Truck driver strike draining gas out of Sao Paulo

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By STAN LEHMAN, Associated Press

SAO PAULO (AP) — Striking truck drivers refused to make deliveries of gas and ethanol to any of Sao Paulo's 2,000 gas stations Wednesday, deepening a standoff with the mayor that is threatening to create major fuel shortages in South America's largest city.

There were hopes the drivers, who are upset over restrictions on when and where they can drive their rigs, would end the strike that began on Monday. But the vice president of the Sao Paulo truck drivers union, Claudinei Pelegrini, said union members would vote on it on Thursday.

He said that while union leaders are recommending an end to the strike, the "final decision is up to the truck drivers." The truckers are defying a state court judge's ruling Tuesday that said unions would be fined $565,000 a day if the strike continues.

The Sao Paulo metropolitan area, with 20 million people, is one of the world's most congested urban centers and is infamous for its clogged roads. The city has a fleet of more than 7 million cars and more than 5 million people use the public bus system — all in danger of grinding to a halt if the work stoppage persists.

Despite most gas stations in Sao Paulo running extremely low or completely dry of gas and ethanol by Wednesday night, traffic remained heavy and there was no noticeable decrease in the amount of people using cars.

"It will turn to chaos tomorrow. I've been filling up everytime I pass a gas station that appears to have some fuel," said taxi driver Ricardo Soares as he waited in a line of cars outside a Shell station in central Sao Paulo. "The mayor has got to give on this. There is no way out."

Soares impatiently honked his horn as gas station attendants tried mostly in vain to direct motorists seeking gas toward the line in the only remaining pump that still had fuel out of six nozzles at the Shell station.

The overall situation in Sao Paulo was not yet complete chaos: Union officials had said they would guarantee fuel deliveries for police and ambulances. Many motorists said that if the strike persists, they simply wouldn't go to work. Most people in the city make excruciatingly long commutes and with a limited metro system, their would be no means of getting to jobs.

It was not clear what sort of economic damage would be inflicted on the city if the strike continues. Repeated calls to City Hall for comment about the situation were not returned.

Jose Gouveia, president of an association representing gas station owners, said most of the city's 2,000 gas stations ran out of fuel and that the situation wouldn't return to normal soon.

"If the strike ends today, it will take at least five days for things to return to normal at the service stations," he said.

Cars lined up at Sao Paulo gas stations that still had gas to sell. Television broadcasts showed police cars escorting non-striking truckers delivering fuel to bus companies and to Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport.

A spokeswoman for Sao Paulo's Consumer Protection and Defense Department said that the agency has received 109 reports of gas stations upping pump prices by more than 20 percent since the strike started. She declined to be identified in accordance to department policy.

The strike began Monday to protest the city government's attempt to restrict where big trucks can drive.

The truck drivers union said transportation costs and travel times will increase because of the restrictions that limit the hours truckers can use some city highways and force trucks to take alternative routes.

Union leaders have said truckers would return to work if the restrictions are made more flexible.

But Mayor Gilberto Kassab said truckers were blackmailing the city and has refused to negotiate.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks contributed to this report.

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