SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Tens of thousands of metalworkers at Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co. and other auto plants in Brazil walked off the job on Wednesday to demand a pay raise from an industry feeling the pain of an economic slowdown.
Brazil's powerful ABC metalworkers union said that close to 25,000 workers had joined the strike, which also tripped up production at plants owned by Germany's DaimlerChrysler, Swedish truckmaker Scania and Japan's Toyota Motor Corp.
The walkout was just the latest problem to hit Brazil's crisis-racked auto sector, which has seen sales plunge this year as the South American economy slipped into a recession.
If the strike drags on, it could also prove a headache for Brazil's left-leaning president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker and union boss who made his name in the late 1970s leading protests against car companies.
Wednesday's strike in Sao Paulo's industrial hub came after workers voted Tuesday night to reject an industry offer to raise wages by 15.7 percent to compensate for an inflationary spike earlier in the year. The metalworkers union wants an increase of 20 percent.
"Unless they make another offer, which is something the companies haven't been willing to do so far, the strike is going to last at least until Saturday when we have another assembly," union official Wagner Santana told Reuters.
All the companies involved confirmed the strike but deferred further comment to the automakers union, or Sinfavea, which declined to offer additional details.
German carmaker Volkswagen suffered the brunt of the strike, with a total of 14,800 workers laying down their tools, the company said. VW declined to say how many autos the factory normally churns out on a daily basis.
A Ford spokesman said close to 4,000 employees stayed home from work at its Sao Bernardo do Campo plant, which produces about 500 cars a day.
The strike also brought production to a halt at the Scania factory, where the 2,100-strong labor force normally assembles 30 trucks a day, a company spokesman said.
At Daimler's Mercedes-Benz plant and the Toyota factory, the strike was partial. About 1,500 workers on the truck production line at Mercedes stayed home, while 350 crossed their arms for the morning shift at the Toyota parts factory.
Meanwhile, 7,500 workers at a nearby General Motors factory voted on Wednesday to strike if the U.S. auto giant doesn't meet its wage demands by the end of the week.
AUTO SALES IN GUTTER
Auto sales in Brazil slumped 8 percent in the first half of 2003, when the country's economy fell into recession under the weight of sky-high interest rates.
Volkswagen has been among the hardest hit by the crisis, recently losing its title as the No. 1 car seller in Brazil to GM. The German automaker is now overhauling its operations in Brazil, where it plans to slash nearly 4,000 jobs.
Before workers and VW reached an agreement on the cuts earlier this month, VW's chief executive, Bernd Pischetsrieder, threatened to fire any workers who went on strike.
Earlier on Wednesday, VW's head office in Germany said the company's profits would probably more than halve this year after weak demand, a strong euro and the cost of cutting jobs in Brazil hammered its third-quarter earnings.