From state surveillance to a transnational future…
By Lucy McMahon
Brazilian workers movements and unions have seen many impressive achievements, particularly during the overthrow of the 1980s dictatorship and the small steps away from its neoliberal labour practices over the past 25 years. The pressures of competing on a 21st century global stage are still worsening working conditions in several sectors. Yet there is hope for Brazil’s workers in the possibility for alliances between employees from different countries to fight for labour rights within multinational corporations. These corporations still hold great political power and largely dictate the terms of state-worker relations.
Roots of the state-union relationship
Since the 1930s, Brazil’s labour conditions have been presented as progressive ‘gifts’ to the working people, masking a reality of noncompliance, corruption and exploitation (French 2004). Although his regime had outlawed strikes in its 1937 constitution, dictator Getulio Vargas’s 1943 Labour Code was devised to co-opt the support of Brazil’s unions and workers’ movements. His tactics were borrowed from Mussolini’s Italian fascism. The Labour Code conceded a range of social benefits to workers, while establishing strict state control over their activities. This state control was made even stricter under the 1964 military coup, which launched a series of right wing military dictators whose neoliberal economic policies provoked an intense strike movement in the late 1970s.
Union resistance under dictatorship
On May 12, 1978, the workers of the Saab-Scanie truck factory demanded a salary increase in Sao Paolo. The 1980 strike movement that was triggered by their action lasted 41 days, and was defeated with mass incarcerations and 40,000 job losses. In 1983, unions allied themselves with the ‘Direct Now’ campaign for direct presidential elections, with leaders such as former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003). Brazil saw general strikes in 1983, 1986, 1987 and, most militantly, 1989, which demanded the reimbursement of salary losses that resulted from anti-inflation policies. Strategies also included the occupation of factories, most notably the 16 day occupation of the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro by metalworkers in November 1988. The occupation was ended by an army invasion that killed three workers. The 1980s also saw the rise in popularity of the new Worker’s Party, which had strong union roots and has governed Brazil in a coalition since 2003. With the fall of dictator Joao Batista Figueiredo and the advent of democracy, strikes were legalised, along with a range of previously illegal unions, including Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (Central Labour Federation-CUT) and the Forca Sindical (Union Force).
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