On Strike!

Erik

Every day, from 11 to 1, a huge number of students wait in line for lunch at UFPI’s main cafeteria. Although the food is never anything special – usually it’s rice, beans, salad and some part of a chicken or cow – the government subsidizes the price, so students depend on it for their meals. For the past few months, the line has been even longer than usual because a strike by university staff has kept the campus’s other cafeterias closed.

Lunch Line
Students wait in line for the cafeteria.

This is how strikes work in Brazil – half of the union stops working while the other half continues. And, with international attention focused on the World Cup and national elections just months away, this is the time for strikes.

Laws here state that at least 30 percent of union members must continue working while a strike is on. So, when the bus drivers went on strike in Teresina a couple months ago, public transit users tried to fit onto 30 percent of the buses.

Professors at UFPI considered going on strike last month as well. During their strike last year, though, 30 percent of professors kept teaching, making life way, way more complicated for students than a complete shut-down would have been.


My knowledge of how strikes work in the U.S. is limited. I’ve learned that there are certain classes of workers that can’t go on strike because they are considered essential to the functioning of society. Federal law prohibits strikes by employees in rail and air transportation, for example. Likewise, police officers, fire fighters, and even public school teachers in some states have to use other forms of negotiation.

I do know, though, that when there is a strike in the U.S., it’s all in.

Strike Poster
The doctors of the University Hospital have gone on strike as well. The sign reads, “We want hospitals of FIFA caliber.”

It seems to me that when unions strike in Brazil, half stopping and half continuing work, it brings the worst of both worlds. The strike makes life complicated for the people who depend on the union’s services, which is what it aims to do. At the same time, however, not being able to implement a full strike weakens the power of the union members to change their working conditions.

Strikes in Brazil often end without a change in pay or hours, so they’re sometimes undertaken as just a statement. That said, the government has been more willing to negotiate as of late because of greater international and domestic scrutiny of its actions. So despite the fact that the university staff haven’t paralyzed UFPI with their strike, it’s possible that they’ll make some of the gains they’re hoping for.