Brasilian trade unions are preparing for four years of Bolsonaro

By Santiago Fischer, WSM-Solidarité Mondiale

Brazil has shifted. The largest country in Latin America, with more than 200 million inhabitants, is now to be governed by an openly far-right president. Dreaming of a return to the military dictatorship (1964-1985), when violence was used with impunity against political opponents, Jair Bolsonaro sends chills down the spines of the most vulnerable groups, on the front line of which are the indigenous peoples, women, homosexuals, trans people and, more generally, the poorest members of society. Human and environmental rights defenders, together with PT (Workers’ Party) ) members and trade unionists will also be in the firing line of the president and his supporters over his next four years in office.

Our people do not deserve someone like Bolsonaro. What he wants to do will create a social disaster. He wants to profit the large landowners and will fuel discrimination. It’s a very worrying step backwards."

- Ricardo Patah, president of the UGT trade union centre, which brings together 1,300 trade unions and 12 million members in Brazil.

The new president was elected against the background of an economic récession, with 14 million people unemployed and ever-increasing numbers trapped in precarious employment with indecent working conditions. The discontent is widespread and is fueling fears, which Bolsonaro capitalised on during the presidential race. It was a campaign studded with false information on social media and hatred being stirred up against every possible scapegoat, starting with the members of the PT, a party rejected by a large part of the population following the various corruption scandals uncovered in recent years.

Bolsonaro positioned himself as an exemplary figure, a heroic character capable of putting an end to the endemic violence plaguing the country, as well as to the all-pervasive corruption. His hate speech proved appealing and reassured 55% of Brazilians, who chose him to take control of their country’s destiny.

Solidarity versus parochialism

"Our compatriots seem to have a short memory. To live better, Brazil needs social and solidarity-based policies, not to turn in on itself. Major social progress was made under Lula’s presidency. He developed the north-western part of the country, which is very poor, by launching a major electrification project to bring power into homes, as well as a plan to bring running water. He provided millions of poor people with access to the family allowance system, to allow them to live with dignity. Pensioners saw their monthly income increase from US$70 to US$300. He improved the education system, making it more egalitarian and more effective. He brought more citizen participation into decision-making, fostering greater inclusion of previously neglected populations such as Afro-descendants, women, and LGBTI people. These groups were able to voice their concerns and propose improvements to public policies,", said Ricardo Patah.

Jair Bolsonaro, by contrast, has promised to put an end to social policies, to favour big investors and continue to exploit the Amazon, showing total contempt for the environmental policies of previous years. He advocates the use of torture by the police as a means of obtaining information and intends to make it easier for Brazilians to carry weapons. He has announced plans to dissolve the Labour Ministry ,as well as the Ministry of Environment. He has also threatened to send his political opponents into exile or to jail.

Ever-growing precariousness among workers

The UGT also fears the growing precariousness among workers. They have already suffered attacks from all sides under the current president, Michel Temer. Various legislative measures have been approved, with catastrophic consequences for the population at large. The law on “intermittent work”, for example, opens the way for more flexible working arrangements, by introducing hourly work with a ceiling set at 10% of the minimum wage. As a result, all jobs can now be covered by cheap outsourcing, with almost slave-like conditions. Women have also been hard hit by the recent measures, such as the legislation allowing pregnant women to be made to work in hazardous conditions, in the name of sacrosanct economic growth and job creation, without any regard for their health. Bolsonaro has promised to continue down this path, increasing labour market flexibility.

"The same old neoliberal recipes are being served up to fight the crisis, in the belief that they are the solution to everything. But there is no thought for the dignity of the workers, which is crucial."

- Ricardo Patah

Half of Bolsonaro’s transition team is from the military,indicating that, above and beyond Bolsonaro himself, the problem is likely to come from the overall leadership structure, which is openly violent and reactionary. The next four years will be placed under the banner of resistance. The various unions are going to have to put aside their differences and unite, to try and save the social rights still in place.

"We have already started to organise ourselves with a view to offering strong opposition to this government. We need each and every democrat to fight this reactionary front," explained Ricardo Patah.

Unfortunately, the unions will have to manage with limited financial resources, which have been slashed by the Temer government, pushing social movements to the edge of the abyss and forcing them to make significant redundancies. The UGT, for example, used to operate with an annual budget of US$15 million. Now it has to manage with just US$100,000. The attack on the unions is part of a well-thought-out strategy to crush social protest. It was, above all, designed to ensure that these resources could not be allocated to supporting the presidential campaign of the PT. The unions, bled dry, are going to have to learn to live with this austerity, which is set to last.

"International solidarity will also be key to the success of our fight. Partners such as the CSC en Belgique are important allies for us. Financial resources aside, they provide us with essential political support. What is happening here is also happening in other parts of the world. We, the workers of the world, have to unite to fight against the reactionary policies plunging people into a very dark social future," the trade unionist concludes.

With unionisation rates reaching 20%, the membership base in Brazil is strong, and is likely to make life difficult for the new president. It is nonetheless essential that an alliance be forged with all the social forces in the country (women’s movements, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, LGBTI, etc.), which are also on Bolsonaro’s hit list, if there is to be any hope of containing the new regime’s authoritarian tendencies and, in the longer run, favouring the return of a more progressive government.