Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Brazilian government employees strike in protest against pension plan cuts

RECEIVING END The president, a former labor leader who used to prompt civil action against the bosses, now face the wrath of angry federal workers


As a firebrand labor leader 25 years ago, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva proved adept at using strikes to persuade politicians and bosses. Now, as the president of Brazil, he finds himself on the receiving end of a walkout by government employees, who accuse him of being a turncoat because of his plan to slash their generous pension benefits.

The strike, which started last week, is the first by federal workers in Brazil, Latin America's largest country, since da Silva and the left-wing Workers' Party took power in January.

Union groups say that while da Silva has consulted businessmen and elected officials about the pension legislation, he has refused to meet with "the public workers who are the main target of the reform" and were among his most ardent supporters.

Da Silva, a former leader of the metalworkers union in Sao Paulo, recently sent a pension reform package to Congress that was similar to one that the Workers' Party strenuously opposed for nearly a decade when it was in the opposition.

The proposal would affect nearly all retirees to some extent, but the country's nearly 4 million civil servants stand to lose the most.

The legislation would raise the minimum age for retirement of civil servants from 48 to 55 for women and from 53 to 60 for men. In addition, a ceiling of US$842 a month would be placed on pensions for public workers retiring in the future. The current system pays them the same salary they were earning when they retired -- up to US$10,500 a month in a few notorious cases.

Employees ranging from university professors and health workers to federal police officers and tax inspectors have joined the walkout, but estimates of the strike's effectiveness have varied. The government said that 30 percent of the country's 878,000 federal civil servants had stayed away from work, while strike organizers said 45 percent of those workers had joined in.

The participation rate would have been higher except for the decision of the Unified Workers' Central, a labor federation that da Silva helped found and that remains affiliated with the Workers' Party, not to order its members to walk out.

Luiz Marinho, the federation's director, did not oppose the strike, but called it "a shortcut to defeat" and said his strategy was to work for changes in the parts of the proposal his members found most objectionable.

But even a partial show of strength seems to have been enough to force the government to offer concessions, a move that displeased the stock, bond and foreign exchange markets and some of da Silva's allies in Congress.

Early in May, the minister of social welfare, Ricardo Berzoini, had taken an uncompromising stance on the bill, declaring, "When I say that no point is negotiable, that is because we haven't put anything in the proposal to be withdrawn."

Last week, however, Jose Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva, da Silva's chief of staff and closest adviser, backed away from that position. "The government is open to dialogue, to negotiation," he said, hinting at a willingness to cede some ground on the monthly pension ceiling.

But Dirceu also said workers must "bear the onus" for their actions, which has been understood as a threat that the government may withhold salaries from civil servants for the days they are on strike. Playing the good cop, da Silva has refrained from similar threats of punishment and in fact said that the situation did not distress him.

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