The challenge of mobilizing workers and the poor continues

Last year, I wrote that it is a challenge to mobilize low-income workers and the poor in Brazil.

A week ago (May 15), Brazil saw some protests against the World Cup (you can read about it in The Guardian and BBC, for example).

I went to the one in Rio. The impression I had is that the challenge to mobilize more workers remains. And it is a difficult one.

Last week I went to the center of Rio to join and observe the protest against the World Cup.

I wanted to see how the demonstrators (opposition party members, union representatives, civil society activists, students and workers on strike) would relate to non-mobilized workers.

I wondered: is there a bigger effort to approach more workers?

Is that why they chose to start off from Central do Brasil (the local commuting hub for low-income workers)?

Are non-mobilized workers more supportive of protests and strikes?

The impression I had is that if mobilizing more people to support the movement is one of the goals of the demonstrators, there is still a lot to be done.

It was about 17:30 when I arrived at the side of Central do Brasil where organizers had called demonstrators to meet.

The demonstrators were cheerful. They sang, shouted words of order and waved flags.

Many of them filmed and took pictures of themselves and of the many police officers surrounding the group (still in the couple of hundreds to grow into thousands later).

The press (especially foreign journalists) watched the group as well. They seemed to wait the group to grow and something more newsworthy to happen.

So I decided to get away from the demonstrators and get closer to the gate of Central do Brasil through which workers were rushing after a long day of work.

Workers who go to Central do Brasil do so to get buses or trains all the way back to the Northern Rio or Baixada Fluminense. Most commute for over an hour. It’s tiring.

How to mobilize these people? How do they feel about the protests?

From the gate, I saw three guys handing flyers to the workers. Some picked them up and read them. Others folded them. Others tossed them. Very few stopped.

But the main problem seemed to be in how people passing by saw the protest.

The constant disruptions in the city caused by strikes and protests seem to be tiring people. They also seemed suspicious of the flags of left-wing parties and movements.

People also seemed fearful of the possible clashes between the protesters and the police (which never happened that night).

The news coverage – often blaming strikes and protests rather than explaining them – reinforced the negative attitude towards the movement.

I overheard some people as they rushed into the station:

“Só na época de eleicão, essa merda!” (This happens only in times of elections, this shit!)

“Vai ter palhacada aí hoje” (There will be clownish behavior there today)

“Vai dar ruim! Isso aí vai dar ruim” (There will be trouble! There will be trouble)

“Comeca assim. Depois a chapa esquenta” (It starts like this (calmly). Then trouble starts)

Later, thousands of people gathered and marched towards the City Hall. But those marching were people who were already engaged in some kind of civic struggle.

As the march went along the dark and empty Avenida Presidente Vargas, a friend and I wondered how the movement would be visible for other people.

The pictures on the cover of the newspapers the next day looked great. But how about the support of non-engaged people on the streets?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much of it that night. Actually, people seemed distrustful and tired of the protesting.

When the subway station shut its doors in fear of conflicts,  my friends and I watched the gathering in front of the City Hall from the distant staircase to the station.

I asked a random guy next to me what he thought the protest’s outcome would be. “Pizza”, he said in reference to a local saying indicating that for him it won’t lead anywhere.

“These people shout against the World Cup here, but I am sure they all have their tickets. Look at them”, he said suggesting that they looked better-off.

Another guy sounded even more annoyed. “They closed the subway station!? I want to go home and can’t because of this shit [protest] now?!”, he complained.

Soon the gates opened and I left the protest along with the crowd of tired and discontent workers.

As a person who supports all kinds of protests and strikes, I admit I have had mixed feelings about demonstrations since then.

I am happy workers are going on strike and struggling for their rights. I am also happy people are demonstrating dissatisfaction about the negative impacts of the mega-events.

But I am also sad that these actions don’t seem to convince more people (especially low-income workers) that it is worthy it claiming the streets for rights and social change.

That is why I believe the challenge of mobilization of the low-income workers continues. The main problem is that it is not just a matter of substituting flyers for something else.

The challenge is deeper than that.

How to convince tired workers it is worth it joining demonstrations? How to share the passion for struggling for a more fair society? How to change how protests are perceived?

I don’t know.

But the persistence of this challenge of mobilization makes me feel much more excited about pedagogic trabalhos de base (grassroots work) than about claiming the streets.