Solidarity from Below (the Equator)

International union connections are a kick. Within a few hours of my arrival at a union convention in Brazil, I met a copper miner from Chile whose company wants wage cuts, a union doctor from Spain fighting the imposition of co-pays, a Nestle worker from Colombia, and railroad workers from Japan.

Labor Notes was invited to attend the convention of a union federation in Brazil, one that broke away from the big government-connected federation, the CUT, because the CUT was supporting various government measures like cutting pensions for government employees and taking away government recognition from some public sector unions. CONLUTAS is strong in the public sector but also includes miners, auto workers and other “metallurgical” workers, as they say in Portuguese. I met local presidents from both GM and Delphi.

CONLUTAS is interesting because it includes not only unions but also some social justice organizations including students, movements of agricultural workers who want land, and people who've taken over vacant land to build homes.

The unions in CONLUTAS take international solidarity seriously. I met the president of an iron miners’ local in Itabira, in the industrial state of Minas Gervais. He works for Vale—the huge multinational mining company, formerly a state-owned Brazilian company but now privatized—that bought the Inco nickel and copper mines in Ontario a few years ago.

When Vale first bought Inco, the Canadian Steelworkers local sent representatives to Itabira to learn about the company. They found out that Vale is consistently aggressive against its employees (it has 60,000 in Brazil alone). In Canada, the company demanded big concessions, and the Vale Inco miners, members of the Steelworkers, have been on strike for nearly 11 months now.

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The Brazilian local took up a collection and voted to direct money from its treasury, sending $1,500 to the strikers. They’ve also sent a representative to the picket lines. Wilson Fernandes Dias, the local president, told me they’d seen their union’s flag on the Steelworkers’ website. (Meanwhile, the Canadian Vale strikers are coming to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit seeking more solidarity. There'll be a benefit for them starring Anne Feeney and other singers on June 23 near downtown.)

Wilson told me that last year Vale had planned big layoffs in Itabira, but the whole town mobilized against the cuts, with big demonstrations. It reminded me of the community support the Vale Inco miners are getting in Sudbury, and the community support for the borates miners who recently beat a lockout in Boron, California. The Itabira miners succeeded in getting the layoffs reduced, but 2,000 members and 3,000 contract workers are still laid off.

Apparently Vale is doing well. A study by economists found that Vale miners in Brazil need to work only six hours to cover their entire salary, benefits, and taxes for an entire month.

Overall, the conference is somewhat like being at a Labor Notes Conference, but a lot bigger and louder, mostly plenaries, and lots of chanting. I’m looking forward to giving out lots of Troublemakers buttons.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.