"Pelegos" No More? Labour Historians Confront the 'New Unionism' in Brazil

David Parker, Joel Wolfe, John D. French, Margaret E. Keck
1994 Labour (Halifax)  
booming automobile plants, metalworking factories, and working-class neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the paulistano labour movement appeared, as late as 1976, incapable of asserting its right to share in the fruits of Brazil's vaunted "economic miracle." Not surprisingly, the historiography of Brazilian labour reflected this pessimism, and sought to account for what was seen primarily as a story of failure. In the last decade and a half, however, Brazilian labour has experienced an extraordinary
more » ... an extraordinary resurgence, particularly in Sâo Paulo. Starting in 1978, a series of major strikes paralyzed auto plants throughout the city's industrial suburbs -the so-called "ABC" region of Santo André, Sâo Bernardo do Campo, and Sâo Caetano do Sul. The President of the Sâo Bernardo metalworkers' union, Luis Inacio da Silva C'Lula"), rose to national prominence as the expanding strike wave became a lightning rod of opposition to military rule. These strikes announced the emergence of a different kind of workers' movement, soon dubbed the "new unionism," that seemed to overturn years of tradition by taking a stronger stand against David Parker, "Pelegos No More? Labour Historians Confront the 'New Unionism' in Brazil," Labour/Le Travail, 33 (Spring 1994), 263-78. LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL employers and giving greater voice to workers on the factory floor. 1 In the waning years of the dictatorship, as the generals gradually edged Brazil toward democracy, these unions joined forces with other rising social movements-including catholic radicals, neighborhood committees, feminists, environmentalists, and human rights activists -to form the Workers' Party (PT). The resurrection of a militant, grassroots labour movement in Brazil, combined with the extraordinary success of the Workers' Party-in 1988 the PT won mayoral races in Sâo Paulo and several other major cities, while Lula lost the Presidential election by only six percentage points -has in turn changed the tenor and focus of Brazilian labour historiography. We now see the emergence of a significant revisionist current, inspired not by labour's inability to prevent the 1964 coup, but by its heroic survival and resurgence under military rule. No longer compelled to explain labour's weakness, the new historiography is free to investigate how Brazilian workers made their own history within the ever-shifting constraints of intermittent authoritarianism. The result is a richer and more nuanced picture of Brazilian labour, increasingly influenced by new methodologies and new ways of thinking about workers' resistance. The three works under review are all contributions to this new revisionism. Corporatism and peleguismo: the old wisdom THROUGHOUT THE 1960S AND 1970S, scholars desperately sought to account for the unions' apparent powerlessness, even acquiescence, in the face of repeated employer assaults on workers' rights and privileges. Most focussed their attention on two culprits: corporatist labour legislation, enacted by Getulio Vargas during the Estado Novo (1938-45); and corrupt union leaders, or pelegos, who amassed power and influence but at the cost of selling out their rank and file. In broad outline, the classic interpretation of Brazilian corporatism went something like this: over the course of the 1930s, Vargas gradually established a system by which the government granted official recognition to one union in each industry, and channeled pensions and other benefits through that union, whose finances were built up by a mandatory paycheck deduction, the imposto sindical or "union tax." 2 Officially recognized unions became the conduit through which government largesse flowed to the workers, and the union bureaucracies that tapped the flow saw unprecedented prosperity. The Faustian catch was that the labour ministry retained the legal right to retire official recognition, to intervene in union politics, and to remove leaders it deemed overly combative or independent. Furthermore, by 'John Humphrey, Capitalist Control and Workers ' Struggle in the Brazilian Auto Industry (Princeton 1982), gives an excellent account of the emergence of the "new unionism." T"he imposto sindical was a mandatory payment of one day's pay per year, deducted from the paychecks of all workers, union members or not, and distributed among the official unions according to government priorities. Dues for union members were extra and voluntary.
doi:10.2307/25143796 fatcat:p5fpyoqxlffwjhilnsligpz3qy