Striking workers blocked key highways and staged peaceful marches across Brazil Thursday in a day of industrial action called by major unions to demand better work conditions and tougher government measures to contain rising inflation.

The "National Day of Struggle" was called by the country's top five labor federations during last month's nationwide street protests for better public services and an end to endemic corruption.

The unions are demanding better wages, shorter working hours, job security, improved public transport, steps to bring down inflation and more investments in public health and education.

Demonstrators blocked 40 highways in 18 of the country's 26 states, as well as access to several ports, including Santos, Latin America's biggest.

Industry workers, shopkeepers, civil servants, teachers and even hospital staff took to the streets nationwide.

In the huge Sao Paulo metropolitan area, home to 20 million people, marchers hoisting flags and banners blocked traffic on several thoroughfares, with an estimated 5,000 people thronging the central Avenida Paulista.

"We want things to improve in the country. We are marching because health and education are in crisis in Brazil. There must be a change," said Rosely Paschetti, a 49-year-old Sao Paulo municipal employee.

"More taxes for the rich, fewer taxes for the poor," read a huge banner.

In nearby Sao Jose dos Campos, the Metalworkers Union said a total of 22,000 workers from 20 local plants took part in strikes and demonstrations.

Among companies affected were General Motors, where a 24-hour strike was in effect, and Embraer, Brazil's top planemaker, a union statement said.

In Rio, mass transit was operating normally at the request of unions to allow the public to join a protest rally in the city center.

The march, which drew around 2,500 people, went off largely peacefully, though banks and shops had been closed for fear of looting and ransacking.

In Brasilia, police sealed off the Congress building to deny access to an estimated 1,000 protesters. And several hundred rural activists, including members of the Landless Workers Movement occupied the headquarters of INCRA (the national Agency for Land Reform) to press for speedier land reform.

In other major cities, such as Salvador de Bahia, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Florianopolis, Fortaleza and Manaus, public transport was seriously disrupted.

Several schools closed and, in some hospitals around the country, only emergency services were operating.

Striking dockworkers partly halted operations at the ports of Santos in Sao Paulo state and Itaguai in Rio de Janeiro state

Access to the Suape port and industrial complex in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, which employs 75,000 workers, was also blocked.

Wednesday, Santos port activity was also disrupted for several hours when stevedores went on strike, complaining that Embraport, the largest Brazilian private multi-modal port terminal, is not hiring through the state-run labor management agency OGMO, which places union members in jobs.

The workers fear that bypassing OGMO will make it possible for private companies to recruit non-unionized workers who will accept lower wages.

Top unions meanwhile appeared divided on whether to support President Dilma Rousseff, who last month vowed to hear "the voices of the street" and pledged to boost investments in public transport, health and education.

The country's biggest labor federation, the Unified Workers' Central, commonly known by the acronym CUT and founded in the 1980's by ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), backs Rousseff's proposal for a popular plebisicite to usher in broad political reform.

But the Forca Sindical union chided the government over rising inflation, which reached an annualized 6.7 percent in June, above the 6.5 percent upper limit of the government target.

"Workers' salaries are being eroded by rising inflation," said its president, Paulo Pereira da Silva, in a statement.