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When to stop is moving forward

The cycle of strikes from 1978 to 1992 was crucial for the democratization of Brazil

Antônio Gaudério/FolhapressMeeting of employees at the Brazilian Post Office Company on Praça da Sé square, in 1975Antônio Gaudério/Folhapress

“Because the person driving the train forward/ can also, suddenly, make the train stop,” songwriter Chico Buarque wrote in Linha de montagem (1980). This song was the musician’s homage to the strikes that began in 1978, in the country’s major industrial region, comprising the three industrial cities that surround the capital city of São Paulo, collectively referred to as ABC. The strikes began after a 10-year period of no strikes, and continued for 20 years. The peak of the strikes was between 1985 and 1992. At that time, Brazil accounted for one of the highest work stoppage levels in the history of Western Hemisphere countries. The train suddenly stopped running: there are no records of labor strikes in 1977; in contrast, the country witnessed 118 labor strikes in 1978, and in the next ten years, more than two thousand labor strikes. In the opinion of economists, the train engine stopped running because of technological changes, the GDP, low salary levels, and unemployment. Sociologists, on the other hand, viewed the engine driver as a proletarian who wanted the train to “derail” and who desired structural and ideological changes more than a higher salary.

“The analysis of the strike statistics shows that neither economists nor sociologists understood the phenomenon. The cycle of strikes in Brazil was clearly linked to the characteristics and to the process of Brazil’s political transition to a democracy,” explains political scientist Eduardo Noronha, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and coordinator of the project Arquivos das greves no Brasil: análises qualitativas e quantitativas da década de 1970 à de 2000 [Archives of strikes in Brazil: quantitative and qualitative analyses of the 1970s to the 2000s] prepared in conjunction with the Inter-Labor Union Department of Statistics and Social-Economical Studies (Dieese), with the support of FAPESP. The project has generated a data base with full information on the strikes, on the labor demands, and on the final result of the labor conflicts. The project includes 50 interviews with labor union leaders from the 1960’s onwards. The interviews will result in three volumes to be launched in 2013. “Little attention was paid to the relationship between the strikes and political processes. The economic variables were the major focus and political variables were dealt with generically; the strikes were explained as being expressions of class-related conflicts or political party-related conflicts,” he points out. In his opinion, the variation in the number of strikes is not due to minor changes in employment levels, income levels or inflation indicators or, in the area of politics, to election years. “All of these factors triggered the strikes, but they do not explain the disruption in the cycle of strikes,” he says.


In Noronha’s opinion, strikes were part of Brazil’s trajectory back to democracy. They were a part of the process of the maturing of Brazilian society. “The strikes were not only protests against the military dictatorship; the strikers also wanted democracy in the workplace. Of course, the battle for higher wages was the driving factor, but there was also a battle to reduce the absence of citizenship at factories, where the workers were disrespected. The workplace was also a dictatorship.” There are records of labor demands that ask for the right of the worker to go to the bathroom without needing to ask permission from the foreman, among other basic rights. “Of course the strikes had a political dimension, but not that of a political party. Workers wanted to gain new status in Brazilian society.” According to the researcher, after a long period of authoritarian governments, economic instability, and disregard of the developmental model, national democratization is the key to understanding the unusual wave of strikes. Brazilian labor unions had not been able to trigger a cycle of strikes to have any economic impact from the beginning of the 20th century up to the end of the populist democracy.

During his research work, Noronha noticed the existence of “the federal governments’ political and economic highlights,” from the Geisel to the Lula Governments. These highlights changed public opinion tendencies regardless of economic variables, such as employment and inflation, traditionally unpublished in analyses of the cycles of strikes. The most important data that enables an understanding of this cycle of strikes in Brazil is unusual to a certain extent, as it resulted from collective expectations associated with the highlights of government administrations and, on a secondary level, with each year’s political and economic scenario. “The end of the 1970s is a disruption in the history of labor relations in Brazil. There was nothing less likely to occur than the strike at the Scania company in 1978; yet, this was the most important labor union strike of all, because it showed that such strikes were possible and because it raised the awareness of public opinion,” he says.

