Labor Movement in Brazil: Challenges and Opportunities for a Left-Wing Labor Politics

  • Adalberto CardosoEmail author
Part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series (MAENMA)


The labor movement in Western capitalism has consolidated a work ethic that is quite different from the bourgeois one identified by Max Weber. Its distributive justice was based on necessities (“to each one according to his necessities”, to put it in a Marxian way) and not on birth or merits or talents. The image of the good society was not a hierarchical but an egalitarian one. The base of social cohesion was not market by competition but by social solidarity. Social order did not arise from the “invisible hand” of markets but from state intervention. The welfare state was one of the forms of incarnation of this work ethic; communism another one.

 In Brazil, the work ethic consolidated from the 1930s onward was based neither on equality nor on solidarity. Its main form was the desire and the fight for state intervention to assure the protection of workers from the harsh operation in the country’s wild labor market. Because this ethic was deeply ingrained in the workers’ minds and hearts, I argue that this is one of the reasons why the left has had, historically, an enormous difficulty in organizing a strong labor movement, in spite of the major role labor movements have played in some crucial junctures. Other crucial reasons revolve around state violence against unions and left-wing parties, the union structure, and the structure of the labor market. Most of these reasons are still present in the 21st century, albeit in different forms and levels of importance.

 This chapter brings evidence on each of these topics, which is elucidated in dialogue with the historiography of labor, especially its focus on the Thompsonian idea of “experience”, and with recent literature on the dilemmas of unionism and left-wing parties. It also presents new data on the union structure, union density, and collective action, and on changes in the structure of the labor market.


Trade unions Labor movement State Work ethic Experience 


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Social and Political StudiesUniversity of the State of Rio de JaneiroRio de JaneiroBrazil

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