Brazil’s Labor Unions Stage Second Strike Against Neoliberal Labor Law Reform
The new labor law would disempower unions and lower standards of living more generally. Meanwhile, President Temer faces unprecedented charges for corruption, explains Michael Fox from Brazil
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Brazilian labor unions organized another major general strike on Friday to protest the passage of Draconian labor and pension reforms. The one-day strike is being felt mainly in Brazil’s largest cities, Sao Paulo and in the capital Brasilia, but work stoppages are also taking place throughout the country. The labor law reform would allow employers to increase hours worked per week and reduce salaries, among many other things. Meanwhile, earlier this week, President Michel Temer himself was indicted on corruption charges. Here is what he had to say in his defense.
Speaker 2: I was accused of passive corruption. Write it down. I will repeat the expression, passive corruption, at this point in life, without ever having received anything of value. I never saw money. I did not participate in arrangements to commit crimes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us to discuss this, from Brazil is Mike Fox. Mike is an independent journalist living in Florianopolis, Brazil. Thanks for joining us, Mike.
MICHAEL FOX: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Mike, how successful was this general strike for the unions?
MICHAEL FOX: It was less successful than the big general strike that was held on April 28th. On that one, literally bus systems were shut down across the country. All banks and 35 million people participated. This one, it still shut down bus, transportation systems, for instance right here in Florianopolis, but they’re running about four, five hours out of the day. It’s kind of a partial strike that they’re on. Some of the different banks are closed, not all of them. It feels like a weekend, but it definitely is not like what you had about a month and a half ago.
Now people are still out in the streets. You’ve still have had massive marches. This morning, people shutting major roads and highways into the biggest cities, blocking the highways with fire and what not. Then big protests and marches, particularly like you said in Sao Paulo and Brasilia this evening. Successful, absolutely. They had to put the pressure on at this point with the labor reform coming up to a vote here in the next week or two. But was it as big, was it as successful as what we saw a couple months ago? No.
SHARMINI PERIES: Where are the pension and labor reforms? Where are they at? I know congress was dealing with them.
MICHAEL FOX: They labor reform, which has been really the big one that a lot of people have been talking about for the last just couple of months, it finally has been voted out of the committees. It was first voted out of the finance committee and then just recently out of the constitutional committee, although it was shot down in the social committee just a few weeks ago. That brings up how do we vote it out of two committees. It’s now going to the floor of the senate where they have to vote on it. It’s very likely that it will pass. That is not good for workers at all.
SHARMINI PERIES: What are the implications of it being passed?
MICHAEL FOX: What it’s going to do, it could eliminate the eight-hour work day. It’s going to decrease lunch. Right now, workers have an hour to an hour and a half for lunch. It’s going to decrease that down to a half an hour. It’s really going to touch over 100 points in the Brazilian labor code, decreasing workers’ rights. What’s interesting here, and one of the major pieces that workers and unions are most upset over, is it’s going to allow bosses to directly negotiate with their workers, superseding, side-stepping unions. What that means is obviously you’re side-stepping collective bargaining rights. You’re side-stepping the ability to negotiate as a collective.
Right now, what is not in the labor, this labor reform, is touching bonuses, is touching vacations, touching maternity care. But it’s possible that this could be opening the door to be able to do that down the road through these more individual negotiations. The whole focus is trying to weaken labor, trying to weaken unions, and trying to lock this in for the coming years, obviously. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the 2018 elections just next year. They’re trying to lock in this thing the same way they did with the PEC, with the constitutional reform they did just late last year, in which they locked in a 20-year spending freeze. That’s the same idea, not good.
The pension reform that you mentioned, that is also kind of on the docket. It’s a little bit further out. It’s the constitutional reform and people are even more up against that than the labor reform. The Temer government has been really fighting hard to try and get something passed. He wants to get something approved, so they’ve been kind of whittling away at their original proposals. We still don’t have a date for that. I think they’re kind of holding on to it to make sure that they actually have the number of votes to pass it, because for that one, since it’s a constitutional reform, then it means they’re going to have to have two-thirds majority or 60%. That’s going to be harder for them to pass.
Regardless, even this labor reform, it’s not popular, but obviously what we have in congress, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s the most conservative congress in a long time. It’s getting a lot of lobby from the transportation businesses, the private sector to really, really get this thing through and get it through as quickly as possible.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Then apart from the labor reforms and the pension reforms, one thing that’s on everyone’s mind is these corruptions that’s been laid against Michel Temer. How serious are they? Do they have evidence that they’re citing in terms of these allegations?
MICHAEL FOX: Sharmini, this is the first time since the end of the dictatorship that a sitting Brazilian president has been brought up on indictment, has been indicted, brought up on indictment charges by an attorney general. This is a very big thing. It’s not happened in decades, if ever, as far as I understand. People are kind of taking it and trying to understand what this means. What’s going to happen?
He gets brought up. It was sent to the Supreme Court. They pass it down to the lower house. Now that means the lower house, it’s in the lower house’s hands to decide if it wants to go forward on a trial. In this way, it’s very similar to the trial against Dilma. The difference is, in this case, you have a lower house that’s in cahoots with the Temer government. You have the lower house that’s in alliance with Temer.
Now Temer, his approval rating is 7%. His image is just, it’s tarnished. It’s bad. It’s sank pretty much as low as you can go. I think he has the lowest approval rating of any Brazilian president since 1989, is what I read. But at the same time, in the lower house, you have roughly something like two-thirds of the members of the lower house who themselves are under investigations for the corruption. They’re not going to just go ahead and vote to move forward with the trial against Temer if they think that that backlash can come back against them.
