What can Brazilian workers tell us about forging a “new CIO” in the US?

Posted July 14, 2010

Two rebellious Brazilian union federations are attempting to unite. They seek an alternative to a union federation, the CUT, that has given in to the bosses, the government and the neoliberal agenda.

At the end of June, near Sao Paulo, the two dissident union federations held a Congress or “Conclat” of 3,100 delegates who were elected earlier by 15,000 delegates to 900 assemblies representing nearly 3 million workers. A bank worker delegate explained that in general “Each assembly represents one union, or union opposition caucus, or social movement.”

The workers represented include many thousands who work for General Motors and other US companies.

The federations attempting to unite are in significant measure led by revolutionary socialists. That is one reason why, for example, Conlutas is a major supporter of Pinheirinho. At Pinheirinho, thousands of homeless people occupied corporate land and built humble but functional dwellings. General Motors workers at Sao Jose dos Campos actively support this movement. Pinheirinho has mobilized strongly enough to secure electricity and water and recently to win recognition by government bodies. That means that they will now receive all public services such as paved roads and garbage collection.

On June 6, after two days of militant programs, international solidarity and stormy debate, this unity experiment broke down—to the shock of delegates and observers. However, the attempt should be inspiring and instructive for workers elsewhere, including the US.

Brazilian unions and political parties

A radical student movement in Brazil helped inspire a workers’ strike wave from 1978 through 1980. Out of this was born the PT—the Workers Party—in 1979. In 1983 the CUT (United Workers Center) federation was created as the trade-union expression of this movement and of the Workers Party.

With that, Brazil’s largest union was its most radical. The CUT established massive shop-floor influence for the movement that had overthrown the dictatorship. Brazilian and international capitalists abhorred this development and “got to” a wing of its leadership.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Workers Party’s leader, was elected president of the country in 2002 and has now nearly exhausted his term in office. Despite workers’ expectations based on his working-class roots and rhetoric, he has been responsible for betrayal after betrayal. He broke unions, supported anti-worker legislation, and let down the powerful movement of landless workers and peasants—all while cultivating an international social-justice image for “fighting hunger”.

Lula’s sell-out provoked splits in the Workers Party. These included two socialist parties, PSTU (United Socialist Workers Party) and PSOL (Party of Socialism and Freedom).

Like the Workers Party, the CUT union federation split in reaction to Lula’s rightward course. “Conlutas” is an alternative union federation promoted by the PSTU. Many in PSOL promote “Intersindical,” although this relationship is complex.

Real debate at Congress

It was Conlutas, Intersindical and smaller allies that attempted to unite in June.

In the US, union members are alienated by “one-party” local-union elections and bureaucratically-scripted national conventions. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win split without input from the rank and file. In contrast, debates at this Brazilian Congress erupted in front of the national press corps and 120 observers from 26 countries including Greece, Haiti and the US.

How to unite radical unions?

It’s hard to weigh the reasons for the setback at the end of the Congress.

The minority—Intersindical and its allies–wants an entirely new name for the new federation. Conlutas wants a name including both “Conlutas” and “Intersindical.”

Intersindical would include representatives of the homeless and landless. Conlutas would add people of color, students, women, and lesbian and gay people. Intersindical claims this would negate the working-class character of the new federation and give Conlutas and the PSTU too much influence based on their ties to these movements.

However, Intersindical was aware up front of the Conlutas majority and PSTU influence. On the other hand, Conlutas might have anticipated that the name would be as important to one side as the other. Although Conlutas can appeal to majority rule, unifications seldom succeed without substantial deference to demands for consensus.

Ze Maria is a Conlutas leader and the PSTU’s presidential candidate. As the unity train was coming off the rails, he spoke in an effort to save unification. He was booed off the platform by the minority, as a noisy anti-unification wing gained the upper hand within Intersindical. This illuminated another fault line: the two sides support different Brazilian presidential candidates.

Intersindical left the Congress at the end. The Conlutas proposals were passed, but without Intersindical participation going forward.

The deepest reason for the failure to unite is likely that major union initiatives seldom succeed without a working class in dramatic motion. There is no strike wave in Brazil today, and 80% of workers voted for Lula.

Conlutas and Intersindical may still unite. Without unity, each side will lose key local union elections and growth opportunities. Despite the PSTU’s and PSOL’s support for different presidential candidates, their socialist politics are not different enough to justify a failure to unite the unions. In spite of all, the day after the Congress an inspiring meeting for international guests went ahead–co-chaired by members of Conlutas and Intersindical.

Unions’ response to Lula… and to Bush-Obama?

Like Lula in Brazil, Obama in the US disappoints the progressive labor movement while pretending to stand for progressive “change.” Obama gives mere lip service to the Employee Free Choice Act, imposes contract concessions at GM and Chrysler, and doesn’t even nod toward single-payer health care. He disappoints civil rights activists, goes to war against teachers’ unions, and makes Bush’s wars his own.

Could US labor respond by founding a new labor federation—a “new CIO”, something like the one created in the 1930s? As in Brazil, there is not now enough labor action in the US. But one model could be the militant unionism of the UE (United Electrical Workers). The UE won a Dec. 2008 sit-down strike with community support in Chicago and is known for its international solidarity in action. In any event, contrary to what we are taught, progressive US workers are not alone in the world in our problems and goals.

by Ron Lare, retired, UAW Local 600