Visiting with Brazilian Labor Unions

Organizers Forum Unions

     Recife            I was confused, but that’s not uncommon when an Organizers’ Forum delegation is on foreign soil and lost in another language.  Trying to sort out the address for our meeting with CUT, the Brazilian labor federation, and some of its members, I worried that I had gotten the wrong address for the meeting.  The WhatsApp message showed pictures of a huge swimming pool and deck chairs.  This couldn’t be the union office, I thought?  It looked like a resort.  It was 5:30 am in the morning, and I was madly sending messages to confirm, but our friends kept insisting this was the place.  At first, we passed by the address, but then the other car signaled that there were metal doors next to a red water and watch tower, so we doubled back.  Stepping inside, we were in a resort of sorts, but this time it was a union-built and managed vacation and training center for the members of CUT in the state of Pernambuco.  Oh, and it turned out they did take paying private customers as well to support the facility.  You know, like a resort.

We had a great session sharing questions and answers with a dozen union leaders and some social movement leaders.  CUT is mainly composed of four unions, including teachers, metalworkers, communication, and public service.  The federation came together at the end of the dictatorship.  Unions during the dictatorship were largely in name only, with a small amount of dues deducted from their pay on government orders to the employers.  Workers were members in name only, if they even knew they had a union, and the union was also in name only.  The unions that formed CUT recruited members directly and demanded independence from the state.

We asked if the money to build the center came from dues.  The leaders answered that they were able to put the place together when then won a huge settlement after a fight.  These kinds of facilities are unusual, but not unique.  I’ve stayed in hotels in Cuba and Argentina owned by unions, even if they were a long way from being resorts.  The UAW has a well-known center in Black Lake, Michigan, and another in Elgin, Ontario, now under the auspices of UNIFOR.  The Teamsters had a least one such location.  We’ve tried to have meetings in one of the big union centers in England.

We had met with CUT in the first Organizers’ Forum international dialogue in Sao Paulo twenty-one years ago.  There were differences then.  Social movements were skeptical of the unions, and the unions felt the same way.  Now there seemed to be deeper relationships, likely formed during Lula de Silva’s election and first term, and sustained in the struggles under Bolsonaro, when there was pushback against unions.

The union representatives and social movements asked interesting questions.  Why were our unions “general,” rather than strictly jurisdictional?  How did we organize?  Was there a “solitary” economy in the US or Canada, which we quickly answered in the negative.  The discussion was genuine on both sides.  It could have gone on all day, if we had more time.  Then they invited us to lunch, which we heartily accepted, and found ourselves facing a feast.

We invited them all to the US and Canada, but secretly, we all hoped to accept their invitation to return to their center in Recife.