Management group of the project Promoting Labor Rights in Latin America

Workers at Mercedes-Benz assembly line


While the military dictatorship kept the social and trade union movement in its sight,

German union leaders and workers saw in Brazil a potential for change.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Former leader of the São Paulo Chemical

Workers’ Union, José Neri

and to freely organize and advance unionism. Neri took part in the first delegations of Brazilian workers who had the opportunity to go to Germany for cooperation, experience exchange, and solidarity with the Germans.   The first trip he made to Germany was in the early 1990s.

“We came back with more knowledge about the company, about the way they bargain and act there, about the representation workers had, and shop steward committees”, he recalls. “I remember that, as soon as I returned, I made a speech and started saying ‘we demand’. The human resources director called my attention, but I answered that those who ‘ask’ are subject to getting only what the others are willing to do, but those who ‘demand’ know of the rights they have”.


I returned saying ‘we demand’, because we knew the rights we had


Former leader of the São Paulo Chemical Workers’ Union, José Neri

Solidarity from one

rank-and-file to the other

In the first years of the 1980s, huge mobilizations were starting to change the scene in Brazil. In 1981, there is the 1st National Conference of the Working Class, bringing together 1,091 labor organizations. This was the first big inter-union gathering since 1964 to discuss the right to work, unionism, health and social security, wage, economic, and agrarian policies, and the country’s social problems. This was when the deliberation was approved to create the National Commission for the Single Central of Workers, known as Pró-CUT.

That same year, in October, the Commission calls the first big national demonstration. In the midst of these national mobilizations, the Brazilian workers in multinational companies already had the support that came from Europe and their German colleagues. Those were hard times, when the multinational companies headquartered in Brazil ignored the international norms and guidelines set by the ILO.

“Long before the CUT was founded, the São Bernardo do Campo Metalworkers’ Union had been in contact with the Germans, since the late 1970s. A very strong example from 1982 was, in the case of Volkswagen, when the workers won their first shop steward committee, says Osvaldo Bargas, former CUT International Relations Secretary and, at the time, the union’s General Secretary.  He recalls that the German metalworkers, upon learning that the Brazilian workers did not have the right to participate in any company decision or any representation before the company, demanded a different form of treatment for their colleagues in Brazil.

ANOS 1980

Photo by Débora Klempous

The 1970s and the military regime in Brazil had not come to an end yet. With the same iron hand they used to repress the nation, the military occupied high offices in the multinational companies operating in Brazil. In an environment of disrespect against human and labor rights, the workers tried to organize themselves to attain minimum decent conditions on the factory floor.  And in this context labor cooperation between Brazil and Germany took its first steps.

A Bayer worker since 1979, the former leader of the São Paulo Chemical Workers’ Union, José Neri, experienced the 1980s from inside this multinational company, a period of much struggling by workers to end the dictatorship, restore the country’s democracy,


Over the last decades, international cooperation has been a key tool for promoting the rights of working men and women in multinational companies. The exchange of information between Brazil and Germany was one of the pioneers in this process, dating back to the late 1970s, a time when the military dictatorship threatened human and labor rights in Latin America.

For more than 30 years, Brazilian and German trade unions have fought together for decent jobs, for compliance with healthy and safe conditions at the workplace, for freedom of association, for gender equality, and for greater participation of the youth in the labor movement.

In this historical period, the struggle to democratize Brazil found in labor a driver, one that remains until today, against the exploitation of labor by capital. In this process, building the capacities of workers to become conscious of their rights and acting for change has been a great conquest and the powerhouse of change.

This publication is the result of project Promoting Labor Rights in Latin America, supported by  education and training institute DGB Bildungswerk and jointly managed by CUT – Brazil, the Social Observatory Institute, the CUT National Metalworkers’ Confederation (CNM/CUT), and the CUT National Chemical Workers’ Confederation (CNQ/CUT).

It seeks not only to rescue the history of these three decades of cooperation, celebrated by the CUT and German trade union confederation DGB in 2014, but also to reflect about Latin American labor’s advances and challenges, particularly in Brazilian and German multinational companies.

On the next pages, you will learn a little more about this process of rapprochement, struggles, and conquests.





Good reading.


Photo by Débora Klempous

Photo by Débora Klempous

Mutual support: communication started with letters and evolved with technologies

The European support was essential to the first shop steward

committee at Volkswagen, in 1982

 “Their concrete solidarity act, when we presented them with a dossier showing the truculent way the company treated the workers in the Brazilian plant, was to demand changes or refuse to sign important company policy issues. They used co-management in our favor”, says Bargas.

Fernando Lopes, acting today as Co-Secretary for IndustriALL, also notes that to speak of DGB/CUT relations we must go back to the period preceding the CUT.

Photo by Débora Klempous

João Felício, former CUT president

 “In the case of the metalworkers, I know something similar also happened with the chemical workers, the story begins with the Brazilian workers in the German factories at the time of the massive ABC strikes. It was not institutionalized yet, just groups of workers connected with the more leftist and democratic sector of IG Metall, work by one rank-and-file to the other, he says.  “With the founding of the CUT, the process deepened”, he explains.

“I am not afraid to say that if it hadn’t been for the support of the international labor movement in the 1980s, it would’ve taken us much longer to consolidate the CUT. And DGB solidarity, of the German workers from many industries, was and has been of great importance since the beginning”, stresses João Felício, former CUT president, and recently elected president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). He states that “The CUT’s international policy was always very bold in that the struggles cannot be waged in only one country. Boldness and courage that had come from before the CUT was founded, with the unions that had already established relations with other countries, mostly with Germany.”

