For the rebirth of the Fourth International! - Pelo renascimento da Quarta Internacional!

HomeLinksPortuguêsFrançaisEspañol PublicationsHistoric DocumentsContact

Round Three: 400,000 Metal Workers Struck

Labor Shakes Generals' Brazil



[First printed in Workers Vanguard #256, 16, May 1980]


What was potentially the most explosive strike in a decade and a half of military rule in Brazil was broken April 12 as tens of thousands of metal workers in the Sao Paulo region returned to work. Their leaders are still in jail and 40,000 face loss of their jobs after 41 days on strike against "multinational" giants such as Ford, Chrysler, Volkswagen and Volvo. The battle began April I when 400,000 walked out in the most industrialized state in the country demanding a 15 percent wage hike. Seeing the danger to the generals' rule it was the third round in as many years of mass strikes against the dictatorship - from the beginning the military responded with a heavy hand: helicopters buzzing strike meetings, armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets, strike leaders arrested. And the police repression took its toll: first the outlying sections of the state went back, then one by one the industrial suburbs of Sao Paulo, finally leaving the metal workers' fortress of Sao Bernardo isolated.


The threat to the authoritarian regime of Joao Figueiredo was evident: the fall of Portuguese strongman Caetano in 1975 and the subsequent working-class radicalization in Lisbon are still fresh in everyone's mind. So even before workers downed their tools, divisions arose in the Brazilian ruling class on how to handle this strike. Though metal workers were scheduled to receive only a 1.9 percent increase under government wage policy, the employers offered 5 percent off the bat and a regional labor arbitration board ordered 7 percent. The board also refused to declare the strike illegal. But on April 19 police raided the homes of union leaders and arrested Luis Inacio da Silva; the country's foremost labor leader, as well as 16 others. Two thousand demonstrators gathered to protest the arrest of da Silva, popularly known as "Lula," and were clubbed to the ground by army troops in riot gear.


This brutality did not break the strikers' will- 40,000 gathered in the soccer stadium to proclaim that the struggle would go forward: "No one works until Lula is free!" they chanted. On May Day, after a month on strike, thousands of workers defied a government ban to hold a march beginning at Sao Bernardo's main church. And on May 5, when they again voted to continue the walkout, police violently attacked, leaving 53 strikers wounded. When the stadiums were cordoned off to prevent strike meetings, Sao Paulo's archbishop Arns announced that the churches would be available for union rallies. Thereupon President Figueiredo charged the paulista cardinal with inciting the strike. When the bishops issued a call for a new "social pact," Figueiredo declared the episcopal conference no longer authorized to speak for the Brazilian church. As for business interests, a vice president of Ford Motor Co. told the press that the dispute could be easily settled if the government would only stay out of it.


Sympathy for the strike extended far beyond the working class. Brazil's fabled "economic miracle" is clearly over, and the disenchantment has spread to the middle classes and sectors of the bourgeoisie. For more than a decade the military dictatorship maintained itself in power by brutally repressing the workers and guaranteeing superprofits to the capitalists. As economic difficulties deepened, the regime tried to avoid an explosion by a series of political pseudo-reforms and by curbing the feared "esquadras da muerte" (death squads). But appeasement hasn't worked. For the last three years the country has erupted again and again in broad strike waves in direct defiance of the government. Brazil's several million-strong proletariat is seething and is likely to produce in the near future a labor revolt of vast proportions which will shake the continent. What it lacks is a revolutionary leadership that can transform the fight to bring down the dictatorship into a struggle against the capitalist order.


"EconomIc Miracle" Goes Up In Smoke


The present regime originated in the overthrow of President Joao Goulart on 1 April 1964 and the installation of a U.S.-backed military junta. The "March Revolution" took place with American naval and air force units standing by if needed, and was supported by virtually the entire Brazilian bourgeoisie. It was supposed to save the country from communism, corruption and 81 percent inflation. At first the new regime aimed at dismantling state controls and protectionist legislation inherited from 30 years of populist governments. This was the first application by a Latin American dictatorship of the right-wing economic policies of the "Chicago School" which later became notorious as advisers for Pinochet's program of mass starvation in Chile. Brazilian planning minister Roberto Campos was so pro-American that he was derisively referred to as "Bob Fields." But economic growth in 1964-67 was barely more than in the crisis years under Goulart when businessmen were carrying out an investment boycott.


