BUILDING DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM: THE PARTIDO DOS TRABALHADORES IN BRAZIL
By 1978 Brazil's "economic miracle" had come to an end, and the social costs of severe income inequality were becoming unbearable. The Catholic church had moved strongly into the opposition to the military government. Progressive sectors of the church, committed to the theology of liberation, were actively organizing the poor in Basic Christian Communities, neighborhood organizations, peasant and Indian movements, and rural trade unions. Because of repressive conditions, most social movements organized quietly, in small and decentralized groups.
In April 1978, to the surprise of Brazil's military rulers, workers rebelled. Auto workers strikes, involving 140,000 metalworkers in Sao Paulo, the nation's most industrialized area, rapidly spread over the country and throughout the economy; within a few weeks over 500,000 workers were on strike. The strikes of 1978 had a profound impact on the working class: fear was broken. The vast civil disobedience movement succeeded both in achieving salary gains and in delegitimizing the military's anti-strike legislation. The strike movement of 1978 also established Luis Inacio (Lula) da Silva, the president of the Metalworkers' Union of Sao Bernardo do Campo and Diadema, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, as a new kind of working class leader. Charismatic, capable of holding the attention of thousands of workers in open-air assemblies, yet profoundly attached to the idea of rank-and-file participation, Lula rapidly became one of the most important political figures in Brazil.
In 1979, more than three million workers in Brazil went on strike for better working conditions and against the strict salary squeeze imposed by the military government. The unprecedented wave of strikes across the nation, in urban and rural areas, set the stage for a new unionism characterized by strong rank-and-file participation and organization in the workplace. Workers had already learned to organize in their communities, setting up neighborhood associations to mobilize residents to effectively pressure the government to respond to their needs. These neighborhood organizations intertwined with the new trade union movement to build the most widespread grassroots movement in Brazilian history.
Toward the end of 1979, however, many trade union and community leaders began to doubt that grassroots organizations alone could reverse established governmental policies. Workers discovered they could overturn some repressive measures and gain some concessions, but they could not change the basic economic policies of the government. The 1979 strikes led activists to the conclusion that social movements were not enough. Unless workers could effectively organize an instrument of political mediation their efforts to transform the economy would be in vain. What workers could gain with strikes could be rapidly undone by political measures that would decrease salaries.
In a series of seminars and discussions radical activists analyzed Brazilian capitalism and drafted alternatives for the working class movement. One of the most important conclusions to emerge from these meetings was that workers needed a political party that could remain deeply connected to the grassroots movements and could represent working class interests in struggles over state policies. It was necessary to build a political party that would be flexible enough to include the different political views of those active in the grassroots and at the same time strong enough to compete for electoral office with bourgeois parties. It was also necessary to build a socialist party that would reflect the experience of workers in Brazil, building socialism from the day-to-day struggles in the workplace and in neighborhoods. Thus, in 1979, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (the PT or Workers' Party) was founded:
The idea of the Workers' Party arose with the advance and reinforcement of this new and broad-based social movement which now extends from the factories to the neighborhoods, from the unions to the Basic Christian Communities, from the Cost of Living Movements to the Dwellers Associations, from the Student Movement to the Professional Associations, from the Movement of Black People to the Women's Movement, as well as others, like those who struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples. …