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The Week That Stopped Brazil

The strike that paralyzed Brazil last week didn't come from the Left, but from an ignored and isolated group of workers.

Truck drivers protest on President Dutra Highway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tomaz Silva / Agência Brasil

A few years ago, David Harvey brought the Left’s attention to capital’s massive dependence on supply chains. He speculated that if New York City delivery drivers went on strike, the city would starve in about a week. Last week, their Brazilian counterparts proved Harvey right. In the span of a few days, striking truck drivers brought São Paulo — which counts around four million more inhabitants than NYC — and many more cities in Brazil to a grinding halt.

The sudden rise of usually invisible workers pushed Brazil’s right-wing president Michel Temer into a corner over the price of diesel. Since the 1950s, the Brazilian state has prioritized road transportation over rail; today, the country features only twenty-nine thousand kilometers of railroad but 1.6 million kilometers of roads. As a result, commercial activity is highly dependent on road transportation, making the truck drivers’ roadblocks enormously effective. Many localities ran out of fuel, the middle class had to abandon their cars and ride public transit, and businesses, schools, and other entities closed their doors.

The strike shocked the Left, whose mobilizations, despite the April 2017 general strike, haven’t achieved nearly the same impact as the truck drivers’ strike. Leftist labor unions, like the Petrobras Workers Union, are now attempting to push truckers’ demands for lower diesel prices into a political protest against Temer’s economic policies. But they haven’t been able to replicate the truck drivers’ momentum.

Petrobrás and Politics

In 2015, the global economic crisis finally landed in Brazil. China had reduced its demand for Brazilian commodities like soybean and iron, and a fiscal crisis was emerging as a result of Workers Party (PT) president Dilma Rousseff’s tax exemptions for “strategic sectors.”

At the same time, Rousseff worked to control inflation by imposing government-controlled prices on essential goods and services. Petrobrás, the state-controlled oil company, started subsidizing gas and diesel prices.

This policy backfired. Petrobrás kept prices frozen for a year but nearly doubled them in 2016. The Right, which was already agitating for Rousseff’s impeachment on trumped-up corruption charges, seized the opportunity to further undermine the PT government. Their claims that high gas prices were thanks to Rousseff’s corruption motivated many truck drivers to mobilize for her impeachment.

When then vice-president Michel Temer took over the government in April 2016, he radically changed the Petrobrás price policy. The company not only stopped subsidizing prices but started readjusting them daily, linking them to variations in oil prices and the exchange rate with the dollar.

Petrobrás’s market value grew sixfold in less than two years as Brazilian consumers were forced to foot the bill.

This volatility drove transport-sector employer unions, extreme-right micro-organizations, and frustrated truck drivers to mount last week’s strike. The central demands of this odd coalition were reductions in diesel prices and toll fares.

Strange Bedfellows

The strike confused and split the Left. On the one hand, part of the PT membership, intellectuals, and even some congressmen publicly characterized the strike as the next stage of the coup, if not a step towards military intervention. Some even argued that suffering truck drivers were getting what they asked for, since some had advocated for Rousseff’s impeachment.

Nevertheless, the Unified Workers Central (CUT), a union federation close to Workers Party, supported the truck drivers, as did the homeless and the landless movements. And despite the role of employers in the strike’s early days, the majority of the radical left fully endorsed the stoppage, hoping to shape the strike’s narrative and politicize it against Temer.

Truck drivers in Brazil are enormously precarious. While some work directly for companies, other “autonomous” drivers own their own vehicles and live contract to contract. Their vulnerability to the current economic crisis was clearly the main reason for the work stoppage, despite the employers unions’ opportunistic participation.

The political content of the strike was ambiguous. Most participants focused on immediate economic demands, but others spoke about corruption and against Temer’s government. Small sections of the strike even called for military intervention. That’s not to say striking drivers were all right wing. They were part of larger currents in the Brazilian population that feel disillusioned with a “democratic” political system that constantly reproduces corruption.

It’s not easy to coordinate a strike of truckers dispersed across continental Brazil. In the beginning, much of it was directed by the employers’ unions. But its energy derived from the WhatsApp groups used to exchange information on road conditions, cargo thefts, and so on. These became important spaces for frustrated truck drivers to communicate with one another, and lent them an independent force.

Since gas prices had soared at the same time as diesel prices, most of the population supported the strike. The first polls showed over 80 percent approval of the movement.

Two days into the strike, President Temer negotiated with the employer unions to provide a small tax exemption for diesel, marginally reducing its price for thirty days. He followed up with a national TV address declaring the strike over.

