Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last June, there was a revolt throughout Brazil against the failures in habitation, sanitation, education and transportation—it wasn’t about the twenty centavos. A common factor uniting the disperse groups that demonstrated was the organizers’ insistence upon distancing themselves from traditional political parties — “No party represents us!” was the war cry.

The Curmudgeon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News, Brazil
The Curmudgeon, also known as Michael Royster.

Last June, the protesters also insisted on distancing themselves from labor unions, because of their traditional ties to PT and other parties in the governmental coalition. The twenty centavos would have been important in a labor union argument but (once again) it wasn’t about the twenty centavos.

This June, however, things have changed somewhat. The run-up to the World Cup has seen strikes and more strikes, most often by public service workers— schoolteachers, rubbish collectors (“garis”), federal, state and local police, metro and train employees, the lot. What’s different is that the strikes nowadays are indeed about the twenty centavos — the strikers want more money.

What is similar to last year in these strikes is that many of them are being carried out by rump groups, and not by the labor unions, whose leadership has often negotiated an increase that the rank and file find too little. Brazil’s heavily top-down labor law system, instituted by then dictator Getulio Vargas who copied much of Mussolini’s system, provides almost no room for dissent. The system prohibits more than one labor union in any given geographical area, and all workers and employers in that area are covered by bargaining agreements.

In other words, the strikers are saying “No union represents us!” What has happened is that the strikers have been successful, mainly because the government is scared stiff that strikes of public services will paralyze Brazil during the World Cup. The strikers don’t like the fact that the union leadership, committed to its PT and other allies, has tacitly agreed with the Government not to strike.

At the end of May, President Dilma signed off on Decree No. 8243, creating a National Policy of Social Engagement, with a series of councils, commissions, conferences, ombudsmen, as well as public consultations in administrative matters, financed by the Federal Council. The decree is hugely controversial, as many legislators and lawyers claim it is unconstitutional because it invades the province of the legislature.

Its critics see the policy as a thinly-disguised attempt by the Government to re-institute, in the political arena, the Vargas era phenomenon known as “peleguismo” where the government effectively appointed the leadership of the labor unions. Its defenders claim the contrary, holding that the policy is a reaction to the current “No party represents us” and “No union represents us” movement, precisely because union and party leadership have already been co-opted by the government.

On a positive note, it is possible that councils, commissions and consultations could become an avenue whereby “civil society” NGOs can be directly involved in the actual workings of government administration. Designed to channel civil society discontent, they ought to forestall protests.

“Direct democracy” is thought by many to support populist leaders, rather than institutional structures. Such was clearly the case with the local councils created (and rigorously controlled) by former President Chavez of Venezuela. That’s hardly an auspicious harbinger for Dilma’s policy, which may not survive legislative or judicial scrutiny.

Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 36 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)


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