Brazilian Labor: The Ghost of Vargas Laid to Rest?

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“The revolver with which Getúlio Vargas shot himself in 1954.”
Source: Vargas Foundation.

Item from the Estado de S. Paulo:

This is at least the second editorial in nearly as many days praising an upcoming reform of Brazil’s labor laws. A guest editorial the other day was titled “The End of the Vargas Era,” and explained the history of these peculiar institutions pretty well.

You read about a lot of trade representatives — notably China’s, as I read a week or so ago — complaining about the barriers to productive investment represented by Brazilian labor laws and regulations.

The idea is that the labor market ought to be more open. Terms of employment ought to be more freely negotiated between employer and workforce, within the parameters of modernized labor standards (no virtual slavery, that sort of thing).

The state’s main role should be as an arbitrator, keeping labor conflicts within the domain of lawyers and picket-waving, “Joe Hill”-singing rallies and parades (with tailgate BBQ after).

Rather than, say, Red-baiting, mobbed-up goons with machine guns, blood in the gutters, and mass graves in the countryside.

I take it the ILO is promoting this reform as well, and that this is really a pretty fundamental part of the Lulist war on Western civilization — that is, on the noble (and astonishingly sociopathic) code of “tradition, family and property” and droit du seigneur that still prevails in parts of the country.

Commenting is Harvard-trained Vargas Foundation economist Roberto Macedo.

Also in today’s opinion section: An editorial praising the negotiation over the prolongation of a (really annoying, but necessary for the time being, seems to be the concensus) major source of tax revenue between opposition and government.

The PSDB faction, led by the Southeastern governors, settled on a condition for reauthorization that hearkens back to Serra’s stint as health minister: They demanded, broadly speaking, that in return for the reauthorization, money gets dedicated to improvements in public health.

“A productive, democratic political deal among responsible adults in which the average Joe Citizen actually gains something,” was the general idea. I kind of had that impression, too.

Interesting, too, that the policy wonks of the PSDB seized the initiative and controlled the agenda, locking out the party’s coalition partner from the last elections, the ex-PFL. Maybe, like Generalissimo Franco in the old joke from Saturday Night Live, Magalhães and Carlismo really is still dead.

The situation of Brazilian labor unions — with the exception of the independent union movement, of which Lula is a major figure, which started in the late 1970s saying things like, “Permission from the government to exercise freedom of association? We don’t need no stinking permission from the government to exercise freedom of association!” –is generally not unlike that in Mexico, I think. See

The term for owner-controlled, state-sponsored unions here is pelego, which literally means “a sheepskin, with the wool attached.”

As in “sheep’s clothing.”

As in “wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • agente disfarçado do governo que procura agir politicamente nos sindicatos de trabalhadores
  • Indivíduo servil e bajulador; capacho, puxa-saco
  1. A disguised government agent seeking to act politically in labor unions
  2. A servile, glad-handing individual; a yes-man, suck-up, toady.

São raríssimas as boas notícias do Congresso Nacional. Uma veio recentemente, no meio de outras tradicionais, como a de que os deputados federais passarão a contar com banheiras de hidromassagem em seus apartamentos “funcionais” e a de que os senadores decidiram manter em segredo o destino que dão aos R$ 15 mil que recebem mensalmente a título de “verba indenizatória”.

Good news from the national congress are rare, but we had some recently, along with the usual sort of news we hear, such as that federal lawmakers will now have bathrooms with hydromassage in their official apartments and that the senators decided to keep secret the use to which they put the R$15,000 they get monthly under the heading of [“reimbursements,” “per diem.”]

A boa nova veio em manchetes do tipo Câmara acaba com imposto sindical, que trataram de emenda do deputado Augusto Carvalho (PPS-DF) incluída no projeto que institucionaliza as centrais sindicais de trabalhadores, aprovado recentemente pela Casa. Essa emenda estabelece como facultativa a tal “Contribuição Sindical”, que hoje os trabalhadores formais recolhem obrigatória e anualmente a seus sindicatos, na forma de um imposto.

The good news came under headlines along the lines of “House puts an end to the union tax,” referring to the amendment offered by Carvalho of the PPS to the bill that institutionalizes the labor federation, approved recently by the house. The amendment makes the payment of union “dues” optional. Currently, the formally employed have it deducted in the form of a tax, whose proceeds go to their unions.

In other words, if your union does nothing for you, you cannot refuse to pay them for services (not) rendered. If they sell you down the river, you still have to pay them for the pleasure of getting the shaft. “Thank you, sir. May I have another?”

And in many cases — journalists, for example, controversially — you cannot work at your profession, practically speaking, without belonging to the (pelego) union.

Keep an eye on that FENAJ, though.

