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Chapter 10

Restructuring of Labour and Trade Unions in Brazil

Jose Ricardo Ramalho 

In recent years, the restructuring of production and new ways of managing the workforce in Brazil have accelerated the growth of an already huge informal sector resulting in increased unemployment in the manufacturing industry. The flexibilization of labour has brought great insecurity to workers in terms of employment, as a consequence of a reduction in stable or permanent jobs, increased subcontracting, part-time or precarious jobs. The intensive use of outsourcing/subcontracting by firms of all kinds (including state firms) has been presented as an inevitable part of market rationale and has been linked to the announcement of "modernity" in the country. This whole process has affected and made difficult trade union action and has represented a challenge to the Brazilian trade union movement, reinvigorated and strengthened by the struggles of the last fifteen years. Organized labour has to play a double role. It has to maintain pressure to guarantee social and labour rights obtained after strikes against business and resistance to the military state in the 1970s and 1980s, whilst simultaneously needing to intervene in and negotiate economic growth and employment in a context of precariousness at the workplace. 

Based on recent information concerning the particularity of labour and industrial development in Brazil of the 1990s, this chapter discusses effects of this process on firms, on the labour market, and the existing forms of labour and employment. It also presents evidence to explain the role of trade unions in this context both in the way in which they have been confronting the wide spread towards the flexibilization of labour relations, and in their approach to business and the state in terms of negotiation, mainly in the sectoral chambers. It concludes with an analysis of the future prospects for labour and trade unions in Brazil, considering the particularities of workers’ collective and political organisation in the country.


While the articulation of Brazil within the international economy speeds up the effects of industrial restructuring, national, regional, and local specificities and socio-cultural characteristics impact directly on the strategies borrowed from other labour management experiences. Case studies in Brazil (Castro & Guimarães, 1990: 211, 215) show a major heterogeneity between sectors and even between companies in a given industry; international market competition triggers modernization through export companies, but it does not reach the entire industrial base; modernization results from isolated action, due in part to the government's lack of an industrial policy, but also due to company verticalization deriving from industry's heterogeneity. 

Brazil's late industrialization originated predominantly in the 1950s, and was based on import substitution. Although it has incorporated the dominant capitalist industrial pattern, with an intense process of modernization, and with the expansion and strengthening of the working class and the middle classes, it has also brought an increase in poverty and under-employment and a systematic inequality in the distribution of income. There has been "an increase in structural heterogeneity with the coexistence of modern sectors, informal activities and subsistence sectors" (Casassus, 1994:82 ; Mattoso, 1995:124,134). The state, played a fundamental role in this development process, acting as a direct investor and a facilitator to private investment, but has failed to provide a reasonable set of laws or policies to protect those who were marginalized, many of whom migrated to the cities from rural areas of the country.

Such a shortcoming has not prevented the gradual application of new entrepreneurial strategies whenever market openings demand greater international competitiveness and place the survival of domestic companies at risk. But the introduction, in the 1980s and 1990s, of so called "Japanese methods" in Brazilian industry has to be viewed very carefully, especially when it comes to labour relations. The main tendency is to combine new technology with very conservative forms of labour management, which makes it difficult to effectively involve the workers in any decision in relation to the productive process. Moreover, there still remains a strong tradition among Brazilian entrepreneurs of non-negotiation with trade unions. This extends from a position of ignoring the trade union and its demands (Leite, 1994:119), "to an anti-trade union kind of posture, (...) marked by attempts to inhibit union activities such as the sacking of activists, the exclusion of union activities from the factory and even the non admittance of trade union members". 

Evidence from research into Brazilian industry suggests a process of "Brazilianization" of the "Japanese techniques". According to Salerno (1990), the way "just-in-time" has been applied is in fact maintaining a rigid division of labour, a prescription of individual tasks, and an absence of workers' autonomy to the definition of work methods and, in the end, this would lead to the standardization of work. Humphrey (1990:19) states that this process of restructuring could be termed "Taylorized just-in-time", where management would be running the factory like a machine, under a strategy with no need for involvement or commitment, but more coercion and pressure on the workers.

