Strikes that occurred in 2023 in Brazil

Image: Darius Krause


How did the unions act in the first year of the Lula government?

Brazilian trade unionism and its context of recent crisis

In the last period, Brazilian trade unionism went through adverse times. Workers have become more refractory to the traditional model of representation around union organization, especially young people. And the unions have had difficulties in dialoguing with their bases. Other collective support spaces, such as social identity movements and the church itself, have stood out. The recent emptying of the May 1st act from the union centers with the presence of President Lula himself is a thermometer of this. On the other hand, in addition to the fragmentation of workers, neoliberal ideas and individualistic solutions, such as the search for entrepreneurship, are growing. Transformations that have occurred in labor relations and in the management of companies have contributed to this situation. See the precarious links between work through applications and digital platforms, the so-called uberization of work, to cite an example.

Numerous authors have already addressed the phenomenon of the weakening of Fordist unionism in central countries (Pialoux; Beaud, 2009; Bihr, 1998). It is the International Labor Organization itself that recognizes the weakening of unions in contemporary times (ILO, 2019). One of the themes that express symptoms of the contemporary crisis of unionism is the rate of union density (absolute and relative) across almost the entire globe. In the Brazilian case, if we look at data from the 2023 National Household Sample Survey (Pnad), the unionization rate among the employed population plummeted from 12,5% ​​to 8,4%, comparing the years 2018 to 2023 This is the lowest level in history (IBGE 2024)[I].

In this ideology, individualization and fragmentation among workers prevail. Unions in general had profound difficulties (despite valiant efforts in some cases) and, why not say, an inability to take unitary action to resist the neoliberal reforms of recent years (Marcelino; Galvão, 2020). With the drop in unionization rates and the end of union tax collection – which fell by almost 90% compared to 2018 and 2017 (Dieese, 2018) – many unions found themselves without a basis for functioning.

In the case of union membership in Brazil, we observe some ongoing explanatory phenomena that act in a combined way: reduction in the formalization rate (proportion of salaried workers with a formal contract in the employed population); complexity of the process of productive restructuring, reduction of industry's participation in the national economy and employment concentrated in the industrial area in relation to total employment - especially the services and agriculture sectors (i.e., crisis of industrial unionism, in terms of Visser [1993 ]) –; difficulty in joining young people entering the job market (without reference, identity or belonging to the trade union world); increase in unemployment and job insecurity (intermittent work, informality, different forms of self-employment, outsourcing and turnover), advance in pejotization (deregulated hiring of Legal Entities) and individual micro entrepreneurs (MEI) – whose contractual relationships camouflage the bond of employment relations – and different types of workers under the individualization and invisibilization of labor relations, such as uberized workers and mediated by digital platforms. “Individualization, invisibilization and the complete elimination of labor rights encompass the golden dream of capital now that the digital, online, robotic and automated world can coexist with degraded, disorganized, disorganized, isolated, fragmented and fractured work” (Antunes , 2022, p.27). Added to this evident process of advancing individualization, fragmentation and depoliticization of economic relations and neoliberal sociability (as is the case with the ideology of entrepreneurship), we enter a reactionary offensive (Torres, 2020). Faced with the crisis and the drop in union density, coupled with structural changes in the support bases of unions in Brazil, it is possible to point out reflections of defensive action in the union arena. Let us take some examples below.

In the scope of class relations, we observed greater restriction of access to the Labor Court, after the difficulties arising from the Labor Reform (Law nº 14.367/2017) for the worker to appeal to the Labor Court (making it something onerous for the employee, with charging procedural costs and payment of evidence costs and legal fees for the winning party). Between 2017 and 2020, to give an empirical example, the number of labor lawsuits in Brazil declined by 56,2%, falling from almost 2,8 million filings per year to just over 1,2 million. In other words, workers’ access to justice became more restricted and costly (Souto Maior; Severo, 2017).

In summary, the legislated model of labor relations was affected by the 2017 labor reform. From 2018 to now, the field of union action has demonstrated itself to be intensely defensive, that is, union struggles carried out in an adverse political situation (Melleiro, 2022) . The most dynamic and resilient sector in this period, the civil service, went through enormous difficulties.

In short, the economic and political scenario in recent years in Brazil has seen a profound setback in democratic agendas and advancement in rights withdrawal agendas, in a context of economic crisis and deep inflation, not to mention the tragedy of the absence of public management during the pandemic (Fiocruz, 2021). After all, remote work in pandemic times has brought numerous challenges to the mobilization of unions among their workers. Not to mention the Temer-Bolsonaro double evil. All of this reinforces our defense of the existence of a very unfavorable situation for Brazilian trade unionism.

