Subway strike suspended in Sao Paulo ahead of World Cup, stoppage may hit Rio

A paralyzing subway strike has been suspended, though union officials warn that if their demands for higher pay aren't met they will call workers off the job again Thursday — the day Sao Paulo hosts the opening match of the World Cup.

In an assembly Monday night, union members voted to temporarily suspend the strike they began last week, but also decided they would take a new vote Wednesday to determine whether to restart the work stoppage Thursday.

Meanwhile, a union representing subway workers in Rio de Janeiro said members would vote Tuesday evening on whether they would go on strike.

The actions are a severe threat for World Cup fans because the subways in both cities are being counted on as the main way for spectators to get to the stadiums.

Union officials in Sao Paulo met with the state government Monday afternoon but the parties could not come to agreement on the size of a raise for subway workers, who went on strike Thursday and threw already congested traffic into chaos for the country's biggest city.

Sao Paulo union members clashed with police earlier Monday when they tried to hold a rally in a central station in the city. Officers used tear gas and brute force to push the strikers out of the station.

Altino Prazeres, president of the union leading the strike, said almost all of the 8,000 subway employees had been off the job. Marching along with workers on a central street, he said they were not interested in disrupting the World Cup.

"I love soccer! I support our national team. The point is not to stop the Cup," he said. "We want to resolve this today and all are willing to negotiate."

Prazeres said workers were willing to negotiate a lower raise than the 12 percent increase originally demanded if the state-run subway company offered more benefits, but managers have refused to agree. A labor court has ruled that the salary rise should be 8.7 percent.

A spokeswoman for the subway company declined to answer questions. About half of the city's subway stations were operating, but with greatly diminished service. Many of the city's key intersections were jammed with cars and trucks, and traffic was moving very slowly elsewhere.

Sao Paulo state's transport secretary, Jurandir Fernandes, told local reporters that 60 striking workers had been fired.

Bruno Everton, who sells tickets at a subway station and is one of the union's regional leaders, received a letter Monday saying he had been dismissed.

"It's an embarrassment that Brazil is depriving the workers of their rights," Everton said. "This is an illegal firing. The government is trying to provoke us. They are threatening us."

A Sao Paulo labor court over the weekend fined the union $175,000 for the first four days of the strike and said it would add $220,000 for each additional day the work stoppage continued.

Other groups have supported the strike, saying workers deserve a fair raise and the government ought to invest more in public transportation. But some people are angry because commutes are taking much longer in the city of 11 million.

Adriana Silva, who works as a cashier at a jewelry store downtown, said it had taken her three hours to get to work from the eastern tip of the city where the World Cup will kick off.

"Why do this now? Why so close to the Cup?" she said. "Who they end up hurting more is us. This has to stop."

The subway strike was the latest unrest to hit Brazil in the run-up to the World Cup. Teachers remain on strike in Rio and routinely block streets with rallies. Police in several cities have gone on strike, but are back at work now.

The work stoppages are in addition to a steady drumbeat of anti-government protests that began a year ago with huge demonstrations in dozens of Brazilian cities. Those protests blasted government spending for the World Cup and demanded big improvements in woeful public services like hospitals, schools, security and transportation.

The anti-government protests have greatly diminished in size but not in frequency. Demonstrations have repeatedly erupted in Brazil's metropolitan areas in recent months, with even a small number of protesters blocking main roadways and severely disrupting traffic.


Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman and Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.