Opinion, by Michael R Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In the USA, the word “teamster” used to mean a mule driver, since mules hauled freight in teams rather than singly. With the onset of the horseless carriage, the word morphed into a reference to truck drivers.
In America, the Teamsters Union has had immense power, principally in negotiating better pay and working conditions for teamsters. In Brazil, the trucker unions have not had as much power, because most truck drivers are self-employed service contractors, who own their own trucks and do not work for any specific employer.
Last week, the Brazilian teamsters discovered they had the power to bring the entire country to its knees, as they went on a nationwide strike.
Several causes for the strike have been widely identified: (a) a drastic economic upheaval, which affected all truckers throughout the country; (b) WhatsApp, which allows them to communicate with each other throughout the country, instantaneously; (c) large truck haulage companies, seeking tax breaks; (d) far-right ideologues, seeking chaos to justify a return to military rule; (e) leftist ideologues, seeking chaos to force President Temer to resign.
The surprising thing is that the Brazilian people have largely supported the teamster strike, even though they have been deprived of basic needs—fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, meat, local and interstate transportation (bus and air), hospital supplies, etc.
The economic upheaval was basic: the prices teamsters could charge were declining, while the cost of diesel fuel (all trucks in Brazil must use diesel fuel) doubled in little more than six months. WhatsApp meant instant communications throughout the country, not dependent upon labor unions, most of which are only statewide, not federal.
In the Curmudgeon’s Humble Opinion, the Labor Reform Law passed in late 2017 has helped generate popular support for the teamsters. That law not only repealed many of the protections workers have long enjoyed, it also encourages workers to become independent professionals (“autônomos”) rather than employees.
The conservative reformers have welcomed the changes, but labor unions and “progressive” politicians have denounced them. The teamsters strike has brought the issue to the fore, causing many workers to question whether being an “autônomo” is really an improvement.
Independent teamsters are “autônomos” so they have no pension plan, no health care plan, no unemployment insurance, no guaranteed vacations, etc. They depend upon their current income for their future and that of their children. Their plight has tugged on the heartstrings of the general populace.
Teamsters know the right to strike is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. So, what’s the obvious way to combat their economic woes, and that of their colleagues? Teamsters on strike!
In Brazil, it is rare for strikers to be seen as good guys; in most cases they are characterized as rabble-rousers and leftist malcontents. This teamsters strike is a notable exception, as was the strike of Rio’s sanitation workers (“garis”) during Carnival a few years ago.
The longer the strike goes on, the more likely it is that public support will wane. But as of today’s writing, eighty percent of the people still support the teamsters; time will tell.
The Curmudgeon’s next column will deal with Oilworkers on strike!