The Brazilian state under Bolsonaro has become an international pariah for its destructive environmental policies. Bolsonaro himself has generated outrage with his ultra-conservative rhetoric towards women, minorities and the LGBT+ community. But his far-right government did not emerge from nowhere - it was facilitated by an attack on organised labour.
Brazil’s ‘New Unions’ emerged during the struggle against the military dictatorship, which ruled the country between 1964-1984. The main trade union federation, CUT, was an active participant in the transition to democracy, alongside the social democratic Workers’ Party (PT) that would later go on to govern Brazil from 2002-2016. PT leader Lula Da Silva was a metal worker and trade union leader himself, imprisoned during the dictatorship era for organising mass industrial action in his native São Paulo and across Brazil.
Brazilian unions have never restricted their work to pure ‘economism’, i.e. pay and conditions. Trade unionists in Brazil have placed themselves at the heart of democratic struggle, as well as the campaigns for racial, sexual and gender liberation. Bolsonaro’s attacks on labour rights must therefore be understood in terms of his agenda to roll back social progress for women, LGBT people and the Afro-Brazilian majority, progress which is upheld and defended by organised labour.
Bolsonaro recognises that, to bring about the most far-right government programme in the world today, Brazil’s unions must be weakened. A new TUC Report – The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil – shows how Bolsonaro has continued his predecessor’s attacks on labour standards and trade union rights.
Attacking trade unions: directly and indirectly
Bolsonaro’s direct assault on labour was the overnight ending of “checkoff.” Checkoff is the process trade unions collect membership dues directly from company payrolls, in agreement with the employer. Outlawing this practice without warning or support for transitioning to a new system has plunged unions into immediate financial crisis. It also created an organisational crisis, as trade unions effectively had to re-recruit their entire membership base.
Next, he dissolved the Ministry of Labour, which had a mandate to arbitrate industrial disputes, enforce the labour code and oversee the official legal registration of trade unions. The industrial relations functions of the Ministry were rolled up into the Ministry of Justice, signalling the state’s intent to criminalise union activity, while the duty to regulate the unions’ legal status, as well as oversee pensions and workplace safety, was delivered to the Ministry of Finance under neoliberal economist Paulo Guedes - who previously worked in Pinochet's Chile.
Bolsonaro is now trying to push through reforms to create a two-tier “green card and yellow card” system - to deregulate employment status and replace collective bargaining with an enforced system of individual negotiation.
His indirect assault on labour took the form of an attack on the welfare state, the defunding of state agencies tasked with promoting human rights and equalities and implementing high interest rates and austerity. This loosened labour markets, slackened the social safety net and forced workers into a state of precariousness - undermining workplace organisation.
Bolsonaro has attempted to create an atomised workforce almost overnight, imposing neoliberal reforms which have caused economic and social havoc all around the world in recent decades.
Turning the tide
Brazil’s unions have entered a crisis since the ascent of Jair Bolsonaro, but it is not a terminal crisis. The collectivist traditions which overthrew one dictatorship in living memory are still strong, and the unions maintain close relations with their fraternal party, the PT. The CUT has risen to the challenge of Bolsonarismo by positioning itself as a defender of all those sections of Brazilian society to which Bolsonaro and his government is hostile to.
However, if Bolsonaro’s politics have disgusted liberal attitudes the world over, his ‘strongman’ ultra-nationalism still enjoys enthusiastic grassroots support in Brazil. This support comes from big business, which benefits from his attacks on labour organisation, and from sections of the middle class, who experienced the socio-economic rise of Brazil’s working class under previous PT government as a diminution of their own status. Equally, international outrage at Bolsonaro’s vulgar antics rarely extends to a fundamental rejection of his far-right economic programme.
Despite this, Lula’s PT is racing past Bolsonaro in the polls ahead of next year’s general election, and Bolsonarismo may have reached the end of its road. However, Bolsonaro is already preparing the ground to contest the election result if it doesn’t go his way, questioning in advance the legitimacy of the polls. For this reason, the new TUC report recommends that the international community, including UK trade unions, respond to requests from the Brazilian unions for election observers to be sent to Brazil next year.
Every right-wing demagogue in history has struck out at the organised working class to clear the way for whatever horrors they have in store. The international labour movement must therefore fully support Brazilian workers at this crucial moment in their history.
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