Brazil - Metalworkers Strike

September 25, 2007

On May 11, the 41-day strike by
Brazilian metalworkers ended in
defeat for the workers, but its
political implications go far beyond
industrial relations. Not only the
tough government reaction, but
the very process and organization
of the strike itself showed the
failure of the Figueiredo regime's
"abertura" policy, the latest half-
hearted democratic "opening" of
the military regime that has ruled
Brazil since 1964.
The strike, involving workers in
the "ABC" suburbs of Sao Paulo
(Santo Andre, Sao Bernardo and
Sao Caetano), began at midnight
on March 30, and was so widely
supported in major firms (principal-
ly foreign-owned automobile com-
panies, including VW, Mercedes-
Benz, Scania and Ford) that there
was no need to maintain pickets.
In a surprise decision on April 2,
the Regional Labor Court of Sao
Paulo proclaimed itself incompe-
tent to declare the strike illegal.
This was a major victory for the
In its third week, that decision
was reversed and the strike was
declared illegal. The government
"intervened" in the unions, ar-
resting Lula (Luis Ignacio de Silva,
President of the Metalworkers
Union of Sao Bernardo do Campo)
and 33 others, including many
members of the elected Wage
Commission, as well as two
lawyers from the Justice and
Peace Commission of the Arch-
diocese of Sao Paulo. The
government also removed union
officials, including Lula, from their
posts and took control of union
The workers of Sao Caetano
went back during the third week of
the strike with the 7 % productivity
increase approved by the Labor
Court, but between 100,000 and
150,000 workers stayed out in Sao
Bernardo and Santo Andre. The
government's hope for a peaceful
intervention and a quick return to
"normalcy" was thus dashed, and
the ABC industrial belt became a
virtual armed camp, commanded
by General Milton Tavares of the
Second Army. As the strike neared
its fifth week, 120,000 people com-
memorated May Day in Sao Ber-
nardo after a tension packed
morning in which the government
first prohibited the use of both the
plaza in front of the Matriz Church
(which had become strike head-
quarters after the intervencao) and
the Vila Euclides Stadium (where
workers' assemblies are tradi-
tionally held), then at the last
minute rescinded its decision and
called off the troops.
But despite this apparent vic-
tory, and continued support from
the Church and all major opposi-
tion parties, the strike was begin-
ning to collapse. The first week in
May the workers in Santo Andre
returned to work, and a week later,
when Sao Bernardo workers went
back, the strike was over.
The demands which proved so
unacceptable to the government
were not over monetary questions
but rather job security and the
right to have workers' delegates in
the factories. Early in the strike,
Lula declared that workers would
lower their demand for a 15% pro-
ductivity raise to 7% if a job
guarantee went along with it. The
workers' determination to win on
the non-monetary demands,
especially the right to have
delegates inside the factory, was a
direct challenge to the
government-controlled union
structure. It reflects the growing
struggle in recent years for an
authentic trade unionism coming
from the workers themselves. This
struggle has been spearheaded by
the metalworkers, but this year's
strike was the first time that Lula
had taken such a strong stand.
(See NACLA, "Brazil: 'Controlled
Decompression' ", XIII, no. 3, May-
June, 1979.)
But the strike's impact cannot
be fully gauged by its failure to
achieve its goals. In addition to the
quality of the demands and the
workers' militancy in fighting for
them, three aspects of the strike
appear most important in judging
its future effects: the form of
organization of the strike, the
degree and organization of public
support, and the government's
hard line reaction on the side of
the employers.
Organization of the Strike
No longer dependent on a sort
of charismatic relationship be-
tween Lula and the workers'
assemblies, this strike counted on
NACLA Reportupdate * update . update * update
the efforts of an elected Mobiliza- tion and Wage Commission com- posed of 480 metallurgical workers. Since meetings were pro-
hibited in the factories, elections
for the Commission were held in
churches and at union head-
quarters in a series of section
meetings, from November to
March. Although attendance was
often high, participation was lower
than if the elections had taken
place in the plants themselves.
At the suggestion of Lula
himself, a directorate was elected
from the Commission to take over
leadership of the strike in case of
arrest of the union officers. The
advantages of this form of organ-
ization were manifest in the
degree and duration of mobiliza-
tion in this strike. With increased
forums for discussion and con-
sultation, the negotiating process
was demystified. Participation was
encouraged and facilitated by the
division of the Commission into
subcommissions with specific
tasks, thus bringing many more
people into positions of respon-