Photo by Débora Klempous

Osvaldo Bargas, former CUT International Relations Secretary

Solidarity started from one rank-and-file to the other and was deepened with the founding of CUT

Brazil-Germany partnership

Factories of contrasts

 International legitimacy

Trade union models

 José Drummond, the leader of the ABC Chemical and Petrochemical Workers’ Union in the beginning of those historical years for the workers, former CUT and ICEM (today IndustriALL) leader, remembers that relations with the Germans helped Brazilians to think more critically about how to prompt our unions and unionists to have a more consequential international relation, with rank-and-file participation. “We learned about a reality that was different from the one we were living in. Since our strikes, we began to see that our workers had a very different situation than that of our German colleagues, though doing the same job here and there. You had the German co-management law, with worker  participation on the company board, and here we were still living the days of the tomahawk. You didn’t even have any union representation inside the factories. It was very difficult for the workers to elect shop stewards. This took many strikes at Mercedes, at Volkswagen, and in other German companies, like BASF”, he tells us.

At that time, support to Brazilian workers also came from church-related entities and German leftist parties’ organizations, like the Latin-American Institute for Economic and Social Development (Ildes, from the Portuguese acronym), today Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). “The experience of the Brazilian new unionism was also very positive for the Germans at that time, not only because it was new, but because it brought together unionism with a leading role and explicit political action”, analyzes Waldeli Melleiro, currently Project Director for the FES Union Program. “The mobilizations that took place here in the 1980s were something altogether different from what was going on in Europe, where there was a kind of crisis, a kind of decline. What was happening here was completely new, the people were on the streets, strikes and rallies everywhere, strong union and political leaders being legitimized, see the case of the then trade union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Actions were very courageous, something which also inspired the Germans”, she recalls.


Photo by Débora Klempous

José Drummond, former CUT and ICEM

(today IndustriALL) leader

The Brazilian experience brought together unionism with a leading role and explicit political action

Waldeli Melleiro, currently Project Director for the FES Union Program

Photo by Débora Klempous

The general strike began on July 21st, 1983. Although heavily repressed by the military government, it stopped some three million workers all over Brazil, showing the strengthening of the organization. That same year, on August 28th, during the 1st National Congress of the Working Class (CONCLAT, from the Portuguese), with the presence of DGB among the most important international trade union confederations, represented on the occasion by Hans Kruger, and legitimating the struggle of the Brazilian workers, CUT-Brazil, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores, was born, with a metalworker, Jair Meneguelli, as general coordinator.

Among the CUT goals and principles, as set forth in that historical CONCLAT, attended and supported by DGB, Article 9 is about International Solidarity: “The CUT shall act in solidarity with all the working class and peoples’ movements that are driven toward a free and egalitarian society. The CUT shall act in solidarity with the struggles for the emancipation of the working class, the emancipation of the peoples, and for the end of imperialist wars. The CUT will maintain relations with all trade union confederations, preserving its autonomy and independence”.

The next year, 1984, a group of Volkswagen, Mercedes, and General Motors Brazilian unionists went to Germany to learn more about the reality of the German workers. Exchange programs were also organized for workers in the chemical industry, mostly from multinational company BASF. This was the beginning of a period of much exchange of information between workers in a number of industries. Issue 44 of Rede Sindical, a newsletter by the Trade Union Networks in Multinational Companies and produced by the Social Observatory in 2004, features a seminar in Germany, organized by DGB Bildungswerk and other organizations, that discussed the twenty years of solidarity between Brazilians and Germans and remembering that 1984 trip by Brazilian unionists as the starting point for more intense and deeper contacts. With the title “Social reorganization in Brazil and times of globalization in Germany”, the seminar had the participation of Vicente Paulo da Silva, a former CUT president, and of other labor leaders.

The Germans Angela Hidding and Fritz Stahl used to work at Mercedes Benz and have a long history of cooperation with Brazil that dates back to the 1980s. Fritz was a union delegate, and Angela was a shop stewardess at Mercedes. Still today they take part in a working group called Solidarity with Brazilian unions in their hometown, Mannheim. They remember clearly that meeting in 1984 in Germany, and its importance. Shortly afterwards, they came to Brazil and were “impressed by the struggle of many segments of the population, through active participation in the everyday life of the factories, neighborhoods, and other struggles”.

In their view, some things contributed, in addition to persistence, to advance solidarity between the workers in both countries: “Each of our peoples experienced what drives the other, their problems, struggles, and accomplishments. In the beginning we sent handwritten letters to each other; then communication improved with the introduction of fax machines and, now, with today’s means of communication. We always acted thinking of mutual support, as in the case of the unlawful layoffs in Campinas and São Bernardo do Campo”, the two Germans say.



CUT acts in

solidarity with

all the working

class and peoples’ movements

Cedoc/ CUT

Committee at Volkswagen:

permanent international cooperation

“Countless seminars were held during these exchange programs, there was a constant effort to increase the common vision about global strategies and develop forms of local and global resistance. All this was only possible, of course, because of the efforts that were started and developed in the 1980s, back in the first meetings”, they complete. Until today Angela and Fritz talk to union delegates in IG Metall seminars about work and the international struggle, and its strategic importance.

João Cayres, current National Metalworkers’ Confederation (CNM/CUT) General Secretary and International Relations Secretary tells us that the partnership with IG Metall, a trade union affiliated with DGB, was very important for the metalworkers. “There has been plenty of political and financial collaboration since the 1980s in matters as important as education, in broadening our knowledge so that we could see unionism with a more rank-and-file view. They had and still have a union model that is different from ours. We took them as reference in several aspects and adapted them to our standards, understanding the differences and getting closer, realizing that co-management is possible, always applying [what we learned] to our situation and our contexts”, he explains. According to him, for the Germans it was, and still is, also important that the Brazilian workers have their rights guaranteed and legitimized inside the same companies.  “And I also believe it was and is important for them to learn about the way we carry out our labor struggles. The exchange of knowledge was always very positive”, states Cayres.


*With information provided by Cedoc/CUT


We took IG

Metall as

reference in


aspects and adapted them

to our standards

João Cayres, current National Metalworkers’ Confederation (CNM/CUT) General Secretary and International Relations Secretary


The I CONCLAT and the birth of CUT in August, 1983


Neoliberal policies caused many losses to the workers and threatened union organizing

In the 1990s, exchange programs intensified and were strengthened by projects designed to educate and train working men and women all over Brazil.

