Brazil. (Presentations 2: Labour History in Other Lands)

By Fortes, Alexandre | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Brazil. (Presentations 2: Labour History in Other Lands)


Fortes, Alexandre, Labour/Le Travail


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IN THE LAST TWO DECADES, Brazilian unionism and the left have experienced an unprecedented development, posing for the first time in history, a real challenge to the ruling classes. The effects of this new political reality on labour history took a while to be felt, but in recent years a whole new historiography has emerged, leading to the constitution of the Mundos do Trabaiho (Worlds of Labour) work group, an official branch of the National History Association.

Au COURS DES VINGT DERNIERES ANNEES, le syndicalisme bresilien et la gauche ont connu un developpement sans precedent, lancant pour la premiere fois dans l'histoire un vrai defi aux classes dirigeantes. Les effets de cette nouvelle realite politique sur l'histoire de la main-d'oeuvre a pris un certain temps avant de se faire sentir, mais au cours des dernieres annees, toute une nouvelle historiographie s'est declaree, menant a la constitution du groupe de travail Mundos do Trabaklho (Monde du travail), une division officielle de l' Association de l'histoire nationale.

THROUGHOUT THE LAST DECADE, research on Brazilian labour history has been expanded, diversified, and renewed. Its methodological and theoretical approaches and advances insure that today it can be considered one of the most fertile research fields within the Brazilian human sciences. We still face great difficulties regarding the diffusion of this production and many important and innovative works remain little known, not just to the international scholarly community, but even among Brazilian colleagues who live in the different regions of our almost continental country.

A central issue in Brazil is the contrast between an expanding production and a still low visibility. I will begin by focusing on the historical conditions that contributed to the peculiar developments undergone in Brazilian labour history. I will then point to some of the structural, and hopefully transitory, difficulties that a recent workgroup -- an official branch of the National Association of History known as "Worlds of Labour" -- is trying to overcome in order to provide a better circulation of works and interchange among researchers and between them and the public in general.

As an academic discipline, labour history is a recent phenomenon in Brazil. That is not to say that we do not have a long tradition of labour studies. The country went through a late, but highly accelerated industrialization process, particularly from 1930 to 1980, which stimulated and demanded different kinds of intellectual reflections about a wide variety of labour-related issues in different historical periods. (1)

Literature came probably first in the search to address the experiences of the new class of wage-earning workers in the early 20th century, its conflicts and social relations still framed by recently-abolished slavery. The rise of unionism, particularly after the 1917 general strike, generated a wide array of works written by activists. Anarchists, such as Edgar Leuenroth, whose records form the basis for today's most important social history archive in Latin America, and communist historians, despite sometimes confusing the working class with their party, provided some of the first collections of documents and general narratives about the unionization process and the political debates inside the Brazilian labour movement at its early stages.

State intervention in labour relations after the 1930 revolution, and the corporatist system gradually constructed up to 1943, turned labour into a major subject of juridical debate and resulted in another important branch of studies: those related to the complexities of Brazilian labour law and its impact on workers' living and working conditions, especially the construction of their organizations and the defence of their rights as citizens.

But the most influential theses regarding the Brazilian working class and its role in Brazilian society were those produced by a nucleus of sociologists at the country's industrial heart of Sao Paulo, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. …

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