Although it can be said that new management strategies have been gradually applied to Brazilian firms of the 1990s, albeit mainly in the multinational sectors of industry, the results of restructuring of production, in most cases, suggests a context of restrictive flexibility of the labour market. It is a kind of adaptation to restructuring where "the reality of the market" is predominant (Ruas: 1994:98). According to Ruas and Bresciani (1994:201,202), the process of restructuring in the country has brought a significant increase in productivity gains for all industry although this has emerged against a background of reduction of employment levels, a decrease of wages in most industrial sectors, great labour force mobility an increase in informal labour and greater use of subcontracting and homeworking.

One notable example of these trends concerns the widespread use of outsourcing. With the economic crisis and the pressure to reduce costs and increase efficiency, firms started a process of horizontalisation and externalisation of activities. So called "third-party" firms perform tasks that used to be carried out by the principal companies in the name of productivity and competitiveness. But there are different ways of carrying out outsourcing. Existing studies on the use of outsourcing (Ramalho & Martins, 1994; Abreu, Ramalho & Sorj, 1995 and Gitahy:1994:126) describe some experiences of carrying out of quality management techniques, proposing partnerships throughout the production flow, trying to upgrade suppliers and increase the quality of products. However, in an unskilled labour market with much available labour, such cost saving has devastating effects on the supply of work and those who depend on it for their survival. In fact, what still prevails in the Brazilian case is a kind of outsourcing (Faria, 1994: 43), maintaining an antagonism with both employees and the trade union movement. The objective is to ensure short-term profits, where cost cutting is achieved by cutting labour.

The Brazilian outsourcing process relates directly to the issue of subcontracting. Within the same production area, there is both a subcontracting process where technological and production management innovations obtained by the subcontracting company are transferred to the subcontracted companies and another, which can be called "contingency subcontracting" (Abreu & Sorj, 1994:64-5), where the company transfers to the workers the costs of energy, equipment, and space, where the base is a labour force without the burden of labour legislation.

In the context of restructuring, women's participation in the labour force and a simultaneous increase in home-based labour also deserve consideration. Data on female under-employment indicate that such labour is organized around a local market linking neighbourhood relations and domestic sociability. Such under-employment tends to get labour and family dynamics mixed up, fails to organize forms of recognition referring to labour, and appears to transpire according to the life cycle, under the aegis of the need to help one's family. According to Telles (1994: 98-99), "the absence of rights and the ill-defined nature of the labour relationship appear to shape a situation where differences between labour and non-labour are dissolved... and precarious labour appears natural as a kind of extension of domestic chores, helping supplement the family income."

Participation in the labour market by working at home helps bolster the family budget and keeps women's domestic role intact. This reinforces "the ideology of domesticity" (Abreu & Sorj, 1993: 61), "since by working in isolation, communicating intermittently and sporadically with her employer, with no chance of a career or promotion, ignored by trade unions and excluded from the social benefits enjoyed by wage-earning workers, women have tremendous difficulty in distinguishing their professional identity from that of wife and mother." 

Labour at home is an essential part of the restructuring process. Entire families use household space as production space, the workday has no time to start or finish, and management relations get mixed up with those of family authority. Adding to all this is the demand for high product quality.

There is a great diversity of situations in household labour. In the Brazilian shoe industry (Ruas, 1993: 40), for example, which makes intensive use of this type of labour, it is still quite precarious, with a predominance of unskilled labour and a rudimentary technological base. Unlike the subcontracting networks developed under "flexible specialization", with an emphasis on quality and flexibility, in the households linked to the shoe industry the relationship is generally a predatory one. In the Rio de Janeiro textile industry (Abreu & Sorj, 1993: 45-46), household labour is essentially female and "invisible". Since household workers do not have signed working papers like other company workers, and since social rights are not guaranteed by the employer, companies transfer social costs to the seamstresses by requiring that they obtain a self-employed worker's card, making the relationship one of purchase and sale of services by independent manufacturers.


Restructuring of production also bears a direct relationship to the labour market, in a sense altering the informal characteristics present in the economy. Some figures on the degree of existing informality in the Brazilian labour market serve as a good example. According to the Brazilian Census Bureau (Desep Indicators, 1994: 106-107), of the approximately 40 million employees in the 1980s, 58.8% had signed working papers, which are considered evidence of a formal job relationship, a total of 41.2% did not have signed working papers; of the men, 61% had signed working papers, as compared to 39% who did not; some 55% of women had signed working papers, while 45% had not.