Fritz Hofmann, a German worker and unionist, remembers very well the first visit he made to Brazil, in 1990. He worked for BASF in Ludwigshafen and was a union delegate, traveling with a group of rank-and-file militants from other German chemical companies. “Our intention was to establish contacts from one rank-and-file to the other, worker by worker. We wanted to know what life was like for our colleagues in Brazil, what their struggles were like. And how the big multinational companies behaved in other parts of the world. In the first years, our work was done outside the union, with our own funds and in our free time. Then the union’s posture changed. And then, later on, came the founding of the BASF network”, he recalls.

Hofmann says he is very proud of having taken part in a process that increased the power of the workers of the BASF group and other sectors: “This step was possible because we had, on both sides, fellow workers who organized the exchange with stamina, resistance, and conviction. The meetings with our Brazilian brothers and sisters, in Germany or in Brazil, were always very advantageous for me: they brought me a new motivation in the everyday struggle.  These are fellow workers educated in the mobilizations of the 1970s and 1980s in Brazil, who spread their courage and conviction that another world is possible”.

Photo by Débora Klempous

In the 1990s exchange programs are intensified and new challenges arise, especially posed by the neoliberal policies, which caused so many losses to the workers and threatened union organizing.  Cooperation between the CUT and DGB deepens. Union education becomes essential. “We started to design the kind of more effective cooperation could come. Some fields were designed: one field that was more on the direct level of the two confederations, and another one that concerned the unions. This was a moment of greater knowledge about the German trade union structure”, says Jorge Lorenzetti, the CUT Formation Secretary at the time.

The CUT was in the process of developing its National Education Policy and the DGB model of regional schools was an inspiration for the Brazilians. “During the construction”, Lorenzetti explains, “we discussed that our national education policy should have activities for the whole of the country, at the time concentrated at the Cajamar Institute, but also a decentralized education structure across the country’s regions. Then appeared the regional schools, with the support of several international confederations”.

Solidarity and education

And that was how, in an intense cooperation program between the CUT and DGB, Escola Sul (South School) was consolidated and based in Florianópolis, in the state of Santa Catarina. In order for it to be built, tools were developed that included not only exchange programs, but also financial support. IG Metall workers, in Germany, together with DGB Bildungswerk, organized a campaign with the German metalworkers to raise funds.


between CUT

and DGB became

more intense

and solid


Intense cooperation program between the CUT and DGB consolidated Escola Sul (South School)

Jorge Lorenzetti, former CUT Formation Secretary

DGB model of regional schools was an inspiration

for the CUT's National Education Policy




Photo by Débora Klempous

Photo by Débora Klempous

In the 1990s exchange programs are intensified and new challenges arise

A delegation of thirty German metalworkers was in Brazil for the ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone. “This was a very emblematic process, how solidarity was developed, showing that the idea was not just cooperation between the two leaderships, but also between the rank-and-file”, Lorenzetti stresses.  Even an industrial kitchen was shipped by the Germans as a contribution to South School. A DGB project was also approved by the European Union for the donation of funds.

South School became a diffusion center of discussions and education regarding the globalization of rights, the construction as the flip side of globalization – a struggle for rights that can only be conquered with international solidarity and union action, driven by a vision of sustainability and social responsibility. Incentive to South-South relations was another highlight.

“A strong point, besides the other highly important themes discussed at South School, was the broadening of our relations and cooperation with our neighbors, with Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, and other nearby countries. And with Africa too”, Jorge Lorenzetti recalls.

Preparations to take on the challenges posed by the neoliberal policies and globalization based on greater knowledge about how the multinational companies move and act across countries also took center stage in the 1990s, in the context of the DGB/CUT cooperation. “When we created the Social Observatory Institute, the partnership grew even more because we were able to conduct several surveys on multinational companies, in addition to other actions. Considering the CUT’s education policy, we always  thought about strengthening the knowledge of our leaders for the combat, consolidation of rights, and denunciations against violations or noncompliance with international norms, especially in the multinational companies”, analyzes Kjeld Jacobsen, an ex-CUT leader and former president of the Social Observatory Institute.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Kjeld Jacobsen, ex-CUT leader and former president of the Social Observatory Institute


Women, youth, and environment

 Leadership education

“The 1990s were emblematic for Brazilian unionism. Unlike the previous decade, when, in the context of the struggles for the redemocratization  of the country and the affirmation of the so-called ‘new unionism’, we founded the Cut and averted attempts to implement the neoconservative agenda of economic adjustment, the 1990s, especially with the victory of Fernando Collor in the 1989 elections and of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in 1994, represented a context of significant losses for the working class”, ponders José Celestino Lourenço, current CUT National Education Secretary.

In this context, the unionist notes, the impacts of that crisis on the youth and women, the portions of the population that most suffered with unemployment and the lack of access to quality social protection services, made it necessary for the Brazilian labor movement, and the CUT in particular, to review its demands.

Another theme that ranked high on labor’s agenda in the 1990s was the environment, especially due to the increasing deforestation of the Amazon region by cattle ranching and agribusiness, plus urbanization, which caused deep impacts on the culture of the Amazon peoples.

“The themes youth, women, and environment were treated as priorities in the DGB cooperation in the field of union education in the 1990s. The proposal was to strengthen women and youth unionists’ organizing as a condition to advance their claims both in the world of work and in the public policymaking realm. Concerning the environmental theme, the main goal was to strengthen workers’ organizing in the Amazon region to push for a development model that preserved the environment”, states the CUT National Education Secretary.

According to him, given the results achieved by the actions taken, the assessment is highly positive. “It was a very successful cooperation relation if we look at the level of women and youth organizing we have today, at the CUT,   and the strengthening of the environmental agenda that goes well beyond the Amazon region”, he ponders.


