In order to fully appreciate the significance of the 1978-80 strikes and what they achieved, it is necessary to explore the history of Brazil's dictatorship and the conditions under which it was formed.
Brazilian Populism: From Vargas to Goulart
Brazil's second experiment with democracy ended tragically on 31 March 1964, with the overthrow of President João Goulart by the Brazilian military in a CIA-sponsored coup. This date also marks the end of what is normally called the "populist period" of Brazilian 20th-Century history, which began under Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s. Grouping this three-decade period under a single "populist" heading, however, obscures the great social changes and upheavals in Brazilian society that occurred during this time.
Brazilian populism under Vargas was initially inspired by fascist Italy. Installed in 1937, Brazil's Novo Estado ("New State") violently repressed communist movements and sought to control workers through labor organizations ruled directly by the State. Basic freedoms and civil rights were restricted and elections were canceled. However, as the 1940s dawned and WWII spread across Europe and the Atlantic, Vargas' Brazil changed course. Under direct pressure from American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Vargas allied Brazil with the United States and Britain against the Axis Powers in 1942.
By 1945, Vargas had discarded fascist dogma and set out to form a Brazilian Labor Party. With elections already scheduled for the end of the year, Vargas was deposed by the military and a caretaker government put in place to finish his term. Former General Eurico Gaspar Dutra was elected President shortly thereafter. Despite the controversy, the 1945 election was the most democratic in the history of Brazil up until that time - the first with a secret ballot and the first to enfranchise women.
During the next two decades, Brazilian populism turned strongly towards the left. Vargas returned to power in 1950, now as a champion of the working class, and Juscelino Kubitschek won in 1955 with a plan to advance Brazil "50 years in five." A key figure in both of these administrations was João Goulart, affectionately known as "Jango," who first made his fame as Vargas' Minister of Labor. Against the strong pressure of business leaders and executives, he set up the Brazilian Social Security system, doubled the minimum wage, and greatly strengthened the rights of retirees and pensioners. His actions were so strongly opposed in the business sector, that he was forced out of office shortly after raising the minimum wage.
Jango did not stay long on the sidelines, running in 1955 for the Vice-Presidency with Kubitschek (known as "JK") and receiving more votes than the president. This was possible at the time because votes for President and Vice-President were tabulated separately - they did not run on a combined ticket. In 1960, he won again with an even larger majority. However, in an electoral flukes, opposition candidate Jânio Quadros became president with a minority of votes in a three-way race. His popularity came from his image as a strong fighter of corruption and as an independent voice, though he received strong support from the UDN - the traditional right-wing party of the time.
Jânio's penchant for independence soon put him at odds with both ends of the political spectrum. Already reviled by labor and the left, he further inflamed matters by instituting an economic austerity policy that froze salaries and reduced access to credit in an attempt to head off rising inflation. On the other hand, Jânio angered his congressional allies by establishing diplomatic relations with the USSR and Communist China, condemning the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, opening hundreds of corruption investigations (many against his nominal supporters in the UDN), and personally decorating Ernesto Ché Guevara with the Order of the Southern Cross for having answered an appeal to release 20 political prisoners who had been condemned to death. This last act, though the least consequential in terms of public policy, was a key factor in the quick end to Jânio's doomed presidency. Two days later, and only seven months into his term, he appeared before Congress and tendered his resignation, stating ominously that, "forças terríveis levantam-se contra mim" ("terrible forces are rising against me").
Jânio's sudden departure meant that VP João Goulart should have been sworn in immediately, but Brazilian military and business leaders were dead-set against a Jango presidency. They moved quickly to block him from taking office, installing congressional leader Ranieri Mazzilli as president and throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. A civil war was averted when Congress amended the constitution to create a parliamentary government, vesting executive power in a prime minister and turning the presidency into little more than a figurehead. Only then, in September 1961, was Jango allowed to take office.
