Inspired by UAW Victory, 12,000 Brazilian GM Workers Win 17 Day Strike 

Brazilian GM workers celebrate winning a 17 day strike (CSP-Conlutas)

This week, nearly 12,000 Brazilian autoworkers are celebrating a victory after a roughly two-week strike against three central factories in the suburbs outside of Sao Paulo. 

The workers went on strike after G.M. illegally fired 1,244 workers on October 23rd. On Wednesday, the union celebrated as they won the cancelation of those layoffs and back pay for the three weeks they were on strike. 

“Our victory of back pay and the canceling of layoffs is the fruit of the big fight that united workers at three factories and showed our force,” said Valmir Montaeo of the Metalworkers union of São José dos Campos.

G.M. workers in Brazil said that they had been closely watching following the UAW’s strike in the U.S. 

“The strike of American workers served as an inspiration for Brazilians as well,” CSP-Conlutas union leader Luiz Carlos Mancha told Payday Report last month. “It inspired us because the process of reducing salaries and taking away rights is also happening in Brazil. The strike that is happening in the U.S. is a turning point in the situation.” 

Brazilian and American workers have had a long relationship that has impacted trade unionists in both countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, Brazilian and American solidarity played a crucial role in toppling the dictatorship in Brazil. 

Lula, who as a 19-year-old became involved in activism after losing his finger in an auto plant accident, got his start in politics as a local autoworkers’ union president in the interior of São Paulo. He coordinated a series of bold country-wide strikes in the 1980s that helped bring down the dictatorship. 

To rally international support against the dictatorship, Lula built close ties with the American labor movement. She received funding from the UAW, which counts the former Brazilian president as an honorary member of the UAW.  

In 1985, Bendix, once the largest employer in South Bend, Indiana, began moving its auto parts facility to Brazil. That’s when Joe Lawrence, a former UAW member, started making connections with Brazilian trade unionists.

As part of an independent delegation in 1988, Lawrence traveled to Brazil, where autoworkers had been engaged in roving wildcat strikes known as “Vaca Brava” (roughly translated from Portuguese as “mad cow”). Like mad cow diseases, the strikes spread quickly throughout Brazil. 

Once, Lawrence was in a bar with autoworkers in Santo André, an industrial city outside of São Paulo, when they received news that a worker had been run over and killed by a forklift at an auto parts plant in town. The workers went on strike. The federal police were called out.

“Like everything we saw from their labor movement, this was really inspirational. They really put on a clinic,” says Lawrence. “It was stunning how militant, sophisticated and nimble the labor movement was in confronting capital and the state”.

Over the years, Lula has sought to maintain those ties, regularly speaking about UAW struggles. 

During the UAW strike, Lula met with striking autoworkers and voiced his support for the strike while on a trip to the U.N. in New York.

In September, before launching the “joint U.S.-Brazilian partnership to promote workers’ rights,” Lula met with U.S. President Joe Biden and encouraged him to join the strike. A week later, Biden would walk the picket line with UAW workers. 

An excited Lula took to Twitter to praise Biden. 

“Yesterday I had a moment of great happiness, I saw the president of the United States, Joe Biden, with the megaphone during a workers’ strike; this, after we discussed a project of dignity in the world of work between Brazil and the United States, in New York,” said Lula on Twitter at the time. 

For decades, Brazilian workers have come to the U.S. to show solidarity with American workers organizing at multinationals. This group includes the Brazilian Renault Nissan workers that Payday covered in Canton, Mississippi 2017, who had been traveling to Mississippi for more than a decade to help workers organize there. 

In late September, a video of Miguel Torres, the president of the 1.9 million member union federation Força Sindical and close advisor to Lula, leading hundreds of Brazilian autoworkers in a chant of solidarity with striking American UAW members, went viral, garnering more than 200,000 views on Twitter. 

For Brazilian unions, showing solidarity also helped prepare for their own strike at GM in Brazil.

“American trade unionists are very important for us,” Luiz Carlos Mancha told Payday Report in an interview in September in Sāo Paulo. “It’s a very different union culture, but we share similar problems and often similar employers. Working together internationally, we can apply more power to these employers.” 

During the recent strike of UAW workers, three Brazilian autoworkers union leaders traveled to the United States to show solidarity with striking GM workers. They visited over a dozen picket lines throughout the U.S. 

“We thought it was really cool,” says Antônio Lisboa, whose speech on a picket line went viral on Twitter in the US. “Every picket line that we visited, people honked their horns, they stopped, they dropped off snacks, they dropped off waters. We found the solidarity of the American people with the strikes to be sensational.” 

When the workers returned to Brazil, they worked hard to get information about the success of G.M. strikes in the U.S. 

“We made various videos showing our unions how important it was to have the community supporting our strike,” says Lisboa. “I think that visiting the strike pickets there in the U.S. gives us strength to sustain against? During? the attacks that G.M. is making against Brazilian workers”. 

The two strikes at GM in the U.S. and Brazil helped reaffirm bonds of connection between the UAW and Brazilian auto workers’ unions. Many were shocked by the wage differences between Brazilian and American autoworkers employed by G.M. 

“The highest salary at G.M. in the U.S. is $32-an-hour, whereas the highest salary at G.M. in Brazil is $8-an-hour. Whereas new workers in G.M. can sometimes make as low as $16-an-hour, here in Brazil, they can make $2-an-hour at G.M. in Brazil,” says Lisboa. 

“Workers make G.M. cars, but they can’t afford to buy G.M. cars,” adds Lisboa. “The message that we want to let Americans know is that we are being exploited, enslaved by G.M. in Brazil by their anti-union methods that they don’t use in the U.S.” 

Now, with G.M. workers in Brazil and the U.S. having won strikes in the best month, workers hope to build a more robust support network between the U.S. and Brazil and between Mexico and Argentina and other countries. 

“I think workers can’t have boundaries between workers. And what creates this, this border, this difference between workers is capitalism itself,” says Lisboa. “I think that we here in Brazil, workers in Argentina, domestic workers, workers in the United States make the same product, should earn the same wages, should have the same conditions.” 

Interviews conducted in Portuguese and translated by Mike Elk. 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]