It’s kind of like you wash my back and I’ll wash yours. The chances of them actually approving this, of going forward, that’s another question. Now they need two-thirds to actually approve this, the trial against him. What would happen if the lower house votes for this is that he would be suspended for 180 days, just like Dilma was suspended, while the Supreme Court deliberates before they come out to a verdict. In the meantime, you’d have Rodrigo Maia who’s the head of the lower house. He would become the president. He’s the son of Cesar Maia, as we’ve mentioned in the past. He was a long-time former Rio de Janeiro mayor.
That’s kind of what’s at play right now. Now Temer is fighting as hard as he absolutely can not to go down. He also understands that the only people that can take Temer down right now is the Supreme Court itself because he can’t be tried for corruption and for bribery and other things on the lower courts while he’s the president. He’s immune from that, but if somehow he was jettisoned from office, then he could be in jail next week essentially. This is a very complicated moment right now for Brazilian politics.
You mentioned also about the proof that’s behind it. The proof is pretty solid. The attorney general, Rodrigo Janot, who was put in there by Dilma a few years ago. This all comes back, and it goes back to those recordings. If you remember the recordings that we were talking about that were leaked two months ago between Temer and Joesley Batista, who is the head of the former largest Brazilian meatpacking exporter. In those audio conversations that were leaked, Temer is then comes out supporting the continued payment of bribes to the former head of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha.
Well, in those same audio tapes and in other ones that Joesley apparently had recorded, it was also heard, and that’s where the proof is, that Temer received bribes from JBS. He received bribes from this meatpacking firm. Apparently these bribes were passed, the money actually, 500,000 reais was passed to a Temer aide. This is part of a much larger package apparently over many years that the attorney general says that Temer receives something like 32 million reais over a longer period of time. This is big. It’s very big.
Now one thing that’s important to remember also and understand, this is just one of several thousand indictments that Janot, the attorney general, is handing into the Supreme Court. Another one is actually up for, so there’s two other ones that we can be expecting: obstruction of justice and something else about corruption. We can be expecting those in the coming days. What does that mean? That means that even if Temer is able to squeak out of this one, even if they vote not to go forward on this indictment, he still has to, most likely, he’s still going to be facing two more indictments in the coming months.
Temer is bad ground. The only thing that’s probably going to get him out of office is if the political elite decides that he just cannot stay, in which case then they might vote to take him out. But they want to continue these reforms that brings it back to where we are right now. They want to continue this political moment. They want to continue the reforms. They want to continue the austerity. If it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen under Temer, then they’re going to take him out.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright. One of the reasons perhaps not more people turned out for the general strike might be people are so fed up in terms of the political system in the country and all these charges. Perhaps they want a giant leap taken, which is a constitutional amendment to hold the next presidential elections sooner, but that requires an amendment. If so, they can directly go to another presidential election. Where is that at? Is that still a possibility?
MICHAEL FOX: I mean, it’s always a possibility. I don’t see it very likely because again, what you would have to do is convince the congress that they want to vote for new elections. That doesn’t seem likely when the congress is in the same bed as Temer and as in the political elite. Voting for new elections right now would mean that Lula and the left might have a possibility of actually winning and coming back and kicking the Temer government or at least the ideology of the Temer government out of power. That’s not something that the majority of people in this government right now want. That’s why it is important thing that people need to be pushing for, that people are pushing for in the streets. Obviously the left and political movements and social movements, but it’s not likely on a political scale.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now earlier, I mentioned that of course, Brazil being riddled with corruption scandals and so on, if there were another election to take place right away, I understand that President Lula is a leading candidate for taking office right now according to polls, which raises the question of where is his own charges. I know he was in court. We reported on that. Where are the rulings on that?
MICHAEL FOX: Right. We’re waiting right now to hear from Sergio Moro. It could take, they say the judge, his own judgment can come out any day. That means it could take hours. It could take days, and it could take weeks or months. It really depends on how quickly he moves. Usually he moves pretty fast, so people are kind of expecting to hear something on the Lula case fairly quickly. Now if Lula is convicted of corruption, then he would be able to appeal. That appeal could take, it could take a long time, but generally those appeals can take up to something like 340 days or something like that. That puts us right into a place, just a couple of months out next year, from the 2018 elections. I think that’s all the more reason why we can hear a verdict from Moro as quickly as possible, because if it is a conviction, then he’s going to want to move this thing as quickly as possible to try and bar Lula from actually running from office.
That’s kind of where that stands. What he’s going to say, what Moro is going to come out with is anybody’s guess. Now obviously if you talk to the left, social movements, the Worker’s Party, they say there’s no way that Lula is guilty. This is all based around, what they call it a triplex. It’s this apartment complex that he apparently was given as a payoff in these bribes. Then obviously the Lula camp says there’s no way that he was given this. It was always in the hands of Odebrecht and of the company that had it beforehand, and that they were interested for a little bit. Lula and his wife were interested in potentially purchasing it but they didn’t. That’s where this all centers around. It’s what’s happening. Was it really given to Lula or was it not?
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Either way, it looks like it’ll be 2018 before any serious changes could take place in Brazil.
MICHAEL FOX: Well, serious changes happen every single week, but serious changes on a political level in terms of the presidency, yeah, exactly. It’s late 2018.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright Mike. Thank you so much for joining us today.
MICHAEL FOX: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.