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Teachers Strike and Protests Continue Amid Calamity in Rio de Janeiro

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After four months of striking, a majority of the teachers’ union for Rio de Janeiro State, SEPE (Sindicato Estadual dos Profissionais da Educação), overwhelmingly voted to continue the strike at a general assembly meeting on June 29. The union claims that the government has yet to satisfactorily meet their demands.

The strike began on March 2 to demand an overdue, legally guaranteed pay increase. Education professionals have not seen a raise in their wages since 2014, despite inflation and economic downturn.

One teacher from Nova Iguaçu in the Baixada Fluminense gave transportation as an example of the necessity of a wage increase. He explained the monthly cost of his bus ride to work had risen from R$800 to R$1,000 in two years.

Frustration around wage stagnation have only grown in response to the state of financial “calamity” announced in June, when the State government declared that its financial crisis could lead to “total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management.” The teachers’ union pointed out that despite this “calamity,” other public sector workers have received raises and billions of dollars are being invested in the Olympic Games. Indeed, the State has asked for emergency federal funds to guarantee Olympic security. In other words, the declaration of calamity is the State admitting that the Olympics have brought about a state of exception. According to Dorotéa Frota Santana, SEPE coordinator, “essential” sectors like education and health are “abandoned” because of such mega-events.

Dorotéa Frota Santana, coordinator of Rio de Janeiro's teachers' union, speaks at an assembly on 6/29/2016.

Since March, the strike has evolved to encompass other issues facing teachers, including a return to the former pay schedule. Previously, salaries for education professionals were paid at the beginning of the month. The payment has been pushed back to the 10th, causing some teachers to incur late fees on monthly expenses, like electricity, gas and credit card payments.

Other demands include: elections of school directors made by the community; the return of gatekeepers who guard the school; and investment in the infrastructure of Rio’s public schools. In an interview prior to the vote, Santana said she would also like to see the construction of new schools to alleviate the large number of students per class.

A sign at the SEPE office denouncing low salaries for education professionals.

“Public school workers receive one banana per hour.” A sign at the SEPE office denouncing low salaries for education professionals.

Though a clear majority of teachers voted to continue the strike, with only 18 dissenting, some SEPE members argued various reasons to suspend the strike. Since the strike began in March, the number of participants has declined. This has weakened the strike’s efficacy, according to proponents of suspension, who also referenced a similar trend in the school occupations. Some demands, such as implementing a 30-hour workweek for administrative employees and discontinuing the SAERJ state exam that evaluates students on math and Portuguese have been met.

Santana described one of the challenges facing teachers: “The teacher really works alone,” since the schools have been “abandoned” by authorities and lack investment. “There’s a lack of materials in schools, paper, markers for the whiteboard. A lot of teachers are paying out of their own pocket.”

Police at education protest in Rio de Janeiro.

This strike coincides with other protests around the city in the lead-up to the Rio 2016 Olympics, including occupation of over 45 schools in Rio by students and protests after a young woman was gang-raped in May. Students from occupied schools were present at the general assembly and pledged solidarity with the professors.

After the voting took place, thousands of teachers demonstrated at the Court of Justice, where their peaceful action was met by the Military Police. Tear gas, pepper spray, and batons were used, as the scene turned chaotic. According to SEPE, several members were taken to the emergency room at Souza Aguiar Hospital as a result.

In a statement made after the event, SEPE “denounce[d], vehemently, the way [teachers were] treated by the troops, that are in theory in charge of taking care of the city’s security during the Olympic Games in August, when thousands of domestic and foreign tourists will be in Rio de Janeiro.” This incident is another on the list of repression by security forces in the lead-up to the Olympics. Similar actions were taken against students occupying schools, forcing some to return to classrooms. The following day, current education professionals, retirees, and executive members of SEPE staged a protest against the city government to denounce the cutting of pensions for retired teachers without prior notice.

SEPE continues in negotiations with State Education Secretariat, and members of the Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly (Alerj). In the meantime, protests continue. The next one will be held July 6 at 3 pm in downtown Rio.