Then in the next decade Brazil's economy suddenly "took off" at a rate that surpassed that of every other "underdeveloped" capitalist country except those based on oil. From 1968 to 1977 the Brazilian gross national product, adjusted for inflation, grew steadily by 10 percent a year. This was supposed to be the "free world's" sterling success story, confirming imperialist bourgeois economists' theories from CIA Keynesian W.W. Rostow to the generals' monetarist Milton Friedman. But the economics of the Brazil "miracle" were far from untrammeled "free enterprise" - Finance Minister Delfim Neto's policies were more accurately described as military technocratic state control. And the main source of financing for the boom was a massive influx of imperialist investment, increasing by 25 percent a year since 1970. Consequently "multinational" corporations not only totally control the auto and pharmaceutical industries but also dominate traditional sectors of Brazilian capital such as textiles, beverages and machinery (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1979).


The fundamental basis of the business boom was super-exploitation of a working class prevented from defending itself by the soldiers' bayonets. From 1964 to 1974, real wages fell by 30 percent, a drastic cut in living standards. Today the legal minimum wage purchases only half what it did in 1959; and while the share of income of the poorest 50 percent of the population fell from 18 to 12 percent during 1960-77, the richest 5 percent increased its slice from 28 to 39 percent (Economist, 4 August 1979). But the capitalist economy can go only so far through continual immiseration of the working class. The soaring population of the favelas (shantytowns) provides a reservoir of cheap labor but not much of an internal market. And even though finance wizard Delfim Neto has now been brought back, inflation in the last 12 months has risen to 83 percent, exceeding the worst year under Goulart. As a result sectors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie are demanding fundamental changes in economic policy, and some would not greatly mind if the metal workers actually win their strike.


Labor Revolt


Driving down real wages after the 1964 coup was accomplished by heavy suppression of the union movement already tied hand-and-foot to the state through the paternalist structure established by Getulio Vargas' Estado Novo (New State) in the 1940s. Modeled on Mussolini's "Labor Charter," the vertical syndicates had no right to strike or to collective bargaining; all disputes were submitted to government labor tribunals. As under the similar Peronist regime in Argentina, leftists were ruthlessly purged from the unions and replaced by government henchmen (pelegos). The unions were financed by a compulsory dues checkoff kept in state coffers, and their officers paid directly by the labor ministry; the government had the right to disband any labor organization or remove its leaders without redress. Crowning this corporatist structure was Vargas' Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) to politically tie the workers to the populist regime.


After the initial crackdown following the 1964 coup the military soon had the unions in hand by placing their own pelegos in the top spots. The generals also added new legal aids to management, such as the practice of rotatividade ("labor turnover") whereby a company could dismiss its entire workforce by pleading economic difficulties and replace it with new labor at lower wages. Leaderless, stripped of all rights and starving, the Brazilian working class managed to survive these early years only by working 60-70 hours a week and sending women and children into the factories. But the rapid industrialization has produced a result that is potentially lethal for the dictatorship: a burgeoning proletariat. And the greatest growth has been in new mass production industries such as auto, where the workforce is not cowed by a long tradition of government tutelage. Thus in the last decade a loose movement has come together known collectively as the oposicao sindical (OS trade-union opposition), led by a new layer of militants opposed to the grip of the pelegos on the unions.