Analysing the PNAD/1990 - Suplemento Trabalho (Brazilian Census Bureau), Abreu et al (1994:155) show that, "the informal economy is responsible for more than 40% of the occupied workers in non rural activities in Brazil. In paid domestic services, there are 7,8% of the total workers in non rural activities and 34,5% work in small productive units with characteristics of family organisation or independent work. The importance of the informal sector is greater among women than men, mainly because of domestic services in which 18,1% of women are involved".

Data on the Brazilian labour market points towards important changes in recent years. Sabóia (1994: 26) highlights three such changes: 1) the entry of a large contingent of women into the paid labour force; 2) an enormous turnabout in the sectoral composition of labour between agriculture and the tertiary sector, with an increase of some ten percentage points in the latter over the course of ten years (see also Leite Lopes, 1995: 10); and 3) a clear trend towards an increase in the proportion of self-employed workers and workers without signed working papers.

In an analysis of the Greater São Paulo Metropolitan Area, using data from 1989-1990, Troyano (1991) shows that unemployment is increasingly associated with the use of the labour force outside of any formal job contract, either by employment without legally signed working papers, subcontracting, or even wage-paying disguised by hiring self-employed labour. According to Telles (1994: 94-95), these are the terms under which so-called "labour flexibilization" has been applied, as a way of avoiding trade union pressure and labour benefit costs and further broadening the freedom to fire. Except for a more skilled, valuable, and secure job segment of workers, the vast majority suffer a career of insecurity, instability, and precariousness in their labour relationships.


The industrial restructuring process directly affects the trade union movement. One notes an overall drop in union membership and above all a defensive position in an attempt to maintain the number of jobs and the labour gains obtained in past struggles. However, though there has been some decrease in the number of strikes in recent years, labour stoppages in the late 1970s and during the 1980s made the trade union movement an obligatory interlocutor for government and industry. In this sense, open confrontation in the recent past provided the essential framework for current bargaining strength. The recent experience within the sectoral chambers of discussion involving workers, business, and government has demonstrated the effectiveness of the trade unions in finding solutions to unemployment, problems generated by outsourcing/subcontracting, and the introduction of new technologies.

In fact, today, one of the most important characteristics of Brazilian trade unionism, is its great capacity to mobilise workers in modern sectors of industry (automotive, engineering, steel, metallurgical, petrochemical and chemical) (Castro&Guimarães, 1990:219). In response to persistent delays in the application of labour laws in the 1980s, this group of organized workers, through trade union action, produced a new kind of trade unionism while included an effective participation from the grassroots and a break with the corporatism of the authoritarian state of the time.

On the other hand, the unions are faced with the challenge of influencing the restructuring process (Salerno, 1993: 10-11) with a kind of action allowing for the transformation of industry and business in general, conquering citizens' rights in the workplace and struggling at the company level for minimum space for negotiation in the future definition of labour.

The already existing degree of flexibilization in the Brazilian labour market makes the trade union struggle difficult. Industrial restructuring has led to a drop in the employment rate in Brazil, although it has produced extremely high gains in productivity for industry as a whole and for some segments in particular (automobiles and automobile parts, for example). This confirms a process whereby the employment level has become more precarious (Bresciani, 1994: 201-202) : an increasing proportion of workers do not have signed working papers and are shifted precariously to the so-called informal economy. In general, job and salary scales do not keep up with actual changes in factory labour .


Ongoing research on a case of outsourcing/subcontracting in the electric-electronical industrial sector of Rio de Janeiro (see Abreu, Ramalho and Sorj, 1996) has already made explicit serious problems for trade union action as a result of fragmentation of the labour force into small firms and lack of knowledge and practice on how to treat precariousness in the workplace.