The price cut was enough to return profitability to the transportation companies, and most of them left the movement. But it wasn’t enough for autonomous truck drivers, who earn between one and three times the minimum wage and work lengthy shifts. They, along with a few transportation companies, decided to continue the strike. That’s when the employer unions began to turn against the movement, since continued road blockages interfered with their return to business.

As drivers stayed out, cities became increasingly paralyzed and shelves around the country were left empty. The pressure forced Temer to announce a second round of cuts. Diesel would be subsidized by the federal government for sixty days and the price would fall by $0.60 reais. The offer took the wind out of the strike’s sails, though it didn’t kill it completely. Those strikers who stayed out were satisfied with the offer — they just didn’t trust Temer or Congress to implement it without penalizing truck drivers in other ways. And they noted that Temer still hadn’t changed Petrobrás’s general price policy.

A desperate Temer mobilized the military to end the road blockages. Surprisingly, despite a handful of confrontations, soldiers mostly declined to engage the strikers. Some on the Left speculated that this was due to the strikers’ extreme-right ideology and support for military intervention. Others thought that soldiers were exercising restraint on orders from the government. With Temer’s popularity in the low single digits and strikers’ popularity close to 90 percent, images of police or military brutality wouldn’t play well. Right-wing commentators feared that by mobilizing the military, Temer might spark an all-out rebellion.

The president avoided this by pitting strikers against the “public good.” The strike has resulted in gas shortages, shortages in supermarkets, and even the death of livestock short on feed. Schools, universities and other public offices closed for the week. Temer realized that he could accuse the movement of waging a politically influenced lockout in an attempt to drain the initial public support for the strike. His narrative was amplified by Brazil’s main TV network Globo, which was key to the mobilization against Rousseff in 2015 and 2016.

The Left Responds

Ideologically, the truck drivers’ movement is diverse. Most of its banners called for military intervention to end Temer’s presidency. Others demanded a presidential recall or impeachment. (The impeachment process against Temer has gone nowhere in Congress since last year.)  The calls for military intervention reflect Brazil’s deep crisis of representation, which first erupted in 2013 and mounted through Rousseff’s impeachment. But it’s also a sign that the Left has abandoned the task of organizing truck drivers. That provided an opening for far-right groups to capture segments of the mobilization.

The drivers’ isolation from the traditional labor movement also limited attempts to generalize their protest. Significant parts of the Left wanted to use CUT’s support of the drivers to call for a general strike. But CUT has been cautious about general strikes since Temer’s rise to power. It did throw its weight behind last year’s April 28 strike, called to protest labor-law reforms and in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Brazil’s most historic general strike. Weeks later, though, CUT pulled out of a June 30 follow-up strike, leading an array of smaller unions to demobilize. And the union federation’s support for the drivers remained mostly rhetorical.

The Left is now attempting to rectify this situation. The Landless Workers Movement (MST), for example, worked to build relationships with truckers by providing food and supplies at the road blockages. Nationally, the Petrobrás Workers Union voted to strike this week, and is mobilizing its members to talk to truck drivers. By explaining the relationship between diesel prices and international commodity markets, they’ve been able to counter the employer unions’ narrative, which blames diesel costs on high taxes.

Lessons Learned

The strike has almost fully wound down, with gas and other products making their way back to Brazilian cities. The long lines at gas stations are gone. The Petrobrás strike has been ruled illegal by Brazilian courts, though it’s unclear what the consequences will be.

“The week that stopped Brazil” taught the Left and workers some important lessons. First, that we shouldn’t write off movements influenced by employers. Instead, we should connect to rank-and-file participants and help them realize that their employers are a central part of the problem. Moreover, in a combined “strike-lockout” situation like this, though employers’ and workers’ interests may coincide at first, such convergence will not last not for long. Eventually, the employers will leave the movement and the workers may radicalize their demands.

Second, unions are no longer the only protagonists of strikes. In a context of highly bureaucratized unions, workers can be creative and find other ways to organize collective action. This doesn’t spell the end of traditional trade unions, but signals a clear need for them to reinvent themselves, learn from strikes waged by nonunion workers, and adopt new tactics for mobilization. As E.P. Thompson taught us, it is workers’ experience of struggle that informs organizations’ methods, not the other way around.

We can only hope that as the Petrobrás Workers Union works to shift truck drivers to the left, it also learns to revitalize its own organization and Brazil’s labor movement generally. This will be key to mounting a truly successful general strike.