After accepting the government’s offer of a 15.8-percent pay raise over three years, some 400,000 public-sector employees ended their month-long strike and returned to work on Monday. While the workers may have gotten what they wanted, popular patience with public sector workers and unions may be wearing thin.
The strikes started in May with university professors and in June spread to other sectors, causing widespread disruption. University students sat idle, wondering if they would have to repeat the academic year. Lines in airports were measured in hours, or kilometers, rather than minutes. Imports of food and medicines were stalled and visas delayed.
The public here has been historically sympathetic to organized labor; union resistance helped bring down the military dictatorship, and former President Lula da Silva, still wildly popular, started out as a union leader. But there are signs that, with these strikes, patience may have dwindled for a public sector that many consider too large and too coddled.
Folha has called repeatedly for a review of the right-to-strike laws, calling the strikes “excessive” and a “hazard to the population.” This aspect was not lost on the public: in an overpass above the main highway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo someone reportedly hung a sign that read, “Police station closed—free passage for drug trafficking and arms.” The dry humor belied a serious threat: a separate 10-day police strike in the northeastern state of Bahia in February was said to have caused a spike in murders on the streets of the capital, Salvador.
Época referred to the Brazilian public sector as “giant and inefficient,” in the first in a series of color spreads that indignantly detailed some of the “supersalaries” of some of the most generously paid public servants. (“It’s you who pays,” ran the headline.) Estadão published a feature on the human consequences of the strikes, citing allergic children who are not receiving the special foods they need, dengue prevention efforts for Indigenous populations that had been stalled, and patients who were forced to wait for urgent bone marrow treatment.
The shift in public opinion stemmed from a number of factors. For one, this latest wave of strikes comes quick on the heels of others; the February police strikes in Bahia had threatened security and even carnaval.
Second, faith in the public sector, at least in those who work directly for the government, has been eroded by the country’s multiplying corruption cases. Last month, it was the sprawling corruption case known as the mensalão (big monthly payment), in which 38 defendants were accused of siphoning cash from the advertising budget of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) to buy the support of coalition members on key votes. Earlier this year, the news was full of Carlos Cachoeira, the businessman suspected of running an illegal gambling racket.
Before that it was then-sports minister Orlando Silva, who was responsible for organizing the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics—and who left in disgrace in 2011 amid accusations of accepting kickbacks. The list goes on, and although corruption in Brazil is by no means anything new, the growing middle class is increasingly politically attentive and intolerant to such behavior.
But perhaps most significant, after President Dilma Rousseff passed a freedom of information law in May—as part of a broader move toward greater transparency here—the salaries of public-sector workers were revealed online. As with any data dump, there were a number of different stories: the low pay of educators and health professionals compared to lawyers and consultants, for example, or the striking and seemingly arbitrary gulfs in pay between certain jobs within and between sectors.
What many focused on during this latest strike was the high salaries of many officials, and the fact that in 88 percent of cases public servants earn more than their private-sector counterparts, as well as enjoying significantly more benefits like job security and generous pension rates.
With this fresh in demonstrators’ minds, people are angry. A friend of mine suggests that Dilma look to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in her day faced down Britain’s strong unions and decimated the country’s mining industry. “Some of these police officers make more than FBI bosses,” my friend says, indignantly pointing to the Época article. “And still they want more?”
However, many demonstrators’ salaries are in legitimate need of review. University professors and health professionals are woefully underpaid. Using the transparency portal and census data, Globo calculated that the starting salary of a public-sector lawyer working 40 hours per week is R$14,970 ($7,341) per month, compared to R$3,200 ($1,569) for a public-sector doctor.
The size, breadth and timing of the action made it particularly difficult for the government to deal with. For Dilma, leading the historically union-linked PT and struggling to stimulate a slowing economy, the strikes have presented a significant challenge.
“It is a paradox for the PT,” notes Felipe Cardoso, a labor lawyer in Brasília. “The [PT] government has so deal with a past of always supporting strikes and movements of workers. Now that they’re in government they are forced to consider fiscal responsibility and real matters of governing. They have to be much more conservative.”
“Public bureaucrats with basically the same qualifications can earn not just higher salaries but extremely higher salaries with gaps so huge that it is absolutely impossible to find a rational explanation,” Anthony Mueller, a professor of economics at the Federal University of Sergipe, observes. “The real challenge is to completely overhaul the Brazilian public sector. Cut down drastically the number of public employees and bring down the so-called ‘supersalaries’ from the levels more typical of a banana republic than a modern economy.”
Perhaps, then, public frustration over the strikes and plaudits for Dilma’s push toward transparency will give Brazil’s leadership exactly the impetus it needs to examine its famously inefficient bureaucracy. Time will tell.
Lucy Jordan is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is a freelance writer based in Brasília, Brazil who covers politics and the environment. Her Twitter account is @lucyjord.