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'Day of Struggle': Protesters block ports, highways across Brazil as unions aim to take control

Riot police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse masked protesters in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, as demonstrations continued throughout Brazil. Unions are demanding better work conditions and tougher government measures to tackle inflation.

Tens of thousands of union members marched throughout the country, blocking roads and grinding traffic to a crawl in dozens of cities.

Bus drivers, metal workers and other unionized workers took to the streets as part of a one-day strike. Labor leaders are pushing for workers’ rights to take center stage in the national debate which emerged after huge protests rocked the country last month, Reuters reported.

Brazil’s unions, which represent around one-tenth of the country’s workforce, appear to be trying to give the protests direction while they fight for political and social goals.

Union strikers and other demonstrators partially or completely blocked 40 interstate and intercity highways across 14 states during Thursday’s “Day of Struggle,” AP reported. Protesters also set tires ablaze on a freeway outside of Rio.

Riot police clash with demonstrators during the "National Day of Strikes, Stoppages and Protests" in Rio de Janeiro July 11, 2013 (Reuters / Ricardo Moraes)

In the coastal city of Santos, dock workers blocked trucks from entering Latin America’s biggest port. Access to ports was reported to be blocked in another six states.

Elsewhere, some 5,000 protesters rallied through Sao Paulo’s sprawling Avenida Paulista. Demonstrators carried signs and banners demanding shorter work weeks, improved working conditions, and affordable housing options.

Protesters clashed with police in Rio after police used water cannon to disperse union members occupying the steps to city hall. Ten people were arrested, while a police officer was reported to be wounded in the violence.

Earlier Thursday, a group of protesters near Rio’s municipal theater threw sticks and stones at officers. A Molotov cocktail was thrown at police who then responded by firing tear gas, Folha de S.Paulo reported.

Riot police fire tear gas during clashes with demonstrators during the "National Day of Strikes, Stoppages and Protests" near Rio de Janeiro's governmental Guanabara Palace July 11, 2013 (Reuters / Ricardo Moraes)

Teachers at both public and private schools joined Thursday’s strike, resulting in closed schools in several cities. Some hospitals were reported to be operating with skeleton crews.

Subway, bus, and train workers’ decision not to strike “weakened the Day of Struggle,” Agencia Estado quoted secretary general of Union Force, Joao Carlos Goncalves, as saying.

“But nevertheless we have mobilized the workers and called attention to our demands, which was what we wanted to achieve,” Goncalves said.

Since mass demonstrations began across the country, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has sought to defuse the situation with several new policy proposals. One of his plans includes an investment of $23 billion on public transportation projects - a major source of contention in cities like Sao Paulo.

Brazil’s government has also responded by pledging to funnel oil wealth into education and medical services, including importing thousands of doctors from abroad to work in underserved regions of the country.

Demonstrators gesture during clashes with riot police during the "National Day of Strikes, Stoppages and Protests" in downtown of Rio de Janeiro July 11, 2013 (Reuters / Ricardo Moraes)

Riot police clash with demonstrators during the "National Day of Strikes, Stoppages and Protests" in downtown of Rio de Janeiro July 11, 2013 (Reuters / Sergio Moraes)