Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As the World Cup approaches, there have been two unexpected developments. One is an almost total absence of general protests such as those of a year ago; the other is a sudden rise in the number of strikes, and in particular the so-called “wildcat” strikes — work stoppages that are not sanctioned by the local labor unions.
Why are these wildcat strikes happening? Why did Cariocas suffer through a one-day wildcat strike carried out by bus drivers, who went out one midnight and went back to work the following midnight. Even though the noise level of the city dropped in half (hooray!) but tens of thousands of people were stranded.
Why did the bus drivers go out on strike? Because they want more money! Not more job training, not lower hours, just more money! This is, in the end, a refreshing dose of honesty, because Brazilian strikers almost always claim they’re doing it for a principle, not for anything so crass as money.
Schoolteachers are about to strike this week “because better education”, not because they want more money. Bank guards have gone on strike “because safer banks”, not because they want more money. Culture Ministry workers say they’ll strike during the World Cup, “because poor museum conditions”, not because they want more money.
The irritating thing about the bus drivers is, they already got more money! The official negotiated union agreement, signed not too long ago, gave them a raise of ten percent, which isn’t bad these days. A large group of drivers, not pleased with this increase, have demanded a forty percent raise, torn up the contract and gone out on strike. Worse, they intimidated their co-workers into not crossing the picket lines. Far worse, they stoned and torched some 500 city buses!
Something similar had happened in March with the “garis”, Rio’s beloved street cleaners. Some (but not all) went out on strike during Carnival, even though there was a valid collective bargaining contract in effect. They chose Carnival, because that’s when Rio produces the most rubbish. They wanted more money, and they got what they wanted. They also got the overall support of the citizenry.
The bus drivers thought they could successfully use the same tactic; however, unlike the garis, they got almost no public support. The reason is simple: the public knows the difference between strikers who parade and chant, and strikers who throw Molotov cocktails at their workplaces. Moreover, almost all garis are polite and friendly; when working, they seem to smile a surprising amount given their smelly work conditions. In other words, they “deserve” a bigger paycheck.
Most bus drivers, on the other hand, are sullen, crabby, rude and disrespectful towards passengers. Most of them drive like complete maniacs, swerving across lanes, racing their colleagues, refusing to pick up or drop off passengers. Most people in Rio have to face this every working or school day, and nobody likes bus drivers. In other words, they don’t “deserve” a bigger paycheck.
Truth be told, they might well deserve one, because their working conditions are abysmal. But that is never going to happen as long as two or three bus company owners maintain their strangle hold on Rio’s public transportation system. Something needs to change, but a wildcat strike won’t change anything.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 36 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)