From state surveillance to a transnational future.

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).

Democracy – but the same old politics?

Critics in the 1990s still argued, however, that Brazilian trade union activity could ‘take place only within a state controlled system that denies it freedom of organization and autonomy’. (Boito and Steiger 1994:7). All unions must register with the state, which means that the state has the ability to revoke charters and dismiss labour leaders. The unicidade sindical law prohibits more than one group per occupational category in a given munincipality, and the power given to unions to impose dues on all workers in their area, regardless of membership permits state involvement in union finances (TUC 2005).

As the state increasingly adopted a more populist ideology (supposedly fighting for the rights of workers), it also co-opted the political ground once occupied by more radical union leaders, meaning that in a sense, there are now no unions ‘outside’ the state. In the early 1990s, most strikes were called not to protest against employers per se but to push for the intervention of the Labour Court, with the presumption that this state-regulated body will always be on the side of workers (Boito and Steiger 1994:17).

Post-Lula successes: the case of ABC

In 2003, the newly elected President Lula prioritised state-trade union relations in his first presidential mandate. As a member of the ABC metalworkers union, Lula had experienced the difficulties of building strong unions within the constraints of Vargas’ Labour Code. His government’s 2004 reforms have resulted in a greater independence for unions. One practical impact of this was seen in November 2005, when Volkswagen asked the state tribunals to prevent ABC workers from going on strike. The judge threatened the union with a fine, but workers ignored the threat and went on strike for 30 days (Lang and Gagnon 2009:49). This set the scene for a more recent high priority success story for the union in 2010, where 40,000 metalworkers in the São Paulo region working for Ford, Scania, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz achieved a real wage increase of 6.26%; the biggest on record for car makers (Bittencourt 2010). Sérgio Nobre, president of ABC at the time, said that “This achievement is further proof that ABC metalworkers know how to work, but also know how to negotiate and to struggle.”

…but not for all

However, not all unions are as powerful as the metalworkers’. Lang and Gagnon argue that the majority of unions ‘settle for slight improvements on what the CLT [labour code] already guarantees’. Moreover, Brazil’s huge informal sector has very little trade union representation, although it generated 17.2% of Brazilian GDP in 2011 (FGV ETCO 2011). Some argue that the labour code itself promotes informality, as employers frequently take the risk of being sued rather than formally hire workers due, in part, to the constraints of following the labour code (Coletto 2010:171, cited in Sugihara 2012). The rights of formal sector workers and the livelihood of informal sector workers appear therefore to be in conflict. As explained by Rosanne Sasse, of União Geral dos Trabalhadores, the medical care offered to members in the formal economy would be politically difficult to extend to informal sector members who may not be able to pay membership costs. In the case of the textile and garment sector, there are informal ‘small bosses’ who, themselves suffering under very difficult working conditions, impose worse conditions on subcontractors. These potential conflicts between small employers and unions can only be resolved with the radical and enforced improvement of conditions for all Brazilian workers, regardless of sector, with particular attention to the subversive operations of multinational textile corporations who subcontract to the informal sector.

Informal sector organising

Informal sector unions do exist in Brazil, and are championed by political figures such as Creuza Oliveira, a previously informal domestic worker who has stood for office four times (although as yet without success (IDS 2007)). She formed an association of domestic workers under the dictatorship, and turned it into a union once the dictatorship fell. Her union has achieved paid leave, one day off a week, three months maternity leave and a notice period. However, those domestic workers who remain undocumented (70%) do not benefit from these achievements.

The state, too, can be instrumental in improving the rights of informal sector workers, and facilitating union creation. With local authority support, recycling workers and scrap collectors in São Sebastião were formalised through a municipal law that legalised their actions and prioritised the employment of local informal workers over external recycling corporations (Dias and Gama Alves 2008). However, should they ever need to, the potential for recycling unions to campaign against the local authority who not only pays their wages but also provides education remains limited.

The future of unions in Brazil

After the 2008 financial crisis, the government created a ‘National Champion’ strategy, which aimed to turn Brazilian corporations into leading players in their sectors. However, these corporations tend to be controlled by a small number of the ‘richest and best connected capitalists and politicians’ and have a highly detrimental effect on workers. The idea involves cutting costs (including wages and worker support) in order to compete with companies working in countries with weaker currencies and even lower wages. This is a ‘national’ form of the export processing zone strategy, in which worker rights are sacrificed in the name of attracting multinationals to low wages and low unionisation.

However, the National Champions policy has facilitated some international workers resistance. For example, leading Brazilian mining company Vale attempted to worsen conditions in a steelworks in Canada. During a one year strike by the Metal Workers’ Union of Canada, a transnational network was developed between workers for Vale in Brazil and Canada, known as Justice on the Rails.

Although the struggles of individuals and unions in Brazil have resulted in some highly significant improvements to workers in the formal sector, there will be an increasing need to continue this struggle, both in the formal sector and in cooperation with informal workers, into Brazil’s future as a global ‘rising power’. The case of Vale shows the benefit of transnational worker collaboration, and there is great potential for future global links between workers and unions.


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Lucy McMahon

Lucy McMahon is a PhD Student at Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge, where she is working on grassroots feminist politics in Brazil.

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