At the end of May, Brazil faced the largest strike of truck drivers in its history. Member of left wing party PSOL Jorge Almeida reports on the background to the strike and its likely repercussions.
The majority of Brazil’s cargo transportation is composed of 2.3 million truck drivers, who carry about 60 percent of the goods. So the impact of the 11-day strike, when thousands of trucks were stopped, and more than 500 road blocks were established, was immense. There was a fuel shortage at the gas stations, damaging the day-to-day functioning of the economy. Entrepreneurs estimate a loss of £15 billion.
The demands were mainly a reduction and freezing of diesel price, an improvement in freight payments and a reduction of toll prices. But the strikers also demanded (president Michel) “Temer Out”. The movement went beyond the control of bureaucratised union leaderships and used social networks such as WhatsApp.
The lives of truck drivers are very hard. They are exploited by employers and contractors, pay abusive tolls on bad and unsafe roads, and pay for fuel at high prices. They are required to work up to 24 hours in a row.
Seventy percent of the truck drivers are self-employed and 30 percent are employees of transport companies. There are class contradictions between truckers, employers and contracting companies, but also common corporate interests. Some of the haulage companies staged a lockout for a while.
Since the end of 2014, the Workers’ Party (PT) government raised fuel prices above inflation. The current government has now tied fuel prices to the international market and the US dollar. In addition, in order to extend the privatisation of the country’s semi-public petroleum corporation Petrobras, which had already started in previous governments, the Temer administration reduced Brazilian refineries’ production and increased imports at higher prices. This has greatly increased diesel, gasoline and cooking gas prices, causing the truckers’ radicalisation, with strong popular support.
Brazil is in a deep crisis. President Dilma Rousseff (PT), re-elected in 2014, was removed from office in 2016 through an impeachment with no evidence of “criminal responsibility”. The then vice-president Temer (MDB) and the National Congress, whose right wing and corrupt majority were also allies of the PT, participated in this coup. The judiciary, military commanders, big business, imperialist states and the media also endorsed it.
But this was only possible because the PT government was very weak. Rousseff broke her promises after the elections and began promoting hard neoliberal adjustments by taking away workers’ rights. Her popular support fell rapidly to 10 percent and her unfavourable rating rose to 70 percent.
Temer’s new post-coup government arrived to radicalise privatisation and anti-popular reforms, further deepening the crisis and increasing corruption. The government’s unpopularity is huge: 80 percent of people want his removal and only 3 percent support him.
Political reactions to the strike were varied. There were many popular demonstrations against the fuel increase, Petrobras and in support of the strike. The oil workers’ unions began a 72-hour strike, but it was prohibited by the courts and suspended.
The right wing government, parliament, major business corporations, mainstream media and the judiciary were against it. The far-right has encouraged the strike, trying to link it with a demand for “military intervention”. But the majority of truck drivers did not support this measure.
The parties and trade union confederations linked to the former PT government were stunned. Some of its main leaders were against the strike, accusing it of being a manoeuvre to promote a military coup. Others gave immediate support. But the PT, officially, failed to take a clear position. It has given almost exclusive attention to the liberation of ex-president Lula da Silva, its presidential candidate. Lula is currently under arrest for corruption, but no clear evidence has been presented, while right wing corrupt leaders, including the current president, remain free.
The main trade union confederations did not call for a general strike, which would be the best way to put the struggle on a higher level. The more left-leaning political and union confederation forces gave clear support and called for a general strike.
Among the parties represented in the National Congress, only the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) supported the strike and only three candidates for presidency supported it: Boulos (PSOL-PCB) and Vera Lucia (PSTU) on the left and Captain Bolsonaro, candidate of the far-right.
The government suffered a great defeat. First, it made a spurious agreement with bureaucratic union leaderships, which was refused by the drivers. Then it decided to repress the strike using the army, but this had no practical effect.
The strike ended after a more or less accepted agreement. There were partial gains and the president of Petrobras was fired. But these are uncertain achievements, because Petrobras’s pricing policy has not been changed.
The truck drivers were victorious in demonstrating great strength. They warned, however, that the economic, social and political crisis continues to deepen.
And this crisis will continue to be dramatic while a true popular left alternative does not emerge: a democratic and workers-led alternative that confronts monopolies and imperialism.