Throughout 1962, the Brazilian parliamentary system struggled to function, going through three prime ministers in a period of months. Jango proposed a binding plebiscite to decide between a presidential or parliamentary system, and the opposition accepted. By a vote of 80%-20%, Goulart's office had its full powers restored in January 1963. He immediately set out to institute a plan of reform, known as the Plano Trienal, which included a number of radical measures, such as the disappropriation of rural properties larger than 600 hectares for redistribution to the poor, investment of 15% of the national budget in education and the prohibition of private schools, prohibition of removal from Brazil of any profits earned by multinational corporations, and the opening up of all rental properties for purchase by their residents at guaranteed fair prices.
Groups of 11, the Coup, and the AI-5
During most of 1963, Jango struggled to push the Plano Trienal and its "base reforms" through Congress, but it was blocked at every step. Much of the Brazilian left, including the communist and socialist parties as well as labor unions, saw his policy as too conciliatory and pushed for stronger and more radical changes in social organization. Leonel Brizola, Jango's brother-in-law and then governor of Rio Grande do Sul, began setting up a grass-roots system of organization known as "Groups of 11" in late 1963, in order to bring about a new stage in the development of Brazilian society.
The Groups of 11, or G-11, were designed to be intimate groups of close friends and neighbors, organized as the seeds of a revolutionary army, with each member fulfilling a specific role, such as communication, medical assistance, or popular organization. These groups would then be linked and interconnected at higher and higher levels (11x11=121, 11x11x11=1331, etc.) until they had spread across the entire nation. This plan was still in its infancy, however, when the military struck and democracy died.
On 13 March 1964, João Goulart held a public rally in Rio de Janeiro attended by more than 150,000 people from across the entire spectrum of the Brazilian left in which he declared an end to the failed policies of conciliation with the right wing and the immediate implementation of portions of his "basic reforms" which could be enacted directly by the executive. Opposition to this move was swift and lethal. Six days later, the right wing staged a counter demonstration called the "March of the Family with God for Freedom" in which Jango was denounced as a "subversive," an "atheist," and a "totalitarian communist." Twelve days after that, the army moved on Rio de Janeiro with full support from the United States. Jango was forced to flee to Uruguay. Brizola wanted to stay and fight, but was convinced by his brother-in-law that armed resistance would only provoke a protracted civil war. He fled shortly thereafter, though continued for several years to organize clandestine resistance movements from afar.
Lacking a constitutional basis for seizing power, the Brazilian military ruled through a series of "Institutional Acts" (atos institucionais - AI), decrees that dismantled civilian government, removed civil rights, and attempted to stamp out the labor movement. The first of these, AI-1, issued just a week after the coup, banned 102 political leaders from power, including Jango, Brizola, and even Jânio Quadros. AI-2, issued a few months later, went much further. It prohibited all political parties except for two, gave the president the power to declare a state of emergency, created loyalty tests for all government employees, and padded the Supreme Court with five new justices who would rule in the military's favor. Labor organizations, such as the General Workers' Command, were dismembered and the right to strike, though not banned outright, was surrounded by such a tight web of bureaucratic procedures and restrictions that any strike actually called would easily be determined illegal.
In the years immediately following the coup, labor organizations and student groups continued to carry on resistance and protest, with escalating repression and violence as a response. The largest of these protests occurred in 1968 - the "March of 100,000" in Rio de Janeiro in June, calling for civil rights and democracy, and a large strike in Osasco, São Paulo in July. The reactions to both were swift and severe: troops were called in to break them up at gunpoint and leaders of the movements were imprisoned, tortured, and in many cases desaparecido. When José Dirceu, one of the leaders of the student movement, was to be released on habeas corpus, the government passed the most restrictive institutional act yet, the notorious AI-5. This act dissolved the federal Congress, removed the rights of habeas corpus and freedom of assembly, instituted censorship on all forms of media as well as the arts, placed executive decisions out of the reach of judicial review, granted the president the ability to remove politicians from office for any reason whatsoever as well as the ability to suspend the rights of any citizen for up to 10 years. The anos de chumbo ("years of lead") had begun.
ABC Paulista, May 1978
The industrial region of the State of São Paulo, known as ABC Paulista after its three principal cities (Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo, and São Caetano do Sul), was by the 1970s the center of Brazil's automotive industry, a kind of Latin American Detroit. It was here, in assembly lines and on factory floors, where a new working class movement began to foment, despite the oppression from both corporate and government leaders.
