Labor relations evolve in Brazil
Rio police voted yesterday to end their short-lived strike, and focus on freeing 27 members of the force arrested for striking. A day earlier their Bahian colleagues did the same.
Though the approach of Carnival served to pressure the state government into pay increases for security forces, the holiday may also have taken the wind out of their sails. With blocos already in the streets and popular focus shifting to fun (with due concern over the safety and spending of revelers, both locals and tourists), the strikers found little support for additional demands.
Latin American history could easily be written as the story of how the elite have managed the needs and wants of the poor. Over time the identity of that elite has changed, with some socioeconomic mobility occurring, but the dynamic has remained the same.
Slavery was abolished late in Brazil, only in 1888, with no provision made for the newly-freed.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Brazil’s strongman Getúlio Vargas coopted labor movements to keep them under his thumb, setting up a system that largely persists to this day– strangling efforts to make the Brazilian economy more agile and dynamic.
In the same spirit, in 1962 Brazil instituted a paternalistic thirteenth salary, awarded to workers at year-end with the tacit idea that they are incapable of planning ahead for holiday spending. Imagine doing away with that!
Lula’s metalworkers’ movement was illegal back in the 1970s and 1980s, under the military government, so strict were Brazil’s labor regulations. The movement turned into a political party which during his two terms (2002-2010) awarded labor groups and leaders enormous access to funding.
Meanwhile, the world has changed. Workers have greater access than ever t0 information and a greater ability to communicate among themselves. Brazil’s economy is growing, inequality is lessening and labor has the upper hand, for the first time in history.
It’s not just the police who are straining at the reins; construction workers on the remodeling of Rio’s Maracanã stadium struck over work conditions last year. In the state of Rio, workers are currently in conflict in Itaguaí, where Petrobras is building a huge petrochemicals complex, Comperj.
This time around, no great rupture occurred. After only a few days of a semi-strike, the Rio police got raises and Carnival masks will be donned. But come Ash Wednesday, all would do well to take stock of the evolving power equation, and reflect on where it will lead us next.