CLOVIS CRANCHI/AELula speaks at an assembly of the Steel Workers’ Labor Union in 1980CLOVIS CRANCHI/AE

The researcher points out that political transitions are the perfect moment for collective actions aimed at attracting interest from the society in general in the sense of participating in public demonstrations. At the time, there was a general feeling of dissatisfaction with regard to the military government and the media embraced the discourse of democracy, which included strikes as a legitimate instrument for a society on its way to democracy. “As a result, the highlights of the changes in the strike-related behavior occurred simultaneously to transition-related political and institutional changes. The main disruptive events occurred in 1978, when the striking steel workers from the ABC region forced the inclusion of the strike into the Geisel and Figueiredo administrations’ project to open up the regime; and in 1985, when the first post-1964 civil government took office.” Thus, political facts impacted and motivated the trade union movement.

“This can be observed in the decline of the number of strikes in the period between 1980 and 1982. This decline can be explained not only by increasing unemployment levels, but also by the Riocentro bombing episode, which showed the rupture between the armed forces and the program of political participation by the population. The labor unions then decided to step back, because they had realized that the timing was not favorable to labor union strikes. They substituted activism with internal organization, which in turn led to the creation of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) labor union in 1983,” says Noronha. According to the author, another example is the drop in indications of strikes from May 1992, when the first accusations of corruption in the Collor Administration began to surface, to the end of 1992, when President Collor was impeached. “This seems to reinforce the unions’ good sense in view of the new political instability and reinforces the hypothesis that political variables are essential to understand a strike.”

State elections in 1982 were another important event. After a long period during which the  unions had no dialogue with the State, the unions were unforgiving: they organized strikes in states where elections had been won by the opposition parties. “In the new context, the risks of strikes had lowered and income-related opportunities had increased. As a result, strikes increased among government employees, while the strikes among private sector employees decreased.” Strikes dominated the national scenario, as the tendency of the state governments, in line with their desire to consolidate their legitimacy as democratic leaders, was reflected at the federal level. The state governors’ willingness to negotiate offset the federal government’s repressive practices. Some segments of government, which had been beaten in the elections, strengthened their ties with labor union leaders through proposals to reform Brazilian Labor Laws (CLT).


In 1985, the Sarney Administration legitimized labor union leaders as valid spokesmen for the State. Labor union strikes helped consolidate a new pattern in the relationship between workers and employers, and disseminated labor negotiations. Brazilian strikes were, however, moved by components which did not follow common sense. “All over the world, salaries are the main drivers of strikes, and this was no different in Brazil. However, in Brazil,  strikes increase when salaries are about to be raised and not when they are cut back. In other words, labor union strikes are organized when workers believe they can obtain salary raises, no matter to what extent existing salaries are perceived as being low or adequate,” he explains. Thus, in the period from 1988 and 1991, strikes increased in two sectors and totaled two thousand strikes, corresponding to 185 million workdays, even though the real incomes had not dropped.

Nevertheless, says Noronha, very few labor union strikes voiced any political demands, even though the evolution of the level and the pattern of the conflicts were clearly underscored by the main political events occurring in the 1980s, which grants them another dimension in addition to the corporate dimension. “The fluctuations of labor conflicts in Brazil closely follow the footsteps of Brazil’s political transition. First of all, because the labor movement moved forward ( and knew when to step backwards) at each stage of the process of liberation implemented by the authoritarian regime. Second, because the incorporation of the working class and of the labor union leaders into the transition process materialized because of the possibilities that opened up for the expression of their demands and not because of their participation in the political pacts that defined the transition. Labor union strikes were not the only venue for manifestation by these segments; labor union strikes were merely the most efficient way to express social and political discontent,” he states. As the working class became stronger – employers had been caught unawares when the first strikes occurred – the conflict of interest between capital and labor grew to a greater extent on the political front and to a lesser extent on the industrial front.

Jorge Araújo/FolhapressStrike by metallurgy workers in São Paulo, State of São Paulo, in 1979Jorge Araújo/Folhapress

“The organization of  strikes is determined by the perception of unfairness associated with the awareness that this was a timely moment to battle for higher salaries. There were moments, for example, in which union leaders unsuccessfully tried to pressure workers to go on strike and other moments when the opposite occurred.” In Brazil, labor union dispersion and the union leaders’ lack of skill at coordinating negotiations lead to the conclusion that the reasoning of the isolated labor unions is to take advantage of favorable moments to obtain salary increases and retreat when salary cuts seem to be irreversible. “The end of the grand cycle is linked to recent economic indicators (inflation under control and low unemployment levels), partial adhesion to liberalism, and the sidelining of the developmental model during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration. Another factor is the shift in public perception on the pertinence and efficacy of collective actions, given that Brazilian democracy had achieved its maturity,” says Noronha. Nowadays, according to the researcher, new cycles might occur, but strikes in Brazil are now within “normal” parameters.