Since the passage of the AI-5, labor unions, though permitted to exist, were almost completely without power. Their main function was as middlemen - to transmit the corporation's labor decisions to its workers. Though they could petition for changes from management, without the power of the strike or even the ability to collectively assemble, these petitions often went unheard.
During the early 1970s, at the height of the dictatorship, Brazil passed through a period of rapid GDP growth, touted by the military leadership and their media propaganda organs as the "Economic Miracle." But it was miraculous for only a few. The upper 5% saw their wealth skyrocket while the lower 80% struggled to survive. The Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality, was already a staggeringly high 0.50 in 1960, but by 1970 had increased to 0.57 (and by 1977 an incredible 0.62). Whatever meager gains the working class was able to carve out of the early 1970s growth were erased in 1974 when the oil crisis triggered an increasing spiral of inflation. The late '70s would see high inflation, unemployment, and stagnating growth, the costs of which were born disproportionately by the poor and working class. Conditions were ripe for a new resurgence of working class anger - all that was needed was a spark.
In the months preceding the Scania strike, signs of change in the labor movement were already becoming evident. The metal-workers union of ABC paulista had a new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had taken over in 1975. Slowly but surely, he and other union leaders began to push for more action. In September of 1977, the union publicly denounced various industry practices which had served to erode workers' salaries while stretching out their shifts. A large public meeting was called, with 2,800 workers attending, to campaign for changes at the automotive factories, but with little result. In the months that followed, Lula made several pronouncements that foreshadowed what was to come, stating that the industry could not hear the workers unless they "crossed arms and stopped machines" (braços cruzados, máquinas paradas), and commented to a journalist that, "the strike is the atomic bomb of the working class."
Nonetheless, the strike of 12 May was not called by or organized from the top. The workers knew that the unions were infiltrated with informers and took matters into their own hands. One of the Scania workers, Sérgio Piveta, commented:
I was scared, but I was there solid and firm at the foot of the machine, with my arms crossed... I wasn't afraid of being fired. I was afraid of being arrested. At that time, we were even afraid even to think about organizing. We always had the impression that any one of us could be DOPS... [But] it was time. We had reached our limit.
The Scania strike was organized in only a week, with workers meeting in bathrooms and spreading the news by word of mouth. Gilson Menezes, 28 years old at the time and one of the strike's principal leaders, later described the events of 12 May:
The strike was organized with the section leaders in the Scania bathrooms. Nothing could leak out, it was very risky. If anyone were to know, I would have been arrested and beaten by the DOPS... I went to the union on Thursday and told them that on Friday we were going to stop Scania. Many of them didn't believe it and some wouldn't even listen to me. But I knew that we had to do it... Some of my colleagues at Scania proposed that we take more time to organize. But if the strike itself was a great risk, it would have been worse if anyone had discovered it [beforehand]... I always said goodbye to my daughters before leaving for work. On that day, I couldn't. We were going out to fight, but I didn't know if I would be coming back.
The evening before the strike, Gilson Menezes and Augusto Portugal held a meeting with a reporter from Folha de São Paulo, and told him to call the other members of the media and have them meet in the early morning hours in front of the Scania factory. When asked why, they told him, "Scania is going to go on strike." Menezes and Portugal took the risk of letting the news out early because they felt a significant media presence would reduce the chances of a violent attack on the part of the police to break the strike. In this case, it worked. Gilson Menezes continued:
When the hour arrived, we still didn't completely believe it (...) the scheme for the metalworkers was ready (...) The night shift, almost nobody knew (...) They went out and left things for the day workers (...) No one went in to work (...) the metalworkers didn't turn on the machines. Just 3 or 4 sections turned on a machine here or there. The metalworkers stopped and the workers in other sections saw that they were stopped. And then it went from there, the entire factory stopped... management was shocked by what was happening... They thought the electricity had gone out! Unaccustomed [to a strike], they didn't know what attitude to take.
