Trade unions proliferated in Brazil from 1991 to 2001, but their power did not keep in step, says a report that is fueling debate now that the nation's president is a man was a unionist himself, former metalworker Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The labor movement "needs to renovate itself, set a new agenda," and not limit itself to demanding a salary increase once a year, says Joao Felicio, president of CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores), one of the country's two largest union federations. The trade unions should also fight for "workers' education and health, the environment, and the rights of women, blacks and children," Felicio told IPS.
He defends a "citizen-based unionism", one that is part of the political debates about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), foreign debt, agrarian reform and other matters that affect employment and society in general, as opposed to a movement that is specific to unionized workers only.
Lula, one of the founders of CUT in 1983, also supports this broader approach. A trade union study published by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics says that from 1991 to 2001 the number of labor organizations increased 49 percent, reaching 11,354. But the total membership grew by less than half that portion -- 22 percent -- to 19.5 million workers, in a country with a population of 170 million. According to these figures, the average roster total per union organization fell from 2,104 to 1,720 in the 10-year period.
Trade unions worldwide have been weakened as a result of several phenomena, such as technological advances and the restructuring of production in general, including the disappearance of many large factories. This led to the fragmentation of the union movement, with work increasingly contracted out to third parties and companies continue to relocate to countries with cheaper labor costs. Furthermore, increased unemployment -- thus fewer unionized workers -- is linked to these processes.
Labor minister Jacques Wagner, a former union leader like Lula, said he is concerned about the "excessive" number of trade unions in the country, which along with the low union membership nationwide limits their authority in labor negotiations.
Wagner says he will seek government measures to contain the multiplication of labor organizations. Current legislation favors the process of union proliferation towards dispersion, because each professional category can establish an organization in each municipality. And in recent years even new municipalities have been created, while the growth of the informal labor market has further divided many work categories. Furthermore, the constitution of 1988 authorized public employees to join trade unions, membership that had previously been denied them.
The 11,364 union groups in Brazil respond to 4,607 parent organizations, not counting the authorities of state agencies. Company-specific unions are not permitted, but that has not prevented the dispersion phenomenon, because within a single firm there coexist several different organizations for the various professional categories, explained Joao Carlos Gonalves, secretary-general of Fora Sindical (FS), Brazil's other major union federation.
Labor leaders Gonalves and Felicio agree that it is necessary to reform union legislation, most importantly to legalize the organizations that have existed since the 1980s but are not officially recognized, which limits their activities.
They also agreed on the importance of establishing collective contracts at the national level, with workers having greater say in the negotiations. Under the current structure, each sector negotiates labor accords limited to the municipality, state or other specific territory, and which are valid for different periods of time -- further division that debilitates the union movement, they said.
But there are some sharp discrepancies between the two main union federations. The CUT demands the elimination of the guild tax, an obligatory annual payment equivalent to a day's wages, paid by all workers, union members or not. The existence of this tax is one of the main causes of Brazil's "fragile a nd scarcely rooted" unionism, says Felicio. With that income assured, the unions do not need to attract new members, nor legitimize their actions on behalf of those they should be representing, said the CUT president, adding with irony, "Many leaders hate the membership because they force them to work."
A large portion of the unions do not even draw 10 percent of the workers in the industry or profession they represent, although for the most militant and best organized, it reaches 65 or 70 percent, he said.
The CUT also wants to put an end to the rule of "one union per profession in each municipality", and proposes instead to expand the territorial reference, making possible regional and national fusions of labor groups.
The FS, meanwhile, advocates keeping the guild tax.
A trade union represents the totality of its work category, not only its affiliates, and the benefits of its actions extend to everyone, argues Gonalves. Though he admits that there could be changes if the workers of each sector so decide. The rule of one union per profession is useful for preventing fragmentation, and the existence of numerous smaller unions does not weaken the movement as much as the division of workers within the same company into different categories, claims the FS secretary-general.
Debate on the union question is longstanding in Brazil, but it has heated up recently because labor legislation reform is one of the top priorities of Lula, who was sworn in as president on Jan. 1. The union activists demand that any reform implemented must help them recuperate negotiating power as they seek greater job creation and higher wages.
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