Last week, police in Rio de Janeiro went on strike, joining their colleagues in Bahia (who ended their 12-day strike on Saturday) and pointing to the possibility of further strikes among other underpaid sectors. Indeed, firefighters have already gathered in order to define the path and goals of their own strike, even while police continue to strike, and tensions have already increased among oil platform workers (as RioReal pointed out in comments here). Meanwhile, the Rio de Janeiro government has moved swiftly against the workers, indicting 270 people tied to the strike, imprisoning 16 (including 10 leaders), and arresting lifeguards who have joined the strike.
As the police prepared to go on strike, Police Inspector Renieri Pereira provided this letter giving some context to the strike and to the police’s situation and demands. The language is not atypical of a workers’ movement outlining its causes and making the case for the justice of the strike, but that’s not to say the points themselves are invalid. Pereira traces the movement back one year, when firefighters and lifeguards began mobilizing for better pay. With the recent strike in Bahia, police in Rio de Janeiro have also acted, first through demonstrations and only recently through strike after the government has failed to address their demands for better pay.
While the strike has created some backlash, Pereira makes some important points regarding the importance of the police. Certainly, with the World Cup and Olympics approaching, the issue of having a stable workforce that is well-paid is important to Brazil for any number of reasons ranging from public safety to Brazil’s reputation in the international community (and given the costs, attempts to host the World Cup and Olympics are ultimately about reputation more than income, as studies regularly show that the Olympics in particular are not major money-makers when one takes into consideration the costs of construction, urban rennovations, enhanced public security, etc.).
Having a motivated workforce provide security for the World Cup and Olympics should be compelling enough of an argument to municipal, state, and federal officials in Brazil. But to be clear, this is about income first and foremost, and the demand for better salaries and living situation for police officers in Rio de Janeiro are not unreasonable, as Pereira notes. As I mentioned here, police with years of experience are making only $13200-$15600 per year (compared to $51,000 for their counterparts in the US), and according to the letter, a starting officer only makes $7560 a year ($630/month). Additionally, Pereira claims that police in the city of Rio are the lowest-paid in the country in spite of living in the state with the second highest tax rate in the country. In this context, demanding better wages is not unreasonable, particularly when one takes into consideration the fact that Rio is the center of the efforts to root out drug gangs in the favelas, with an elevated risk to police and favela-residents alike. Certainly, the police are not merely victims in this violence, as the act of extrajudicial killings and even joining paramilitary militias that engage the drug trade are options that some police turn to. Yet those who do so are a minority, and even among them, scholarship suggests they turn to these measures in order to supplement their woefully-inadequate incomes. This is not to excuse their behavior, but obviously, the low pay for police has very real effects on their lives and the lives of others, and a pay raise could perhaps serve as disincentive for such activity.
It is difficult to predict how this will go. Though Pereira notes that the police and firefighters are public heroes, the government and the media have worked hard to spin the strike as an abuse of power and of trust, and public support is relatively weak. That said, it is in everybody’s interests for the government to resolve the issue. For too long, police have been underpaid, causing very real problems in the government’s ability to guarantee public safety and security and in police officers’ abilities to support themselves and their families on their salaries alone, leaving many capable individuals to seek work elsewhere, including through illegal activities.