Brazil’s highway police have joined their colleagues in the federal police to become the latest sector of federal workers to go on strike for better pay. As with other professions, including workers in the National Archive, the tax services, and university professors (on whom I hope to have more to say this weekend), they are demanding better salaries, a restructuring of the employment system, and more working opportunities.
I have a few quick observations on the entire situation more broadly. First, the number of federal workers on strike is interesting; they each have different unions, yet in some ways it seems like a pseudo-collective action. I say “pseudo” because there is no single federal employees union; the university professors have their union, the federal police theirs, the traffic police, theirs, etc. etc. etc. With the Brazilian federal budget for 2013 due by the end of the month, it seems possible that these groups are joining their colleagues in other branches in order to intensify pressure on the government to address the needs of federal employees.
Second, I think in some ways, the number of strikes among federal employees is in a strange way an indicator of the success of the Brazilian economy in recent years. The fact that so many are striking only now suggests they are in a position where strikes are tenable and where they have the strength to demand some of the financial benefits of the economy’s broader growth in recent years.
Thirdly, and related to the second point, the fact that so many federal workers are going on strike suggests they finally have the strength and the necessity to seek greater payment in an effort to counter the continuously wide gaps in income inequality in Brazil. While federal workers are not as poorly paid as some members of the blue-collar professions, they are still often underpaid and, even if of middle-class status, more suspect to economic turmoil than the elites. While we’re certainly dealing with a broad swath of professions, incomes, and demands here, I think we’re also seeing a situation in which federal workers have the strength and the economic necessity to demand that they too benefit from Brazil’s strengthening and growing economy in the past decade-plus.
Put another way, now may indeed be the perfect time to make these demands, as recent economic reports show massive growth even as the budget is due, giving federal workers in different unions a unique window in which to act and to provide collective pressure on the federal government to share in that growth. It will be interesting to see if and how the federal government tries to address these demands, and what worker responses will be going forward.