New conditions in the 1990s and the progress made by democratic institutions will take the focus off strikes as the labor unions’ main strategy. Nowadays, strikes are called only when negotiation mechanisms fail, as in the case of the public sector, where strikes by government employees are violent and lengthy,” says economist Claudio Dedecca, professor of the State University of Campinas, and coordinator of the project  Brasil século XXI, população, trabalho e sociedade [Brazil, 21st century: population, work and society]. “We no longer have a culture of disputes in the labor environment. The strike organized by the police force in the State of Bahia attested to this when it failed to expand nationwide, as had been the strikers’ objective,” he says. In the researcher’s opinion, labor union strikes in Brazil have always been a complex issue. “We are living in a scenario where there are plenty of jobs and there are no labor strikes because the institutions are focused on the well-being of workers.” The economist also points out that the big sectors always supported strikes in the past and as a strike is no longer a strategy, the less organized sectors have even less motivation to go on strike.

“What still makes Brazil come to a standstill is that national growth is not correctly redistributed. Hence, a strike only occurs when communication channels are limited and there is no dialogue between the parties,” he points out. In fact, learning how to conduct a dialogue was essential for the creation of a national democratic culture. “The labor union strike became an element of democratization; strikes drove the political transition and vice versa. The street mobilization of Brazil, during the Diretas Já [Direct Elections Immediately] protests and, later, during the impeachment process of President Collor, stemmed from strikes in the ABC region. The strikes were a learning experience on how to mobilize the masses, and inserted workers and their union leaders into the national political scenario,” Noronha points out.

Workers from Volkswagen do Brasil during strike in São Paulo State’s ABC region in 1978

Archive/AEWorkers from Volkswagen do Brasil during strike in São Paulo State’s ABC region in 1978Archive/AE

This political innovation, however, was not followed by a renovation of negotiation mechanisms. “After democracy was reinstated, labor relations were characterized by a lack of alignment between the labor and legislative institutions, which were still archaic, and the country’s social and economic modernization. Some sectors – such as metallurgy and steel – have strong labor unions, a fact that obliged companies to modernize their HR management, in anticipation of workers’ needs. But these are exceptions,” says USP economist Hélio Zylberstajn, who is the president of the Brazilian Institute of Employment and Labor Relations. “The public sector is still far from this reality. As a result, long, drawn-out strikes by the public sector are still the dominant model, due to a negotiation system that favors deadlocks. As the public sector does not have an impact on capital, does not impose direct costs on the two parties, and only affects the population, there is very little interest in establishing more modern negotiation or methods of arbitration.” According to Hélio, the country has neglected the strategic importance of the management of labor relations, and has opted for litigation in court.

“There is little space for previous negotiations, which results in crises such as the recent strike of employees working in basic government services. Congress has always postponed making any changes to the related laws. There is no interest in regulating the laws at any level of government. After all, the Labor Court cannot oblige mayors and state governors to sit around a negotiation table with strikers and arbitrate labor issues, as is the case in the private sector,” says political scientist Armando Boito, of Unicamp, who coordinated the research study Neoliberalismo e trabalhadores no Brasil: política, ideologia e movimentos sociais [Neoliberalism and workers in Brazil: politics, ideology and social movements]. In Boito’s opinion, this movement is essential, because, he states, the labor movement is not undergoing a crisis, as had been heralded in the 1990s; the labor movement is activist and prone to strikes. “In 2003, of all the labor negotiations that year, only 18% resulted in salary raises that were higher than the inflation rate. In 2009, this figure went up to nearly 90% because of the increase in the number of strikes that had achieved successful results. “These are major events, with the presence of many strikers, the number of which sometimes ranges from 170 thousand to 200 thousand workers, protesting all over São Paulo. Some strikes involved extreme measures, such as the invasion and occupation of factories,” he adds. In Boito’s opinion, this happens in spite of the country’s deficient labor union structure, strongly linked to the State. This has been provoking a dilution of labor unions at the base. “Pluralism exists at the top and unity is found at the base. Labor union leaders are strongly dependent on the State, and have predominantly populist characteristics, while their ties to labor union members are very weak. Many strikes are forced on the union members.” Unlike those who believe that the train will not stop again, Boito believes that the engine driver still has his hand on the brakes. However, the engine has to be modernized quickly.

The Project
Files on strikes in Brazil (nº 2008/03561-5); Modality Regular Research Project Funding; Coordinator Eduardo Noronha – UFSCar; Investment R$ 163,145.89 (FAPESP)