Enormous Victory of the Street Cleaners in Rio de Janeiro
Workers from the municipal trash collection company COMLURB in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil have won a hard-fought battle against the city’s major, Eduardo Paes (a member of the PMDB, a party allied with President Dilma Rousseff) and against their own treacherous union, the Ministry of Labour, and the media.
The workers commonly know as garis in Brazil—trash collectors, street cleaners, and school and hospital janitors—began a strike on March 1st fighting for a salary increase and other demands.
On the first day of the conflict, the workers went to their union demanding the union declare a strike during Carnaval. The union is affiliated with the UGT, a union federation close to the PSDB, the party of ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and which also has ties to President Dilma. The garis achieved their objective after many hours and significant pressure on the union leadership. The union leaders had to be escorted out by the police for protection against the garis’ anger. Hours later, the union leadership tried to call the strike off, but the workers continued the strike anyway.
Eight days later, the city was filthy and trash had piled up everywhere. The workers were maintaining their strike against all kinds of intimidation attempts, including lay-offs notices being sent to 300 employees and private security forces and police officers sent into the workplaces. The city government and the trash collection company— with the complicity of the union leadership and the media, recreated horrible scenes from the days of slavery in Brazil, when slaves worked under an armed overseer.
The workers organized daily actions at their workplaces, set up street blockades and held demonstrations to make the strike more visible at a time whent the press was focusing solely on the festivities of Carnaval.
The workers defended themselves against the government’s accusations that they were small, isolated groups of “no more than 300 garis” and “criminals” and claims that it wasn’t a strike but a “mutiny” that they were leading. The garis didn’t have the concrete support of any union or even most of the left. Their struggle was able to continue only through their own determination and the support of the people.
After five days of all collections stopped and trash piling up in the streets, it was evident that the strike was not just being carried out by a small group but by all of the city’s maintenance workers, and the company’s management had to call to a meeting at their headquarters.
Hundreds of garis arrived to the meeting and voted right then and there to make it an open and public negotiation in the company’s auditorium, with the press and all the workers present, but the company would not agree to it. A bargaining committe met with the management and brought back the company’s proposals. The committe repeated what the company had long been saying, that “if they couldn’t fire three hundred, they would have to fire a thousand.” The workers rejected this completely and were not intimidated by their conciliatory “leaders”. The committee was immediately recalled and the workers selected a new committee to represent them.
The Brazilian Labor Courts, came out against the strike and the workers, declaring the strike illegal, and upholding the lay-offs, which were arbitrary and illegal since those workers were protected by their hiring agreements and couldn’t be fired for striking.
On a rainy Saturday, March 8, the workers sat down for negotiations at the Labor Court offices in Rio de Janiero with the City Government, the company management, and the official union leadership and won the majority of their demands. They won a starting salary increase of 37%, (the country’s inflation rate currently stands at around 6%), all firings were reversed, salaries for the duration of the strike were secured, and there was an adjustment to the employees’ food allowance.
This victory of the workers is not only measured by the specific demands they won but by the enormous advancement in the consciousness and organization of these workers, who have become a reference for all other workers across the country.
Today, these workers continue to discuss how to recover their union from the bureaucracy that has been in place for over 30 years. Some are discussing how to support other workers so that they can win in their own battles. Class solidarity and the trust of the workers in their own strength has resurfaced.
Many workers around Brazil have been able to discuss the strike and share their support for the garis strike through pictures. There is a campaign beginning which calls on workers to follow in the maintenance workers’ footsteps and “sweep away” the bureaucracy from the trade unions in order to fight back against the bosses and the government.
The garis victory was felt by all workers as a victory of the working class as a whole. That is why we have to begun the campaign “Lets do like the garis!” We can defeat the bosses and the government, but to do that, we need to get rid of the bureaucracy in the trade unions!
The LER-QI calls for a widespread national and international campaign in support.
The strike was largely ignored by the biggest union federations in Brazil. The CUT, Força Sindical and the CTB— allies with the repressive govermerment of Eduardo Paes in the city of Rio de Janeiro and with President Dilma nationally—did not show the slightest support for the workers on strike.
The unions of the anti-government left, in which the PSOL and PSTU hold influence started to appear only after the fifth day of the strike, and by then the struggle was in serious danger of being lost with the bargaining committee at that point trying to end the strike. The PSOL elected deputies finally made public statements about the strike towards the end of Carnaval, after days of struggle.
This delayed response shows the adaptation of these groups to the calendar of the bourgeoisie and not the class struggle. This unimaginative attitude of the left expresses its adaptation to the bourgeois political regime through the Unions’ bureaucracy regime.Now, the entire left celebrates the maintenance workers strike, trying to present themselves as part of it, when in reality, it was completely absent during its duration.
We are very proud to had shared, with Juventude às Ruas and the women’s group Pão e Rosas, every minute of this powerful strike and the victory of the workers, from its beginning with the street blockades and demonstrations until its final victory.
We organized campaigns in solidarity in several workplaces, universities and schools, taking photos in support and disseminating them through social media to make the conflict known by everyone. Even the bourgeois press had to acknowledge its importantance for the strike. We organized demonstrations of students and workers in Sao Paulo and Campinas (a city in the state of Sao Paulo)
International support came from the PTS-FIT elected deputies and trash collectors from Jujuy, Argentina. This support was welcomed by the workers on strike and gained huge significance as moral support.
Our humble contribution was helping the garis realize the importance of international solidarity among workers. Proof of this are the pictures taken by the garis showing their support for the aquittal of the oil workers of Las Heras in Argentina, support for the workers of Panrico factory in Spain, and the oil refinery workers of COMPERJ on strike in the state of Rio de Janeiro that has lasted more than 30 days.