Background on Brazil’s labour movement

After a long period of repression and co-optation under Brazil’s dictators (unions were rarely present in workplaces, and some merely served to provide welfare benefits), there emerged in the ’70 and ’80 an autonomous ‘new unionism’ or ‘novo sindicalismo’ how it is has been called in Brazil. When critically-minded unionists began to regroup after mass strikes by metalworkers around Sao Paulo in the 1970s, they were initially forced to do so in isolation from and in opposition to their former union leaders. But in 1983 they founded the CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores) and as they won more and more union elections, the CUT finally ceased to be merely an alliance of opposition groups and became a true trade union federation. By 2001, with over 19 million union members, Brazil had about the highest trade union density in Latin America. The career of Brazil’s current president since January 2003, Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, a co-founder of the CUT, the largest union confederation, is emblematic of trade union power. Yet that success has evoked mixed emotions.

For despite their potent presence in civil society and considerable achievements in promoting respect for the rights of workers, trade unions are falling short of their potentials. A pro-union Brazilian specialist has summed up the situation as follows:

It is possible to discern some of the main characteristics of the structure of trade unionism in Brazil. In first place, it lacks a centre, being fragmented and dispersed by a myriad local unions, for the most part with little force and scant bargaining capacity… In the second place, (it) is decentralized, with few forms of unified action (in spite of the setting up of union centrals beginning in 1983). In the third place, it lacks roots, by virtue of its not being inserted in work places and being a structure external to enterprises. Finally, the union structure is verticalised, with immense difficulties to link, in a wider horizontal perspective, the organisation (and resistance) across classes, as it remains tied to the waged sector. (Alves, 2000, p. 113-114)

The problems mentioned by Alves are inherited from the corporatist system described above, but are at the same time nourished by some of the unions and union leaders. For instance, there is still no freedom of association: all workers are divided into sectors by a government commission and only one local union can be registered for each location (factory, community, state) in each industry. The result is a massive fragmentation and decentralisation in which every union strongly holds on to its own status and power. A situation made worse by the guaranteed state funding-system. Voluntary contributions by members only represent a minor source of union revenue. Far more comes in the form of union dues, formerly called the union tax and payable by all workers covered by a union, including non-union members. Unions are thus not dependent on their members for their financial well-being.

This analysis might be overly pessimistic in light of recent developments. In 2004, for example, Brazil’s major confederation of bank sector workers, signed a national collective agreement with the country’s banking employers’ association, thus breaking with the past pattern bargaining within a sector on a localised basis. A large, seasoned organisation, the Union of Metalworkers of ABC, has pioneered new styles of unionism: financial autonomy from the state fiscal system, new forms of union democracy and solidarity with NGOs and social movements. Workers in the public sector have also taken initiative to break with non-transparent, verticalised unionism.

Unions in Brazil

Active work population 76,8 million
Union density 26% (19,96 million members)
Number of unions 15.963
Company unions 4.609
Worker unions 11.354
organised in one of the big federations ±4.300

Most important unions federations CUT, Força Sindical, SDS
Associated unions of CUT ±3.100
Membership of CUT 7,5 million
Number of workers represented by CUT ± 22 million

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Vida Viva in Brazil

Background on Brazil’s economy

…and the labour market

Background on stress, work and illness
…and gender
…in Brazil

Background on Brazil’s labour movement
… and industrial relations
… unions and health

Conclusion: unions, work and health

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