Brazil: Right-wing government hits workers, workers hit back
In this May 3, 2018 photo, the Brasilia Teimosa slum that was reformed, improved and urbanized under an initiative of Brazil's former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Social programs and strong economic growth under da Silva helped change the daily reality for millions. AP | Eraldo Peres

In Brazil, the far-right-wing government of President Michel Temer had a victory over the country’s workers and unions last week, but the fighting spirit of the Brazilian working class seems to be undaunted. Brazil has national elections on October 7 of this year, with a runoff on October 28 if necessary to decide the presidency. The current government is extremely unpopular and there are a huge number of parties contending the presidential elections. The degree to which worker and popular discontent can be translated into electoral victories for the left is now the big question.

Last year, Temer’s allies in Congress passed a series of devastating measures aimed at completely trashing workers’ rights on the job. However, in contention last week was not the whole package, but a specific reform having to do with employers’ obligation to deduct union dues from workers’ pay. In short, the government wants to drop that practice, which would force unions to talk to their members one by one to persuade them to pay their dues. In a situation in which the government is doing its best to make it impossible for unions to defend the interests of their members, this is a major blow to union financing. The National Conference of Water Transport, Air Transport, Fishing and Port Workers (Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Transporte Acuaviário e Aéreo, na Pesca e Nos Portos) had challenged the constitutionality of this aspect, but on June 29, the Supreme Court, in a split decision, (six to three) let the policy stand. The effect is that employers are no longer required to deduct union dues and forward them to the unions. The impact could be similar to last week’s decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Janus decision.

Brazilian unions, other grassroots organizations and the left quickly denounced this decision as destructive to the interests of the workers. The left-led CTB (Central dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras do Brasil) blasted the decision, saying that the ending of obligatory union dues deductions is “one more capitalist blow against the union movement, guided by the objective of weakening, and, if possible, making invisible and destroying, working class organizations to make possible an agenda of restoring the neo liberal agenda which involves lowering wages, reducing rights, and making relations of production more precarious.” The CTB and other labor and people’s organizations have vowed to fight on, including in the electoral arena and on the streets.

Will the Brazilian working class be up to the challenge? The signs are positive. Recently there was a massive and militant response of transport workers to the new policy of the state oil company, Petrobras, of letting diesel prices float upward. This was immediately followed by strike action by petroleum workers; the two things in combination led to the resignation of Petrobras head Pedro Parente. Labor and the left see the government’s agenda as focused on the privatization of the Pre-Sal, Brazil’s enormous offshore oil deposits, and are determined to block such a move.

Now the privatization of the country’s electrical system is on the government’s agenda, and working class and labor opposition is also mounting.

By far the most popular candidate for the presidential elections in October is ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT). However, he is currently imprisoned after a farcical “trial without evidence” on the basis of dubious charges of corruption. The left is still demanding his exoneration and release but has put forth several candidates of its own in the meanwhile, including Manuela D’Avila of the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil). However Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme rightist who openly praises the country’s military dictatorship which ruled with an iron hand from 1964 to 1985, also has a strong showing in the polls. A Bolsonaro win would be very bad not only for workers and unions, but for women, LGBT people, the poor, indigenous and Afro-Brazilians and the environment. This won’t be a dull electoral season; as in the United States this year, absolutely everything is at stake.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.