There is a strong correlation between the strength of a country’s organized labor movement and the strength of its political Left and whether its government implements policies that improve the quality of life of common, working people. This would seem to be true on its face, but it is something that the American Left too often forgets; our activist and intellectual Left is concerned with identity politics almost to the exclusion of considerations of economic class, while the Democratic party, which presents itself as worker-friendly, in reality governs from the center-right and is as nearly pro-business as the Republicans. This explains the growing inequality and decline of middle- and working-class living standards for the last 30 years.
The case of Brazil is instructive. Brazil has made impressive economic strides since 2003 under Worker’s Party leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and his successor Dilma Rouseff. It has achieved both strong economic growth and significant poverty reduction. With a population of 190 million and annual growth rates of around 5%, Brazil has become the world’s sixth largest economy. It has a diverse economy combining agriculture with the second largest industrial sector in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States). If you’ve ever flow on an Embraer jetliner, you’ve directly benefitted from Brazil’s surging aerospace industry. Brazil still suffers from extreme poverty, as evinced by the vast favelas or shanty towns in every major city where millions live in dire conditions with little access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, education, or other public services. These favelas often butt right up against the walled compounds of the hi-rise condominiums where the upper and upper-middle classes live, a physical juxtaposition that highlights Brazil’s still-extreme inequality. Yet Lula’s redistribution programs have lifted some 40 million people out of poverty; the largest and most famous is called the Bolsa Familia or “family allowance” and makes assistance conditional on school attendance.
In addition to a strong economy, politically Brazil is an increasingly strong democracy; the memory of the military dictatorship that ended in 1986 is recent enough that nobody wants to return to anything like it. Common people are politically active, with voter turnout in the last two parliamentary elections topping 80%, as compared to American turnout in Presidential elections that is typically in the mid-50%.
This article by Stephen Lerner stresses why Brazil has been on a successful democratic and populist path: organized labor. Lerner quotes Rita Berlofa, a Brazilian bank union leader:
“From 1964 to 1985, we fought against the military regime, and for free elections and democracy. During this time we brought together many social movements, and together we gave strength to social movements to organize. We organized students and workers, from the countryside and the cities….
In 1978, a young man named Lula, who was a migrant from the Northeast of Brazil, the poorest part of Brazil, who worked as a shoeshine boy when he was a child, and later became an autoworker, and then a leader of the auto workers union…
Lula dared to do something bold, to organize a strike of autoworkers to confront the military dictatorship.
This was something that was unimaginable under the dictatorship. Because of the boldness of the strike, and the courage demonstrated by the workers, it inspired people throughout society. Union leaders, intellectuals, politicians, and representatives of social movements.
And we all came together to discuss the need for a social movement for workers.
A social movement that would allow workers to lead, to make decisions about the political and social life of the country, and to change Brazil.
This social movement was born out of the dream of workers to have freedom."
In Brazil working people have strengthening union protections and a labor party that represents their interests in the political arena and has, for a decade, controlled the government. Before Lula came into office, the government consisted of a center-right coalition led by Fernando Cardoso that followed the Washington Consensus, and the country consequently suffered from anemic economic performance and even greater inequality. Since coming into government, the Worker’s Party took a center-left approach that, while still making unavoidable accommodations to international financial markets in order to attract investment and avoid capital flight, also set out to reduce poverty through direct transfer programs, improvements to education, stable macroeconomic policy, and publicly-guided investment in key industries. The latter includes Brazil’s strong energy sector, which is the most diverse in the world, encompassing oil production led by the semi-publicly owned company Petrobras and the worlds largest alternative fuel sector, based in sugar-derived ethanol (not the kind from corn that drives up food prices for the world’s poor).
In short, Brazil has a center-left dominated politics led by organized labor. In contrast, the United states has a center-right politics led by business. Lerner notes the difference:
In Brazil, 19 percent of all workers are members of unions. (A much higher percentage are covered by collective bargaining agreements, but are not dues-paying members.) Within the major Brazilian labor federation, the CUT, unionization and membership levels range from 34% in some parts of the private sector to a whopping 55% in banking. Over the last 8 years, Brazilian purchasing power has increased by 22.2% in real terms.
In comparison, in the United States only 11.9% of U.S. workers are represented by unions and only 6.9% of private sector workers are in unions. As union membership has declined, economic inequality and corporate power have increased in the United States. While we are all experiencing stagnation and decline in living standards here in in the U.S., in Brazil the opposite is happening.
The correlation between the strength of organized labor in Brazil and the leftward tilt of its politics and economic policies is not random: one only need to look at Western Europe in comparison to the United States to see that these two elements tend to go together. More than half of Norway’s workers are unionized, and more than 70% in Sweden; Great Britain and Canada have union rates of about 28%, and Germany around 19%. (France seems to be an exception to the rule with only 8% of workers organized, but it does have a socialist party in government and a tradition of vibrant street protest to keep the elite in check; it is where the French Revolution and 1848 Revolutions began, after all.)
Indeed, America itself was at its most egalitarian in the middle of the 20th century when unions were strong. Are there lessons for the Left in the United States here? It would seem that not focusing so much on identity issues for a while, and re-emphasizing the importance of class and economic justice, would ultimately strengthen the Left overall. Our Left should return to the principle that all people should have a decent standard of living, and working people deserve to have a say in how their companies are run.
This isn’t to say that we should bring an end to identity politics, because women, minorities, and LGBTQ people still face continued injustice. But we have made great strides on identity questions over the last thirty years while we have gone backwards on equality and economic class questions. Perhaps it is time to emphasize the latter more than the former, at least for a while? After all, economics is a woman’s issue too: just ask any working single mother struggling to feed her kids and put them through school. And economics is also a black issue, a Hispanic issue, and an LGBTQ issue. It Inequality and class oppression negatively impact the quality of life of all who are in the 99%, regardless of whatever other identity they might have.
Furthermore, the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay rights movement all began in the same middle-20th century when common people could attain a middle class standard of life. It’s not too speculative to say that the widespread prosperity secured by America’s union movement in the mid-20th century enabled people to shift focus onto issues of identity and self-fulfillment, because their basic material needs were secure. If we allow current trends in inequality to continue, if we allow the labor movement to languish, then we are ultimately in danger of enabling reversals on our civil rights gains, as people at the bottom have to focus more on their economic struggles and people at the top appropriate more resources to engage in political divide-and-conquer strategies that set people with different identities against each other. This past spring’s “War on Women,” led mainly by rich white men aiming to restrict women’s control over thie bodies, is a case in point.
You cannot have a strong and healthy democracy without a strong and healthy labor movement. If you’re on the Left and you haven’t done anything lately to support labor, I urge you to correct that neglect soon -- and to do so repeatedly. Make contributing or volunteering or protesting for organized labor a matter of habit.