The OS has been centered on metal workers in the Sao Paulo regime, particularly the so-called ABC industrial belt (the suburbs of Santo Andre, Sao Bernardo and Sao Caetano), and this combative sector is where the series of powerful strikes has exploded recently. The first wave took place in late 1977, after student protests had broken out in nearly every major Brazilian city earlier in the year (see "Student Struggles Engulf Brazil," Young Spartacus No. 56, July/August 1977). The metal workers were demanding a 34 percent wage increase, and by early 1978 tens of thousands' were on strike in Sao Paulo and the ABC, South America's largest industrial center. The government was unable to suppress the auto workers, and as late as August of that year fresh strikes were occurring at a rate of three per day.


Fearing the consequences of a wholesale crackdown against students, strikers and bourgeois liberals, then president Ernesto Geisel inaugurated a series of paper reforms in his last months in office. But this only whetted the workers' appetites, and when Figueiredo was inaugurated in April 1979 he was immediately faced with a strike by 215,000 metal workers demanding a 70 percent wage increase. The nine-day old administration called in the police to seize union headquarters so government officials could oust union leaders, particularly Lula, who had gained national prominence as the head of the 1977-78 strikes. However, when the regime reached an "agreement" with its pelegos, it was torn up by militant strike leader Bendito Marchio, president of the Santo Andre metal workers union. The government did manage to impose a 4 day "cooling-off" period, and on May 12 the government was able to negotiate a "compromise agreement." The metal workers didn't win their wage demands; however, the government announced that Lula and other union leaders were reinstated.


Figueiredo's flunkies crowed that "social peace" had been reestablished in the ABC, but this was only a lull in the biggest strike wave since the 1964 military coup. Two days later 200,000 public employees and teachers in Sao Paulo state walked off their jobs, and as strikers became increasingly militant, the army and military police retreated to the barracks. In mid-July the government proposed a new wage policy of moderate quarterly wage increases, but the workers didn't buy it. A few days later construction workers in Belo Horizonte voted to strike immediately for a 110 percent wage increase. Under Lula's leadership, the construction workers won a victory August 3 when the labor tribunal doubled the minimum wage even though the strike had been declared illegal. Strikes mushroomed all over Brazil. Truck drivers set up roadblocks in some regions, and on October 16 one hundred people were injured in clashes between security guards and construction workers in the steel center of Volta Redonda.


While the American and European media have played down the recurring strikes in Brazil, the business press is increasingly concerned. Business Week (17 March) summarized: "In 1979, Brazilian unions mounted nearly 300 strikes, a fundamental social change in a country where 15 years of government repression of workers and unions had made work stoppages a rarity.... For the first time since the military revolution of 1964, corporations operating in Brazil must learn to live with officially sanctioned collective bargaining - but the resulting strains on Brazil's economy could bring a revival of the repressive measures." And the Economist (26 April) asked, "Can They Shut Lula Up?":


"Power in Brazil still remains firmly centralised in the government's hands. But an attempt to destroy Lula ... could backfire. With little or no ideology to back them up, successive army-led governments have relied on economic progress to seduce the middle and working classes. Now, as inflation bites deeper and unemployment grows, a bid to punish a very popular man could work out badly."


"Abertura"-Face-Lift for the Dictatorship


The imperialist press tries to present the unraveling of Brazil's military dictatorship as a plan by the country's rulers to "open" the regime to civilian influence. Business Week writes: "In a surprising turnabout, Brazil's leaders are releasing some of the restraints on organized labor as a necessary step in their effort to establish a political democracy [!]. ... The political liberalization process -called abertura - is a concomitant of economic reforms that are being undertaken to make Brazil a modern industrial nation."


Talk of abertura by the military dictatorship is nothing but sucker bait for gullible liberals, and hardly qualifies presidents Figueiredo and Geisel as "democracy-leaning officers," as the Economist would have it. It has been going on since the late '60s when the government allowed the formation of two "parties," the pro-regime ARENA (National Renovating Alliance) and the kept "opposition" MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement). Meanwhile, under Institutional Act No.5 decreed in 1968, the president was permitted to suspend Congress at will, issue new laws, dismiss officials and suspend anyone's political rights for ten years. Newspapers were censored and banned; government critics were imprisoned and exiled; leftists were beaten, tortured, murdered. An urban guerrilla movement which arose in the late '60s was broken up by the army using the most brutal terror methods available.


