By Pericles da Lima, Liga Socialista
IN THE last days of May almost nothing moved in Brazil. Crucial economic links such as motorway junctions, ports, airports and refineries were paralysed by some 500 blockades, each with around 150 trucks. South America’s largest port, Santos, near Sao Paolo, was closed, as were several major airports. Schools and universities had to close because of the collapse of the transport system, and there were also problems in supplies for supermarkets and, of course, petrol stations.
Surprisingly, the truck drivers’ action is very popular. According to surveys, 87 percent of Brazilians support its demands, as it addresses a central problem in the everyday life of the mass of Brazilians; rising prices for petrol and diesel since the beginning of the Temer government are not only affecting truck drivers, but driving up the prices of everyday necessities, even the widely used domestic gas has become increasingly unaffordable.
The background to this is the political struggle over the privatisation of the state-owned oil company Petrobras, Brazil’s largest industrial group with about 250,000 employees, which continues to be operated by the Temer government. Immediately after it took office, a new Petrobras boss, Pedro Parente, was appointed. His task, among other things, is to adjust the prices to “world market levels”. Since July 2017, for example, this has led to a 50 percent increase in the cost of diesel.
Strangely enough, the truck driver movement began as a lockout by the transport companies. In Brazil, like elsewhere, the nature of the current capitalist division of labour has led to an enormous increase in the role of transport and a concentration of large transport companies with many subcontractors. The 6 associations of the biggest companies were mainly concerned with pressure on the government because of its plans to abolish tax breaks. As a negotiating measure they announced the suspension of transport services, which was tantamount to a lockout.
By the time an agreement was reached with most of the associations, on 24 May, the action had long since escaped their control. The self-employed drivers had already agreed on self-organised blockade actions via social media. The Association of Autonomous Drivers put the demands for diesel price reductions and the abolition of motorway tolls for empty trucks at the centre of the drivers’ increasingly spontaneous actions.
Meanwhile, a struggle for political leadership of this movement has flared up. On the one hand, the political right is trying to exert influence. A core of right-wing drivers had already played an inglorious role in the movement to overthrow the PT government. Now they are to the fore again with slogans and banners calling for the “corrupt politicians” to be swept away by a government of “order” by the military. Fascist groups like MBL are trying to gain a base for themselves by taking food and coffee for truck drivers to the blockades, just as the fascist presidential candidate, Bolsanero publicly expresses solidarity with truck drivers.
On the other hand, there have also been left-wing support actions with blockades and demonstrations of solidarity by the trade unions in other sectors. In particular, the CUT section at Petrobras, the Federation of Oil Workers’ Unions, FUP, called for a 3-day solidarity strike on May 30. This was banned as a political strike by the Supreme Labour Court shortly before it was to start. As a typically legalist union, the FUP leadership initially suspended the strike. Solidarisation with the oil workers is also the central concern of many truck drivers.
The government has reacted nervously to the blockades. Temer announced the use of the military and was then depicted in cartoons as a tank driver faced with the fact that he had run out of fuel. On May 26th, a state subsidy to reduce the price of diesel by 0.46 Reals was granted, as well as a monthly price consultation. Concessions were also made on the motorway tolls. Nevertheless, the majority of truck drivers, for whom the concessions did not go far enough, continued the strike. On May 30, the port of Santos was finally cleared by the military during fierce street battles. The dispute will certainly intensify in the coming days and weeks.
Our Brazilian comrades explain the tasks of the left in this confrontation:
This movement began as a lockout by the transport companies, but they eventually lost control of the workers. There is a heated debate about what kind of “strike” this is. There is also some rejection of the movement because it involved elements from the anti-Dilma Putsch movement in its ranks, forces which today support military intervention and are linked to the extremely right-wing presidential candidate. Nonetheless, we cannot deny the fact that the majority of drivers have organised themselves around a legitimate demand that touches everyone: the reduction of high fuel prices.
The movement has effectively succeeded in paralysing many areas of the Brazilian economy and public life and at the same time received great support. The question of fuel prices is linked to the general increase in the cost of everyday life. For many Brazilians, the protest is linked to the general unease about the social situation: labour market reforms, pension reform, the credit cap on public budgets, the misery at schools and universities, high unemployment, the dramatic drop in real wages, savings in the health sector, etc… The objective reasons for extending these sectoral actions into a general strike are obvious!
We need to be clear about what’s happening right now: Of course, several sectors of the right are trying to use the transport workers’ movement to argue for their demagogic slogans against the “corrupt politicians” and for a military dictatorship among the strikers, or to use the “chaos” to justify intervention by the military. On the other hand, those of the truck drivers who are employees on precarious contracts, not owner-drivers, have broken away from the right-wing associations and have not accepted the agreement negotiated with the government.
Instead, they have started to organise themselves to continue the blockades. The scenario of the movement is constantly changing. Entrepreneurs and government have lost control of the situation. The government has now authorised the security forces to take violent action; the motorway police, federal army and military police have been tasked with clearing the roads. This means that the movement is now beginning to suffer repression – and could be radicalised in various directions.
The leadership of the working class must take urgent action now.
In view of the situation in which we find ourselves, the movement of truck drivers must become a general movement in the fight against crisis policy. Even though the strike of the oil workers was suspended for the time being on 30 May, the unification of the struggle of truck drivers and Petrobras workers is central to the success of the whole struggle. There is an urgent need to build unity. The general strike is the instrument through which the transitional demands of the working class can be rooted in unifying the struggles.
It is a fundamental task of the leadership of the working class, especially the CUT, the largest trade union in Latin America, to call on all grassroots organisations to organise a general strike!
We must not confine ourselves to electoral tactics. For us it is not enough to overthrow Temer and elect Lula, or to stand for his release. It is necessary to wage an effective fight with our demands and under our own flag in order to fend off and defeat these attacks.
Any workers’ movement must be understood as a spark that could spread the struggle throughout the country to overthrow this system. The leaders of the left-wing parties, trade union headquarters and social movements must call the working class to united struggle.
However, the CUT refuses to call the general strike. It supports the truck drivers’ movement, criticises the policy of Temer/Parente at Petrobras, but does not call for a general strike. Regardless of the precise nature of the current movement, it is a moment of agitation and social upheaval whose outcome will depend on the intervention of the great mass of workers.
It is essential to occupy the space opened up by the truckers’ strike, to organise the struggles of the working class, to discuss with all sectors and to put the workers’ discussions on the left’s agenda! We need to unite and expand the many struggles against austerity measures. We must have clarity and calm to understand that what is at stake today affects all workers. We must not be sidetracked into sectoral agreements or over past conflicts. It’s time for everyone to fight. Either we act now, or we will miss the train of history and with it a huge opportunity to defeat this coup government, to overcome the losses that have been imposed on us and to open the way for the construction of a just, egalitarian and democratic society, a socialist society!
- For the unity of the working class!
- Down with all the attacks of the coup government!
- Defence of Petrobras and Elektrobras, 100 percent state-owned and under workers’ control!
- Down with Temer!
- General strike, now!