For early childhood educator and Brazilian union leader, Geici Maiara Brig, the Portuguese phrase resistir e lutar (resist and fight) is more than just a slogan. Yes, it defined a recent campaign to push back against Brazilian government efforts to criminalize trade union activity. But it’s also a way of life.
At 26, Brig is one of the youngest elected directors of the Single Union of Workers in the Municipal Public Service of Blumenau (SINTRASEB), which represents 8,000 municipal water, bylaw enforcement, administrative and health and community workers.
With only six full-time officers and 370 workplaces, SINTRASEB does extensive headhunting for new and younger activists with leadership potential, and a knack for mobilizing members and building community support. Since she was just 19 years of age, Brig was herself recruited and mentored by experienced SINTRASEB organizers. Today, the union requires that young workers comprise at least 10 per cent of participants at all educationals and local meetings.
“This recruitment of younger workers is key to building and renewing our union,” says Brig. “I feel very privileged to be in a group of older union leaders who want to see young workers strengthen our union. For us right now, young members are the ones leading the fight at the local level. It is their energy that has changed our union and kept us vibrant.”
It’s a model similar to CUPE’s member engagement program that Brig says has enabled SINTRASEB to grow, despite attacks on public sector free collective bargaining rights by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The hard-right populist leader is now pushing to make automatic dues check off illegal. The government has also capped funding for public sector services at below inflation, which impacts access to services and puts downward pressure on public sector wages.
Significant legislative changes to labour laws and how unions are funded have had a big impact on many unions. “Only the militant ones survive. Others have been extinguished,” says Brig.
Resistance to these aggressive state attacks on unions and public services have included general strikes, workplace actions, and days of action that have shut down major cities with millions of people participating.
Unions in Brazil rely on voluntary affiliation and dues payments, so workers’ participation in their union has been severely hampered. In addition, the repression of public sector workers’ rights and new models of work organization, increasing public service privatization and contract work are driving down both public and private sector union density in Brazil.
“It is young workers who will be most affected by these workplace changes, now and in the future. We are seeing the Uber-ization of work and we are experiencing it at an accelerated speed. It’s work, with no future for young workers who are seen as independent contractors with virtually no workplace protections. No insurance when workers get injured on the job,” says Brig.
In these independent contractor jobs, defying the employer is complicated because it isn’t clear who the employer is. But SINTRASEB proceeds as if they represent even workers who don’t pay union dues. “We intervene with the employer. We act like our union represents them in the workplace. Legally, however, that’s a very different scenario, because these precarious workers have no bargaining rights.”
A new focus for SINTRASEB is solidarity with environmental groups fighting climate change.
“Many in our union took part in the global day of action at the end of September, so this is a new focus of resistance and fighting for our union,” says Brig.