Imediatamente após a notícia, começou “o que é isso, companheiro?” por parte de “lideranças” sindicais que perderiam o butim bilionário. Digo perderiam porque ainda há muito chão pela frente antes de a emenda se aplicar, e é duvidoso se ela sobreviverá ao tiroteio que enfrenta.

As soon as word got out, you started to hear “What the heck is this, comrade?” from the union “leaders” who stand to lose their billion-dollar booty. I say “stand to lose” because there is still a lot of ground to cover before this amendment passes into law, and its chances of surviving the shootout it is sure to face may well be slim to none.

Inicialmente, vieram interpretações jurídicas de que foi inadequadamente redigida, pois altera artigo da CLT que trata do desconto em folha, mas não do que define a “obrigatoriedade da contribuição”. Conforme seu autor, o texto poderá ser corrigido no Senado. Se assim aprovado, contudo, voltará à Câmara para reexame, tomando mais tempo, durante o qual as forças contrárias se organizarão ainda mais e poderão derrotar a idéia, começando no próprio Senado.

First came the legal interpretations, according to which it was badly drafted, given that it amends an article in the old CLT dealing with payroll deductions but not the article definining “the obligatory nature of the contribution.” according to its author, the Senate could make that correction. If approved in that manner, however, it would have to be reexamined and voted on again by the House, taking up more time, during which the forces opposed to it will get better organized and might shoot down the idea, possibly still in the Senate.

Neste, seu relator, Paulo Paim (PT-RS), já adiantou que mudará o texto. Disse ser favorável à extinção do imposto, mas, em lugar de cada trabalhador se dispor a fazer ou não uma autêntica contribuição sindical, pretende remeter o assunto a assembléias em que isso seria decidido. Ou seja, a fóruns controlados por “lideranças” e freqüentado por minorias. Disse também que poderá simplesmente cortar a emenda e deixar o assunto para um futuro projeto de lei (Valor, 23/10). O que disse tem tudo de armação em sentido contrário ao da emenda.

On this point, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paim of Rio Grande do Sul, has already said he will edit the language. He says he favors doing away with the tax, but that, rather than letting each worker decide whether or not to pay genuine union dues, he wants those questions to be decided by labor assemblies. That is, forums controlled by union leaders and adhered to by minorities. He said that another option would be simply to table the amendment and leave the matter for a future bill (source: Valor, Oct. 23). His words smell strongly of a maneuver against the amendment.

De “lideranças” sindicais veio a choradeira usual de que o fim do imposto inviabilizará financeiramente milhares de sindicatos. Ora, isso apenas explicita um dos problemas que a emenda procura resolver. Muitos deles só existem porque há o imposto. Por que sustentar assim os que não se viabilizariam com a contribuição voluntária de seus associados? Que valor estes estariam atribuindo aos serviços dessas entidades se não se interessassem em pagar voluntariamente por eles? Alguns sindicalistas dizem que atuam como fiscais das condições de trabalho, mas esse é um papel do governo, e é para custeá-lo que existem os impostos tradicionais.

From labor “leadership” came the usual pissing and moaning [my creative translation] to the effect that the end of the tax would destroy thousands of unions financially. But look, that is merely one of the problems the amendment seeks to solve. A lot of these unions exist only because of the tax. Why should they be sustained financially if they are incapable of surviving based on voluntary dues? How much value can the services they offer have if their members are not willing to pay for them? Some unionists claim they provide oversight of working condition, but that is a government role, a role underwritten by more traditional taxes.

Ask the mestre de obras on a little house renovation we did recently if his life would have been changed if Brazil had something a little more like OSHA and Workers Comp insurance.

The man survived a construction accident that it is sort of hard to believe anyone could survive, working in conditions it is hard to believe anyone would allow. And got — the shaft. Which is why he works in the informalidade now.

Ressalte-se que o autor da emenda não serve como alvo dos que têm como hábito rotular interlocutores como neoliberais ou de direita sem discutir a lógica e o mérito de suas idéias. Pertence ao PPS e foi presidente do Sindicato dos Bancários de Brasília. Tem origem num grupo de sindicalistas, em que também há gente do PT e da CUT, que sempre se manifestou contra o imposto. Como levou seu discurso à prática, gerou um grande rebuliço.

It should be noted that the author of this amendment does not make a credible target for those who have the habit of labeling opponents as “neoliberals” or “right-wing” without discussing the logic or the merits of their proposals. He belongs to the PPS and was president of the Bank Workers Union of Brasília. He emerged from a group of unionists which include people from the PT and from CUT, which has always said it is against the obligatory tax. But when it put his money where its mouth was, the result was a massive uproar.

That seems to be a fair observation: that alongside the rolling thunder of hysterical Red-baiting, you hear quite a lot of hysterical “neoliberal” baiting, from the other extreme margin of the might Amazon of public opinion, as well. This in reference to people whose views are more or less recognizable as a tropical variant of economic paleoliberalism.