The 1990s

were emblematic

for Brazilian unionism

Environmental crisis was one of the priorities

in the DGB cooperation in the field of union education in the 1990s

José Celestino Lourenço, current CUT National Education Secretary

Photo by Débora Klempous


In the 2000s, the partnership built in the 1980s and 1990s bore fruit.  To Alfredo Santos Jr., current CUT National Youth Secretary, the course “Youth and Unionism”, promoted by the DGB/CUT partnership, was of fundamental importance in organizing the CUT youth. “It was after this course that youth collectives expanded at state CUTs. And the actions of these collectives prompted the creation of the CUT National Youth Department, plus the respective state Youth Departments in all of the 27 states and in 14 of the industries represented by the trade union central body”, remarks Alfredo, he himself one of the participants of the education program made possible by the cooperation program.  Like him, a number of current national leaders of the Brazilian trade union movement attended education programs.

  According to this leader, the partnership also made it possible for the youth theme to acquire a greater centrality in CUT debates. “And, as the CUT youth organizing had this important influence from international cooperation, it is just natural that the unionists who experienced this partnership have a sharper view as to the necessity of internationalist actions”, he argues.

Rosana Sousa de Deus, a CUT Executive Board member directly involved in the CUT Working Women National Department and who also attended the course, evaluates that the education program materialized by the cooperation between Brazil and Germany also made it possible for young women to have an opportunity to organize, over and beyond specific women’s activities, toward the construction of a platform of struggle for the youth, incorporating feminist claims, thus consolidating itself as a cross-cutting construction.

“In my opinion, the youth education project happened at the right time, at a moment when labor’s political juncture called for broad and significant youth inclusion so that this sector’s specific demands could be widely socialized, discussed, approved, and implemented by  all the leaders in their entities”, Rosana concludes.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Workers and union leaders, participants of the education program

Photo by Débora Klempous

The election of former unionist Lula to the presidency of Brazil in 2003 broadened the space for internal discussions and policies that had been part of the union central bodies’ agenda


In the midst of the world economic crisis of the first decade of the 20th century,

multinational-corporation workers’ networks are fundamental to guarantee the rights of workers.

The arrival of a new century also renewed the hopes of the working class at the head of a historical struggle for rights. The election of former unionist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency of Brazil in 2003 resonated worldwide and broadened the space for internal discussions and policies that had been part of the union central bodies’ agenda, like the  minimum wage appreciation policy and increased employability. In this context, the cooperation between Brazil and Germany intensified and in the following years reaffirmed the workers’ struggles for decent working conditions and equal rights, ultimately leading to important victories and the consolidation of the union networks, especially inside the German multinational companies.

Over the years, networking has shown, too, the possibility of advances in organizing working places and in National Collective Bargaining Agreements by building on coordination across the various workers’ organizational spheres in the various countries where the company operates. Everything is related.  “International relationship is very important because you can question the company – if you have it there, why not here? But, for that, you need to strengthen the unions”, explains former CUT and ICEM (presently IndustriALL) leader José Drummond. “Hence the idea that we had of organizing the unions in networks, showing the unions the importance of their individual fight, in the city or in the factory, but more importantly and fundamentally, that they can act in an organized fashion, dialoguing with the unions in parent companies, always taking into account, concurrently, international contact”, he adds.


In face of this, education and training programs have been fostered that also address global issues, by organizing in international networks inside multinational companies. More recently, a highlight was the CUT Multi Project, developed by the CUT in partnership with Dutch confederation FNV, CNM/CUT, CNQ/CUT, and the Social Observatory Institute. From 2000 to 2010 the project played the role of disseminating networking and explaining to the workers why networks are necessary at home and abroad. In 2011, the guidelines were adopted by training and education center DGB Bildungswerk (DGB BW) in project Promoting Labor Rights in Latin America, also in partnership with the metalworkers, the chemical workers, the CUT, and the IOS.

International relationship is very important because you can question the company – if you have it there, why not here?


José Drummond, formerCUT and ICEM leader

This debate boosts the exchange of information between workers worldwide, further strengthening their struggles. According to João Felício, president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), networks seek to stimulate organizing at the workplace, “which is fundamental to those who defend rank-and-file unionism, based on the democratic struggle”, while also stimulating deep knowledge about the company and its profitability, thus creating more efficient self-defense conditions that are part of a collectivity that goes beyond the country level.

“That is why the TUCA and the ITUC have systematically guided the role of multinational companies in the world and how we can establish unified actions. It is not easy to develop a fight in Brazil and, at the same time, in South Africa, but the same way capital is extremely nimble to defend its interests, we must also adapt and be extremely nimble to carry out big world-scale actions”, emphasizes Felício.


Exchange of information between

workers worldwide


Photo by Débora Klempous

Neri and Guimarães: Bayer network was built in 2004, and, since then, it has won several victories

From committees to networks

The economic crisis

and its developments

Crossing borders at a global level

Photo by Roberto Parizotti/CUT Nacional

Niklaas Hofmann, DGB BW director for Latin America

Apart from the ECCs, the 2000s enabled the strengthening of the networks inside different companies around the world, as well as progress in social dialogue. With Germany, the partnership was made stronger. “The companies are globalized, and we also have to globalize our trade union policies”, underscores DGB Bildungswerk director for Latin America Niklaas Hofmann, who adds that the German trade union confederation is setting up a regional office for Latin America in Brazil.

As for the companies, they learned to negotiate with the workers through the networks. “Our relation with the company’s union committee evolved. We don’t just discuss basic issues, but also company strategies like business longevity, our market competitiveness, and the region’s costs”, says Mercedes’ Human Resources and Industrial Relations senior manager Amilton Rocha.