The inexperience of the strikers was complemented by the inexperience of management in dealing with a strike, and the government was slow to react as well. The DOPS arrived at the Scania factory, but did little more than shout threats from outside under the guise of "negotiations." This initial hesitation proved decisive. On Monday, the strike had spread to the Mercedes, Ford, and Volkswagen factories, though the workers were only able to achieve a partial shutdown at Volkswagen. Corporate management, in desperation, called on Lula and the union to end the strike immediately, but Lula responded that the strikes were happening spontaneously and that the union would only intervene if the workers themselves requested it.
On Wednesday, the workers voted in assembly to end the strike, but with an ultimatum set for Friday, 19 May, by which the company had to accept their demands. When these demands were not met, work halted again. Shortly thereafter, Scania capitulated and the workers were victorious.
The spark had finally been set to the fuse, and throughout 1978, strikes proliferated in various industries throughout the country. The military leadership, preoccupied with public opinion, vacillated between opposing the strikers and attempting to appease them. In October, the government rescinded all provisions of the AI-5. This was not enough, however. The strikes of 1978 had shown the Brazilian working class not only that change was possible, but that they themselves had the power to bring it about. Despite the exile and imprisonment of all of the old labor leadership, new leaders were being formed and matured "on the field of battle." And as this new battlefield began to take shape, it became clear that mere raises and improved benefits were not sufficient - fundamental democratic rights were needed. The stage was set for escalation.
1979-1980: The General Strikes
In the pivotal years of 1979 and 1980, Brazil's newly awakened labor movement came of age. During 1979, more than three million workers across the country went on strike in industries ranging from construction to sugar-cane cultivation. Laborers began to strike in solidarity and to ask not only for changes to their working conditions, but for changes to the constitution legalizing strikes, opening up democracy, restoring civil rights, and allowing for the creation of a national labor federation. Early in the year, the student-led movement for "full, general, and unrestricted amnesty" of all political prisoners and exiles was strengthened when labor union members pledged it their full support.
Once again, ABC paulista led the way. On 13 March 1979, a general strike was called by the autoworkers of São Bernardo dos Campo, the first mass strike with picketers out in the streets since 1964. This time, union leadership was involved from the beginning. The biggest question mark was the Volkswagen factory. With over 10,000 workers, it was the largest in ABC paulista, and its participation in the strike was critical for success. At five in the morning on the day of the strike, union activists assembled outside the factory and attempted to persuade the workers arriving for the morning shift not to enter. As the first groups began to enter the factory, heedless of the appeals, the journalists present to cover the event began linking arms to form a human chain, blocking the workers' entrance. At this point, Wagner Lino, one of the organizers, began to shout, "You should all be ashamed! The journalists are doing your job!" One by one, the workers at the head of the group took the places of the journalists and the Volkswagen factory joined the strike.
Labor organizers were not the only ones who had matured and improved their tactics based on the experience gained the year before. Both corporate management and the government blamed their defeats in 1978 on being caught by surprise and without a clear idea of how to handle the situation. They were determined not to repeat those errors. The military police made a show of force, buzzing strikers with helicopters, running them down with dogs, and beating them with clubs. They surrounded the union headquarters and detained its officials. Absolute censorship was imposed on the media. The Vila Euclides football stadium became a rallying point, where upwards of 80,000 gathered to vote in one accord for the continuation of the strike.
The repression took its toll, however, and Lula was forced to negotiate a "45-day cease fire" on 27 March in which workers returned to their jobs, but did not give up on their demands. That Labor Day, over 120,000 marched in the streets of São Bernardo in support of the autoworkers. As the 45 days drew to a close, it became clear that the mobilization of the workers had not weakened, and on the evening before the strike was set to resume full force, the auto companies offered a contract attending to nearly every worker demand.
The political amnesty movement also gained momentum in 1979. In June, President Figueiredo proposed amnesty for all political prisoners and exiles except for those involved in violent acts. This was not the "full, general, and unrestricted" amnesty called for by the protesters, but it was a huge concession by the dictatorship. The bill became law on 28 August, and with its passage, the old-guard political and union leaders from the 1960s were allowed to return to Brazil. João Goulart, unfortunately, had passed away in 1976, but Leonel Brizola, Tancredo Neves, Miguel Arraes, and many others soon reinforced the growing drive for full democracy.
