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Nationwide Strike Clogs Brazil's Big Cities, Grinding Daily Activity To A Halt

A protester harangues a line of military police in riot gear in front of a Rio de Janeiro bus terminal during the nationwide strike Friday.

Halfway into a 24-hour worker strike, Brazil's biggest cities have partially shut down — with many major thoroughfares clogged and businesses shuttered for the day. The nationwide strike mounted by unions aims to unravel a set of measures supported by President Michel Temer, legislation that would loosen labor laws and roll back pension regulations.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports, "As darkness fell, clashes broke out between protestors and riot police in Rio de Janeiro and also Sao Paulo, where a crowd tried to march on Temer's residence."

"It is going to be the biggest strike in the history of Brazil," Paulo Pereira da Silva, the president of trade union group Forca Sindical, told Reuters at the outset of the work stoppage.

And while it's unclear whether that claim has come true, Philip tells us that the strikers' efforts did have an obvious effect in Brazil's streets:

"Public transport's badly disrupted, especially in Brazil's largest city São Paulo. Many schools, banks and businesses are closed around the country. And in Rio de Janeiro, there have been skirmishes between protesters, who are blocking roads, and the riot police trying to clear them."

Roadblocks of burning tires and other improvised barricades have shut down popular routes not simply in Sao Paulo and Rio, but in Belo Horizonte and the capital Brasilia, too. There are so few people on the streets of Sao Paulo, the BBC's Daniel Gallas reports the empty urban areas have taken on the atmosphere of a holiday.

But it is not a celebration that inspired the strike. Rather, unions are protesting legislation now working its way through Congress, one bill that would weaken labor laws and the other that would overhaul the pension system, bumping back the eligibility age to 65 for men and 62 for women.

Temer — who came to power after his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached on corruption charges — remains deeply unpopular in Brazil, but he still enjoys significant support from lawmakers. Both measures have had little difficulty progressing in the Legislature.

The president argues these changes are necessary to save an economy that has been flailing recently, suffering what the BBC calls the country's worst recession in more than a century.

The New York Times breaks down some of the issues at hand:

"Indeed, some problems are glaring. The pension system allows many Brazilians to retire in their 50s, causing deficits to balloon and depleting resources for basic services like education and health care. And some economists contend that byzantine labor laws stymie competitiveness and prevent companies from hiring more workers."

Yet Brazil's unions are less than inclined to trust Temer, who is facing massive bribery allegations of his own.

"Temer hates working people," Marco Basaglia, a bank employee in São Paulo, told the Times. "This is the worst government Brazil has ever had."

Still, Temer remains undeterred by the unrest that unraveled many of the major cities' services Friday, asserting that Brazil's plight is a product of the administration that came before him.

"The inheritance of that was 13 million unemployed," Temer's spokesperson Marcio de Freitas said, according to Al Jazeera. "The government is carrying out reforms to change this situation, to create jobs and economic growth."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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