Subway and overland train workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil joined the ongoing public transit strike that has overtaken a number of the World Cup host cities as the tournament nears. Commuters left home for work Thursday morning to find train and subway stations closed. Many turned to the city bus system that was already overcrowded due to the ongoing strikes plaguing the region.
At stations around the city, disgruntled riders were met with closed stations attempted to kick open the doors and barricades in anger and frustration. The strike stranded an estimated four million people who use the public transit system and brought the city to a standstill most of the day. Many turned to the few buses that were operating during the strike, only to find the alternative to the trains over packed and suffering from long delays and traffic. The government temporarily lifted restriction keeping many automobiles out of the city to help alleviate the transit issues, only to further aggravate the congestion on the streets well beyond anticipation.
One of the causes of the growing strike is the deadlock between the train operators and the government. The operators are demanding a 10 percent pay increase. The Sao Paulo state government, which controls the transit system, has offered an increase to the workers pay by 8.7 percent. Wanting the full 10 percent, the train operators went on strike. Local laws call for the trains to operate at full capacity during the peak hours of the commute and 70 percent of capacity the rest of the day. Wednesday night a judge ordered the striking union workers to comply with the law to keep the city from coming to a standstill. The following morning the workers ignored the orders from the judge and brought the city to a standstill.
The transit workers strike is another of the numerous troubles that has faced Brazil leading up to the summer soccer tournament. After the country was awarded both the World Cup and the Olympics, an effort to clean up and better the cities in the country became a priority. However, the government has faced nothing but criticism from the country’s residents from the beginning. Military backed police forces started pushing into gang and drug cartel run areas of the cities to clean out bad elements as the tournament neared. Massive construction and info structure projects for both the World Cup and the Olympics began. To the disdain of the residents of the host cities, the money that the citizens felt could have helped the communities started to run out.
With money running out, slum areas around the World Cup host cities are turning into battlefields between gangs, police and residents. Stadiums were falling far behind in construction and the doubt began to arise if the facilities would come near to completion in time for the start of the upcoming soccer tournament. The people had seen enough. Residents saw all this money going into the local governments. Most saw more than enough money to build the stadiums and improve the communities, however, suspected corruption in the government and the guerrilla type war with the cartels saw the money running out quickly. Now people are finding stadiums partially finished and tents being erected to house visiting media. In some stadium parking lots, thousands of poverty stricken residents have erected tent cities that have added to the government frustration.
The workers holding the strikes that have crippled Sao Paulo may be the final action that could derail the World Cup before the tournament even starts. FIFA officials, who are insistent that the tournament will go on no matter what, found themselves stuck in traffic for hours on Thursday in an attempt to cross the city. The fear is sinking in that in less than six days, as the opening games near, the many visitors that will descend on the city for the games and festivities will push the already fragile and overcrowded transit system into a dangerous and potentially deadly state of chaos.
Commentary by Carl Auer