3. The Working Class
The working class does not own or control the main productive and financial assets in the economy, and does not control the process of labour or the conditions under which it is performed. This class reproduces itself primarily through the regular sale of its labour power for a wage, regardless of the structure of the labour markets, the content of the labour performed and the use value of its product, and whether or not their work is directly productive of surplus value.
The neoliberal reforms have increased significantly the heterogeneity of the Brazilian working class. While the working class created under ISI was based on around a fast-expanding manufacturing sector, today’s workers have a much more diversified employment pattern centered in urban services. The contemporary working class also includes a large proportion of young, low-paid, poorly educated, badly trained subcontracted workers, who have difficulty accessing stable and well-paid jobs both because there are fewer of these jobs available, and because those workers are ill-prepared to apply for the available posts. Even when they are employed in the formal sector, today’s workers have less job security than their predecessors had in the 1970s. They also routinely rely on state benefits which were unavailable to the ‘old’ working class under ISI.
In the absence of a realistic prospect of socialist transformation, the working class shares with the informal proletariat a material interest in policies leading to the reduction of poverty and inequality, and with the internal bourgeoisie an interest in expansionary macroeconomic policies and domestically-centered capital accumulation. These ambitions can best be secured through a democratic and pro-poor development strategy, including activist industrial policies, low interest rates, exchange rate management and controls on finance and on international capital flows. From the point of view of the broad working class, these policies should be supported by, first, labour-market measures, including employment and wage growth, the formalization and regulation of the labour markets, improvements in working conditions and the limitation of working hours. Second, the consolidation of the civic rights included in the Constitution, among them the provision of quality public health, education, transport, housing, sanitation and security, and the expansion of federal income transfer programmes. Evidently, these progressive goals are incompatible with the project of the neoliberal bourgeoisie, for whom ‘social cohesion’ and the construction of a diversified, integrated and technologically advanced economy with a strong manufacturing sector would be either superfluous or undesirable.
There is, however, a significant divide within the ‘national developmentalist bloc’ concerning the sources of funding for their economic strategy. The broad working class would benefit from a more progressive tax system, including a wealth tax and higher property taxes, while the élite strongly objects to any additional taxation. The contradiction in the political programme of the internal bourgeoisie and fractions of the middle class (wishing for growth, but expecting someone else to fund it) can be resolved, in part, through the use of the country’s natural resource rents to finance the provision of infrastructure and the expansion of the domestic market. More generally: since the working class is not limited by the political contradictions of the internal bourgeoisie and the middle class, or by the dispersion of the informal proletariat (see below), it can become the most dependable source of support for a pro- poor and democratic development strategy. This would transform the experience of the second Lula and the first Dilma Rousseff (2011-14) administrations, when the neo-developmentalist compact was led by the internal bourgeoisie.
This political project of the working class can be limited at two levels. First, although the working class as a whole would benefit from the implementation of a pro-poor development strategy, its most organized and better-off segments (São Paulo metalworkers, employees in the oil and bank sectors, middle-level civil servants) could choose to ‘go it alone’, betting that a ‘market-led’ economic and industrial relations strategy might benefit them at the expense of weaker categories of workers and the informal proletariat.
Second, there are emerging divisions within the working class, and between them, the informal proletariat and the middle classes, around the provision of public services. For example, as incomes rose and formal employment expanded since the mid-2000s, the demand for private healthcare and education boomed, because they are perceived to have better quality than the (free) public services. In 2010, the number of buyers of private health plans increased by 9% (twice the rate of growth in the 2000s), and reached 24% of the population. It is similar in education; in 2003, 11% of children in basic and secondary education attended private schools, but this proportion recently reached 16%. The choice between finding market alternatives to immediate problems or investing in improvements in public provision cuts across classes and fractions, and the dilemma becomes especially significant politically when incomes rise enough to make the choice of ‘going private’ realistic, for the first time, for millions of relatively poor people.
Difficulties of a different order concern the inexperience of the ‘new’ working class in social struggles, given the long interval that has passed since the previous peak in mobilizations, which took place between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s. Trade union activity declined sharply in the 1990s, measured by the number of strikes, the fragmentation of collective bargaining and the decline in trade union-led agreements. Nevertheless, trade union membership rose from 11 million in 1992 to 16 million in 2009, largely because of the expansion of the labour force. Union membership declined marginally between 1992 and 1999, from 16.7% of the workforce to 16.1%, possibly because of the neoliberal transition. It subsequently increased to 18.6% in 2006, as economic an political conditions became more favourable, but fell slightly to 17.2% in 2011.
There has also been a tentative recovery of strike action in recent years. In the second half of the 1980s there were around 2,200 strikes per year in Brazil. Strike numbers fell below 1,000 between 1991-97, and declined further afterwards. Numbers started climbing again in the mid-2000s, from 300 strikes per year between 2004 and 2007 to nearly 900 in 2012. These strikes involved a rising share of private sector workers, and often took an ‘offensive’ character, leading to gains in real wages and working conditions, rather than merely defending existing agreements. Despite these achievements, the number of strikers has fluctuated between 1.2 million and 2 million per year, with no discernible trend, and most strikes remain concentrated in the ‘traditional’ sectors (metal- mechanic, oil, construction, banks, education, health and the civil service), where pay and working conditions are already better, the workers are more experienced, and the trade unions are stronger.
Although the working class seems to be recovering its traditions of struggle, this is a very different working class from that which led the previous cycle of mobilizations. First, this class is more atomized and relatively inexperienced in collective action. Second, there is an observable narrowing of ambition and a rejection of aspirations to change society and the economy. Most young workers grew up under a heavily anti-state, anti- political and anti-collective action discourse which has been propagated relentlessly by the neoliberal media. Their aspirations are shaped by individualism and consumerism, and they tend to conform to the limitations imposed by neoliberalism. Third, there is no evidence that the ‘new’ working class has found either the strength or the interest to organize through trade unions or radical left parties, or that it has identified alternative forms of representation and channels of mobilization supporting socially transformative goals. The task of finding mechanisms of representation supporting a radical project is further complicated by the workers’ attachment to direct forms of web-based communication (see section 6). In other words, the ‘new’ working class is largely paralysed by the social, technical and cultural divisions introduced by neoliberal capitalism.