Brazilians stage general strike to protest pension overhaul

FILE - In this May 30, 2019 file photo, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a ceremony to sign a decree on Regional Development, at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil. The South American country kicked off a general strike Friday, June 14, that is likely to paralyze major cities across Brazil. The nationwide strike is the first since the arrival of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Jan. 1. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Demonstrators participate in a general strike in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, June 14, 2019. The strike was called for by trade unions to protest a pension reform being discussed in Congress. (AP Photo/Suamy Beydoun)
A demonstrator shows her Portuguese message "Get out Bolsonaro" during a general strike in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, June 14, 2019. The strike is the first of its kind since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January. (AP Photo/Suamy Beydoun)
A woman wears a sticker with the word "Fell apart," as a protest against Justice Minister Sergio Moro, during a general strike in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, June 14, 2019. The news site The Intercept on Sunday published leaked documents and messages allegedly showing that Moro offered guidance to prosecutors of the sprawling "Car Wash" corruption probe. (AP Photo/Suamy Beydoun)
A man holds up the Portuguese message "Get Out Bolsonaro" during a general strike in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, June 14, 2019. The strike was called for by trade unions to protest a pension reform being discussed in Congress. (AP Photo/Suamy Beydoun)
Police fire tear gas at a protest against government-proposed pension reforms during a strike in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, June 14, 2019. The nationwide strike is the first since the arrival of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Jan. 1. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
A youth looks at Brazilian soldiers on guard near a protest against government proposed pension reforms during a strike in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, June 14, 2019. The nationwide strike is the first since the arrival of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Jan. 1. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Thousands of people filled the streets of Brazil's main cities Friday, and schools, banks and some public transportation shut down, as Brazilians angry over a pension reform and budget cuts held the first general strike of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's administration.

The nationwide strike was called by Brazil's unions and mainly targeted the pension reform Bolsonaro is currently pushing for in Congress, but it comes on the heels of massive protests in May against steep cuts to the public education system and amid discontent over an economic downturn.

"Stop the reform or we stop the country!" shouted strikers in front of the Candelaria Church in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

Reinaldo Galamba, a 63-year-old French teacher in a state office, said he fears the reform would force him to work more years before retiring.

"This government is awful, it is ending the country," he said.

In Rio, police launched tear gas at protesters who attempted to block Avenida Brasil, while residents of Sao Paulo awoke to find demonstrators burning tires on the main Rodovia Anhangüera highway. There were no reports of injuries.

Authorities in Rio Grande do Sul said 76 people who participated in the protests had been detained, including 54 in the state capital of Porto Alegre.

While the crowds were not as large as in May's education protests, the United Workers Central labor federation called the strike a success, claiming that 45 million heeded its call not to work.

Bolsonaro's government, which took office on Jan. 1 and has faced a series of protests by women's and indigenous groups, as well as by teachers and students, ignored Friday's general strike. The press office of the presidency said it wouldn't release any statements.

The pension reform would raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 62 for women and increase workers' contributions. Under the current system, male and female workers can claim pension benefits after 30 to 35 years of contributions, respectively, meaning many can retire as early as 50 or 55.

Bolsonaro's government says the reform could save about 1 trillion reals ($260 billion) and help save the troubled social security system from bankruptcy.

The proposal is currently being reviewed by a special commission in the lower house of congress. A previous pension reform bill, introduced by ex-President Michel Temer, managed to pass the commission and made it to the plenary, but was abandoned after nine months.

Protester Carolina Cacau said the plan would do away with retirement altogether.

"It will make workers work until their death," she said.

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