By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – Following months of strikes by broad swathes of public sector workers, from university professors to customs officers, the majority of workers on Tuesday accepted the government’s offer of a 15.8 percent pay-rise over three years. Federal Police unions however rejected the offer and opted to continue the labor strike action.
President Dilma Rousseff had given workers a deadline of Tuesday to accept the proposal, threatening to take the issue to the courts if a deal could not be made.
Federal University professors were the first in the new wave to strike in May, and since then unions say that as many as 400,000 members of the public sector workforce have taken part.
The strikes have caused disruption countrywide. Strikes by customs officials have caused lengthy delays to travelers as well as imports and exports. Hospitals have been understaffed, and medications have run into short supply.
The possible repercussions of the strike to security are not lost on the public; on the road connecting Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, a sign read “Police station closed – free passage for drug trafficking and arms,” the BBC reported.
Students have faced the longest disruption: while some federal universities have recently returned to work, many more have remained at a standstill since May. “I don’t know what is going to happen, most probably I’ll lose a year,” said Felipe Rosado, an economics students at the Federal University of Paraná. “We end up paying a high price for this uncertainty.”
The details of demands vary from sector to sector, but almost all the unions say that public sector wages have stagnated over the past five years, and need raises to bring them into line with inflation and Brazil’s high cost of living. Some officials have demanded raises as high as 78 percent.
“The strikes are justified,” said Felipe Cardoso, a labor lawyer in Brasília. “The federal police are demanding that more workers are hired because they are very overloaded. […] With the universities it is more about the salaries, that are very low for teachers.”
The strikes have presented a political quandary for President Rousseff, whose Partido Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT) has historically had strong links to unions. In a move that disappointed many of her supporters, President Rousseff took a long time to respond to the strikes, and has taken a tough stance on them, initially suggesting that further action could result in pay cuts.
“It is difficult for any ‘Labor’ government to deal with unions,” said W. Charles Sawyer, Professor in Latin American Economics at Texas Christian University. “That said, the government is not ‘caving in’ quickly. This should be reassuring to the rest of society.”
At a time when Brazil’s economy has slowed significantly there is little enthusiasm in government for broad wage hikes, especially for a public sector that many say is too large, and already enjoys significantly more benefits and job security than the private sector.
“Any agreement should include a reform of the public sector,” said Anthony Mueller, a professor of economics at the Federal University of Sergipe. “The Brazilian public sector must be drastically reduced in order to save expenditure.”
With her own deadline looming on Friday, when President Rousseff must set the 2013 federal budget, some say that miscalculations on both sides have escalated a wage dispute into the greatest challenge that Rousseff’s nineteen-month old presidency has yet faced.
“The government made the error of not rapidly and forcefully responding to the demands,” said Professor Mueller. “The leaders of the strike miscalculated the resolve of the government to keep the budget deficit down.”
“In the end both sides lost,” he added. “Yet most of all it was Brazil that lost.”