Brazil’s Labor Unions Prepare for War with Far-Right President Jair Bolsanaro

Bolsanaro has lowered the minimum wage, dismantled labor law enforcement and is threatening pension cuts.

Michael Fox March 19, 2019

Postal workers strike against privatization in São Paulo on Sept. 20, 2017. They won that round, but new President Jair Bolsonaro’s finance minister supports privatization. CRIS FAGA/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES

FLO­RI­ANÓPO­LIS, BRAZIL — On a gray after­noon in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, 60 local lead­ers from rough­ly 40 unions meet at the tan, sev­en-sto­ry head­quar­ters of the San­ta Cata­ri­na State Com­merce Work­ers Fed­er­a­tion to dis­cuss how to move for­ward under Brazil’s new, far-right pres­i­dent, Jair Bol­sonaro. They rep­re­sent met­al­work­ers, teach­ers and just about every­thing in between. Sim­i­lar meet­ings have been held around the country.

“We have to unite, or we will be carried away by a dictatorial government."

Since Bol­sonaro’s inau­gu­ra­tion Jan­u­ary 1, he has unleashed an assault on work­ers and unions. He low­ered the min­i­mum wage (despite infla­tion) and closed the country’s 88-year-old Min­istry of Labor. The sign was quick­ly tak­en down from the gov­ern­ment build­ing in Brasilia.

There is an excess of rights,” Bol­sonaro has said of labor.

At the Flo­ri­anópo­lis meet­ing, behind a long table hung with red, yel­low and white union ban­ners, Anna Julia Rodrigues, state pres­i­dent of the country’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion, CUT, calls for uni­ty. We have to unite, or we will be car­ried away by a dic­ta­to­r­i­al gov­ern­ment,” she says.

Ingrid Assis, an indige­nous labor leader with CSP-Con­lu­tas, a labor fed­er­a­tion that includes unions and grass­roots move­ments, takes the call for uni­ty to anoth­er lev­el. She chal­lenges those in the room not to for­get that the country’s indige­nous peo­ples — whose sov­er­eign­ty over their land is under attack by Bol­sonaro — are work­ers, too.

The union move­ment has to embrace this strug­gle,” says Assis.

Both speak­ers are greet­ed with applause. But will uni­ty be enough?

Michael Fox reports on Brazil­ian unions for the Real News Network

Today we are liv­ing in the worst moment for the work­ing class in recent his­to­ry in Brazil,” Rodri­go Brit­to, the pres­i­dent of the Brasil­ia branch of CUT, tells In These Times. We are return­ing to the 19th century.”

Work­ers have been fight­ing an uphill bat­tle since the 2016 impeach­ment of Work­ers’ Par­ty Pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rouss­eff, a move that many called a con­gres­sion­al coup.

In 2017, the con­ser­v­a­tive Con­gress passed a labor reform bill that gut­ted work­ers’ rights, end­ed manda­to­ry union con­tri­bu­tions, opened the door to out­sourc­ing and allowed boss­es to nego­ti­ate direct­ly with indi­vid­u­als, side-step­ping unions.

With Bolsonaro’s elec­tion, it got worse.

Bol­sonaro is a for­mer mil­i­tary cap­tain who promised to fight cor­rup­tion, vio­lence and Brazil’s Left. He vowed to put guns into people’s hands, end activism and elim­i­nate his polit­i­cal opponents.

You have to do away with unions in Brazil ‚” he told reporters.

Labor ana­lysts believe the clo­sure of the Min­istry of Labor is a move in that direc­tion. For­mer Labor Min­is­ter Manoel Dias called it a crime.”

The Finance Min­istry is now in charge of pen­sions, work­place over­sight, health and safe­ty, and guide­lines for work­ers’ salaries. Under the direc­tion of Bolsonaro’s finance min­is­ter, Paulo Guedes — one of the Chica­go Boys,” neolib­er­al Latin Amer­i­can econ­o­mists who stud­ied under Mil­ton Fried­man at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go — it’s hard to imag­ine the min­istry car­ry­ing out work­place inspections.

The reg­is­tra­tion of unions now falls under the juris­dic­tion of the Min­istry of Jus­tice, over­seen by Min­is­ter Sér­gio Moro, the for­mer judge who jailed ex-pres­i­dent Luiz Inacío Lula da Sil­va on con­tro­ver­sial evi­dence, block­ing him from run­ning against Bol­sonaro. In Jan­u­ary, Moro announced he would choose a Fed­er­al Police offi­cer to over­see union registration.

