Workers in Brazil—in heavy industry, services, the public sector, and agriculture—are waging a series of strikes and mass protests such as the country hasn’t seen in decades.
Driving the new labor upsurge is the strength of the country’s economy, the powerful position of unions in the society, and rising inflation.
Brazil’s economy grew at a rate of 5 percent in 2007 and 2008, and rebounded from a dip in the depths of the crisis to grow at least 7 percent last year.
“Workers in Brazil are not afraid of losing jobs, so they’re not afraid of striking,” said Brazilian-born Eduardo Siqueira, a public health professional and activist in the Brazilian immigrant community in Boston.
And strike they have. Since the beginning of September Brazil has seen strikes by bank workers, postal workers, teachers, and metal workers, including the auto parts workers at GM plants. Bank workers have shut down 8,328 banks in the country’s 26 states. Several of these strikes are ongoing. Now the Brazilian petroleum workers union says it may strike too.
With inflation at about 5 percent per year, many workers are fighting to catch up with rising prices. They are demanding big wage increases: metal workers want 9.5 percent more, bank workers 12.8 percent. Postal workers are striking against a new law that gives the Brazilian postal service the power to form partnerships with the private sector.
A vigorous agricultural workers movement opened the month of September with the “Marchas das Margaridas,” that is, “March of the Daisies.” Seventy thousand women rural workers, wearing their uniform of straw hats and purple clothing, marched through the nation’s capital, Brasilia. Maria Luiza dos Santos, a rural worker from the state of Maranhão, explained that the women wanted, “women’s rights, wage equality, and land distribution” to the landless.
Brazil’s Powerful Unions
Writing in the Oil & Gas Financial Journal last month, an American executive who works in the Brazilian petroleum industry warned his colleagues. “To say Brazilian unions are powerful is a gross understatement,” he wrote. “In Brazil, workers automatically ‘join’ a union. A worker, by law, must pay dues that to union (one day’s salary per year). In Brazil there are around 18,000 labor unions, all deeply rooted in their respective sectors, with guaranteed dues to fund their operations and enormous political influence.”
The U.S. oil man’s shock at the strength of Brazilian labor oversimplifies the great complexity of the labor movement. Brazil has several labor federations, each with political positions a little different from the others, some left, some center-left, some centrist. These federations both compete and cooperate with each other, and lately, says Siqueira, they’re cooperating more than in the recent past.
Local unions and workers are cooperating too, engaging in sympathy strikes, even though they may not be in the same union or the same federation.
Union Movement Born In Struggle
Brazil’s contemporary union movement was born in the struggles against military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1965 to 1985.
Led by the metal workers, workers first created industrial unions, then a new labor federation (the CUT), together with a Movement of the Landless (MST), and then the Workers Party which brought Luiz Inácio da Silva to the presidency in 2002 and reelected him in 2006. Lula, as he is popularly known, continued the neoliberal policies of his predecessors, promoting banks and the construction industry, but also promoted poverty programs that benefited Brazil’s poorest people, providing a basic income and encouraging adult education.
Lula’s first term in government was a mixed blessing for workers. The CUT had great influence but relied on Lula to make change, rather than organizing the unions and workers to fight for it, weakening the labor movement. The MST continued to fight on, organizing the landless and confronting the landlords and the government.
With the global commodities boom, the economy growing, and an estimated 14 million new jobs created, the labor movement made a comeback. Strikes grew, the unions created coalitions with other social movements, and unions began to pressure the government.
The election of Lula’s handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff to the presidency has created anxiety for labor and social movement activists. Will she continue Lula’s brand of acquiescence to corporations plus social programs for the poor? Unions aren’t waiting to find out. From one end of Brazil to the other, in a wide variety of industries, workers are on the move.
The unions are pushing President Rousseff and her party to fulfill their promises to the labor movement and the poor. What will happen when the government proves unwilling or unable to do so in the face of the next stage of the unfolding world economic crisis could be explosive.
This article was originally published on LaborNotes.org.