The companies are globalized, and we also have to globalize our trade union policies

Niklaas Hofmann, DGB Bildungswerk director

for Latin America



For Bayer’s Industrial Relations director Eder Correa, with ongoing dialogue, the company no longer accumulated a backlog of demands over the years, which made the negotiation process harder. On behalf of BASF, HR vice-president for Latin America Wagner Brunini points out that, equipped with information, comparison power, and awareness, the networks have created expectations from the workers with which the company has to deal. “This is good, most of all, for the relation between capital and labor”, assesses Wagner.


Photo by Débora Klempous

Photo by Débora Klempous

Photo by Roberto Parizotti/CUT Nacional


Rocha, Correa and Brunini: companies have learned to negotiate with the workers through the networks

The world economic crisis that began in 2008 hit mostly the countries of the north, countries which endured an industrial output slowdown and still today deal with the outcomes of the measures adopted over the years. For Brazil, only a “ripple” was expected and, indeed, the country did not see any catastrophic consequences for the workers. This happened, for one, due to the position taken by the government of reducing the IPI tax on industrial goods and expanding credit and, for another, on account of labor pressures.

“It was pointless to implement proposals designed to make rights more flexible, to increase unemployment, as a way to take on the crisis. On the contrary, we, here in Brazil, quickly organized, through the Council for Economic and Social Development, a reaction to businesspeople, including Brazilians, who wanted to face the crisis with these international models”, reveals former CUT president Artur Henrique Santos. The equation focused on generating income to uphold consumption and, consequently, production. “This ultimately brought us closer to the Germans the other way round, that is, they would call us to tell them Brazil’s experience in facing the crisis, which was important for our trade union movement”, assess Artur.

Organized for more than 20 years in shop steward committees and for 10 years in workers’ networks, Bayer of Brazil employees, together with the union, negotiated with the company ways to minimize the impacts of the crisis, which hit mostly the corporation’s Material Science plant at Belford Roxo (RJ). Eder Correa explains that there were no layoffs, while agreement was reached on how to make up for the hours not worked, to be compensated for in the following year during the preemptive maintenance period: “The people stayed home, enjoying their usual wages and benefits, and would make up for these hours, within legal limits, during the preemptive maintenance, usually worked on an overtime basis”.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Brazil’s experience

in facing the crisis was important for

our trade union movement

Artur Henrique Santos,

former CUT president

To Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) project director Waldeli Melleiro, the recovery of these companies reaffirms the real possibility of overcoming the crisis without cutting wages and jobs. “Some German companies came with this speech, but, if they fired [workers], they hired shortly afterwards. There were conflicts and debates, but the crisis here was different from the crisis in Germany. There, there were measures, but even so the situation was quickly reversed, and the networks helped a lot in this exchange of information”, she notes.

At the Basf plants in Brazil the impact was also smaller than expected, in spite of the company’s announcement that it would close down 130 factories worldwide. The coordinator of the Basf workers’ network in South America, Airton Cano, notes that “around the world, some workers were laid off, but here, this was the year Basf made the most money. From then on, it has invested in Brazil”.

On the other hand, the moment was also one of workers’ reorganization at Basf, where dialogue with the company was assessed as having come to a standstill and with few concrete actions. The situation led to a national strike in 2009, followed by an injunction filed by the company to stop it. “We started an initiative for a national framework agreement, but Basf did not accept. We set up a working group with the unions and the network to design Guidelines for Social Dialogue and, then, Basf could not refuse the debate”, says the coordinator of the network, which is celebrating 15 years since the inception of this pioneer in the chemical industry.

In this context, the labor movement went on carving its space cooperatively. “We managed to organize dozens of networks over the years. In the case of the Basf network, I was one of those who, with other brothers and sisters, started this process in the country. This struggle included convincing the unions, it took heavy support from Germany for it to succeed in Brazil and to start its consolidation on a regional level”, recalls Drummond.

The increasing exchange between trade union organizations from different countries, in fact, made possible the macro-scale breakthroughs of the 2000s, backed mainly by international federations and by the International Trade Union Confederation. Sérgio Novais, currently a member of IndustriALL’s financial committee, tells that “in the 1999 congress, there was a global decision that we would create workers’ networks. In 2003, I joined the ICEM and we kept on working on this theme”. As recently as 2012, the ICEM, the international federation of chemical and mining workers, merged with the metalworkers’ and textile workers’ international federations giving rise to IndustriALL, which today develops this international policy of networks and global agreements.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Sérgio Novais, member of IndustriALL’s financial committee

“For example, now in Colombia unionists are being murdered, so we pressure the government, file petitions with the ILO, the UN, everywhere, for that to end, always together with the local union, negotiating and respecting each country. Today, we are more than 50 million represented workers from 140 countries, including all of Latin America, which strengthens actions a lot. But everybody is learning, IndustriALL is very recent”, explains Novais.

Over this period other important actions were pushed forward, still in the realm of the Global Union Federations (GUFs). FES director Tina Hennecken points out the federation’s experience: “New cooperation projects appeared, like a project bringing together union youth from Germany and Latin American countries. At the meeting, they performed a theatrical play on globalization and were marveled to see that it is possible to carry out dialogue and political action in a more creative way”, she says.

Broadening dialogue and the prospects of international action also fostered the struggle for international framework agreements, as noted by Leonardo Mello e Silva, a professor of Sociology at USP and researcher for the Center for Studies of the Rights of Citizenship (CENEDIC, in Portuguese): “In a context of global unionism, the network is discussing multinational companies that will, possibly, sign global framework agreements, which will also be signed by the global union federations”.

The road, however, is long. “We are just in the beginning”, warns José Drummond.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Tina Hennecken, FES director

Organizing at the workplace – Part 2

Organizing at the workplace – Part 1

European Company Councils (ECCs), which represent workers within Community-wide companies and act as consultative bodies across European Union countries, have ensured workers' right to access information on every company interfering in their working life


at the workplace

The gains for the working class in acting in networks appear in emblematic cases as back as the early 2000s, as is the case of Mercedes. One year after the creation of the Mercedes Workers’ World Committee, in 2001, the company intended to close three factories around the world, one of them in Brazil. The first member of the company’s world committee and currently president of the ABC Metalworkers’ Union, Valter Sanches, says that, due to this form of organizing, the decision could be negotiated with the entrepreneurs and a restructuring was conducted without any factory closure.

