Brazil: A Tradition of “State Unionism”

In order to understand the current developments in union organization in Brazil, it is necessary to look back at history.

The “Vargist” Model

The trade union movement has its origins during the government of Getulio Vargas (the middle of last century). This model of labour organization is very similar to that of Peronism in Argentina: there is a single union within each industry, union dues are compulsory, labour laws allow the state to intervene in labour organization, and rank-and-file organization such as workplace committees and/or bodies of delegates is absent.

In other words, the structure of “state unionism” assures the subordination of workers to the state. Its objective base is the legal requirement that unions be recognized as official entities by the state. To this foundation — which we call union investiture — we can add the following elements that make up its structure:

1)    Exclusive union jurisdiction: the state recognizes and gives a single union the representation of workers in the form of a monopoly enforced by law, an issue which is permitted since Brazil has not signed the ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association;
2)    The state is responsible for union activity, such as the handling of grievances, particularly the labour courts;
3)    Compulsory union dues [paid by all formally employed wage-earners, whether or not they are unionized, and remitted to the unions by the state – ed.]
4)    Lack of grassroots organization in the workplace.

In short, the union is an association whose structural and material resources are “granted” by the state and enforced by law, a vision that is consistent with a legalistic ideology that encourages the “fetishism of the role of the state as mediator.” The union becomes an organization associated with the state and divorced from workers-in its essential features-a situation that continues to this day.[1]

The Union Scene in Brazil Today

Over time, the Brazilian trade union bureaucracy that was identified with this “model” — and was in open complicity with the military dictatorship inaugurated in 1964 — ended up being questioned.

As a result of the surge of worker mobilization in 1978, the old guard, popularly dubbed “pelegos,” was overcome. This left wing upsurge was led by militant workers who organized mass strikes bypassing the traditional union structures.[2] But a sector of the same old union officialdom nonetheless situated itself at the head of this process, the epitome of which was Lula da Silva, a former leader of the metal workers who eventually ended up becoming the president of Brazil.

This mobilization culminated in the formation of two entities which — in spite of the fact that they were linked from the very beginning to the hegemonic bureaucratic-reformist trade unionism associated with the Catholic Church (of which Lula was part) — had a progressive moment: the PT (Worker’s Party) and the CUT (the Unified Workers’ Central).

Nonetheless, already by the mid-1980s and even more by the 1990s, both organizations had fully capitulated to the capitalist state and capitalist democracy.

Since 2003, the Lula government has governed Brazil, implementing almost pure and undiluted neo-liberal capitalist policies,[3] at the same time that the PT has morphed into a purely capitalist party.

To demonstrate to the capitalists the capitalist character of his government, Lula inaugurated his first term by launching an attack on the pension regime of federal government employees. This attack resulted in a rupture of part of the trade union movement — especially state workers — which moved to the left at the political and trade union level.

It was the emergence of this vanguard sector, politically diverse (and mostly reformist) that led to the emergence at the political level of PSOL [the Party of Socialism and Freedom, formed in 2004 after the expulsion of several leading members of the radical wing of the PT – ed.] (and the “consolidation” of PSTU [the United Socialist Workers’ Party, formed by a Trotskyist group expelled from the PT in the early 1990s – ed.]) , and at the trade union level to the founding of two new labour associations, CONLUTAS and INTERSINDICAL.

The history of these two recently-created union bodies to the left of the CUT and FS (Union Force, the union central which brings together the old bureaucracy and unions with enormous influence, such as the metal workers of Sao Paolo), is as follows.

CONLUTAS was created six years ago at the initiative of the PSTU, which brought together sectors that had left the CUT on the basis of the latter’s complete submission to the state and the Lula government. The basic idea was that it was necessary to create a new organization because it was no longer possible to fight the union bureaucracy within the CUT. Here, the central point is that a trade union congress as a “superstructure” is different from the trade unions as such.[4] It is one thing to create “red unions” which have just a few members… but to try to regroup trade unions in a different congress, in as far as it is nothing but a “superstructure”, is another.

For its part, the INTERSINDICAL brings together, not to make too fine a point, the trade union work of the PSOL. This sector was initially against leaving the CUT, but ended up doing so later. This is why the idea of the unification of the two bodies has always been present. In itself, this is a legitimate and progressive concern, although there is no way that such a merger can solve, a priori, the problems facing Brazilian workers.

Potential and Problems of the Working-Class Movement

To explain more clearly what we are saying here about the trade union structure in Brazil, there is an even more graphic illustration of aforementioned developments. The Brazilian working class has enormous potential. There are millions and millions of salaried workers. Despite the relative de-industrialization of the 1990s and the “re-primarization” of the economy [this refers to the resurgence of the “primary sector” made up of mining, forestry and other extractive industries – ed.], there exist — to name but one example — auto plants that employ 15 000 to 20 000 workers!

Nonetheless, this working class has been divided — albeit unevenly — between a core of permanent employees and workers in precarious employment.

Lula’s anti-labour reform has deepened this is a division. On the basis of the 1988 Constitution, Lula’s government partially preserved with slight reforms, the old statist trade union structure. Now, it is trying to impose a “twist” on the conservative model of trade unions to preserve the monopoly of the CUT and FS, and establish, among other points, that only the recognized union centrals can create new unions were none exist, this is to say, a process from the top-down and not from the bottom-up as it should be.[5]

But to the above we have to add another dramatic problem: a large part of the working class is still illiterate. If we add to this problem the lack of grassroots organizations (in Brazil, they say that union organization “stops at the factory door”), and of massive assemblies (which also often need to be held outside of the workplace), we get a sense of the divisions that exist among workers. At the same time, there is a minority of skilled (literate) workers who are most often the members of the vanguard and occupy positions of leadership. Many of these comrades refer to their own base as “peons.”

Rank-and-File Organization

If we are to overcome the historic defects of the Brazilian left the strategy has to be the application of a systematic strategy to develop rank-and-file worker organization. This will be an essential component in a really profound process of recomposition of the working class and will create different material bases from which to struggle against the adaptation of trade unions to the state, to corporatism and economism.

This article, dated June 11, 2010, first appeared on the Socialismo o Barbarie site. Subtitles modified by NS Webzine. Translation by Susan Spronk and Virginia de la Siega.


1. Elements taken from A. Boito Jr., El sindicalismo de Estado en el Brasil, Thesis, CONCLAT.
2. This occurred because they did not follow the traditional timing of joint negotiations  and there were simultaneous strikes in the cities of Sao Paolo and the ABC (greater Sao Paolo). In the heat of the struggle, they demanded the immediate creation of a workers’ federation, but it was not achieved.
3. The distinctive characteristic of policies such as the Family Allowance, which provides certain “privileges” to certain sectors of employed workers, is the administration of poverty. They have a profound impact in the northeast of the country [where dire poverty is very widespread – ed.].
4. In this respect there are certain tendencies within the “left” that maintain that the fact that some unions remained within the CUT proves that they are “right-wing.” It must be considered, however, that just because some unions decided not to leave the CUT does not mean that one should not be active within them. Such a strategy would reflect an ultra-leftism of the worst kind that would leave the rank-and-file at the mercy of the new and old pelegos of the CUT and the FS. Similarly, CONLUTAS (and the INTERSINDICAL) cannot fail to take into account the rank-and-file of these bureaucratic entities.
5. Data from Cuaderno de Tesis del CONCLAT, pages 11, 12 and 13.