Proposals for extensive "liberalization" really only began with the student and labor agitation of 1977-78. In June 1978 Geisel announced a reform package including abolition of Institutional Act No.5, of the death penalty, life imprisonment and political banishment. As he was preparing to leave office the next March Geisel declared an end to political imprisonment, torture, censorship and the president's absolute power over Congress and the courts. (Of course, he could still do all of the above by simply declaring a state of emergency.) His successor Figueiredo was the former chief of the secret service who had engineered the notorious death squads. One of Figueiredo's more famous sayings was that "I prefer the smell of horses to the smell of the people." But by Brazilian army standards he qualified as a "dove." In addition to treating the 1979 strike wave gingerly, Figueiredo declared a general amnesty for political exiles (hoping that this might disrupt the loose opposition coalition around the MDB). All but 200 political prisoners were released and 5,000 exiles were expected to return.


The amnesty ploy didn't work. The battle horses of 15 years ago awakened little enthusiasm in the Brazilian masses, and certainly they were of no use in derailing the strike movements. Former PTB leader Leonel Brizola, the millionaire rancher and populist governor of Rio Grande do Sul state who had distributed arms to the population to quell an army uprising against Goulart in 1961, arrived in September virtually unnoticed. While Brizola hinted at conciliation with the government, another populist leader, Miguel Arraes (former governor of Pernambuco), had made a name as a critic of the regime and drew a crowd of 60,000 on his return. However, he called on the opposition to remain united around the MDB at a time when even the middle classes were fed up with phony oppositionists who had played by the junta's rules, doing nothing to threaten the generals' rule even though they had twice won its fraudulent elections. There was an aura of expectation around the return of the Communist Party (PCB) leader, 81-year-old Luiz Carlos Prestes, but the Moscow-line PCB called for maintaining the "unity of the MDB "the regime's safety valve!


The Labor Party Movement


Meanwhile, the Communist Party is in the process of splitting. After PCB leaders returned from Europe, a "Eurocommunist" wing led by Jose Salles (who had been exiled in France) took command and on several occasions publicly disavowed statements to the press by general secretary Prestes, finally declaring he was no longer authorized to speak for the party. Salles gained notoriety by calling for a "constituent assembly with Joao [Figueiredo]" - going along with the government's plans for yet another phony legislative cover to military rule. But with the Brazilian working class ever more directly challenging the regime, Prestes responded at the beginning of April in a "Letter to the Communists" declaring PCB policy "out of touch with the realities of the workers and people's movement today" (O Trabalho, 8-14 April). Prestes denounced the present party leadership as opportunist, careerist and unprincipled.


The present situation in Brazil recalls similar moments in the decomposition phase of bonapartist regimes from Portugal to Peru. The local CP works out a modus vivendi with the dictatorship (as in Batista's Cuba) and as it comes apart the Stalinists find themselves outflanked on the left by sizable sectors of the workers movement. In Peru this led to a split in the party in 1978 as CP labor leaders sought to break from the Morales Bermudezjunta and its increasingly hated austerity policies. In Portugal during the last years of the Caetano / Salazar regime the CP worked only in the vertical syndicates, so that it was bypassed in 1974-75 by the combative "workers commissions" which had sprung up in the Lisbon industrial belt. In Brazil also the PCB has refused to work outside the corporatist unions, and in the mass metal workers strikes they have sided with pro-government pelegos against the dominant oposicao sindical.


Meanwhile the strike movement has been accompanied by a burgeoning movement to form a labor party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) led by Lula and other OS activists. In launching the PT last January, Jose Ibrahim, leader of the 1978 metal workers strike, said that it would be "a party of the workers, not a party for the workers." With the Stalinists still trying to tie the workers to the carcass of the MDB (now called the "PMDB") and the heirs of the Vargas tradition vainly trying to resuscitate their phony "Brazilian Labor Party," the apparently enthusiastic response to the labor party movement among the combative unions indicates a welcome break from decades of corporatist populism. But what is the political orientation of the new PT? Does it put forward a program capable of mobilizing the working class to successfully wage the revolutionary struggles facing it? What is its policy toward the dictatorship?


