A general strike disrupted major cities across Brazil on Friday, as union workers protested President Michel Temer’s proposal to loosen labor laws and trim pension benefits.
In Sao Paulo, protesters blocked some of the city’s main roads and highways and hindered access to Guarulhos Airport, the biggest in the country.
In Rio de Janeiro, downtown access was halted early in the morning, with lines that stretched miles (kilometers) behind strikers and rows of burning tires. Many people were seen getting off the buses and walking or biking to their jobs.
“We must defeat the labor and pension reforms because it is the return of slavery,” said Iran de Paula, a lawyer and part of a group called “Movement for Roofless Workers.” ”Your company will lay you off whenever they want, you won’t have any rights and you’ll have to work until you are 100, 200 years old.”
Protesters in Rio also gathered in front of the Guanabara Palace, seat of the state government. University teachers demanded the government pay back wages owed them. Thousands of public workers in the state of Rio de Janeiro haven’t been paid in months thanks to an acute budget crisis.
The strike also affected other big cities, including Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and the capital, Brasilia. Demonstrations were expected to intensify towards the end of the day.
The labor proposal before Congress would make it easier for employers to hire temporary workers and pay fewer benefits. The pension reform would raise the retirement age and trim payments.
Currently, many public workers now can retire at age 54 with nearly full benefits. The reforms would set a minimum retirement age for the first time in Brazil, at 65 for men and 62 for women.
The reforms are unpopular and it’s unclear if even watered-down versions will ultimately be passed because of a deep political crisis.
Temer has been charged with bribery, and the lower Chamber of Deputies in Congress will soon begin reviewing allegations against him. If two-thirds vote that the case has merit, Temer would be suspended for up 180 days while the country’s top court conducts a trial. Temer denies wrongdoing.
AP journalist Mario Lobao contributed to the report from Rio de Janeiro.