Evidence produced in the course of a survey with the main firm and its complete chain of subcontracted firms (9 firms) and through interviews with their owners/managers present a surprising description of the relationship between those firms and their workers, including the participation of the Metalworkers Trade Union. The terms used emphasize "harmony", "cordiality" and, "open dialogue". Evidently this kind of response must be placed in context by the fact that the questionnaires were filled in by managers. But it also demonstrates changes in the relationship with the work force as a result of the process of outsourcing/subcontracting. While the main firm, with more than four thousand workers, had a factory committee with some influence in the transition to this new production process, in the subcontracting firms the power of workers'collective organisation is fragile, or non existent. Direct observation in those firms points to the fact that they are of medium or small size which makes the every day relationship at the workplace stressful due to the physical proximity and direct surveillance by the owners/managers. Outsourcing/subcontracting made possible, in this case, a return to a kind of manager's power of control and domination over the work force that seemed to have been overcome by the active presence of trade unions in conflicts at the workplace, especially in big firms in the recent past.

Evidence also shows that despite negotiation between the main firm and its factory committee over the development of the `inevitable' process of outsourcing/subcontracting, especially in terms of the maintenance of jobs, wages and social benefits to workers, there was a clear drop in all those items in the subcontracted firms. At the same time, workers that were transferred from the main firm to a subcontracted ones had not only to deal with a greater control by management, but had to live in permanent instability and a constant threat to their jobs. On the other hand, there is a clear reduction in the capacity of intervention from workers' collective organisations in this situation. The process of outsourcing/subcontracting has effectively dismantled employees' collective action in the subcontracted firms in respect to both organisation inside the plant (factory committee) and trade union interference on the workers' behalf regarding working conditions. Although the factory committee of the main firm in this case study had proved quite successful in the past, in spreading some of the employment conditions to the new firms, evidence today shows that the strength of collective bargaining has not been maintained in the subcontracted firms.

The firms' influence over the workers collective behaviour seems, in this case, to be increasing. Accounts from owners/managers indicate that the relationship with the trade union is only possible if there is no interference at the workplace, where managers of the subcontracted firms exercise their power in full:

"There are no strikes here. We've never had a strike. Our relationship with the trade union is very respectful. Our workers know that in this firm there are no low tricks. But they have to respect me as I respect them. We have uniforms here. My uniform is the same as the cleaner. Why? Because everyone here is equal. (...)Our firm is a place of mutual respect" (Manager of a subcontracted firm).

The need to evaluate trade union action in a context of outsourcing/subcontracting in this case led to interviews with directors of the main firm's factory committee, union officials and directors of Rio's Federation of Metaworkers' Unions and the CUT (Unified Workers Confederation - the main confederation of trade unions in the country). The decline in the number of jobs in this sector of industry in Rio has already made union's organized response very feeble. From accounts of those trade unionists we see a state of perplexity and desperation in relation to ways of confronting this new reality of flexibilization and unemployment. Moreover, trade union action in small firms has been historically very restricted and participation at the workplace has been simply obstructed. A director of Rio's Metalworkers union reveals the difficulties for action in this situation of work fragmentation and calls for changes in labour legislation:

"If we don't try to change labour legislation to allow union representation in those firms, things get very hard. Today we are thirty or forty directors, half of those in fifteen factories and the other half to visit the others all over the city. Our union has only been based on short visits to the majority of the firms. (...)Some factories we never visit."

This same director recognizes that trade unionism so far has had a profile much more akin to collective action in big plants, and apparently less prepared to deal with situation where work is made precarious, the case of most small firms in Rio:

"The problem is that the union is made for big companies. This is the biggest problem, today and yesterday. If you go to inspect work instability in a small and a big firm (...) it is clearly worse in the case of the metalworker in the small firm."

Forms of recruitment used by subcontracted firms have also brought problems for trade union action. In the case of outsourcing/subcontracting in Rio, some firms have established a kind of work relation called "family partnership", where part of the work of the firms was again subcontracted to families in their residences. In response to this situation of household labour, trade unions have found no specific policies:

"When the worker leaves the firm, (the union) loses the link with this person (...) If the worker is not organized, he does not exist for the union. So, this home labour is something so distant, but so distant, that it is impossible the union to knock at this worker's door and say that he or she is wrong for taking a job with no links or protection from the existing labour laws" (Director of Rio's Metalworkers' Federation).

