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Don’t Despair: Consider Some Radical Approaches That Have Worked in a Country Almost the Size of Ours

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I was raised in a country where tradition, custom, and economics often define who is on top, who is in charge and who is powerless. My world was turned upside down in a recent trip to Brazil. Maybe it was the all-night plane flight, and the late nights driven by that powerful Brazilian drink Cachaca. Maybe it was the heat and the passionate people from CONTRAF and the Sindicato dos Bancários de São Paulo (more on who they are later) who taught me so much.

In this piece, reposted from Alternet, Stephen Lerner learns from Brazil to show how we can grow stronger, more creative, and help people trapped in unhealthy relationships free themselves from those who have power over them.

I was raised in a country where tradition, custom, and economics often define who is on top, who is in charge and who is powerless. My world was turned upside down in a recent trip to Brazil. Maybe it was the all-night plane flight, and the late nights driven by that powerful Brazilian drink Cachaca. Maybe it was the heat and the passionate people from CONTRAF and the Sindicato dos Bancários de São Paulo (more on who they are later) who taught me so much.

They shared something with me that could alter the lives of Americans who aren’t afraid to have their system and world rocked. I witnessed and experienced role reversals, energy and passion that would shock most people in the United States. Through their experiences and vision they convinced me a better world is possible.

I am going to share lessons from Brazil that could change our futures, that, once learned, can bring new meaning to our lives. And techniques that, when practiced over time, can increase our strength, improve our creativity and help hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unhealthy relationships free themselves from those who have power over them. Who knows–maybe one day crazy bank executives will be reined in by bank workers sick and tired of their bosses getting rich crashing the global economy.

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To understand the context for these lessons, a little background on Brazil is useful. Until 1986 it was ruled by a military dictatorship. Now, Brazil, with 300 million inhabitants, has just passed the United Kingdom to become the 6th largest economy in the world. It is governed by the Workers Party and its immediate past president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was a former metal worker and union leader. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s current and first woman president, was part of the student movement that opposed the military dictatorship and had been jailed and tortured by the military in her youth.

How is it that Brazil has moved from a military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy where jobs are being created, wages are rising and bold action has been taken to combat poverty? How did Brazil go from a country were demonstrations were suppressed, and protesters arrested, tortured and murdered to a country were a former autoworker could become president? Rita Berlofa, a leader of the Brazilian bank workers union, described the change this way at the recent SEIU convention in Denver:

“From 1964 to 1985, we fought against the military regime, and for free elections and democracy. During this time we brought together many social movements, and together we gave strength to social movements to organize. We organized students and workers, from the countryside and the cities….

In 1978, a young man named Lula, who was a migrant from the Northeast of Brazil, the poorest part of Brazil, who worked as a shoeshine boy when he was a child, and later became an autoworker, and then a leader of the auto workers union…

Lula dared to do something bold, to organize a strike of autoworkers to confront the military dictatorship.

This was something that was unimaginable under the dictatorship. Because of the boldness of the strike, and the courage demonstrated by the workers, it inspired people throughout society. Union leaders, intellectuals, politicians, and representatives of social movements.

And we all came together to discuss the need for a social movement for workers.

A social movement that would allow workers to lead, to make decisions about the political and social life of the country, and to change Brazil.

This social movement was born out of the dream of workers to have freedom.”

The dictatorship was forced from power by a powerful social movement driven by students, community-based organizations and unions. Since 1979 the MST, a movement of landless workers, has occupied and seized abandoned and underutilized land across Brazil. The unionized banking sector, meanwhile, has prevented Brazil’s banks from some of the worst excesses of those in the U.S.

The history and present in Brazil offers some lessons for Americans about how we should think about challenging the increasingly tyrannical power of the superrich and out of control corporate power here in the United States.

1. Workers don’t have to adopt a submissive position

In Brazil, 19 percent of all workers are members of unions. (A much higher percentage are covered by collective bargaining agreements, but are not dues-paying members.) Within the major Brazilian labor federation, the CUT, unionization and membership levels range from 34% in some parts of the private sector to a whopping 55% in banking.  Over the last 8 years, Brazilian purchasing power has increased by 22.2% in real terms.

In comparison, in the United States only 11.9% of U.S. workers are represented by unions and only 6.9% of private sector workers are in unions. As union membership has declined, economic inequality and corporate power have increased in the United States. While we are all experiencing stagnation and decline in living standards here in in the U.S., in Brazil the opposite is happening.

