Brazil: Left workers’ unity attempt fails

Delegate addresses the national congress of militant Brazilian trade union federation, Contulas.

By Raul Bassi

July 11, 2010 -- An attempt to forge greater unity among militant union sectors in Brazil has imploded. The Working Class Congress (Conclat) was held in Sao Paulo on June 5-6 to try and bring together various radical union currents. The key forces behind the congress were Conlutas and Intersindical, both formed in opposition to the main union confederation, the Unified Workers’ Confederation (CUT).

The CUT unites approximately 60 million formal or informal workers out of a total population of 200 million, making it the biggest workers confederation in the continent. The CUT has had a very close relationship with the governing Workers Party (PT), both during its period of ascendency as it emerged out of the militant workers' struggles of the 1970s, as well as during its transformation to what it is today.

This transformation was closely related to the bureaucratisation of the CUT. Controlling powerful superannuation funds, the workers' confederation began to buy into utilities, such as gas, water and electricity, during the neoliberal privatisation process in the 1990s.

Through this process, CUT leaders converted themselves into directors and managers of these companies, discovering a new life of boardrooms and VIP travel that was much more comfortable than the old one of street protests and industrial organising.

A similar process occurred among PT party officials after they began occupying elected posts at local, state and national level. The end result was that once again, the PT and CUT leaderships shared common interests, although very different ones to those of 30 years ago.

In response emerged — at first at the workplace level, and subsequently among some unions — rank-and-file militants opposed to the CUT leadership.

In the political sphere, a number of the currents that left the PT after its national election victory in 2002 went on to form the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). At the trade union level, militants from the United Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) and some from the PSOL, went on to form Conlutas in 2003.

Two years later, a new break in the CUT gave birth to another embryonic project — Intersindical — linked to different PSOL currents and the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB).

These two projects, along with a range of smaller union currents, made up the bulk of the 3200 delegates at Conclat, representing close to 350 unions, federations, movements and associations, and more than 3 million workers, according to conference organisers. There was a strong presence of education, public sector and white-collar workers.

One of the more important blue-collar unions present was the influential Metal Workers Union of San Jose dos Campos, one of the first to support the creation of the PT and which has just come out of a struggle against the PT government over the loss of almost 4000 jobs as consequence of the global economic crisis.

Another characteristic of participants was the relatively high average age, a result of the lack of generational renewal in the workers movement.

Similarly, most of the delegates were also members or supporters of one of the different left parties — the PSOL, PSTU and the PCB — demonstrating a lack of participation by rank-and-file workers.

Despite these shortcomings, the congress represented an important coming together of militant sections of the working class. Yet the inability to reach agreement over various issues led to the new organisation being aborted.

Disagreements erupted over whether the new organisation should be a purely workers' organisation or allow the affiliation of organisations representing other sectors. But the key dispute that led to the final walkout was over the name of the new organisation.

Conlutas, which represented just over 50% of the delegates, favoured the name Conlutas-Intersindical. However, Intersindical and a number of other currents preferred to not use the names of the previous organisations in order to give the new organisation a fresh start.

The refusal to try to reach a consensus by Conlutas led to a walk out by Intersindical and a number of other currents, killing off, at least in the short term, the possibility of a new unified organisation.

Both Conlutas and Intersindical represent important steps forward in organising militant unions, and their unification would have represented another further step. Perhaps, however, it will take pressure from the rank and file and the rebuilding of the workers movement on a more democratic basis to enable this to happen.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]