Accounts from trade unionists show that some of them are already alert to changes in the field of labour and the decrease in industrial jobs, and feel that unions have to think beyond the workgroup they represent. An interview with a director of the CUT (Unified Workers' Confederation) about the role of the Confederation in this process reaffirms the need to keep fighting for the professional categories, but recognizes the need for a practice policy in relation to employment, wages and workers' rights:

"We want a trade unionism that does not deny conflict, on the contrary. Conflict at the workplace is the result of economic and social policies applied in the country. If we face conflict we have to present alternatives, solutions and propositions to the workers and to the population. It is not enough to say that we are against unemployment, privatization or outsourcing/subcontracting. But of course we are against all that because in the case of outsourcing/subcontracting the immediate effect is wage instability and insecurity at work."

In terms of strategies to confront this reality brought on by the new wave of subcontracting, one of the most stressed points has been legal union representation at the workplace. The argument is to counterbalance the almost absolute authority of management in the subcontracted firms in the outsourcing chain:

"The only way out of this situation for us is to organize in the workplace itself; we need a union representation in those small subcontracted firms to stop precariousness at the workplace (...). To do this the kind of trade union we have in Brazil is worthless. Our unions send their directors to inspect plants in the morning and in the afternoon. But they stay at the gates, they cannot go in! (...) The unions have to be inside the plants to control this process of subcontracting. This is our battle now". 

Among the consequences of outsourcing/subcontracting for trade union action, the impossibility of keeping leadership and organisation from the main firm in the chain of subcontracted ones has been identified as one of the worst. The fragmentation of production into different and smaller firms counters workers' power conquered through collective internal organisation:

"As a way of breaking the leadership of the workers, the outsourcing /subcontracting process turned into reality things that we don't like (...). I was the leader of a factory of almost four thousand employees. When they fragmented in to several other firms I continued. But what about the other firms. I cannot go to all of them and if I go managers won't let me in. I have no more direct relationship with the workers and you end up forgotten" (Director of the main firm's factory committee).

In short, evidence is confirming a paradoxical situation of trade union action in Brazil especially in the manufacturing sector. On the one hand, the heritage of a recent past of struggles has resulted in a considerable bargaining power with business and the state. On the other hand, the consequences of restructuring of production and flexibilization of labour, and the large use of subcontracting in order to lower labour costs, has created a kind of impasse for trade union activities. The experience acquired in large firms has been the basis for demands and negotiation. But the new reality of industrial unemployment and the massive implementation of outsourcing/subcontracting has put trade unions in a quite defensive mood. Nevertheless, reaction to restructuring of production has varied according to the region and the sector of industry involved.


One could say that the Brazilian trade union movement is not the same in the 1990s as it was in the 1970s or 1980s. It should be viewed in a context where it has come to play an acknowledged role as an important political actor, meanwhile recognizing that while this legitimacy was built in the union struggles against the military dictatorship and in regional and nationwide strikes, it also served as the basis for establishing more recent relations with business and state, in the search for common ground to safeguard workers’ rights, employment and wages.

The words of Vicente Paulo da Silva, president of Brazil's Unified Workers' Confederation (Central Única dos Trabalhadores - CUT), are paradigmatic of this new phase. In an interview with "Jornal do Brasil" on February 7, 1993, with the suggestive title "Today's struggle is for what is new", he expresses his concern over "the challenge to seek what is new... What is new is restructuring of production..., the issue of technology, quality, productivity, and workers' sharing in profits." He recognizes that all this is only possible now because of the way in which past struggles allowed unions to mature and better understand reality: "... we are still able to strike, but in a more intelligent way. It would be impossible to have this vision today without having undergone the joys and tribulations of struggles, the trials and errors of the last fifteen years."

Recent experience within sectoral chambers in Brazil, now suspended by the Cardoso government, has bolstered prospects of trade unions' playing an important role in negotiating both industrial and social development (see Ferreira, 1994). The bargaining process involving trade unions and business in a context of economic adjustment raised the need to consider workers' participation in any alternatives for new economic growth policies.