The following year, another victory: “We managed to strike an international framework agreement, named Social Responsibility Principles, and the first use we made of it was precisely to reverse the dismissals that were taking place in the company. We also solved problems with third parties and Mercedes suppliers“, recalls Sanches, who, since 2007 is a member of the Mercedes Board of Directors, representing workers side by side with other German employees. “I often say I am a white fly, since there is no other non-German on any other board of directors of multinational German companies”, he jokes. “This is quite significant for us”.

The German co-management system and the information coming from the workers’ representatives in the parent company were also fundamental for structuring the Bayer network during that period. “The network is a coordination process that keeps us informed. We built the network in 2004, we are ten years old, and we have won several victories”, remarks Bayer network coordinator Geraldo Guimarães.

 The organizing of transnational trade unionism and the world committees, in turn, were further boosted by other international benchmarks, like the European Company Councils (ECCs), which represent workers within Community-wide companies and act as consultative bodies across European Union countries. Through them, the workers have ensured their right to access information on every company interfering in their working life.

The ECCs have also served as a model for the Mercosur Collective Agreement (CCM, from the Portuguese acronym) at Volkswagen, in 1999 – even though not regulated by any community directive. “The participation of Brazilian trade union organizations at the CCM, partly an ‘import’ from Volkswagen’s culture of dialogue, was a pioneer at Mercosur scale”, stresses a professor of the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, Hermes Augusto Costa.

Photo by Débora Klempous

New challanges: workers’ networks and social dialogue

With Brazil standing out in the international scene, multinational company

workers’ networks take on the challenge of promoting social dialogue

“The world today is much smaller than it was 100 years ago”. The statement by the ITUC president elected this year, the Brazilian João Felício, concerns the shortening of distances between countries through union action. “Our dream is that one day, when a struggle happens to be taking place in a given country, that same struggle will also be taking place in another country”, he reveals.

Everything seems to indicate that Brazil is in the right direction, yet challenges abound. The election of João Felício to the presidency of the ITUC, as well as that of Antônio Lisboa, another Brazilian, to the ILO Board of Directors, constitute an unprecedented event and are the result of decades at the forefront. “This is positive in the democratization process in international solidarity. For that, it is also necessary to democratize the spheres of power, not restricting them to just one region. We will manage to reduce distances and increasingly develop more solidarity”, guarantees Felício.

International recognition of the Brazilian struggle in defense of the workers has also allowed Brazil to implement cooperation actions with other countries. “It is time to also give back the solidarity we always had from the other confederations in the world”, states the president of the National Metalworkers’ Confederation (CNM/CUT), Paulo Cayres. And he adds that one of the present CNM/CUT projects is focused on women inclusion in Mozambique, together with the local Metalworkers’ Union and the support of Canadian CAW and IndustriALL. “Our country has a historical debt with the African peoples and it has to pay for it. Networks make this possible”, notes Cayres.

The gender issue has also been strongly debated at the National Chemical Workers’ Confederation (CNQ/CUT). The president of CNQ/CUT, Lucineide Varjão, speaks about the women’s education and training project in the chemical industry, done in partnership with FES: “We have several regional activities for the strengthening of women’s participation in union and power arenas”, she says. Inside the CUT itself, the discussion has shifted into action – it has been decided that 50% of its offices must be held by women next year.

It is time to also give back the solidarity we always had from the other confederations in the world


Paulo Cayres, president of the National Metalworkers’ Confederation (CNM/CUT

Moreover, in the project Promoting Labor Rights in Latin America, developed by the CUT in partnership with CNM/CUT, CNQ/CUT, the Social Observatory Institute, and supported by DGB, the expectation is that, over the next three years, education and the work of strengthening the networks will be even more focused on precarious work and the promotion of social dialogue.

Therefore, the project brings forces together against the behavior of the big companies, which, in the present capitalist context, are migrating to regions where the labor movement is weaker in order to exploit the worker and cheat the law for the sake of bigger profits.

Photo by Débora Klempous

We have several regional activities for the strengthening

of women’s participation in union and power arenas

Lucineide Varjão, president of the National Chemical Workers’ Confederation (CNQ/CUT)

Photo by Débora Klempous

Lucineide Varjão, presidenta da CNQ/CUT

Efforts against precarious jobs and casualization

Simultaneously with these breakthroughs, however, Brazil is experiencing an economic growth that has boosted the action of capital in the other direction, as explains Professor Leonardo Mello. “Globalization now is a two-way movement: it enters, but also leaves Brazil. The Brazilian companies are participating in the globalization. Several of them – Vale, Gerdau, Petrobrás, Itaú, among others – have an active presence in other countries”, he notes. Once again, it is important that the Brazilian labor movement should take the lead in international actions in order not to

allow the Brazilian multinational companies to relocate for the purpose of creating more precarious working conditions.

The capitalist context of acquisitions and mergers and of fragmentation of the production obliges the unions to be more attentive to attempts aiming to reduce or ‘flexibilize’ rights that come in the wake of these practices. Former CUT president Artur Henrique emphasizes that today a single company operates in different sectors of activity. “The same company that is in the energy sector, is also in the construction sector, which is in the services sector, which has a bank, and which also has an orange juice company, so, it’s the same stakeholder or a few stakeholders that  command this big company”, he remarks.


Network as reinforcement of union action

Knowledge and education

Thus, it becomes essential to strengthen trade union action. “More and more I convince myself that the central bodies have adopted the right policy in taking the road of networks because capitalism is also taking it. It is no longer concentrating everything in just one place, and the network has to accompany that”, suggests USP sociology professor Leonardo Mello.

