In Brazil, A Tale of Two Strikes: Dom Phillips

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Brazilian unions conducted two strikes that ended in October, with very different results. Bank workers came out smiling with a generous deal. Postal workers lost a court decision, humiliatingly, in what commentators called their union's worst result in 15 years. The different outcomes said a lot about modern Brazil.

On Oct. 15, following a 21-day strike, Brazilian bank workers got what they wanted: a package of benefits, including increased profit shares, and a salary increase of 9 percent. They didn't have to make up time lost on strike.

Two days later, the Sao Paulo workers' union celebrated the deal with a video interview with its president, Juvandia Moreira, on its website. She said:

Congratulations to everyone who did this strike, everyone who contributed in some way, all the bank workers of Sao Paulo and Osasco, and also all the bank workers of Brazil, who understand the importance of fighting together ... The strike took place because of the bank owners, as much the private as the public. They could have offered a decent proposal from the beginning, impeding the strike from happening.

Her interview was introduced with a graphic of a robot bank worker with the slogan: "Bank Worker Is Not Machine -- National Unified Campaign 2011."

The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper wasn't the only one to note where the real money was.

"The biggest victory of the bank workers is with respect to the participation in profits of financial institutions, which increased 20 percent in the first half of 2011," compared with the same period of 2010, the paper noted on Oct. 18.

The postal workers offered a marked contrast. After a 28-day work stoppage was halted by a court, they ended up with a pay increase that kept pace with inflation plus 80 reais ($45) a month. They had been seeking inflation plus 400 reais a month. And the inflation rate they agreed on with the post office was 6.9 percent, below the actual rate, which is currently 7.3 percent.

More embarrassingly, the workers will have to make up the days they missed. The Superior Labor Court allowed the post office to dock them for seven of the 28 days, and they'll have to work weekends to make up for the other 21 days, processing and delivering some 185 million items that have piled up since the start of the strike. If the union refuses to comply, it can be fined $28,000 per day.

The Correio do Brasil newspaper's website quoted an interview with trade unionist Anai Caprone, given to the Radioagencia NP news agency. "In terms of salary adjustment, this was the worst victory in the last 15 years" for the union, said Caprone.

Both strikes had divided opinion in the media. A photo that rebounded among Brazilian Facebook users showed a printed sign reading "WE ARE ON STRIKE'' on a closed bank door, with a handwritten response taped beneath it.

"Strike for what? You earn more than me, work from 9 to 4, don't get dirty, don't sweat, don't get tired," the note said.

The Diario de Santa Maria newspaper published an article by Luiz Pohlmann, a member of the Regional Accounting Council. "If there is one activity in Brazil whose gains are exorbitant, it's banks and their bank workers," Pohlmann wrote. (Earlier this year, Banco do Brasil SA made national news when it reported a 2010 profit of 11.7 billion reais, up from the bank’s previous record profit of 10.1 billion reais in 2009.)

On his blog, radio presenter Cesar de Mello, from the Colinas station in Ibaiti, Parana, agreed.

"Brazilians have suffered to pay bills, pay off debts and withdraw money. The queues at ATMs are interminable," he railed. "It is a lack of respect for consumers. Okay, bank workers have rights, but the population doesn't?"

Commentator Joelmir Beting took a number of opportunities in his "Editorial" slot on the populist TV station Bandeirantes to criticize the postal workers' stoppage:

In this strike, the institution of the post office is losing public confidence. It's an essential public service that remains subject to a badly managed labor impasse ... Where is the government's crisis management? Where is the sense of urgency?

So what made the banks so much more successful than the postal workers?

In part, the public mood. Except for a scattering of small-scale protests, Brazil has yet to join the global anti-banking movement inspired by New York’s Occupy Wall Street. In a developing country, where rapid growth led by the private sector has only recently started erasing memories of a failing economy and spiraling inflation, the focus of public anger recently, blogs notwithstanding, has been less on banking and more on the government. Anti-corruption demonstrations, organized via social networks, have twice pulled more than 10,000 demonstrators in the capital, Brasilia.

Perhaps more important, the two unions simply had different bargaining powers. The old-style left-wing post-office union failed to get what it wanted because it fought an ineffective media campaign -- at one point even apologizing to the public for the inconvenience -- and because the government wants to cut public spending. In contrast, the bank workers' union came out fighting, covering city centers and banks with stickers, placards and advertising, and presenting their case efficiently and professionally.

Juvandia Moreira, the banker's union president, knew exactly how to focus her campaign. On Oct 11., the union published a press release saying it wanted a meeting with President Dilma Rousseff and Bank Federation President Murilo Portugal. Presented like a news story, it read:

"We are going to take to President Dilma a report with numbers that show that it is perfectly possible for the banks to increase salaries and improve work conditions and client service," affirms Juvandia. "The banks earn a lot in Brazil and owe society. The strike began and extended itself because the most lucrative sector in the country refuses to value its workers."

It was the argument that won the day.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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