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The edge of democracy

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Attacks on trade unions and civil society in Brazil

Petra Costa’s brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy is a moving and personal look at the attacks on Brazil’s fledgling democracy.

A military dictatorship until 1985, Brazil made enormous economic and social progress (lifting 36 million people out of poverty) under the Lula and Dilma administrations between 2003-16.

But in 2016, Dilma was impeached in what the TUC described at the time as a “legislative coup” by right wingers.

A key part of civil society, trade unions in Brazil have also suffered successive attacks on their organisations.

Following Dilma’s impeachment, Michel Temer’s government approved a ‘Labour Reform’ (a roll-back of trade union rights) in 2017.

The so-called Reform was considered by the International Labour Organisation (the UN’s tripartite labour rights body) to breach Conventions 98 and 154 (conventions regarding collective bargaining, agreement and consultation).  

One particularly damaging provision of the Reform is destroying collective bargaining from the inside.

Now, collective bargaining means bargaining groups can end up with worse treatment than that given by the law, deterring unions from trying to negotiate better terms and conditions.

Between 2017 and 2018, collective bargaining coverage declined by 46 per cent.

Temer’s government was deeply unpopular, and Lula was planning to run for office again, polling ahead in the presidential race when he was arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges, disqualifying him from running.

This vacuum allowed far-right bigot Jair Bolsonaro to become president in 2018.

I would like once again to register how deeply touched I was with all mobilisations and declarations of solidarity organised by the international trade union movement and other social organisations in the United Kingdom and around the world - such as the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and its unions. I did not expect so much affection and solidarity. These gestures do not only reach me, but all of those who defend democracy and justice in Brazil and suffer the consequences of this struggle.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Bolsonaro has continued this lurch towards repression of trade unions, disbanding the country’s ministry of labour within days of taking office.

In March 2019, Bolsonaro’s administration ended automatic deduction of union subs without warning and with no assistance to unions to develop a different model, compromising unions’ financial independence.  

Bolsonaro’s administration has also attacked pension rights and access to retirement.

Bolsonaro exploits the degradation of people’s trust in democracy. When the world was shocked at pictures of 2019’s devastating Amazon fires, he made scarcely-credible accusations blaming NGOs.

Freedom of the press is also under threat with the recent indictment of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald’s news organisation The Intercept has published a series of revelations about Lula’s trial which have been highly embarrassing to the administration.  

Following the international #LulaLivre campaign, including from the trade union movement in the UK, Lula is now out of prison.

But we continue to call for the charges against him to be dropped, and for Brazil’s government to return to constructive dialogue with trade unions and other civil society organisations to deliver social and environmental justice.

It will take some years for Brazil to repair its damaged democratic institutions.

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