On March 10, 1979, Brazilian metalworkers walked off the job in a stark challenge to the dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1964. The strike’s leader was a 34 year old metalworker named Luis Inacío Lula da Silva. Later just known as Lula, this strike would help bring down the dictatorship and eventually propel its leader into power as Brazil’s populist president.
Brazil’s complicated political history reached a nadir beginning in 1964. After a period of populism under Getulio Vargas and then João Goulart, the Brazilian military took power in a coup that year, holding power until 1985. The dictatorship banned strikes, took control over labor unions, and ended the period of working class activism that helped define mid-20th century Brazilian politics. The military leaders also tortured and murdered many labor leaders. Of course, the U.S. was basically fine with all of this. After all, the Brazilian military was on our side in the Cold War. By the late 1970s, the worst of the dictatorship was beginning to fade and a very slow transition back to democracy began.
Lula was born poor and didn’t learn to read until he was 10. He was already working by the time he quit school after the second grade. He contributed to the family income as a shoeshiner and street vendor, still common sights with poor children when you visit Latin America. He worked a series of other low-level jobs, finally ending up in an auto parts factory. There, he lost a finger in an industrial accident and the first few hospitals he went to would not treat him. All of this got him interested in the labor movement, a process encouraged by his older brother. He was a very effective labor leader and rapidly rose into a position of power. He was elected as president of the Steel Workers’ Union of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema, the center of Brazilian automotive production (already many American and European car companies had opened factories in Brazil) in 1975 and then was reelected in 1978. He rose to power in opposition to the state-controlled leaders.
In May 1978, Lula led the autoworkers out on the first major strike in Brazil since the 1964 coup. Up to 500,000 workers walked off the job in some form, often just for a very short period. While this strike did not last long, continued political activity among the working class led to more actions gestating. This was mostly about wages; while these workers made 3 times the Brazilian minimum wage, in 1978, that minimum wage was also the second lowest in Latin America, with only Peru being lower. Wage gains as a result of this strike were about 15 percent.
On March 10, 1979, Lula and the metalworkers again walked off the job. This happened as the state was highly concerned about the growing popularity of militant labor action and sought to effectively repeal what the workers had won the prior year. This action was coordinated with the other big metalworker unions in southern Brazil and led to a serious confrontation with the dictatorship. In total, over 3 million workers went on strike, again many not for very long. The major action was in the three big metalworker unions. This was the first major challenge the dictators had faced in fifteen years and it caught them off guard. These were critical industries as they had fueled much of Brazil’s postwar economic growth. In 1940, the mechanical, electrical, and transportation equipment industries made up 4.3% of Brazil’s manufacturing labor source. By 1970, those three industries had risen to 17.5%. The year before the coup, 1963, the auto industry produced 174,000 vehicles and by 1973, 858,000. So this was a critical sector of the economy revolting against the dictatorship. Yet workers in these fields did not see their wages rise as fast as other workers.
While we might like to see this strike as a democratic revolt for a revolution against thugs, it was really about wages, though certainly greater democracy and workers’ rights was part of the cultural phenomenon that was these strikes. Simply put, these workers felt they were losing ground to other workers and they wanted a fair share of the economic growth they produced. It was an impressive organizing drive–actual union membership was below 50% through the 1970s because what was the point in a dictatorship that restricted worker organizing? But the metalworkers slowly built up their organization and managed to engage in limited negotiations with companies such as Ford and Saab, thus making demoralized workers believe in their union. Lula managed to have good relationships with the Catholic Church through all of this, making him suspect to the Brazilian far left, but not with the workers themselves.
The state occupied the major union offices on March 22, which did not end the strike, but made coordinating it very difficult. Yet the workers did not cave. Growing solidarity strikes forced the government on its heels and a compromise resulted. It wasn’t an enormous victory for the union, only about a 6% raise versus the 16% demanded. But it proved the legitimacy of the unions as popular organizations and Lula as a popular leader. It also severely weakened the government, which had shown it could not crush the workers and reestablish its absolute authority.
In the strike’s aftermath, Lula went for a more direct challenge to the dictatorship. Despite having been imprisoned for a month in 1980 after leading another strike (despite a 3 1/2 year prison sentence), he co-founded the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party, in 1980. The PT played a critical role in demanding democratization of Brazil, helping to finally ending the dictatorship, first with a last appointed president in 1985 which was a transitional move and then in 1989 with the nation’s first direct elections in 29 years. Lula himself became a force in Brazilian politics, winning the presidency in 2002 and then a second term in 2006. His acolyte Dilma Rousseff was eventually overthrown in a quasi-coup as Brazil has now entered into a slow reversal of its democratization. He was convicted of corruption during his presidency (likely true but also a politicized ploy by even more corrupt right-wingers) and he hopes to run for another term as president later this year. There is much to say about Lula’s presidency and labor, but that is for a different post.
I consulted Christian Tyler, “Trade Unionism in Brazil” from the April 1982 issue of Third World Quarterly in the writing of this post.
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