According to Oliveira (1993), the so-called "acordo das montadoras" (the agreement between automobile companies, trade unions and the state that showed the sectoral chambers as a new instance of negotiation) highlighted, in the first place, the viability of collective bargaining arrangements, because it circumscribed the field of political dispute between capital and labour, when it consolidated the position of the trade unions involved as representatives of their grass-roots, legitimized capitalist entrepreneurship and recognised in the state an interested party in economic management. For Oliveira, the state became "no longer the judge of private conflicts, but a party that has also something to lose or to gain in the bargaining". Secondly, he draws attention to what this agreement meant in terms of the modernisation of industrial relations - "industrial relations that occur at the shopfloor, in the submerged world where the will of capital and management prevail. In this context, the workforce has always been regarded as production cost and, its predatory use as a norm in an unskilled and abundant labour market". The "acordo das montadoras" for Oliveira, deligitimised this pattern of labour exploitation when it recognised the workers as legitimate interlocutors, creating a tension between the relations at macro level and the day-to-day work relations, with positive consequences for the workers. 

It is necessary, however, to note with that there has been a debate about the process of negotiation with different emphasis given by both "CUT" and "Força Sindical" (the two most important confederations of trade unions in the country) to this issue.

Luiz Antônio de Medeiros, the most important leader of "Força Sindical", according to Cardoso (1992:176-178), considers the trade union as "an essential part of the market". "Good trade unions are part of capitalist reproduction". "It is the nature of trade union action to strengthen capitalism, since this action creates an internal market. At the same time it is only possible to have trade unions in market economies". To Medeiros the worker "desires better work conditions and better wages rather than the end of capitalism". "The Brazilian worker is not against profit, or against the existence of companies, or against their need for profit. What the worker wants is participation in the profits". This means that trade union action, to this Confederation, must "get rid of ideology" and that managers and workers should not be "enemies" but "partners".

The point about "partnership" probably locates a decisive difference. Although the "pragmatic" approach of an important sector of the "CUT" emphasizes the need for a permanent effort for negotiation with business, it also keeps reaffirming its socialist option and this, apparently, means that they are not seeking a "partnership" with the entrepreneurs. Grana (1993), a trade unionist from the CUT in São Paulo, points out that the struggle remains inside the factory. We live in a permanent state of conflict with the entrepreneurs. Today we strongly contest the way entrepreneurs are increasing prices, dealing with labour relations, facing the problem of subcontracting". 

Isawa (1993), from Ford's factory committee in São Bernardo (São Paulo), is emphatic in stating that "the boss for me is an opponent, and he is an opponent that I have to respect. But I never forget to consider him as an opponent. He is the owner of capital, he exploits". To Isawa the workers are in a permanent quarrel with management: "I am not his ally. I may eventually at some point, in order to avoid a major problem, be his ally. But it is clear for us that the manager is an opponent (...)".

If it is necessary to show the differences between the "CUT" and "Força Sindical" it is also important to point to internal criticisms to the so-called "trade union pragmatism", within the "CUT". The main argument is about socialism with all political tendencies struggling for socialism, albeit with differences in relation to practice.

Opposing arguments to the posture of "negotiation" can be identified in criticisms to what is called "participative trade unionism", as against "classist trade unionism". In the first case, "workers participate in everything... but they cannot question the market, the legitimacy of profit, for whom and to whom is the production, the logic of productivity, the sacred private property...". For this political position, the struggle for the social control of production, present with such intensity in the 1960's and 1970's and in other moments of workers' struggles, seems to be only a distant memory (Antunes,1993: 66-70).

Those who defend socialism but are participating in the negotiation processes, say that the difference is over how to achieve socialism. Grana says (1993): "we are not like those who think the worse, the better, with people being impoverished all the time, being massacred, we are going to reach socialism. We think that the more information the working class can have the more will be the social influence on changes in society." Grana also thinks that the trade union movement has a clear role to play in society and that trade union needs credibility and concrete results. To him, "the metalworkers now have a lot of experience and don't go around preaching socialism to their members without the support of concrete action. The worker has first to understand his industrial sector, its product and its importance to the economy".

The theme of negotiation is on the agenda, despite ideological opposition within the trade union movement. The examples of negotiation are being multiplied and seemingly point to an irrefutable tendency of large sectors of trade unionism, particularly in a context of economic crisis and declining employment. "It is the beginning of a new pattern of trade union action in the "CUT": rather than a more conflictual action, there can be seen an attempt for some sort of dialogue, of negotiation, somewhere"(Jácome Rodrigues, 1993:240). If the "CUT", to build up its identity, had a more conflictual kind of action in labour relations, ten years on, this pattern has been eroded. The challenge now is to think about this process from a variety of ideological and political positions, and the gap between the discourse and the practices of the CUT's kind of trade unionism.