With the government's economic policy in shambles and inflation topping 100% per year, a frequent tactic of companies was that of offering raises below the rate of inflation. At face value these appeared to be significant gains, but year-over-year they eroded the purchasing power of employees. As inflation continued to spiral upwards, constant mobilization on the part of workers became necessary, simply to keep the value of their salaries from shrinking month-to-month.
The year 1980 saw the largest and most well-organized general strike yet held in Brazil. On 1 April 1980, more than 300,000 workers in ABC paulista and neighboring cities in São Paulo turned out. The metalworkers' union spent several months planning and setting up all of the logistics of the strike in order to circumvent increased repression by both businesses and the State. A Strike Fund had already been set up in 1979, and this was used by friends, family, and the community at large to donate clothing, food, and money to support the striking workers. A daily news bulletin called the ABCD Jornal was created and distributed clandestinely in the factories - workers concealed rolled up copies in their socks and posted them in bathroom stalls. Each edition was edited and printed at a different location to prevent its discovery. For those striking outside the factories, the journal was distributed at bus stops.
Strikers also created "miguelitos" from bent nails and stuck them under the wheels of buses used by the companies to bring in strike-breakers, disabling them. Just as in 1979, the entire union leadership was arrested, but this time a "Group of 16" - a shadow leadership - had already been organized to conduct the strike in their absence. Messages were passed between the Group of 16 and the imprisoned leaders through visits by their lawyers.
The companies began to threaten mass firings, but the strikes continued. Churches rallied to help the workers and contributed to the Strike Fund. On Labor Day, 1 May, 150,000 people attempted to march through the main square of São Bernardo, which was blocked by military shock troops and riot police. After provocations and threats from both sides, the order was finally given for the police to step back, and the marchers quickly took over the square.
After 41 days of struggle, on 11 May, the general strike was finally ended without a clear resolution or concession by management. The laborers, however, concluded the strike on their own terms, with heads held high, undefeated. Even without obtaining the immediate economic result desired, they had succeeded in organizing and building a movement that would continue strong and solid for years to come.
PT and CUT
The relentless pressure of strikes and labor action finally convinced the weakening military leaders to begin a slow process of redemocratization, beginning with the rescinding of AI-5 in 1978 and the amnesty law in 1979. In early 1980, the government finally allowed the creation of new political parties, and the Workers' Party (PT) was born. In recent years, especially since becoming the ruling party of Brazil in 2003, the PT can best be described as a party run on a European social-democratic model, but at the time of its formation it was much more radical. There was even debate in the early years whether the party would back candidates for election or remain a movement solely devoted to direct action. In the end, a few sitting Congressmen were allowed to join, and the party moved into the traditional political arena.
In the elections of 1982, the first open elections since the 1960s, Gilson Menezes (leader of the Scania strike) became the first PT mayor, of the city of Diadema. Leonel Brizola was elected governor of Rio de Janeiro state as a member of the re-formed Democratic Labor Party, and Miguel Arraes was elected governor of Pernambuco. Now part of the government, labor leaders had a seat at the table and could directly influence further reforms.
Another major victory for labor in the early 1980s was the formation of the Unified Workers' Center (CUT), in August of 1983. Under the law at the time, all inter-professional unions were expressly forbidden, but nevertheless CUT was formed and grew rapidly in numbers and power. It only received legal recognition in 1988, under the new Brazilian Constitution. This national labor federation is today the fifth largest in the world with nearly 8 million members, active in every state of Brazil and in nearly every field of industry.
The shift into more mainstream politics did not initially dampen labor’s radicalism. The deep recession beginning in 1981 and the explosion of inflation to over 200% annually shortly thereafter meant that workers constantly faced a real danger of starvation without continued action to press for wage increases. Throughout the rest of the decade, the strike remained a potent weapon in labor's arsenal.
