By JAMES MARKIN and ERWIN FREED
On June 18, the second day of the decade’s first Labor Notes conference, Herbert Claros de Silva spoke on the conditions and fights facing Brazilian workers. Herbert is an aerospace worker and a leader in the independent union CSP-Conlutas, which organizes over 2 million workers in Brazil. He is also a militant with the United Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado, PSTU), the Brazilian section of the International Workers League – Fourth International, with which Workers’ Voice is in political solidarity.
The panel that Herbert spoke on was titled “Unions and Workers Facing Political Repression.” He spoke with Au Loong-yu, a Hong Kong-based writer and activist, and Rabab Abdulhadi, a San Francisco State University professor who has faced severe difficulties from the university due to her vocal support for Palestinian liberation.
Liberalism gives space to far-right
Herbert began his talk by giving context to the political conditions in which workers in Brazil are struggling: “First we have to talk about Bolsonaro’s attacks in Brazil. The rise of the ultra-right is a phenomenon of the whole world because the class collaborationist left has been traitorous.”
Taking an internationalist stance, he continued by connecting developments in Brazil to the United States: “The Democratic Party is responsible for Trump because they sold out the working class and betrayed their interests. The same thing is true about the PT [Workers’ Party] because they failed to deliver on shorter workweeks and other fundamental demands of workers. This is why the ultra-right has support in our class.”
Continuing on the theme, Hector explained the dynamic that is universal with reformist formations: “When these people get into power, they show their real face to the working class. They carry out a political program of ultra-neoliberalism, which manifests through attacks on working people, privatizations, and repressive laws in parliament that reduce the rights of working people.”
Bolsonaro attacks workers
Herbert explained how the Bolsonaro government is terrorizing the working class. It has “reduced all social spending for the environment and introduced five major laws against workers and unions. Due to Bolsonaro’s politics around the pandemic, over 170,000 people have died in Brazil. This number is unbelievable to the Brazilian people. Brazil has one of the best public health systems in the world. That system was a fruit of working people in the struggle against the last dictatorial regime. It guarantees public health access and vaccines for all, including foreigners. People with very serious cancer go to Brazil for treatment. Yet the government of Bolsonaro abandoned the people and cut funds to public health.”
Herbert went on to talk about the campaign for Justice for Dom Phillips, a British journalist and campaigner for sustainable development, and Bruno Pereira, an Indigenous activist—who were murdered in the Amazon. He placed their murder within the larger context of repression in Brazil, saying: “Bolsonaro has acted with impunity because he openly supports the mine owners and agribusinesses. The armed forces of Brazil only protect the capitalists, who are destroying the environment.
“Bolsonaro is using the state to repress social movements, [but] this is also the inherent politics of the state that predates Bolsonaro. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery. This has caused many concrete consequences for Black people in Brazil. … The employers of the bourgeoisie have the mentality of enslavers. Working people [who are organizing get the cops called on them. We do lots of organizing within factories, and every time we radicalize, they call the cops. Six comrades from our union are here, and three of them are facing a court process for being part of picket lines.”
CSP Conlutas fights back
Herbert then moved on to discussing the work of CSP-Conlutas. “We have organized an international campaign denouncing Bolsonaro for genocide. We also organized a campaign to tell the story of Indigenous people and peasants; there was a massive increase in deaths in that community.”
On the pandemic, he said: “We have not had any pandemic like this since 1919. The working class was confused, and we didn’t know how to confront it. We were going to look at the history of working class organizing around these issues. What we learned from the Russian Revolutionary literature was that we needed social distancing and quarantining, but also the most support and resources possible to public health. The Bolsheviks had a socialist government, and in Brazil we have a capitalist government, and so from this point we decided what to demand from our capitalist government. We needed the most investment possible in the public health system, but Bolsonaro did the exact opposite and started to reduce it. We launched a national union campaign denouncing the policy of Bolsonaro.
“This was very important because it created a more critical opinion among workers. We had a lot of questions about protesting because we were worried about public health and spreading the virus. We decided that the situation was so bad that we had to go into the streets, and this decision was confirmed by Black Lives Matter in the U.S. The other major union confederations didn’t want to protest, but we forced them to go.
“One thing we did was a campaign in defense of nurses and doctors; we have many of them in our federation. We also have a large homeless population, and we worked with homeless people and did donations of food and money to the homeless. We did a national campaign for the vaccine in our local region. When the pandemic arrived, we demanded social distancing in factories, we created letters that demanded the employers give paid leave, and we had a big assembly and voted for a general health strike. We wrote pamphlets and talked to workers to raise consciousness. In some of the companies, 85% of workers went out on a health strike. As a result of this strike, the bosses gave us paid leave or collective vacation.”
Herbert was clear that amidst the domestic struggles in Brazil, CSP Conlutas continues to put international solidarity at the center. He said, “l want to share my experience of solidarity with Ukraine. We organized a convoy to Ukraine. No country has the right to invade another country. The Ukrainian workers are suffering under brutal repression, the bourgeois state, and the war. Young workers in Ukraine are taking up arms against the Russian occupation, which to them signifies the totalitarian regime of Putin.
“We have relationships with unions in the Donbas where they don’t have any rights. What we believe is that the union movement needs to be autonomous from bourgeois governments. This is why we had a working-class caravan with unions. We are denouncing unions and the imperialism of the EU, NATO, and also Zelensky. We believe that as a union movement we need to be in solidarity with workers around the world. This is the essential point of class solidarity.”
Building a class-struggle union
Inspired by the atmosphere at the Labor Notes conference, Herbert connected the language of the U.S. labor movement with the project of developing a militant union in Brazil. He said, “Yesterday I was at a workshop on class-struggle unionism. This is a challenge to create for us. There is no magical formula; we have to learn through experiences. We have to learn through the history of the class.
“Our confederation has a method of bringing together the exploited and the oppressed. If it were only a union federation with workers, it would be limited; a big section of the class is not in unions. Unions are still important, but we want to bring other types of people into the federation and not leave behind the people outside of the unions.
One example is the delivery app workers, and their method is something they did themselves. In a funny example, their strike draws on their experience in soccer fan clubs. The favelas have their own form of mobilization that is different from the traditional union movement and often much more radical.
The truth is that union confederations have prejudices against these people. What Conlutas is trying to do is get closer to these workers, but we admit it’s difficult. But it’s important because workers are suffering through the uberization of the entire workforce. That’s why we think that organizations of class struggle need to have a more open approach to organizing.”
Herbert’s speech and the experience of CSP-Conlutas in Brazil are an important lesson for workers all over the world. The labor movement has the potential to unite the working class in struggle independent of the exploiters. This potential can only be truly realized if workers from all countries connect their struggles and fight to win.
Photo: CSP-Conlutas and Workers’ Voice members join a group of participants in the Labor Notes conference. (James Markin / Workers’ Voice)