The "new" trade unionism that has marked Brazilian history in the last fifteen years, has conquered a political space and become an important political interlocutor for management and the state. Today, this movement has not lost its dynamism as an organised force, it has however had to change its characteristics to face the reality imposed by industrial restructuring.

In contrast with the majority of Latin American countries, trade unionism in Brazil has transformed itself in the struggle to break links with the state and a strong populist heritage and in 1983 became a national institution with the formation of CUT (Unified Workers' Federation). In addition, this movement has a particularity, in that it has also created a formal political expression through the organisation of the PT (Workers’ Party). 

Most political parties in Brazil were initiated by the dominant classes and thus reflect various statist strategies. By contrast, the Workers' Party has sought to establish its structure from "base nuclei", benefiting from both the trade union's and grassroots experience of democratic practice as it evolved throughout the 1970s. It has also provided a platform for the political expression to various kinds of social movements (women's movements, cultural minorities, environmentalists, etc) whilst retaining its identity as a party linked to the struggles of the working class.

The acquisition of political power in the recent past, has delayed, but not nullified the impact of industrial restructuring on organized labour. The question for the Brazilian trade union movement is how to take advantage of this sui generis situation while there is still some bargaining strength, and to create alternatives to policies introduced via the restructuring of production. The difficulties with regard to the "flexibilisation" of labour have already proved to be a considerable challenge. The precariousness of work has become widespread in Brazil and most unions have been unable to develop new forms of action, so overwhelming has this process been. In fact, even their survival as collective organisations is at stake with the expansion of the informal sector, increasing unemployment, and growing precariousness of jobs.

Trade unions in the most internationalised and modern sectors of Brazilian industry have shown some strength when negotiating with management in this economic and political context. They have also confirmed the importance of their presence in any serious discussion about economic growth and policies of job creation. Some unions have developed a general understanding of the close link between establishing workers' citizenship in the factories (representation, stability, and a reduction in the working day) and broadening gains in democracy and civils' rights within wider society (unemployment insurance, training, and flexible retirement) (Castro & Guimarães, 1990: 222). Problems remain however when the totality of the workforce and trade unions are taken into consideration. In fact, the overall consequences of the restructuring of production have been destructive to all sectors of Brazilian trade unionism.

Organised labour in Brazil is becoming aware of the need to change trade union practices and has recently sought to extend its influence beyond the struggle for wage increases. In conjunction with changes in organisation (fusion of trade unions, etc), unions have formulated new strategies that make possible a combination of defensive and demand action politically oriented to a wider group of workers, including the non-organised. In addition, they have become aware of the need to transcend the limits of corporatist action and demands, in order to promote social change and deal with community problems relating to areas such as housing, public transport, education and health.

The future prospects of the trade union movement in Brazil depend on its ability to strengthen links with organisations within civil society, other social movements, human rights groups, to expand forms of democratic participation, and to create economic and political alternatives to the `inevitability' of globalisation. These kinds of links would also highlight different forms of work more closely associated with community life, aspects of social reprodution that have inevitably been left aside by the factory-oriented perspective that has marked trade union action in this century.

Organised labour in Brazil can currently count on its political representation, mainly via the PT (Workers' Party), as an important element as in opposition to the deleterious effects of restructuring. The Workers' Party remains essential to the articulation of working class demands. Workers from the cities and from the countryside still have the party fighting for social reforms, for a democratic civil society and for a state controlled by the whole of society. The Workers' Party policies and attitudes in the public administration of some important cities, have demonstrated that it is possible to be competent and transparent to address urgent social needs and to have a different approach to government and politics, also allowing organisations within civil society to participate at various levels of decision making.

The particularities of the Brazilian experience point therefore to the potential emergence of social movements more closely attuned to the needs of both workers and other social groups.

The results to date of the process of industrial restructuring in Brazil, especially in relation to the intensification and exploitation of labour and the reduction of workers’ rights, are very similar to those in other industrialised countries. It remains to be seen whether the defensive alternatives of a still powerful and organised labour force, acting together with other social movements, can produce a different strategy to face the devastating effects of the `flexibilisation' of labour on the lives of Brazilian workes.


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