Monday Apr 15

SPECIAL REPORT: Union Strong in Brazil

Organizing Forum International Dialogue in Salvador & Recife, Brazil

In September of this year the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center (LNRTC) returned to Brazil to celebrate its 20th anniversary, albeit “covid delayed” by a year or two! Two decades ago, the LNRTC broke ground with an inaugural organizing dialogue in Brazil. This time around we had stops in the northern cities of Salvador and Recife. This was an exceptional dialogue which saw some superb discussion with and about Unions in Brazil.

The world is a much different place as we fast forward 22 years. Lula was on the verge of ascension when last the LNRTC visited; it was a time of renewal and excitement. The intervening years have seen Lula spend an initial 8 years in power (2003-2011), followed by a period of disastrous policy at the hands of Bolsonaro (2019-2022) before a Lula return to the presidency earlier this year. Lula has much to contemplate as he and his colleagues seek to rebuild the social policies that were cast aside and shredded under Bolsonaro. Much of this damage was inflicted on labor unions.

Brazil is a beautiful country with unfortunately a myriad of social and environmental issues. Stories of poverty, inequity, gang violence, corruption, and organized crime pervades much of Brazilian news. This is tempered with an exquisite musical vibrance, lively people, and a deep seated and strong history of social justice activism. The Brazilian economy is the tenth largest in the world by GDP and the largest national economy in Latin America. Geographically, Brazil is the largest South American country and has many different environments. Unions have an important role to play in this complex environment.

Professor Rebecca “Becky” Tarlau has studied the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil and noted for us that Unions in Brazil are rarely staff by “professionals” as is more common in Canada or the USA. Rather they are “staffed” by workers from the base who are released from their day jobs and serve for 5 or 6 years. Further she noted that the State attempts to control workers by mandating enrollment in a “Union” and automatically deducting dues. These “unions” would not be true Unions as we would recognize them – rather acting as a rubber stamp union that doesn’t function save for drawing dues. We hadn’t heard this in our leadup to the forum, but were heartened to learn that strong Unions, including the Unified Workers Center (CUT), refuse these mandated dues so as not to be complicit, or seen to be in league, with the State – remaining independent of that influence. 50% of all workers in Brazil are “informal” workers and have no rights. The two most affected groups of these workers are domestic and farm workers.  After 2017 working informally without rights increased.

Much of the power that Unions exert, beyond the simple collective strength of workers to withdraw their labor, is the fundamental legislative foundation on which Unions build their rights. Typically, Unions in Brazil appear to be organized by trade or like-work groupings. From there each individual trade-based union will affiliate with a federation, or groups of like workers, and then into a labour national like the CUT.

One of the important Unions our delegation met with was the Domestic Workers Union. This union, and domestic workers as a group, have faced many damaging attacks in the last decade. There are 150,000 domestic workers in the city of Salvador alone – and 8,000,000 in Brazil. Prior to the Bolsonaro election, an employing family had to register the domestic worker with the union. This allowed for tracking and monitoring. During his term, Bolsonaro led a massive attack on Union rights, including those of domestic workers. One of these attacks, was to discontinue the practice of domestic worker registration, allowing for a situation to occur whereby these vulnerable workers had no one to turn to in precarious situations – and no one was tracking these workers or incidents! There is a strong movement to seek reinstatement of this provision with the return of Lula. Like so many other countries we have visited through the organizing forum, we are confronted with labour issues facing domestic workers – rampant sexual and labour exploitation being only two of them. It is positive to note that the CUT has deep ties to the Domestic Workers Union and is working in solidarity to bring these important issues to light.

We also had a wonderful meeting with the CUT, hosted at a Union-owned resort style training center. The CUT was founded largely by unions comprised of metal workers, bankers, oil industry workers, and teachers. CUT is the main national trade union center in Brazil and is made up of more than 20 affiliate unions and 7.4 million workers. They formed in part to bring not only unions together under one banner, but also to partner with other social justice movements like the Women’s rights movement, housing collectives, neighborhood improvement groups, and others.

