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Brazil's President Continues Push for Pension Reforms Despite Worker Strikes

Strikes in Brazil closed universities, courtrooms and other federal agencies this week, as public employees showed their anger over President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's plan for pension reform. Mr. Da Silva says he is still determined to get the package through Congress and try to address the country's pension deficit of 24 billion dollars a year.

Thousands of teachers and health and social workers in Brazil did not go to work Wednesday, the second day of a strike protesting planned cuts to retirement benefits. Strikers, which also included university staff, tax inspectors and social security workers, agreed to a 72-hour work stoppage, but several groups said they would strike indefinitely until their demands were met.

Union leaders said about 40 to 45 percent of the nation's civil servants took part in the walkout, which started Tuesday and came six months after President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office.

Mr. da Silva, a former union leader, defended the workers' right to strike but said he hopes they'll come to understand why the reforms are necessary.

The reforms help the Brazilian public sector because they guarantee that our children and grandchildren will have workers' rights, Mr. Da Silva said.

Mr. Silva says trimming retirement packages is needed to offset federal budget woes. Changes would entail requiring a financial contribution from retirees and raising the retirement age. His proposed plan would help reduce the country's $24 billion social security deficit by saving the country more than $19 billion over the next 30 years.

Brazil spends over twice as much of its gross domestic product on the pensions as some European countries with similar systems, and 50 percent of the pension dollars are dispersed to just 10 percent of the state's employees.

In downtown Rio, a handful of strikers shouted into a megaphone, denouncing what they called an assault on workers' rights. One woman passing by revealed that she works for the state finance ministry, and said she's bitterly opposed to the changes.

"Why not start cutting the benefits of the congressmen, who make piles of money and have tons of benefits? I think it's all wrong, you have to start cutting from above, not from below," she said.

However, the government's proposal would tax benefits only above a certain level. Political scientist Octavio Amorim Neto says President da Silva's own party blocked the proposed reforms in the past, and the unions that supported him during his campaign now feel betrayed. Neto says Mr. Da Silva could have done more to prepare his followers for the changes ahead.

"Most unfortunately, Lula and his key political operators never properly prepared nor duly warned the militants and core supporters of his party for the hard decisions he would have to make once in power. And I think that was his main mistake," he said.

However, Amorim Neto says he believes some version of Mr. Da Silva's pension reform will pass the Congress by the end of the year.