The new party's inaugural manifesto talks only of "a more profound democracy," "social and economic equality," and a "free multiparty regime." It doesn't even call for "Down with the dictatorship"!The document concludes, "The PT intends to arrive in the government and at the head of the state in order to carry out a democratic policy" (Movimiento, 14-20 January). At best this is a right-wing brand of social democracy, a rather insipid brew especially for Brazilian conditions. It expresses the fact that the mass strike movement and the nascent PT are led by a group of syndicalist militants with limited political perspectives. (As recently as last June at a meeting of opposition forces Lula had opposed the formation of a workers party.) Their views approximate the Russian "Economists" at the turn of the century, who only wanted to "lend the economic struggle a political character."


But despite the reformist perspectives of the PT leaders, in the context of the present working-class turmoil in Brazil a broad labor party movement could escape their control and assume explosive proportions. Already, some of the bureaucrats originally associated with the PT project have been pushed out (On the other hand, a number of former MDB legislators have hitched their carts to the rising PT star.) What, then, should be the attitude of proletarian revolutionaries toward such a contradictory labor party movement? The Stalinists, of course, from the pro-Moscow PCB to the pro-Albanian PCdoB and various smaller groups, have simply turned a cold shoulder, since their goal is some kind of popular front alliance with capitalist forces.


Among ostensible Trotskyists, who claim to stand for working-class independence from the bourgeoisie, the response has been varied. The Convergencia Socialista, a group associated internationally with Nahuel Moreno's Bolshevik Faction, appears more interested in tailing after the populist holdovers. When Miguel Arraes landed in Recife, they were there with a banner reading, "The People Are With Arraes" - this for the man who led the repression against the radical peasant leagues of 1963-64 (remember Juliao?)! The Organizacao Socialista Internacionalista (OSI), tied internationally to Pierre Lambert's French OCI, is promoting a left-social-democratic policy of pressuring the Lula/Ibrahim leadership of the PT. During the metal workers strike they simply called on the PT to "assume its place" in the leadership.


But the core of the OSl's policy is its call for "Down with the dictatorship! For a constituent assembly!" Not once in recent issues of the paper O Trabalho, close to the OSI, do they call for a workers and peasants government. Their program is unambiguously stagist: bourgeois democracy now - it's too early for socialism. This places the OSI only marginally to the left of the PT leadership itself and certainly doesn't prepare the militant sectors of the Brazilian working class for the tasks ahead. A genuine Trotskyist leadership would have called from the very beginning of the metal workers' struggle for concretely preparing a general strike; the OSI raised this only after four weeks, and then in the vaguest terms. And while calling for a revolutionary constituent assembly as part of their program for sweeping away the murderous dictatorship, Bolsheviks would warn that unless a workers and peasants government is established, resting not on bourgeois parliamentarianism but organs of proletarian power, what faces Brazilian workers is the prospect of "democratic counterrevolution."


The cycle of militant strikes and the labor party movement point to an early demise for the generals' rule. Compared to other recent upsurges in marginal sectors of Latin America (Nicaragua, EI Salvador), the coming battle in Brazil will be labor-centered - in a country of 120 million, with the largest industrial proletariat in the backward capitalist countries. The revolutionary possibilities are manifest and the need for a Trotskyist party to lead the struggle could not be clearer. This will be built not by watering down the communist program to the syndicalist/social-democratic consciousness of the present leaders, but by fighting for the full Transitional Program and for the rebirth of the Fourth International


Correction: The article "Labor Shakes Generals' Brazil" refers to the Brazilian industrial proletariat as the largest in the backward capitalist countries; however. India, at least. exceeds Brazil on this score. [Correction first printed in Workers Vanguard #258, 13 June, 1980]