The center itself is owned by the Union after they won it in a labour action. This is an exceptional fact on its face. The CUT deducts a small stipend or “dues” from members paycheques to pay for their “membership” and broad access at the resort. They can access the resort with their families for a union-rate, while the public pays full rate. This allows the resort to flourish and the Union to reap the profits for their general accounts. This is an excellent way for Unions to secure themselves financially through owning and managing assets.

The delegation hosting us was very large and comprised of many union branches. We engaged in a vibrant discussion about our respective union realities. An interesting difference in Brazil is the solidarity economy. It is a sector comprised of people who operate outside of the regular economic market system and does not exist as such in Canada or the USA. There is much union focus on organizing in the solidarity economy. Interestingly, in Brazil, slightly more than half of the population are women, and the CUT focusses on trying for gender balance in their ranks. They note the CUT is close to 50% women membership. Practically, members are “organized” or recruited by either reaching out directly to the union, or the opposite – the union reaching out to them. We are much more familiar with the latter of course: scenarios in which union organizers build critical mass through individual and group conversations. It is unclear to us how much organizing of workers directly into union membership actually happens, with the OECD listing nation-wide union density at 12.7% in 2019.

Many of the collective agreements (labour contracts) appear to be sectoral in nature. They cover wide swaths of workers in a similar industry. In preparation for these negotiations there is an extensive dialogue with the effected workers in both large and small groups. This leads to a robust proposal package being developed that is very reflective of actual demands of workers rather than demands outlined by “the big union”.

There are several reminders from our trip to Brazil that we want you to take forward.

The first is that workers need to advocate and lobby for a strong legislative foundation and framework of labour rights. There are many paths to this, but we would suggest you consider a robust series of partnerships with other unions and social justice groups. Find common ground and support each other in lobbying to achieve these legislative building blocks. Each country and state (province) will have a different starting point and legal framework from which they begin. Look to other jurisdictions to find the best laws to fight for. Whether it’s the fundamental right to strike, union recognition as the exclusive bargaining agent, card-check on union organizing, stronger anti-scab legislation or any other legislation that will allow us to continue to build the movement. These strategic partnerships will allow for greater leverage to be built and applied to our elected representatives.

Secondly, we need to continue to organize! We realize this may be a obvious statement considering the publication you’re reading! However, what we are talking about is a deep and interested dialogue with the people you are organizing. Get to know them. Get to know their interests. This allows organizers and unions to craft their message and demands in a way that resonates with the membership. This dialogue should not be confined to a traditional pre-unionization scenario. It should continue throughout a member’s work life. Engaging each and every time there is a deeply felt issue, or a round of negotiations on the horizon.

Thirdly, in keeping with our recommendation to organize, Brother Toney Orr noted it would be an excellent idea to Organize informal recycling workers. Similar to how efforts have been made to organize informal workers in India. We met with a wonderful group of largely woman who run a recycling collective. They noted there are many such collectives in Brazil and we believe they would benefit from unionizing centrally. Their struggles are real and numerous. For example, the collectives have to depend on companies they sell product to for the set price of such material. In a unionized environment the collectives could work together to set prices and better attempt to dictate to the large companies rather than the reverse. Other areas where a union would be beneficial are worker health and safety, and allow for a more uniform sharing of information. This is a very large sector of workers and would be able to leverage a great deal of collective power.

What we observed in Brazil was a strong history of Unions partnering with other social justice groups looking to lobby governments into both strengthening the legislative framework within which unions operate and leveraging their collective power to force social change. The deep solidarity between unions and social justice groups in Brazil is inspiring and a lesson to the rest of the world. These critical strategic partnerships, and the dialogues that build that solidarity and understanding, are key to pushing back on the right wing. There is a strong organizing culture in that workers are speaking to each other about their needs and desires. This leads to an impassioned approach to demands – workers speaking out and demanding what is important to them!


Toney Orr is the Field Director, Local 100, United Labor Unions, based in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Douglas W Dykens is Executive Director, Field Services and Negotiations. British Columbia General Employees Union, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada.