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Brazil: Over 20,000 Oil Workers Strike Against Bolsonaro’s Layoffs

Workers in Brazil’s oil and gas industries are on strike nationwide to protest layoffs, closures, and privatization at the hands of President Jair Bolsonaro. They are organizing assemblies, selling propane at reduced costs to poor neighborhoods, and standing up to the government’s neoliberal austerity agenda.

Leandro Lanfredi

February 12, 2020
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On January 30, Brazil’s oil and gas workers went on strike. In the first confrontation between this sector and the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, workers in almost 90 refineries and other operations across the country have gone on strike against layoffs, plant closures and the privatization of Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil and gas giant. The strike includes a defense of subcontracted workers’ jobs. Despite the scale and import of these strikes, the mainstream media has remained deafeningly silent, seeking to hide this challenge to Bolsonaro’s neoliberal agenda.

The strike’s main goal is to defend over 1,000 jobs in a major fertilizer plant (FAFEN) in the southern state of Paraná. In a country with millions of unemployed workers, the closing of this plant will place thousands of more workers at risk while explicitly increasing shareholders’ profits and further subjecting Brazil to the will of foreign capital. Brazil, a commodities exporter, will lose its last fertilizer plant, making it fully dependent on imported fertilizers.

The strike began at midnight on January 30 in most of Brazil’s refineries. This came after a week of mobilizations in the fertilizer plant in Paraná, and it quickly spread as assemblies formed in multiple workplaces. By standing up for the jobs of both Petrobras and subcontracted employees in Paraná, strikers have declared their struggle in defense of all oil and gas jobs in Brazil, resisting the agenda of privatizations that aims to relinquish Brazil’s resources to imperialist plunder. 

Workers are defying company orders and distributing propane—an essential good for most Brazilians that has greatly increased in cost—at a reduced price. The privatization of Petrobras means more expensive fuels and placing Brazil’s natural resources in the service of business interests and foreign capitalists.

In standing up against the layoffs, the workers are also fighting an agenda that includes the foreign exploration of Brazil’s offshore oil fields and the sale of Petrobras’s refineries, terminals, and pipelines. The strikers are facing the growing authoritarianism of Brazil’s courts, which have closed union bank accounts by decree and supported management’s attacks. In one case, a court supported the managers at the Gabriel Passos refinery in the city of Betim, Minas Gerais, who stopped workers from leaving their posts for over 50 hours—without food—under threat of dismissal. 

As this episode makes clear, Petrobras’s management and the courts are completely aligned with Bolsonaro’s neoliberal agenda of privatization, and they are willing to take such measures to their final conclusions to erode morale and threaten striking workers.

The layoffs and privatization at Petrobras are part of a broader neoliberal austerity agenda, including the pension reform, labor regulations reform, and other attacks on workers’ rights. This right wing agenda drove the so-called Operation Car Wash, in which the institutional coup d’état against former president Dilma Rousseff was undertaken by Brazilian finance capital, the federal police, the judiciary, and Globo media monopoly. The main legacy of judge Sérgio Moro (now serving in Bolsonaro’s cabinet) and the prosecutors involved in the Car Wash investigation, along with the politically motivated, authoritarian, and arbitrary execution of the operation, was the weakening of Petrobras in favor of foreign investment in Brazilian oil.

It is clear that Bolsonaro seeks to implement a policy of submission to American capital and Donald Trump. Yet, Bolsonaro is not the only one. Privatizations had grown under the previous administration of Michel Temer, the coup President who came into power after the coup. Yet, the groundwork was laid under Rousseff with the euphemism of “disinvestment.” For example, in 2016 the Workers Party and the neoliberal Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) altered the laws governing Brazil’s untapped oil reserves, allowing increased privatizations. The role that the Workers’ Party played in welcoming imperialist investment demonstrates that the country’s foremost opposition party was pivotal in surrendering Brazilian oil to foreign capital.

It is not coincidental that, despite current nationwide strike action, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and local politicians mainly in Brazil’s northeast have remained silent about the challenge that the class struggle presents to Bolsonaro. Workers’ Party and Communist Party (MLM) state governors supported Bolsonaro’s pension reform in exchange for royalties from the private extraction of the vast untapped offshore oil reserves found in the pre-salt layer of Brazil’s continental shelf. There is a “national consensus” against workers’ rights and in favor of open markets for investment in natural resources. It is a “consensus” that ranges from radical neoliberals like Bolsonaro, economy secretary Paulo Guedes, Brazil’s leading media conglomerate Globo and all pro-coup capitalist parties. At the same time, by not fighting against the neoliberal agenda, union leaderships linked to the Workers’ Party are also complicit; they refuse to organize effective opposition while executing similar reforms at the local and state levels. 

Striking oil and gas workers are facing this “consensus,” and they can advance to stop the layoffs and from there put a check on the privatizing, neoliberal agenda as a whole. The victory of their struggle is in the interest of all Brazilian workers and youth. Moreover, a victory for oil and gas workers and their allies can be an example to all workers in Latin America and the United States—and a blow to the American president and imperialism.

Therefore, it is imperative to lend all solidarity to this struggle. Labor unions and student unions across the country must take up measures of solidarity with the strike to break the media’s silence and break this neoliberal consensus, which doesn’t even stand up to public opinion polls. Support from CUT (Brazil’s leading labor union federation) and UNE (national student union, both governed by Workers’ Party and Communist Party (MLM bureaucracies), given their vast financial and media resources, must go beyond social media posts and a handful of flags in a picket line. The potential in this sector and its nationwide support allow for more than a demonstration of force by organized labor; it allows for a true challenge to Bolsonaro by categorically stopping the shuttering of a major plant and by questioning the administration’s neoliberal agenda of privatizations. 

The oil and gas workers strike, like the 1995 strike, can be a turning point against the privatizations. The workers must take this struggle into their own hands, as French transit workers have done across the Atlantic. To fulfill the potential of this strike, it must become a national cause; it requires the urgent unification of oil and gas sector workers, regardless of their labor union federation affiliation, whether they are unionized, and whether they’re directly employed or subcontracted. By drawing from the strength of this sector, it is possible to gain support from all workers in Brazil to raise the struggle against layoffs and the privatization of Petrobras. 

Esquerda Diário, the Brazilian edition of Left Voice, and the Revolutionary Workers Movement have dedicated all their energies to supporting the oil and gas workers’ struggle in defense of their jobs and against the administration’s privatizations. Esquerda Diario and the Revolutionary Workers Movement are calling on all unions and workers to develop a program that can truly address the people’s interests in ensuring that Brazil’s natural resources serve their needs: a struggle for state ownership of all oil, managed democratically by oil and gas workers under people’s control. A Petrobras that is democratically managed by workers would secure environmental and worker safety and ensure that those natural resources serve the Brazilian people’s interests.

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