Brazil an Exception to Trade Union Crisis

Reply Thu 1 May, 2003 10:08 am
Brazil an Exception to Trade Union Crisis
Mario Osava - IPS - 5/1/03

The hard times that have befallen Latin American trade unions, dating to the early 1990s, have been aggravated in recent years by political factors in the region, but Brazil has proved a notable exception.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 30 (IPS) - The hard times that have befallen Latin American trade unions, dating to the early 1990s, have been aggravated in recent years by political factors in the region, but Brazil has proved a notable exception.

The long-lived labour unions of Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela entered into existential crises when their links to the ruling political parties that had backed them for decades began to disintegrate, in contrast to the situation of Brazilian unionists today.

But the close ties to the still new Brazilian government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for now has divided the country's largest union federation, CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores).

The leftist wing of the CUT opposes what it considers the Lula administration's orthodox neoliberal economic policy. Lula, a former metalworker and a CUT founder, was inaugurated to the presidency Jan 1.

But the arrival of a leftist to power is precisely an indication of the importance the Brazilian union movement has gained in the past two decades.

In addition to Lula, nine ministers and another 56 high-level officials in the executive branch also come from the union ranks, nearly all from CUT, according to 'O Estado de Sao Paulo' newspaper.

But this presence does not translate into increased union influence over the government nor a strengthening of the labour movement, which has been undermined for more than a decade by the application of neoliberal policies that affect the work environment, say experts.

High unemployment, a growing informal sector, new technologies "that replace workers and introduced without negotiations with the workers" and the lack of labour law reform weakened the union movement, says Joao Carlos Juruna Gonçalves, secretary general of Força Sindical, Brazil's second largest union federation.

The government's fiscal austerity also cuts into social investments, which in turn hurt union programmes to provide training and assistance to the unemployed, Juruna pointed out in a conversation with IPS.

Nevertheless, unions in Brazil are generally in a better situation than their counterparts in the rest of Latin America because "their structure withstood years of neoliberalism without deteriorating" and now their prospects are good, says Anselmo Luis dos Santos, a union and labour researcher at the University of Campinas, near Sao Paulo.

The "clear failure" of past neoliberal economic policies and the reforms the Lula government is now proposing -- which cover tax, social security and labour -- in addition to his controversial economic policy, demand a debate and a mobilisation that reactivates the union movement, Dos Santos told IPS.

Furthermore, the global situation, "with the imperialism and unilateralism" of the United States, has generated protests and social movements that expand the role and take up the historic banners of unionism, he said.

All of this compensates in part for the "erosion suffered in the material foundations" of unionism, in other words, the loss of jobs in the formal sector and the expansion of informal work, which took its toll on the movement in the 1990s, says Dos Santos.

Força Sindical, which is not linked to the Lula administration, hopes to give itself a boost Thursday, May 1, by promoting what it has dubbed "the biggest global commemoration" of International Labour Day.

The union confederation aims to draw 1.7 million people to a central Sao Paulo plaza, where there will be concerts and a lottery to give away five apartments and 10 cars -- in addition to the speeches by Força Sindical leaders.

"It is something we learned from other countries, like Italy and France," which have seen similar crowds for May Day events in recent years, said Juruna.

The mainstream CUT, meanwhile, decided to decentralise the events planned for May 1, so there will be nine rallies in different districts and cities of the Greater Sao Paulo area.

CUT's leftist sector, which rejects Lula's economic platform, is organising a separate event in Sao Paulo.

Despite these divisions, the upward dynamic of Brazilian unionism stands in contrast to the struggles of other major Latin American unions, historically allied with parties that held power in their respective countries for extended periods.

Such is the case of the Workers' Confederation of Venezuela (CTV), which last year challenged President Hugo Chávez with labour strikes and supported Fedecámaras, the largest business association, in efforts to oust him after his administration sponsored a referendum to impose direct elections within the unions for the first time.

"There was not a renunciation of the class struggle in the CTV's alliance with Fedecámaras but there was agreement for strictly political ends," explains León Arismendi, professor of labour law at the Central University of Caracas.

"It was a question of survival. If the labour movement had not stood up to Chávez, he would have destroyed it," Arismendi said in comments to IPS.

The CTV, the main trade union and controlled by the social-democrat Democratic Action that ruled Venezuela in several government and is now in the opposition, is suffering the stress of continued confrontation with Chávez, who is encouraging the creation of the National Union of Workers.

"The new union will be short-lived, it will die at birth" like all organisations "that emerge under the protection of the main boss and are subsidised," commented Alfredo Ramos, a CTV leader.

In Argentina, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), a long-time ally of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, divided into two parts with similar scope of influence. Both fell into disgrace, alongside the country's political leaders, during the profound crisis that hit its worst point in late 2001.

One reaction to that rupture was the creation of the Argentine Workers' Central (CTA), made up primarily of teachers unions and other state employee s.

The CTA is working to integrate actions with several associations of "unemployed workers" that emerged during Argentina's economic debacle in the last 1990s with the aim of building an equivalent to the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), which carried Lula to the presidency.

The Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), meanwhile, is experiencing an upheaval following a much longer history. It was married 65 years to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed the country for 71 years until Vicente Fox won the 2000 presidential elections.

Fox, who in his electoral campaign had promised to fight the corruption and privileges associated with the unions linked to the PRI, has opted not to rock the boat in an effort to maintain political stability.

The CTM, in turn, did not follow through with its threat to stage a general strike, which ironically would have been the first in its long history.

Beyond these specific crises, trade unions in Latin America face unfavourable structural conditions, with an informal economy that absorbs around half of the labour force region-wide.

In Brazil, with a population of 170 million, there were just 27.2 million formal salaried workers -- a third of the economically active population -- in late 2001, according to figures from the Labour Ministry.

Of the 11.8 million-strong labour force in Venezuela, 52.3 percent were employed in the informal market in 2002.

Unemployment is a persistent problem, reaching 17.5 percent in Argentina, 12.1 percent in Brazil and 15.7 percent in Venezuela, according to official figures.
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Reply Thu 1 May, 2003 10:27 pm
Interesting link, BBB.

Historically, a majority of labor unions in most of Latin America have been close to corporativist non-democratic populist parties: PRI in Mexico, Peronism in Argentina, Adecos in Venezuela. So they have linked their fate to the party they were integrated to.

The PRI is out of power. AD is almost nonexistant. Peronism will be in power, but is throughly divided.
Brazil is an exception here. President Lula's political career started in the trade unions. No wonder they feel strong now. Let's see if it doesn't turn out to be a new kind of populist corporativism. Let's hope not.
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