The history of general strikes in Brazil shows why last month’s — the country’s largest yet — was so vital
By Marcelo Badaró
Source: Jacobin Mag / The Dawn News
Photo: Crowds in São Paulo, Brazil on April 28, 2017. Photo credit: Pedro Maia Veiga
On April 28, images flashed across Brazilian social media of burning tires in dozens of roads — blocked off all over the country before dawn by groups of organized workers — of bus garages, river transport stations, airport access, all shut down by groups carrying red flags and signs, affirming the power of people who live by their labor force: general strike! Images that illustrated the news of closed factories, stores, and services. There was a complete paralysis of urban transportation in most of the capitals and many small towns in the north and northeast of Brazil, as well in the southern capitals.
Brazil’s major metropolis, São Paulo, was entirely paralyzed; Rio de Janeiro and other capitals were partly paralyzed. We can say, without further inquiries, that Brazil was widely impacted by the strike of April 28. The massive protests at the end of the day only reinforced this observation.
Among the new generation of militants — responsible for the flood of strike-related images and posts across social media — who didn’t witness the last successful general strike, in 1989 (or even the two limited attempts in the 1990s), the joy of sharing those images and news evoked the best sentiments of socialist struggle. The same sentiments as were felt one hundred years ago, during the Russian Revolution, where the general strike played an important role.
On February 23, 1917, women workers in the fabric factories, against the advice of socialist leaders, launched a strike that spread all over Petrograd and other industrialized cities, leading to thousands of workers abandoning their workplaces. This confrontation between strikers and the tsar’s repressive forces was the first moment of revolution. The general strike did not represent the entire revolutionary process; the Russian people would still have to pass through other moments of power dispute, in the Provisional Government and the soviets. Still, it had a major role in the revolutionary process.
Not all general strikes lead the way to revolution, although they always have a solid impact on the balance of forces in a particular period. The examples in Brazil’s history are significant.
In August 1903, workers in a Rio de Janeiro garment factory stopped work, demanding an eight-hour day and a 40 percent wage hike. Across twenty-six days, the strike spread through the garment factories and into other sectors, gathering around forty thousand workers (twenty-five thousand from the fabric industry). Their demands were only partially met and the repression was brutal. Hundreds of strikers were fired and workers’ federations were closed. Despite that, the workers’ action produced a positive result with the creation of several trade unions during and after the strike.
Soon after, a trade union federation was created, which later would become the Rio de Janeiro Workers Federation (in 1905), an organization that promoted the Brazilian Workers Congress in 1906. This congress founded the Brazilian Workers Confederation (COB), the embryo of the country’s first trade union federation. In 1906 another general strike would paralyze Porto Alegre [capital of the southern state Rio Grande do Sul], by the time relatively industrialized. In 1917 the period’s major strike occurred; likewise born in the garment factories and spread to several sectors, it paralyzed around seventy thousand workers in São Paulo (in that time already the biggest industrial city in the country) for several days. Authorities and employers were obligated to negotiate an agenda presented by a workers’ representation commission (formed through the strike), accepting some of the workers’ demands in exchange for suspending the strike.
A wave of strikes continued in the next years; the state increased repression but also started a discussion about the need for laws recognizing the workers’ demands. After almost fifty years, the first general strike with truly national characteristics took place in Brazil. It was in 1962, and its major demand was the “thirteenth salary” [as Brazilian workers are paid monthly, the “thirteenth salary” would guarantee one extra paycheck at the end of the year].
The strike also demanded a nationalist ministerial cabinet (after the resignation of Jânio Quadros, then-vice-president João Goulart assumed the presidency, thanks to the pressure from the Left and the working class. Nevertheless, the ruling parties limited his powers and adopted the parliamentary system). The strike-coordinating body created then later evolved into the Workers General Command, a new trade-union federation embryo that lead other strikes before the military coup in 1964.
Therefore these general strikes, even though they did not lead to revolution, impacted the correlation of forces in the class struggle on three crucial levels. They achieved rights (such as the thirteenth salary, won in 1962); they forcefully advanced class organization (as seen indirectly in the 1903 Rio de Janeiro strike and directly in 1962), and they impacted politics on a national scale. Every strike carries a political content since it confronts capital, but in general strikes, that content is explicit and can force a change in posture by the authorities, as was the case with the 1917 strike.
