Three Months of Attacks on the Working Class in Brazil

One could say that the new Rousseff government began to deepen its right-wing, neoliberal turn with her choice of ministers. In the name of governability, Rousseff opted for raffling the already fragile working-class and social movement base of the Workers’ Party (PT) by nominating people such as agribusiness representative Kátia Abreu for the minister of agriculture, and Joaquim Levy, an economist who ensured that the private bank Bradesco had its most profitable year in 2014, as finance minister.

Despite her promises that only her election would prevent her opponent, Aécio Neves, from bluntly attacmstking workers’ rights and the process of inclusion of the poor initiated by president Lula, President Dilma Rousseff has been both negligent and outright untruthful in this regard.

One could say that the new Rousseff government began to deepen its right-wing, neoliberal turn with her choice of ministers. In the name of governability, Rousseff opted for raffling the already fragile working-class and social movement base of the Workers’ Party (PT) by nominating people such as agribusiness representative Kátia Abreu for the minister of agriculture, and Joaquim Levy, an economist who ensured that the private bank Bradesco had its most profitable year in 2014, as finance minister. With Levy in command, it was already plausible to argue that the second mandate of president Rousseff would be harsher on the population than the first one, especially in the wake of an economic crisis and thinned out support, considering her small margin of victory and the growing opposition both in the right and left spectras.

The First Attack on Workers

Out of the many measures implemented by the Levy-Rousseff combo, the one to stir up the base of the PT and to create tension in relation to warnings already fired by the radical left wing regarding the PT’s continuous drift to the center-right was the medidas provisórias (temporary executive measures) announced by Rousseff that affected workers’ benefits such as the access to employment insurance. Under the new measures, workers must have been employed for longer in order to be eligible for the benefit (a change from 6 months of formal employment to 18 months of formal employment for those requesting the benefit for the first time). This measure is very detrimental to the youth who have just recently joined the workforce, considering that youth employment already tends to be precarious in many ways. The argument behind the measure is that it could result in about US$3 billion in savings for the government and that employment insurance in Brazil was too easily accessible and created possibilities for fraud. The truth, however, is that the measure demonstrated an incredible lack of foresight by the government in relation to the already precarious workforce in Brazil. It effectively began to obliterate the little trust workers had in the PT’s ability and willingness to protect them even in times of strong partnership between the state and capital. The ambiguous pact consolidated by former president Lula in which he argued it was possible to reconcile class interests for the development of Brazil had already been proved to be not only impossible but also harmful to the existence of the PT as a leftist party and representative of the working class. Despite previous attacks on workers by the Lula administration, such as the Pension Reform he undertook early on in his first term, it is now that the masses can no longer buy the excuse of small concessions on the road to development and a stronger economy that the PT and Rousseff are able to assert that such attempts to ask for patience in a time of crisis will not work.

This was exactly was Rousseff tried to do in a televised speech in early March. The result was incredulity by the poor and more anger among the middle-class and other sectors who had been already riled up by right-wing forces against the president because of the Petrobrás corruption scandal and the inability to accept the electoral loss of Neves. The protest of March 15th, called forth by both the populist right-wing and the extreme right, had an über-nationalist and moralist tone against corruption, and demanded Rousseff’s impeachment. Those in the extreme right, or manipulated by it after at least two decades of continuous de-politicization, went as far as to ask for military intervention and to praise the feats of the 1964 military. While Rousseff had little chance of entering into dialogue with this crowd given the very strong anti-PT sentiment in various ranks of Brazilian society, her attacks on workers’ benefits also made the working class more vulnerable to being captivated by the right-wing anger. It is no wonder then, that despite the white and elitist aspect of the March 15th demonstrations, there were many in attendance who only make between one and three times the minimum wage. In the meantime, the March 13th demonstration led by organizations that make up the base of the PT, such as the Central Union of Workers (CUT) and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), was very modest in numbers and impact and, in fact, had little spontaneous support beyond the members of these organizations and PT supporters.

The Second, More Conservative Attack on Workers

The euphoria behind the March 15 demonstrations added strength to the already very conservative Congress, especially the Chamber of Deputies led by PMDB deputy Eduardo Cunha. Three of the most notable proposals supported by Cunha but being effectively rushed by him after March 15 include the change in the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, the proposal for allowing widespread precarization of jobs through outsourcing (terceirização), and the resurrection of PEC 215 which would change the rules for indigenous land settlement to benefit large landowners. All in one, an attack on the black, poor youth of the periphery of the cities, an attack on the entire working class, and an attack on the indigenous and quilombola (slave descendants), as well as on the chances of pushing for even a modest agrarian reform. This had led to an immediate need to organize the radical left and even those in the moderate left wing of the country, including the base of the PT, against these measures. Whereas those organizing against the change in the age of criminal responsibility are encountering strong resistance in society due to the growth in conservative punitive (and racist) thinking concerning public security in Brazil, those supporting the fight against PEC 2015 are faced with a powerful agribusiness lobby and the fact that the radical left had yet to find effective and trusting ways of organizing in support of the indigenous struggles in Brazil.