At the same time, several challenges have been posed, ranging from resistance by good part of the companies to sign global framework agreements to different legislations in each country. In the case of the Brazilian labor movement, this is compounded by a structure that favors union fragmentation, which weakens the struggle for equal workers’ rights, as underscored by Artur Henrique: “While Germany builds unions with up to nine million members, here we are building, every day, two new unions with about ten members, which have no representativeness at all”, he criticizes.

Union fragmentation, according to ICEM vice-president in the 1990s, José Drummond, benefits the company, which used to strike a different deal with each union, manipulating this division. “To bet on union division is to bet on the boss’s strategy. That’s what the multinational corporation needs: to go to a country where there is no union organizing to be able to exploit the workers”, he concludes.

On the other hand, the same Brazilian trade union structure feeds the resistance by a few unionists who, often, do not accept the networks either because they do not understand them or because they are addicted to fragmented union struggle. The network, in turn, does not challenge the union’s power; on the contrary, one of its missions is to strengthen organizing at the workplace and the actions of local

The unions, legally, are the ones that represent the worker, and the network cannot ever take away their autonomy

“The unions, legally, are the ones that represent the worker, and the network cannot ever take away their autonomy”, underscores the coordinator of the Basf workers’ network in South America, Airton Cano. João Felício also argues in favor of the need to understand the network: “The union that accepts the union network strengthens itself even more. There is no opposition between their interests; on the contrary, it is one of the most beautiful intentions the union should have”.

Globalization now is a two-way movement:

it enters, but also leaves Brazil

Photo by Débora Klempous

Photo by Débora Klempous

Airton Cano, coordinator of the Basf workers’ network in South America

Leonardo Mello, professor and

researcher at USP

The education of trade union leaders and entrepreneurs, therefore, is imperative. Niklaas Hofmann, DGB BW director for Latin America, adds that, in Brazil, “local managers are not trained, don’t grow with the union’s experience as those responsible for companies in Germany do”, he compares.

For the president of the Social Observatory Institute, Roni Barbosa, there is also the need for unions to act more broadly in the promotion of social dialogue. “Brazil needs to strengthen its unions and broaden social dialogue, but for that there must be a better understanding, especially by the entrepreneurs, of the role of the unions in Brazil. At the same time, “the worker, if not trained to conduct this kind of negotiation, will not move forward in the dialogue”, he contends. He also points out the importance of formative project Promoting Labor Rights in Latin America, in which themes such as globalization, union networks, social dialogue, ILO norms, Global Compact, and OECD guidelines, among others, are approached.

Since 2011, the Social Observatory Institute is at the head of this project with regard to the education and capacity building of workers, focusing on network action. The goal is not only to educate workers that become more aware of their rights, but also to stimulate and conduct capacity building and the strengthening of the workers’ networks, uniting forces and leading to victories. “Today we can notice a change in the behavior of the workers. Technology and information are accessible to all, even to those who do not directly work with these resources. Thus, exchanging information and joint action have been a challenge and an advance. And an advance because until very recently it was very difficult for a big company to recognize a network and establish dialogue with its workers. And it is a challenge because there is always an opposition of interests”, Barbosa completes.

Brazil needs to strengthen its unions and broaden social dialogue, but for that there must be a better understanding

Roni Barbosa, president of the Social Observatory Institute

Photo by Débora Klempous

Another challenge is to include the youth in the labor movement in a context of new technologies. Airton Cano, of the Basf network, says that terms like part-time, home office, and work mobile, for example, are now part of the companies’ strategies. “I went in search of agreements that are in place in Germany. These are trends that we have been discussing while also trying to understand what young people in today’s labor market are like”, he states.

Artur Henrique goes further and believes that we should think about professions in ten years’ time. “Besides, there is the youth and a lot of people who are hooked on the Internet, who are capable of doing things and making decisions on a virtual basis, which makes union action harder. We need to think about new organizing mechanisms, without giving up the Brazilian labor movement’s mobilization and pressure tradition”, he assesses.

In face of that, recognition by the own workers they represent is perhaps the first great accomplishment of these trade union organizations. Not less important, the breakthroughs in the struggle for respect, dialogue, and decent work rebuild active and proposition-driven unionism in our country; after all, as noted by Lucineide Varjão, “All our conquests were not given to us, they were conquered, and the history of Brazil shows that”.

And if nothing is easy for those who wake up early, sweat, and bleed for a decent life and release air at the end of the day, handing over to the boss that which was worth more, a little bit of humanity is the same as confidence in better days, and the beginning of everything. “The networks establish knowledge of distinctive realities, common plans of struggle, and above all class solidarity, which is the CUT’s DNA. It makes no sense to have a network if solidarity is not to be exercised”, believes Paulo Cayres– and certainly, so do all the workers who are helping to write this history.





Photo by Roberto Parizotti/CUT Nacional

American political scientist and Global Labour University professor Michael Fichter





In an exclusive interview given to this publication, Global Labour Universityprofessor Michael Fichter advocates that unions need to think and act strategically

An expert in labor relations, American political scientist Michael Fichter is a world authority when the subject is global framework agreements and collective bargaining from the perspective of globalization. On a visit to Brazil, the professor of the Global Labour University in Germany and member of the Otto-Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin spoke on the changes, conquests, and challenges of the working world.


Project Promoting Labor Rights in Latin America – How do you view union action today?


Michael Fichter – Trade unions are facing an overwhelming challenge. According to statistics by the International Trade Union Confederation, of the 2.9 billion workers worldwide, only 7% are organized in recognized unions. This is a very, very small number. Trade unions are starting from a low level of organizing power. Moreover, unions are organized on a national or local basis, and that is also how they operate. The learning process now involves understanding that unions have to include global issues in their everyday, regular operating procedures. This is the first step to understand the importance of global issues for the daily operations of unions.


PPLRLA – How have the global framework agreements influenced labor relations in multinational companies?


