Assets and solidarity

Sculpture José Resende /“Watchful Eyes”/Guaíba, Porto Alegre


The unionism of workers in essential services in the pandemic

The coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has affected working conditions and relationships across the planet, deepening inequalities, uncertainty and vulnerability. In the Brazilian labor market, in addition to the difference between formal and informal workers, employed and unemployed, self-employed and salaried workers, there are also differences between workers who work in sectors considered essential, who remained active throughout the pandemic period and those who exercise its activities in non-essential sectors. The latter had the possibility of moving away from their workplaces, with reduced hours, suspended contracts, or work performed remotely. How have unions reacted to this adverse situation?

Despite the obvious difficulties of this situation, the perception that unions intensified their activities during the pandemic is pointed out by several international analysts[I]. By putting workers at risk, the pandemic seems to have spurred unions to take a more active stance in defense of their constituents.

To analyze the forms of union action by workers in essential services, we carried out a survey with a sample of seven unions, selected among the categories that “went to the front line” of the fight against Covid-19 in the state of São Paulo. There were three health unions, two trade unions and two service unions (cleaning and delivery)[ii]. One of them was not affiliated with any central and the others were equally divided between CUT and UGT.

Essential service workers comprise very different categories. There are from highly qualified professionals, in medical and hospital services, to workers with low education, whose work relationships are traditionally characterized by precariousness, as in the cleaning and delivery sector. It may seem strange to talk about the precariousness of medical work, a profession that enjoys social prestige and pays much higher than the average for workers. However, the work of doctors, since before the pandemic, has been marked by long hours, inadequate working conditions, outsourcing via Social Organizations (OS) and Legal Entities, disrespect for labor rights, lack of professionals and deviation from function. Even so, vulnerability is differentiated, being more intense among informal workers and lower-income segments, as is the case, in our sample, of delivery men and cleaning workers, two sectors in which precarious work takes on a clear gender focus. and ethnic-racial.

The changes in the legal framework promoted by the 2017 labor reform, including the provisional measures of the current government, resulted in an increase in the precariousness of working conditions in sectors defined as essential. The pandemic has aggravated this process through the political, health and economic options adopted by the federal, state and municipal governments, on the one hand, and by the business sectors, on the other, as well illustrated by employer pressure for the reopening of non-essential trade.

This set of factors limited union action. However, our investigation demonstrates that union organization in essential sectors remained active, although defensive, since it was guided by the effort to protect the lives of those represented. These workers, in addition to suffering from the intensification of work rhythms and the extension of the workday, became more exposed to the contagion of the virus, illness and risk of death. We thus find a double contradiction: while the services deemed essential for the functioning of society were precarious before and during the pandemic, it is the unions that are committed to the struggle to preserve the lives, work and income of workers who carry out such services.

Throughout the period, unions developed initiatives to assert themselves as legitimate representatives of their bases and to maintain assistance to workers. Among the entities' main claims, we highlight: the provision of PPE, the asepsis of service stations, the maintenance and compliance with labor rights contained in collective agreements and conventions; respect for working hours, payment of wages and benefits; removal of workers from risk groups. The research related negotiations, lawsuits, agitation actions, public protests (especially in the case of health professionals and delivery men), acts of solidarity with other categories in struggle, philanthropic initiatives, in addition to monitoring complaints in the workplace and the use of virtual tools to strengthen communication with its bases.

Solidarity actions have been recurrent during the pandemic. All unions surveyed took initiatives to distribute basic food baskets. These actions - often covered by a philanthropic or charitable character - indicate, however, a solidary potential that would refer to an old tradition of the trade union movement, and particularly the strike movement, of building class actions that go beyond the category and place of work. Although our research did not identify evidence of more structured articulations with other social movements, such actions, at this moment, open space for the construction of political alliances that may come to strengthen the legitimacy of unions before society and stimulate ties of class solidarity, depending on the strategic and ideological orientation that underlies such practices.

This common character of the different unions does not mean, however, that there are no differences between them. These differences relate less to the profile of the centrals to which the entities are affiliated, and more to their ways of acting. Both at CUT and at UGT we find unions with a more corporate action and others that go beyond the defense restricted to the interests of the category, assuming a broader political position, especially in the area of ​​health and motorcycle couriers.

Entities that establish relationships with more general political agendas seem to expand their repertoires of action, both in working with their bases and in carrying out public protests, putting on the agenda topics such as the defense of the SUS, the importance of state protection and labor rights and the defense of democracy. In the opposite direction, the absence of a critical position on the political situation and government measures is more frequent in those unions less prone to grassroots work, which continues to be a bottleneck in Brazilian unionism.

Although the entities mostly remained with restricted service, the work of union representation remained active and the boards were able to explore technologies to communicate with their representatives. If the adoption of new communication strategies has become more frequent, their use is primarily focused on health issues and working conditions of the category, not being much used for training of any nature, including political training.

In such an adverse scenario, marked by the deterioration of working conditions and attacks on the union institution, one could imagine that unionism would have nowhere to draw strength to react and resist. However, with regard to the sectors analyzed here, we found that the conjunction between the limitations imposed by the pandemic and the forms of precariousness that affect activities determined as essential instigated union activism. The strategies that we found and briefly mentioned in the space of this article demonstrate that unions continue to be relevant actors. At the same time, they indicate that trade unionism has the potential and space to broaden its horizons of struggle.

*Anderson Campos (CESIT/UNICAMP), Andréia Galvão (IFCH/UNICAMP), Patricia Lemos (CESIT/UNICAMP), Patricia Vieira Tropia (INCIS/UFU), are researchers at REMIR (Network of Studies and Interdisciplinary Monitoring of Labor Reform).


[I]See, among others: SAVAGE, Larry & BLACK, Simon. Coronavirus crisis poses risks and opportunities for unions. The conversation. April 5, 2020. Available at:

[ii]Union of Physicians of the State of São Paulo (Simesp), Union of Nurses of the State of São Paulo (Seesp), Union of Public Health Workers of the State of SP (SindSaúde), Union of Workers in Companies Providing Cleaning and Conservation and Urban Cleaning of São Paulo (Siemaco), Motoboys Union of São Paulo (Sindimoto), Union of Commerce Workers of São Paulo (SECSP) and Union of Commerce Workers of Osasco and Region (Secor).

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