“The stock market can be a really a good thing, if it is run right.” “Running dog lackey of the Washington Consensus!”

Outra questão levantada pelos opositores é que a emenda não se aplica aos sindicatos patronais. É verdade, mas isso não implica rejeitá-la, mas sim reformulá-la para acabar também com a tal “contribuição patronal”. Aí virá a reação de “lideranças” empresariais cujas entidades também se sustentam com o imposto. Desse lado, será preciso que prevaleça o discurso dos que defendem o fim dele, pelas mesmas razões que norteiam o autor da emenda, a de assegurar entidades de classe legítimas na sua representatividade e independentes do governo, como cabe numa democracia autêntica em suas instituições.

Another issue raised by opponents of the amendment is that it does not apply to business-owner syndicates. This is true, but that does not mean it should be rejected; it should be amended to put an end to those obligatory contributions as well. At which point you will see the reaction from “leaders” of the category whose organizations are also propped up by this tax. On this side of the question, it will be up to defenders of doing away with the tax to use the same arguments as the author of this amendment: that this will ensure legitimate, representative bodies, independent of the government, as befitting the institutions of an authentic democracy.

Fui alfabetizado e passei a ler jornais ainda na era Vargas, que criou esse sindicalismo atrelado ao Estado, o qual procura controlar trabalhadores e empregadores com o objetivo de evitar conflitos que possam comprometer os fins buscados pelo aparato estatal fortalecido e autoritário no seu desenho. Aprendi então o significado do peleguismo, que vem de pelego, pedaço de pele de carneiro colocado em cima da sela para tornar mais macio o cavalgar. O termo passou a ser atribuído a sindicalistas que vicejam em torno do Estado para assegurar e tornar mais confortável o poder que governantes procuraram exercer autoritariamente sobre cidadãos dirigidos. Ou “cavalgados”.

I learned to read and started reading newspapers during the Varga era, which created this form of unionism annexed to the State, which sought to control workers and employers with an eye to avoiding conflicts that might undermine the goals of a State that was overpowerful and authoritarian in its design. It was then that I learned the term pelego, which comes from the sheepskin placed under the saddle to make riding more comfortable. The term came to be applied to unionists who clung to the State to make it easier for politicians to exercise authoritarian control over the citizens they led. Or rather, the citizens they “rode” like horses.

Could be be a creative folk etymology. Or maybe mine is. But you get the general idea.

Não há como negar que hoje a taxa de peleguismo é bem menor, pois há grupos significativos de sindicalistas que procuram ser independentes, em meio aos que atuam na velha tradição e a pelegos sem nenhuma utilidade que não seu próprio conforto assegurado pelo velho imposto. Os primeiros precisam reafirmar sua independência abdicando dele, e aproveitar a extinção para se sobreporem aos segundos. Quanto aos terceiros, poderão retornar aos empregos que tinham quando assumiram posições nos sindicatos, conforme dispõe legislação que a emenda não revoga.

Without a doubt, the pelego phenomenon has receded quite a bit these days, for there are significant groups of unionists who seek to be independent, in the midst of those who continue to operate in the old traditions and the pelegos that are of no use to anyone except themelves, guaranteeing their own comfort by fighting to perpetuate the tax. The first group needs to reaffirm its independence by refusing to support it, taking advantage of its extinction to take the place of the second. As to the third group, they will be able to return to the jobs they worked at before assuming union leadership positions, under legislation that the amendment does not propose revoking.

Ainda que enfraquecida, a sobrevivência dos termos pelego e peleguismo demonstra a utilidade que seus usuários viram neles. Olhando o quadro sindical atual, recordo-me também de outra comparação, aprendida com um carioca, a de um carnaval com carros alegóricos não-motorizados, em que uns os empurram com a força de seu imposto sindical, enquanto outros folgadamente cantam e dançam em cima, alguns até como destaques.


Depois que veio a emenda, o som dominante é o desse carnaval ainda ininterrupto. Espero estar errado – e me alegrarei por isso -, mas temo que ele irá sobreviver à emenda do deputado Carvalho.


Look, I cannot honestly say I understand the ins and outs of the issue very well at all. You should not pay me money to serve as your local expert on the Byzantine world of Brazilian labor law. I am not qualified.

But I do think the Estadão is probably right to be signalling that, in the middle of all the shrieking noise and scandal — the sex Senator bares all! — something meaningful, something that might actually change things fundamentally for the better for both workers and employers, could be about to happen.

The possibility of a modern form of sustainable labor peace, one that does not involve the kind of “harmony” invoked by a certain Northern senator recently with regard to a recent case of slave labor in the agrobusiness sector that comes straight from the songbook of Tennessee Ernie Ford.

A discourse plangent with echoes of “The Old Folks At Home” and the apologetics of the “peculiar institution.”


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