Fichter – The policies developed by the global union federations as regards global agreements started in the 1990s. Since then, the number of agreements has risen to over one hundred. With these agreements, for the firsttime, transnational corporations recognized global unions as the workers’ legitimate representatives.

It’s the beginning of a global representation that had never been recognized before. This is good, but is not enough. The agreements always include ILO’s fundamental rights of workers, which means that the corporations have to recognize freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.


PPLRLA – Do you see any change in the workers’ behavior derived from this knowledge?


Fichter – In all the history of the labor movement, workers have resisted and sought to establish collective representation. First of all locally, at their workplaces. But then they realized that only organizing the workplace was not enough because the corporations are much bigger.

So what changed with the global framework agreements is that the unions began to recognize, act, and develop policies that are much more global.

And started to extend the power of the unions beyond the workplace. First, beyond the company, including the place where the company is located and its networks, and today from each individual company all along the value chain. By chain of value I mean the way big companies, transnational companies, extract a raw material, the way they use this raw material to produce components, which are then assembled and sold on the market.

The whole process has to be covered and the unions must leverage their power along the entire value chain.


For the first time, global unions are being recognized

as the workers’ legitimate representatives.

This is good, but

is not enough

Photo by Débora Klempous

Fichter: corporations have to recognize freedom of association

According to International Trade Union Confederation,

of the 2.9 billion workers worldwide, only 7% are

organized in recognized unions.

Photo by Débora Klempous

Fichter: It’s the unions that have to be interested in expanding the scope of the conflict and be able to better leverage the power they do have

PPLRLA –  What are the main challenges for this globalized action?


Fichter – Some companies don’t want the workers to meet and interact with their brothers and sisters in other companies in other countries. Sometimes, even the unions are not sure how to interact with other unions. And we must understand there are problems there, there are different interests at stake. If a union has a very good relation with the company and, in the same company in another country the union has very bad relations with the company, then these two unions will have different interests.

The union that has bad relations with the company might want to attack the company, while the union with a good relationship might say “Don’t attack the company, we have a good relation”. I think the unions have to learn to be really open and realistic about these problems and discuss them. And, of course, I believe they can find the answers for these problems. But they must also be capable of understanding what their interests are and what the collective interests are. I see this evolving today. I think it’s a chance and an opportunity for the unions to increase their power and expand representation of their interests much more broadly.


PPLRLA –  In comparison with Brazil, is the smaller number of unions advantageous for Europe?


Fichter – In many European countries, it is an advantage that the unions have united and merged to create industrial unions that are able to conduct cross-cutting negotiations, the whole industry and companies. Because that way a company cannot play one union against the other.

It’s the same process I’m speaking of on a global level. It’s a process that began some fifty or 60 years ago in Europe, when the unions realized that they would have more power if they operated on an industrial level.

Sure this is a learning process which every global union has to go through. There is an advantage in Europe because the unions are capable of institutionalizing their power by legal means, where they are recognized as representatives of the body of employees. And in many countries there are good labor laws protecting and helping unions to be able to negotiate better resolutions.

Some companies don’t want the workers to meet and interact with their brothers and sisters in other companies in other countries

PPLRLA – What is your assessment of a good relation between the State and the unions?


Fichter – I don’t think the unions should expect much from the State’s legal regulations. I think there are good State regulations, and there are bad regulations. Unions must have this autonomous power to keep their strength and not only depend on State regulations. We can see over the last decades that, under this liberal regime of capitalism of ours, there’s been great absence of regulation, with trade liberalization, while the corporations have become more dependent on financial investors.

 And this means short-term profit and flexibility. Labor law flexibility. And the companies have restructured themselves and outsourced many of their activities. This means it’s much harder for the unions to react and collectively defend their members. And this outsourcing process was also expanded to every country on the globe.


PPLRLA – So this present market model has not been so favorable for multinational company workers?


Fichter – Today, the big corporations are not interested in regulations with different unions here or there. They are just looking for places where they can have supply and production at a lower cost, reduce cost and have higher profits. They are always looking for places where they can get rid of union regulations and strong unions. The unions must recognize the need of pressuring companies so that they recognize them because it is clear that companies have no interest in expanding representation. It’s the unions that have to be interested in expanding the scope of the conflict and be able to better leverage the power they do, in fact, have.

Today, the big corporations are just looking for places where they

can have supply and production at a lower cost,

reduce cost and have higher profits

PPLRLA – Do you think it is possible for the unions and central bodies to someday achieve full equality of rights of workers in different countries?


Fichter – The question may not be about wage equality, but about finding a level of payment that is equal in terms of each country’s purchasing power.

There are ways to develop that, raising wages and, more importantly, working conditions. We must understand why a company treats workers doing a kind of job more poorly than in others. Why are some chemical inputs allowed and used in a country’s production process and banned by law in others?

I think that the workers can enhance their situation when they understand that these are common interests that can be found. And the more common interests they find, the better their cooperation will be. Global agreements are the starting point and are the basis for the understanding.

Photo by Roberto Parizotti/CUT Nacional

Fichter: It’s the unions that have to be interested in expanding the scope of the conflict and be able to better leverage the power they do have

 They offer a framework for the unions to develop their organizing power. But this will call for pro-active union work to develop the kind of interest representation and collective action that the unions need to realize the challenges and potential of such agreements.


PPLRLA – And what would the strategy for that be like?


Fichter – It is very important for the unions to put more resources to realize the potential of such agreements and to implement these agreements.

This also means that the affiliates, the members of a global union federation’s union, must achieve these resources, must be able to commit resources to that.

The unions must think more strategically about how to broaden the power they have and how to be able to force the corporations to bargain collectively.

The unions have to research more about the weak points and where they can broaden their power to get their demands, where the strong unions are, where the weak unions are. It’s all about strategy.

And a coherent strategy is needed to advance the interest of the unions everywhere.

Copyright © 2014 Instituto Observatório Social