The terceirização bill, which was approved by the Chamber of Deputies last week by a massive margin of victory (324 in favor and 137 against), shows that the right wing is interested not only in slashing workers’ benefits, but also in directly reorganizing the labor structure and the rights available to workers in all sectors of employment in Brazil. Through petty and, frankly, twisted arguments that job outsourcing is the new norm in the modern economy and that the bill could empower it towards job creation, the proponents of the bill, together with the bourgeois media and right-wing labour unions, attempted to invalidate the anger of labour unions and the radical left. This blunt attack, however, has forced workers organizing out of its shell and the reach of the arms of the government, given that even the PT representatives in office had to stand against such a proposal. The protests organized in front of the government Tuesday resulted in police violence against union members, while Cunha, in a very undemocratic move, forbade access by the people to the voting sessions.

This scenario is very significant in terms of the tension it creates with portions of the working class and its organizations that had, up till now, accepted every concession imposed by the PT and its presidents in government. For context, the same CUT whose representatives had actually suggested workers could stand a few austerity measures if necessary for containing the crisis (before Rousseff had even proposed austerity), are now faced against the wall built through years of attempts at class conciliation that only benefitted big corporations. The CUT has no other option but to fight, especially since widespread outsourcing could lead to the end of formal labour unions as we know them in Brazil, by changing how people could organize in the workplace.

A General Strike Must Be Imminent

A general strike lies in the horizon as the only plausible path to mobilize against the conservative Congress and a weak PT presidency that has handed the government to Cunha and the PMDB on a silver platter. The general strike, however, cannot be the work of the CUT alone, especially since the union has lost respect and support across all sectors after years of only targeted actions and little attention to class consciousness. The same critique may be applied to the MST, whose focus has gradually transitioned from a serious commitment to agrarian reform to a dependence on the state apparatus for its projects of family agriculture and the slow settlement of MST families.

The CUT and other left-wing central unions, such as CSP-Conlutas, called for a national work stoppage for April 15, and many others  joined together for a large demonstration at the end of the day in places such as São Paulo, where the Homeless Workers’ Movement had already scheduled a protest against the right and for social rights. This particular demonstration, which gathered about 40,000 people, was largely ignored by the bourgeois media and only marginally covered by left-wing media that is partial to Rousseff and the government. Despite that, the timing was ideal, since indigenous groups were also rallying in Brasília to protest against the many violations of this, and past governments. This marked an opportunity to show the strength of a still fragmented, but more united left wing, especially now that the second right-wing protests of the year, on April 12, was weak in numbers and appealed more to the extreme right than to the populist right in comparison to March 15.

While the CUT is reluctant to call for a general strike, unlike the CSP-Conlutas and other radical left-wing organizations, it may be led in this direction if it wishes to retain some credibility, especially now that President Rousseff has signalled that she will not veto the outsourcing bill. For an effective general strike, it is necessary to rally the radical left and moderate left together against the common enemy of austerity and the conservative attack on workers. It is also important that the Rousseff administration not be spared criticism for its responsibility for this messy situation, which implies that the base of the PT must decide how to position itself. Most of all, it is important that such a mobilization carry not only an anti-austerity message, but especially an anti-capitalist one.

The current attack on workers cannot be blamed solely on austerity, while the rise is conservatism has been made possible by the low level of general class consciousness in Brazilian society. It is time not for an alliance full of compromises for the sake of punctual action, since it is necessary to situate the current attacks and the economic crisis in the scenario of de-politicization that had hindered massive workers’ organizing campaigns across every spectrum in the past years. Strikes have become increasingly more common recently and this indicates that there is potential; what we need to do is to politicize this struggle beyond the direct employer-employee relationship and toward the critique of state of capitalism and the growth in rights violations in Brazil.

The construction of a front of action is the responsibility of the socialist parties (PSOL, PSTU, PCB), and other significant social movements and central unions (MTST, CSP-Conlutas, Intersindical, Brigadas, MPL etc) so that the content may be defined in a way that channels the tension necessary for organizations that have committed its base to the status quo politics of the PT government to rethink this commitment and their role in relation to reformism. If the CUT, the MST, and other organizations that grew comfortable with the PT way of doing things in the past years don’t take a stance in the direction of a radical anti-capitalist politics, then perhaps this will be the clarion call for the workers and families who make up their base to migrate to other organizations and movements. This is where the radical left must be alert, so that it may usher the base their way through politicization and strong commitment to socialist politics and prevent the right-wing cadres from captivating disillusioned workers with new illusions and lies.

Sabrina Fernandes is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Carleton University, a researcher at the University of Brasília, and an activist in the Brazilian socialist Left (