Until the end of the Bolsonaro government, in 2022, it can be said that we had a predominance of a situation of a reactionary situation and defensive struggles for trade unionism. The challenge will be, from now on, to observe the union mobilizations of 2023, the first year of the Broad Front government led by the Workers' Party, with Lula da Silva as president. What do the data from the strikes and union struggles that took place during 2023 tell us?

The record of strikes in the first year of the Lula Government: would it be too early to talk about the resumption of a strike cycle in Brazil?

 If between 1996 and 2002 there was a relative decline in the strike movement in Brazil, from 2003 to 2012 we observed a resumption of the strike cycle in the country, with extraordinary growth from 2013 to 2016 – it is worth noting that this period included the period of conciliation governments of classes of the Workers' Party, which lasts until 2016. With the 2016 coup, a new situation is imposed on the social struggles of work. From 2017 to 2020 there was a new exponential drop in the number of strikes, only with an increasing recovery from 2021 to 2023, although not at the same level. If we take the year 2023, the first year of the Lula III government, how did the unions act in terms of strikes nationwide?

Firstly, it is important to note that in 2023 unions had fewer restrictions on their activities and greater openness to direct negotiations with the government than compared to the two previous governments. Viewing the panorama of strikes in Brazil that occurred in 2023, based on the survey carried out by SAG-DIEESE (2024), 1132 strikes were registered, more than half of which were promoted by public service workers (51%) – which corresponded to 65% of stopped hours. This is an increase of 6,08% compared to the record of strikes in 2022, which in turn was higher than 2021 and 2020.

At first glance, the fact that most of last year's strikes took place in the public sphere of work stands out, the main demand of the strikes was a salary increase and there was some success in most of the demands. Based on 2023, the majority of records are strikes with defensive propositions (78,1%), followed by propositional ones (49,8%) and those with protest elements (20,1%)[ii]. The majority ended on the same day they were triggered (56%) and only 12% lasted more than 10 days. Almost half of the records were also warning strikes (47%), that is, unlike strikes launched for an indefinite period, warning strikes are “mobilizations that have as a plan the advance announcement of their duration”, including strikes in intervals of a few hours, or every 24 or 48 hours.

If we observe the nature of the strikes, as stated, 78,1% were defensive strikes, that is, the demands were not propositional or for the expansion of rights, but for the defense of existing working, health and safety conditions, for the maintenance of current conditions, with complaints of non-compliance with rights representing 52% and strikes against the outbreak of current conditions reaching 44% of records. With regard to demands, of the total number of strikes, salary adjustment (40%), payment of the minimum wage (27%) and demand for payment of salaries (22%) were themes that stood out. Demands for improvements in working conditions represented 20,9%. Food (18,4%), improvement of public services (17,4%) and Job and Salary Plan 14,7 (%) come next. The majority of cases analyzed by DIEESE, 67%, achieved some success in meeting their claims.

Now let's divide the strata. In the public service, around half of the strikes were ended on the same day of the outbreak, only 16% lasted more than 10 days. 70% of strikes in public administration were triggered by municipal employees. The predominance was warning strikes. Of the cases observed, half of the strikes achieved some success in meeting their demands. Among public servants, 53% had a demand for a salary adjustment and 46% considered the demand for payment of the minimum salary.

In the private sector, strikes in the services sector were predominant (almost 70%), with a predominance of defensive demands (83%), such as non-compliance with rights (64%). Observing the monthly evolution of the sectors, it is important to note that the strikes organized at the beginning (January and February), in the middle (July) and at the end of the year (from October to December) were mostly carried out by private sector workers. As a result, there was a predominance of short-term strikes.

It seems that post-Covid 19 pandemic and its consequent changes in the world of work, such as the intensification of outsourcing and privatization, were not obstacles to the growth in the number of serious injuries in the country, given the revolt over non-compliance with labor legislation. It is not secondary to note that outsourced public service workers and workers working in private public service concessionaires were responsible, in 2023, for 56% of strikes in the private sector. Likewise, more than half of the strikes in the private sector in 2023 (56%) involved outsourced workers who work in the public service: (nurses, doormen, receptionists, cleaning workers, kitchen workers, general services workers) or workers who work in private concessionaires of public services (public transport, sweeping and garbage collection).