Diretas Já and the Return of Democracy
Despite the various concessions granted by the military government in the early 1980s, Brazilian civil society remained without guaranteed civil and workers' rights, without full political liberty (communist and socialist parties were still banned), without an open and free press, and without the right to directly elect Senators or the President. The slow pace of reforms coupled with the stagnating economy gave impetus to a new mass movement, built on the experiences of the rejuvenated student and labor groups, and joined by a broad spectrum of new- and old-guard politicians from across the political spectrum, all seeking the immediate end of the military regime. This movement became known as Diretas Já (loosely translated as "direct now" - referring to direct elections).
The first public rally of the Diretas Já movement, on 31 March 1983, attracted few people, but as the year wore on, it steadily gained momentum. In January 1984, more than 300,000 rallied in São Paulo, and a month later over 400,000 marched in Belo Horizonte. Public support for the movement was overwhelming, as much as 84% in some polls, but regime leaders continued to oppose it - and they were the ones still in control of the Federal Congress. The largest rallies occurred in April: over 1 million people assembled at the Candelária Cathedral in downtown Rio on 10 April; another million and a half marched from the Sé Plaza to the Anhangabau Valley in São Paulo six days later. To date, these are the largest public manifestations to ever take place in Brazil.
A Constitutional Amendment providing for direct presidential elections made its way through Congress, and a vote took place on 25 April 1984. By a vote of 298 for, 65 against, and 115 abstentions/absences, the measure was defeated because it fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. While the hardliners had won the day, the vote showed them to be severely divided.
Presidential elections under the dictatorship amounted to little more than elaborately staged plays. The president would be chosen by the combined vote of the members of Congress – a Congress intentionally stacked in the generals’ favor. A token opposition candidate would always pick up a few votes, but the final result was never in doubt. The massive mobilization of Diretas Já and the huge public disappointment at its failure, however, meant that the 1985 “election” would be a completely different animal. Tancredo Neves, one of the principal leaders of Diretas Já and considered an “elder statesman” for his role as prime minister in the 1960s and his many years spent in exile, launched a candidacy for the opposition. Rather than bother with the traditional insider’s game of currying favor with the regime leadership, he took his campaign to the street just as if it were a direct popular election – the first national election campaign Brazil had seen in a quarter century.
A large faction of congressional “dissidents” soon realized that voting for the government’s chosen candidate, Paulo Maluf, was untenable. Brazil under his leadership would simply become impossible to govern. Led by Senator José Sarney and Vice-President Aureliano Chaves, this group switched their votes to Tancredo Neves and swung the election to the opposition for the first time ever. Brazil would at last have a civilian president again. The dissidents’ hope of placating the masses while still keeping the machinery of the dictatorship in place, however, was short lived. Neves fell gravely ill and passed away before his scheduled inauguration, leaving José Sarney as President, and a grieving nation still under the control of the same group that had ruled it for the past 21 years.
José Sarney’s one true political gift is his shrewdness – an uncanny ability to know which way the wind is blowing, and to position himself accordingly. Brazil’s popular uprisings over the previous seven years demonstrated that its people would no longer accept a continuation of the regime. During his first year in office, all political parties were legalized, and the 1986 gubernatorial elections were a clean sweep for opposition candidates. A Constituent Assembly was formed, in which many of the same leaders who had struggled so many years against oppression participated, and a new Brazilian Constitution was finally ratified in 1988.
In analyzing the dynamic interplay between popular mobilization and political changes in the decade that separated the first Scania strike from the ratification of the new constitution, a clear pattern emerges: no change ever enters the political consciousness, becomes “mainstream,” and is finally enshrined in law without significant, organized, and long-term grassroots action. Even today, after more than eight years of Workers’ Party control in Brazil, serious social and economic problems remain that cannot and will not be solved at the level of government without continual pressure from the people. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in one of his last speeches as President, offered this advice to President-elect Dilma Rousseff: "Dilma, at crunch time, when things are getting ugly, don’t waver, go to the people. Don’t be afraid. When you don’t know what to do, ask the people. When in doubt, the people are the solution. The people have never let me down.”
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