After 120 days of strike action that included digital and physical mobilizations, intense pressure on the municipal and state governments and international solidarity, strikers won the anticipation of immunization for municipal education workers in the city of São Paulo. By Elden Ribeiro
On February 10, 2021, municipal education workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, began a "strike for life" against the reopening of schools in the worst moment of the pandemic in the country and in the city. Workers were being forced to return to school before being vaccinated against covid-19 and without adequate modifications to protect the health and safety of workers, students and their families.
"Education professionals have always defended face-to-face teaching but faced with a pandemic and a government that doesn’t protect the population, there was no other alternative but to strike to preserve the lives of students and education workers," says Luba Melo member of the executive board of São Paulo’s Union of Municipal Workers (SINDSEP), affiliated to Public Services International (PSI).
"Schools don’t meet the minimum requirements of the protocols to combat covid. The basic cleaning of many schools has actually worsened during the pandemic because of previous cuts to cleaning services contracts. We always wanted to return, but with health and safety, vaccines and mass testing."
In order to weaken the strike, the Municipal Secretary of Education was directed to cut workers’ pay if they participated in strike actions. This situation led SINDSEP to create an online strike fund to raise money for workers who lost their income because of this authoritarian measure.
"A ‘strike for life’, for many, seems like something subjective, and in fact we are dealing with something quite powerful. It's educators on strike, not only to protect their lives, but to protect the lives of families, the life of the city, the lives of children and students. This is really important and honorable," says Maciel Nascimento, Education Secretary of SINDSEP.
The basic cleaning of many schools has actually worsened during the pandemic because of previous cuts to cleaning services contracts.
During the four-month strike, the union held meetings, organized virtual assemblies and in-person demonstrations including protests and rallies. On May 6, for example, SINDSEP organized a ‘driving march’ in cars that crossed São Paulo. The demonstration left City Hall and ended at the Municipal Health Secretariat, a route of almost 10 kilometres.
In addition to cutting off workers pay, SINDSEP’s Education Secretary says that the workers suffered other reprisals from São Paulo’s City Hall. For example, school directors faced daily harassment, being pressured to point out who the strikers were. "Fortunately there were very few who gave in to this pressure. In fact, they even put themselves at risk, but they understood the need for the strike," says Nascimento.
The Municipal Education Department claimed that it held 18 meetings with the strikers to address the demands, however, the SINDSEP leaders report that there were only four that Secretary Fernando Padula didn’t show up to any of them. Maciel Nascimento said that "We consider it absurd that someone who has responsibility for managing conflicts, for managing a huge network such as the municipal education network, refuses to sit down with the unions to negotiate".
The union opened discussions directly at City Council, drawing attention to the problems and pressuring the mayor to accept a mediating role.
We were under attack every single day. So, the strike fund and international solidarity were fundamental to this win.
Nascimento highlights the importance of the solidarity of other organisations in the struggle to maintain the strike. PSI’s call for solidarity that was sent to affiliates in other countries got a response. In particular, generous contributions were made by two unions in Canada, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ). "We were under attack every single day. So, the strike fund and international solidarity were fundamental to this win."
Nascimento argues that the press should stop repeating the government's press releases and start listening to the other side of the story. The strike was not widely covered by the media, but, even so, the union was able to reach the parents. 82% of caregivers didn’t take their children to school without first confirming the implementation of the health and safety measures the union demanded. "We managed to guarantee some visibility in the press because we went to the streets, we organized demonstrations during a pandemic".
Because of the strength of this strike, the workers’ main demand was met - vaccination. São Paulo’s state governor announced on June 9th that the vaccination of 363 thousand Education professionals in the city of São Paulo would begin on June 11th.