The crim­i­nal­iza­tion of the union move­ment begins ‚” Work­ers’ Par­ty pres­i­dent Gleisi Hoff­mann responded.

Hoff­mann and oth­ers fear Moro and his peo­ple may move to strip the reg­is­tra­tion of unions as a way to weak­en labor orga­niz­ing in the coun­try, and in the words of Bolsonaro’s philoso­pher-guru Ola­vo de Car­val­ho, break the legs” of the ene­mies of the government.

Their objec­tive is to silence those that are oppos­ing this pol­i­cy of pri­va­ti­za­tions that they are plan­ning,” Jose Maria Rangel, the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Oil Work­ers (FUP), told In These Times.


Short­ly after his inau­gu­ra­tion, Bol­sonaro announced plans for a first round of privatizations.

We will quick­ly attract ini­tial invest­ments worth rough­ly 7 bil­lion reals, with con­ces­sions for rail­roads, 12 air­ports and 4 ports,” Bol­sonaro wrote on Twit­ter.

His con­ser­v­a­tive pre­de­ces­sor Michel Temer — who came to pow­er in 2016, with the impeach­ment of for­mer pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rouss­eff — had already begun auc­tion­ing off state infra­struc­ture and the pri­vate rights for oil pro­duc­tion in Brazil’s mas­sive off-shore oil reserves, known as Pre-Salt.

But pri­va­ti­za­tions are expect­ed to take a much more promi­nent role under Bol­sonaro and finance min­is­ter Guedes.

In late Jan­u­ary, the new pri­va­ti­za­tion sec­re­tary, busi­ness­man Sal­im Mat­tar, announced plans to sell off $20 Bil­lion in state shares of pub­lic com­pa­nies, includ­ing Brazil’s state-oil giant Petro­bras. Petro­bras is South America’s largest oil com­pa­ny, pro­duc­ing rough­ly 2.6 mil­lion bar­rels of oil a day.

Petro­bras was at the cen­ter of the country’s mas­sive Lava Jato cor­rup­tion scan­dal. This has been used as an excuse to push for the sell-off of the company’s assets.

Dur­ing a talk in late Jan­u­ary, Mat­tar said that the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment is look­ing to auc­tion the major­i­ty of Petrobras’s 36 sub­sidiaries in less than four years.

The move would mean big mon­ey for Brazil now, but a loss of major gov­ern­ment assets, invest­ments, and prof­it, in the longterm. For oil work­ers it would be dis­as­trous, with poten­tial lay­offs, out­sourc­ing and loss of benefits.

We have to raise aware­ness in soci­ety about the impor­tance of state com­pa­nies,” says the FUP’s Rangel. We have to defend our rights. We have to try to stop the pri­va­ti­za­tion of busi­ness­es. We have to try and stop the pen­sion reform.”


Bol­sonaro and his allies in Con­gress are look­ing to slash pen­sion ben­e­fits and dras­ti­cal­ly increase the years of work required to earn them, in the name of staving off finan­cial disaster.

Unions across the coun­try have promised to do every­thing to stop them, includ­ing a gen­er­al strike, if nec­es­sary. Brazil’s unions car­ried out two gen­er­al strikes in 2017 against the pen­sion and labor reforms.

Bolsonaro’s allies don’t yet have the votes they need, but they have pow­er­ful forces on their side, such as the evan­gel­i­cal cau­cus.

Unions, how­ev­er, believe this is a fight work­ers can win.

On Feb­ru­ary 20, thou­sands ral­lied against the reform in São Paulo and 11 oth­er cities. Thou­sands more protest­ed again on March 8, Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, and anoth­er day of ral­lies is planned for March 22. Unions are lay­ing plans for more protests in the com­ing months: print­ing mate­ri­als, hand­ing out fly­ers and lock­ing in dates.

On top of Bolsonaro’s move to under­cut unions and work­ers’ rights, unem­ploy­ment in Brazil remains high, at just under 12 per­cent, dou­ble the rate just five years ago under the Work­ers’ Par­ty. Out­sourc­ing has made the job mar­ket more pre­car­i­ous. Infor­mal employ­ment and unem­ploy­ment are both expect­ed to rise.

This moment is real­ly intense,” Assis tells In These Times. We can’t trust Con­gress and its cor­rupt rep­re­sen­ta­tives. We have to con­struct alter­na­tives and these alter­na­tives have to come by the hands of the workers.”

Michael Fox is a free­lance reporter and video jour­nal­ist based in Brazil. He is the for­mer edi­tor of the NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as and the author of two books on Latin Amer­i­ca. He tweets at @mfox_us.
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