sibility. As a delegate from
Mercedes said, the main advan-
tage of the Commission was that
"it awakens in each worker his
ability to assume his own
struggle." And another delegate
said of the strike in Sao Bernardo,
"this year you don't hear people
shouting 'Lula, Lula, Lula!' the way
they did last year. And that's good;
it shows that people have more
confidence in themselves." *
Public Support for the Strike
Public support for the metal-
workers came from all over Brazil,
as the strike became the focus of
"*Movimento, April 14-20, 1980.
JulylAugust 1980
political opposition to the regime.
A support committee head-
quartered in the Legislative
Assembly included members of
the legislature, professional
associations, local associations
and representatives of other
unions. On a local level, support
groups met daily in neighborhoods
with members of the Wage Com-
mission. Fundraising, through sale
of bonds and door to door collec-
tions, food distribution, and other
support activities were carried on
at the local and national levels.
The Church was particularly im-
portant, in providing meeting
places after the intervencao, and
Pre-strike metalworkers' rally, March 1979. Fernando Uchoa
43update * update . update * update
in taking consistent public posi-
tions in support of the metal-
workers. Cardinal Arns of the
Archdiocese of Sao Paolo, ac-
cused of inciting workers to strike,
replied that he was "simply offering
spiritual and material support to
enable the workers to make their
own decisions as free men, free of
repression and the pressure of
hunger on their families."
A joint statement by all major
opposition parties comdemned the
trade union law as the "perpetua-
tion of an unjust and wicked social
order concentrating power in the
hands of a privileged minority."
Government Intransigence
There is some evidence that
employers were willing to
negotiate to a far greater extent
than they did, but the government
would not allow it. Part of the
reason for government intran-
sigence is increasing foreign con-
cern with the size of Brazil's
foreign debt (estimated at $53-$57
billion, with current reserves at ap-
proximately $6.7 billion). The
government has had difficulties
obtaining the new committments it
needs to cover both obligations
coming due and the new pay-
ments deficit expected to accrue
this year. The strike itself has fur-
ther eroded foreign confidence
due to its probable effect on export
performance as well as its implica-
tions for the overall labor climate
in Brazil. Already, following the
1978 metalworkers strikes, the in-
ternational business press had
noted that the basis of the Bra-
zilian "miracle," i.e. the existence
of a submissive and apolitical
labor force, had been cut away.
The government had hoped to
control labor demands by decree-
ing an automatic cost-of-living ad-
justment on a graduated scale, with
lower paid workers receiving
slightly more than the inflation rate
and highly paid workers slightly
less. (Inflation is currently running
at 80% per year.) Wage increases
based on gains in productivity
were to be negotiated directly with
employers, but were to be limited
to 5%. By early April, however, it
was already clear that the govern-
ment was manipulating the official
cost-of-living index, when it came
out lower than the index in the ten
leading cities on which it was to be
based. In addition, the 5% limit on
productivity raises was proving im-
possible to sustain. (Textile
workers in Rio Grande do Sul had
received a 20% productivity in-
So the government decided to
make an example of the metal-
lurgical workers. When the com-
panies concluded that it would be
cheaper for them to settle than to
last out a long strike, the govern-
ment relaxed Bank of Brazil len-
ding restrictions for the affected
companies. The goal was clearly
"Steelyard Blues" in Spanish
CIDE (Centro de Investigacion y
Docencia Economicas) of Mexico
City has published NACLA's
Report on the crisis of the steel in-
dustry ("Steelyard Blues", Vol.
XIII, No. 1, January-February,
to enable the employers to resist
the workers' demands through
direct aid to the companies and
military repression of the unions.
But even this is not likely to be
enough. The degree of repression
which the regime had to employ to
break this strike and the wide-
spread support it commanded
show that there will be no easy
"abertura" in Brazil now. As one
young workers in Sao Bernardo do
Campo said, "People are con-
scious of the fact that they are not
just fighting for a raise. It is not on-
ly the factory and the labor courts
that are wrong-it's the whole
policy of this regime." New forms
of worker organization which en-
courage participation by many
more than the traditional leaders
will make it difficult to keep the
unions in check for long. The
issues are too clear, and the lines
are too clearly drawn.
-Mimi Keck is a graduate student
at Columbia University and a
free-lance translator.

Tags: Brazil, metalworkers strike, Lula, job security

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