The general strike of 1989, mentioned earlier, was the biggest strike in the history of Brazil, paralyzing over 70 percent of the population over forty-eight hours, and combined in a unique way the three elements mentioned above. The 1980s returned the general strike to the realm of the possible — four of them happened in that decade, in varying intensities — due to a wave of social struggle that culminated in a reorganization of the working class. The rise of the Unified Workers Central (CUT) in 1983 was the greatest achievement of this process.
The 1989 strike agenda included, like most of the strikes back then, the return of wages lost due to inflation and the guarantee of wages pegged to inflation. Moreover, its political content was clear. Union struggles since the late 1970s had constituted the major challenge to the pattern of political transition, conducted from above, that ended the dictatorship. The workers’ resistance also manifested itself in the party system. Through the creation of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980, it erected a power capable of attracting and guiding a wide group of movements around a vaguely socialist program in an institutional dispute that culminated in 1989, with the PT’s candidate Luís Inácio Lula da Silva entering the run-off in the presidential elections.
As I write, still affected by the beautiful pictures of April’s strike and by the records of brutal police repression that followed, the trade union federations announced that April 28, in absolute numbers, was the largest general strike in the history of Brazil, topping the thirty-five million workers that struck in 1989. It is not possible to predict the consequences of this strike. But there will be consequences. In the three levels mentioned before, change is unavoidable, and although a general strike like last month’s tends to provoke blowback in the short term, it is ultimately positive for the working class.
On the level of immediate demands, the general strike was successful by raising consciousness of the terrible measures being passed by the Brazilian congress. The labor reform (approved twenty-four hours before the strike), which complements the outsourcing law, rolls back many labor rights and smashes the negotiation instruments which limit capital’s exploitation of workers. There is also the pension reform, whose objective is to turn retirement (supported by public funds) into a privilege for those who can survive through four decades of intensive exploitation. This is a matter of life or death for our generation and the next, since it destroys profoundly and quickly the rights of the working class.
That is why the general strike was essential. There were many difficulties in organizing it, but the most important one came from the biggest trade union federations. After gradual transformations leading to a trade unionism of social conciliation in the 1990s, CUT — to talk about the most important of them — in the next decade became a simple trade-union branch of the PT government, serving as a conflict shock absorber instead of a mass mobilizer. Even now, with the PT out of government, CUT hesitates to call its base to struggle, always subordinating these mobilizations to the electoral aims of Lula and the PT. If the general strike encouraged the opposition within the biggest trade unions and boosted the most combative poles in the trade-union movement (like CSP-Conlutas, Intersindical, and other groups), this could become a new milestone in the process of reorganization of the working class.
Regarding the conflicts with the state, the general violence and police repression was expected, since we are fighting against a government that took power through a parliamentary and judicial coup, which preserves the appearance of institutional democracy only to shield itself from the people’s demands. In Rio de Janeiro, over a hundred thousand people took the streets despite the intensive repression from the military police — who, since 2013, continue, despite their wage delay, to spend millions of reals [Brazilian currency] in bombs and rubber bullets for every protest. Rio de Janeiro’s government is so corrupt that its former governor and half of his secretaries are in jail and the former vice-governor, now in the chair, is continuously associated with the criminal acts of the former administration.
The objective of this autocratic and counterrevolutionary turn in Brazilian government is exactly to ensure these counter-reforms, creating the conditions for intensified worker exploitation, counterbalancing the decline in capital’s profit rate. Further, the general strike plays a crucial role in reconfiguring the organization of the working class and elevating the “Fora Temer” [“Temer Out”] struggle to another level.
The re-entry of workers in an organized and combative way into politics through the general strike introduces challenges for which the socialist left must be prepared: we must anticipate the expansion of struggles; move to stop and revert the counter-reforms, accelerate and reorganize social and working-class movements, and overcome this illegitimate government. It is not easy, but we hope that the images and events of April 28 awaken the best instincts and sentiments in socialists, so we can move these urgent struggles forward, from which the general strike might been only the departure point.
This article originally appeared on Blog Junho. Translated by Fabiana Lontra.