The combination of a growing labor movement and the increasing power of the Workers Party has led to 40 million Brazilians moving out of extreme poverty. Workers don’t feel they have to submit to unfair treatment and employer demands to keep their jobs.

Nothing illustrates this better than the story of Foxconn, the company that makes iPads and iPhones for Apple. While mistreatment in China has led to workers committing suicide, Foxconn’s unionized workers in Brazil make twice as much as those doing the same work in China, all while working shorter hours. A combination of a vibrant labor movement, supported by labor laws far more supportive of unions, demonstrate that workers don’t have to adopt a submissive position in the face of giant global corporations.

Workers organizing powerful unions are an essential ingredient of any movement committed to winning economic justice and democracy.

2. Bank and financial workers can do it too

438,000 Brazilian bank and financial workers are covered by union contracts. They have six months paid maternity leave, and access to health insurance for same-sex partners. Citibank and other banks that are completely nonunion in the United States, often paying workers poverty wages, are fully unionized in Brazil. From tellers in branches, call center workers to data processers, all are members of the union.

The union has a long and proud history of leading national strikes to win political and economic gains–taking on both global banks and government-owned Brazilian banks. Most recently, in 2011, bank workers won major economic gains through a national strike, despite attempts of employers to resist wage increases in the name of fighting inflation.

Brazil has demonstrated that white-collar workers, in jobs not traditionally thought of as bastions of labor power, can organize, lead and win dramatic changes.

3. It is good to have your own party–when you are on top you can help take care of other people’s needs

Since the Workers Party came to power, they have increased government spending on social programs and lifted 40 million people out of extreme poverty. Brazil’s response to the economic crisis of 2008 was to increase government spending instead of adopting self-defeating austerity programs.

Brazil demonstrates that having a political party committed to workers’ rights and economic justice and equality matters.

4. You need global protection to stop low wage infection

Brazilian workers know they can’t maintain strong unions and an improving standard of living if they have to compete with countries like the United States where corporations routinely violate the rule of law and basic human and worker rights.

That is why they are helping to lead global campaigns to win global agreements from global corporations. Currently they are campaigning to win agreements from the global Spanish bank Santander (formerly called Sovereign in the United States) and the British Bank HSBC. These agreements would guarantee workers’ rights to form a union, even when the companies operate in countries, like the United States, where the legal regime is dominated by corporations and workers’ rights are often trampled. They know stopping the erosion of living standards in the U.S. is critical to protecting the gains Brazilian workers are making.

CONTRAF, the Brazilian bank workers federation, and SPBANCARIOS, the powerful Sao Paulo bank workers union, in conjunction with unionized bank workers from across the globe (the United States is unique globally in having an almost completely nonunion banking sector) have launched a campaign to clean up the financial sector from the inside. They know that financial workers are pressured to sell unneeded and dangerous financial products to unwary consumers. This ranges from the day to day pressure to convince consumers to get overdraft “protection” that leads to huge penalties and fees, to the now well-documented scams involving exploding subprime mortgages that have devastated homeowners and threatened the entire economy.

The goal of the campaign is to protect workers from employer retaliation if they refuse to sell bad financial products and blow the whistle on the misdeeds of banks. Unionized bank workers could be the stewards of a safer and fairer banking system. Imagine if instead of pushing subprime loans and accounts that drain people’s savings through overdraft fees, if workers exposed banks shady practices and were partners with consumers in demanding a fair and transparent banking system.

There have been a few high-profile whistleblower cases in the U.S., like Sherry Hunt, a manager at Citibank’s massive mortgage unit, who exposed eight years of misdeeds—right up into 2012—and won $31 million for herself. Imagine if instead of a few whistleblowers, we helped deputize hundreds of thousands of bank workers to blow the whistle on illegal bank actions.

While we face many obstacles here in the U.S., we don’t live in a dictatorship. In understanding what Brazilians have accomplished under far harsher conditions then we face, we can identify the ingredients needed to build a social movement and real change here. It may be that we already have the seeds and beginning of the kind of social movement that has transformed Brazil, here in the United States. When you combine the work of Occupy, Occupy our Homes, the newly formed Home Defenders League, the growing work challenging the trillion of dollars in student debt and a hoped for rebirth of union organizing, you can start to see the ingredients needed to win real change.