At the time of Rousseff’s impeachment, Temer was serving as vice-president.

The role of Brazil’s elites and the dubious charges that led to her impeachment caused some observers to call Rousseff’s ouster a coup.

When Temer came to office, he immediately laid out an austerity plan that had the enthusiastic backing of Brazil’s elites.

The plan, which Temer dubbed his Bridge to the Future, would raise the age when people can retire, freeze increases in public spending for 20 years (which would undo some of the social programs that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty), and allow employers to increase the number of hours their employees work and pay them less.

It would also remove restrictions that protect workers from having their jobs outsourced and make it easier for employers to hire temporary workers to replace full-time workers.

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies recently passed Temer’s proposed labor law changes which led Brazil’s largest labor federation, the CUT, to call the April 28 one-day general strike.

CUT Secretary Sérgio Nobre said that the strike was the largest in the nation’s history and called it an unqualified success.

Automobile factories owned by GM, Ford, Toyota, Daimler were shut down because of the strike.

Public transportation throughout the country came to halt.

Schools were closed

Dock workers, miners, oil workers, agriculture workers, bank workers, and retail workers all stayed off the job.

The success for the strike was due in large part to the unpopularity of Temer and his austerity program.

According to one poll,  Temer’s disapproval rate is 87 percent.

In addition to his unpopular austerity plan, Temer’s  astoundingly high disapproval rate is stoked by high levels of corruption in his government.

Eduardo Cuhna, a Temer ally and former speaker of Brazil’s House of Deputies, was recently sentenced to prison for 15 years after being convicted of bribery.

Eight of Temer’s cabinet ministers (that’s one-third of his cabinet) are being investigated for bribery, embezzlement, or money laundering.

In November, Temer himself was accused by one of his cabinet members of pressuring the minister to reverse a decision that hurt one Temer’s lieutenants.

Marcelo Calero, the former Culture Minister, publicly accused Temer and his legislative liaison Geddel Vieira Lima of pressuring Calero to reverse his decision to disallow the construction of a luxury apartment project on the site of a historic district.

As it turns out, Lima was an investor in the project that Calero turned down. He resigned after his role in the project came to light.

Despite his lack of popularity and the corruption charges hanging over his head, Temer was able to get the Chamber of Deputies to pass his changes to the labor law.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

CUT leaders say that the success of the general strike should give pause to lawmakers before they proceed with supporting Temer’s austerity measures.

“Deputies and senators must listen to the voice of the people,” said Nobre. “The strength of the strike is a sign of popular support for the unions and discontent with (Temer’s) labor and welfare changes.”

Vagner Freitas, president of CUT, said that more actions are possible if the government refuses to listen to the people.

If (the strike on the 28th) is not enough, we can repeat another general strike, bigger, maybe 48 hours,” said Freitas. “We can occupy Brasília, go to the National Congress. . . if they if they do not stop voting against labor and social security.”

General strike opposes coup in Brazil

Unions in Brazil on September 22 held a national general strike to protest what they called a coup against democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff. The unions were also protesting austerity measures proposed by Rousseff”s successor Michel Temer.

Among those participating in the general strike were 60,000 bank employees who have been on strike since September 7.

Rousseff was impeached for allegedly misrepresenting budget items, a charged that has subsequently been refuted by an independent auditor commissioned by Brazil’s Senate.

When Temer spoke to a meeting of corporate representatives in New York, he said that Rousseff was removed from office because she opposed austerity measures that Brazil’s business class was demanding.

During the general strike participants carried banners that read “Fora Temer (Down with Temer). In the city of Belo Horizonte members of the teachers union marched behind banner that read, “Professoras Contra o Golpe” (Teachers Against the Coup).

When Temer assumed office, he announced that he would push for the implementation of austerity measures proposed in a document entitled “Bridge to the Future.”

Among other things, “Bridge to the Future “calls for reduced government spending on health and education, reduced welfare benefits, raising the retirement age, deregulating the economy, privatizing Brazil’s public assets, and eliminating workers’ labor law protections.

Shortly after proposing new austerity measures, Temer traveled to the US where on September 21, he addressed a gathering of the American Society/Council of the Americas.

Council of the Americas counts among its membership “the leading international companies representing a broad spectrum of sectors, including banking and finance, consulting services, consumer products, energy and mining, manufacturing, media, technology, and transportation” doing business in the Americas.

The group says that it promotes “economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

Its president emeritus is John Negroponte, a former US ambassador during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, who during his tenure as ambassador to Honduras oversaw a military buildup in the country, was accused of ignoring human rights abuses committed by the military, and participated in clandestine activities aimed at overthrowing Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

Ignacio Vieira reports that at the New York meeting, Temer told those present that Rousseff “was impeached because of her position on economic policy, rather than any alleged wrongdoing on her part. More to the point, Rousseff opposed “widespread cuts to social programs and privatization” that Brazil’s business class was calling for.

In his report, Vieira provides a lengthy video that recorded Temer’s frank talk.

Temer was vice president until Rousseff was impeached in August. Temer’s party the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party had been in a coalition with Rousseff”s Workers Party, but quit the coalition and joined forces with conservatives to oust Rousseff.

Rousseff’s ouster came at time when Brazil was in a severe recession, which weakened her popularity.

As is the case in every country, the working class has borne the burnt of the worsening conditions caused by the recession.

In response, Brazil has seen a rise in the number of street actions and job actions like the bank workers strike.

The bank workers union, Contec had been in negotiations for a new contract with Fenaban, the national bank federation, which represents Brazil’s banks in labor negotiations. The union demanded a 15 percent raise to help its members keep up with the inflation rate that has reached as high as 10 percent.

The union also proposed changes to the contract that would  fight discrimination against Black people, women, LGBTI people, and people with disabilities and improve working conditions for all.

The union said that Fenaban’s counter proposal did not recognize the significant role bank workers played in the banking business.

“Bank workers are the main ones responsible for immense bank profits every year in Brazil,” said Contec. “And all this commitment and dedication should be reciprocated.”

When Brazil’s labor federations called the general strike to oppose the coup, Contec enthusiastically supported the action.

On the day of the general strike, Contec reported that 13,159 bank branches, or about 55 percent of the country’s bank branches had been closed as a result of its strike and that even some administrative centers had been closed.

“We closed the administrative centers of the top three private banks in Sao Paulo and the main building of Caixa in Brasilia,” said Robert von der Osten, a Contec leader. “It was a historic and necessary move.”

The unions see the coup against Rousseff as an attack on the gains that workers made while the Workers Party was in power.

“The coup was done . . . to take away (our) rights,” said Vagner Freitas, president of CUT, the largest labor federation in Brazil.

“There is an ongoing hit on a structural change in the country, which involves the removal and reduction of basic rights, such as social security, working hours, funds for health and education,” said Rafael Marques leader of the metalworkers union.

The bank workers strike is still ongoing and there may be more actions like the general strike to come.

“If the rights of the working class are still at risk, metalworkers are ready for a general strike,” said Marques.