Adriana Gomez Licon / AP Photo

Brazil subway workers suspend strike, days before World Cup

Union moves to temporarily halt action that caused chaos in Brazil’s biggest city ahead of soccer tournament

Brazil's metro union has decided to suspend a Sao Paulo subway workers' strike until at least Wednesday, the day before the opening match of Thursday's football World Cup.

Monday night's unexpected decision to temporarily halt the five-day strike was not thought to have followed a breakthrough in talks between the metro union and the government, but instead could have occurred following pressure from Sao Paulo residents.

Union members there voted Monday night to temporarily suspend the strike they began last week, but also decided they would take a new vote Wednesday to determine whether to resume the work stoppage Thursday, the same day the World Cup kicks off. 

Meanwhile, a union representing subway workers in Rio de Janeiro said members would separately vote Tuesday evening on whether to strike in that city.

In Sao Paulo, the union is seeking a 12 percent wage hike but the government says it won't offer anything above 8.7 percent. Meetings between government officials and union representatives on Monday stalled on that point.

Strikes in Brazil worry government officials who see the labor actions as severe threats for World Cup fans because the subways in both Rio and Sao Paolo are being counted on as the main way for spectators to get to the stadiums. The stadium for the initial game between Brazil and Croatia is about 12 miles east of central Sao Paulo, where most tourists stay.

Earlier on Monday Sao Paulo police clashed with striking subway workers who had continued to stay away from work despite a court declaring their strike to be illegal.

Riot police firing tear gas pushed about 100 striking workers out of a station.

"This is the way they negotiate, with tear gas and repression," Alexandre Roland, a union leader, told The Associated Press as he and others regrouped outside the station after confronting riot police.

The striking workers marched toward the city center, where they planned to join a wide-ranging rally by various activist groups, including homeless workers demanding low-cost housing and a group calling for free public transportation.

‘Abusive’ strike

Bruno Matos, a 24-year-old student, said that he came to the rally to support the subway workers who he saw as fighters for commuter rights.

"It's a fight not just for them, but also a fight over inequality in transportation. They have their specific fights for a salary, but also for the rights of the commuters," said Matos. 

But others found the strike inconvenient, and it is their displeasure that may have forced the union's hand. Adriana Silva, who works as a cashier at a jewelry store downtown, said it has 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."

On Sunday, a Brazilian court ordered the subway worker's union to pay a $222,000 fine for every day that the strike continues, up from the $45,000 they had to pay for the first four days.

Hours later, the union said it voted in favor of continuing the strike that was called "abusive" by the court.

The court ruling was seen to be a big blow against the unions, and comes at a time when FIFA and the Brazilian government are closely watching as a majority of tourists and fans in town for the World Cup will rely heavily on the metro transit before Thursday's opening match. 

The five-line subway system has been partially operating, but trains were not arriving at the Corinthians Arena that will host the opening game.

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, and union officials began hearing of their members receiving telegrams announcing the dismissal.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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