The expansion of the formalized job market has grown in recent years. Despite the Pandemic in 2020 and the increase in informality (especially during the Temer and Bolsonaro governments), Brazil recorded growth in 2022 and 2023 that had not been seen since 2015, notably in the services sector and public administration. “Brazil breaks record with 100 million workers employed, says IBGE” is the article from UOL Economia, which records the entry of 1,1 million into the job market according to Caged (General Register of Employed and Unemployed), from the Ministry of Labor . According to Pnad Contínua (National Household Sample Survey), the country registered, in 2023, 100,7 million employed workers, the highest in the historical series since 2012[iii]. According to the data we have, 57,6% of the population over 14 years old and able to work is currently in the job market. The majority of the concentration of jobs is in the services and commerce sector.

The unemployment rate closed 2023 at 7,8% (the lowest level since 2014). The number of self-employed workers registered in the National Register of Legal Entities (CNPJ) is 25 million (excluding the 4,3 million employers in this condition). At the same time, in 2023, only 8,4% of the 100,7 million employed workers are unionized, equivalent to 8,4 million people, which represents the lowest level in the historical series since 2012 – a drop of 7,8. 2022% compared to the previous year, 16,1. In other words, the unionization rate fell from 8,4% to 2012% from 2023 to 2017. If the employment number grew in recent years, the unionization rate declined , especially since 13.567, with the Labor Reform (Law 2017/XNUMX). It is interesting to note that unionization falls at all levels of education, including among those with higher education.

If we compare the unionization rate by economic activity between 2012 and 2023, we will observe a drop in all sectors, especially: in industry (from 21,3% to 10,3%), in the field of information, communication and financial activities (from 18,7. 8,8% to 20,7%); transport, storage and mail (from 7,8% to 24,5%); and in public administration and social services (14,4% to 2,7%). The smallest drop identified is found in domestic services (from 2 to XNUMX%)[iv].

It is important to consider that there are inequalities within the labor market. According to Census data, the majority of the Brazilian population declares themselves mixed race (45,3%) and, if we add blacks (blacks, according to IBGE identification) and browns, we have a percentage of 55,5% of the population. 56,1% of people of working age are black. The rate of black people in the job market, among unemployed people, represents 65,1%. Informality also weighs more heavily among the black population. If among non-blacks the informality rate last year was 34%, among black men the percentage rises to 45,8%, and among black women, 46,5%. Almost half of this population segment. Therefore, the consideration of race/ethnicity and gender is fundamental to understanding inequalities in the world of work.

In 2023, 8,4 million employed workers were associated with trade unions (almost half compared to 2012). According to recognition by the Ministry of Labor, there are 13 union centers. They are, in order of their representation of union affiliations: CUT – Central Única dos Trabalhadores (27,8%); FS – Força Sindical (18,3%); UGT – General Workers Union (14,1%); NCST – New Workers’ Union Central (13,2%); CTB – Central dos Trabalhadores do Brasil (10,7%); CSB – Central dos Sindicatos Brasileiros (10,1%); followed by the following least representative, which are not in the order of representation: CGTB – Central Geral dos Trabalhadores do Brasil; National CBDT – Central do Brasil Democrática de Trabalhadores; CSP Conlutas – Central Sindical and Popular Conlutas; CGTB – General Central of Workers of Brazil; Intersindical – Working Class Central; NCST – New Workers Union Central; PUBLIC- Server Central; UST – Workers' Union Union.

In our opinion, the existence of more than a dozen union centers in the country is at least curious, as opposed to the decline in national unionization rates. This is an evident fragmentation of the union leadership and distancing from the bases. There is an urgent need, among the socialist left, for a project to popularize the struggle in defense of the unification of trade unions, with a view to a classist program, internally democratic, with class independence, willing to effectively combat both neo-fascist and neoliberal ideas, and open to incorporate and insert themselves into the heterogeneous morphology of the working class and youth in this new (and precarious) world of work, bearing in mind the imperative need for unions to resume their classist dimension, at the same time that they are challenged to reinvent themselves in the face of new scenarios and cleavages of gender, race, ethnicity and generation, although without losing the class link that is transversal to them, interconnect and interrelate them.

The way out is through the left organized in social and popular mobilizations

In the end, throughout the first year of the Lula III government, at the same time that we saw a resumption of the growth of strikes in the country, we observed a reduction in the number of unionized workers. If, on the one hand, despite the social correlation of forces between social classes being unfavorable and the Brazilian Parliament being mostly conservative and reactionary, the expectations of the trade union movement in a new government of the Workers' Party and Lula, a former trade unionist, as president, replacing a far-right, anti-democratic and anti-union coalition government, he has revived the organized workers' movement since the beginning of the year. At the same time, the broad alliance with sectors of the direct and centrão, which is the basis of the government and occupies ministries at the same time that in practice it makes parliamentary opposition and bargains for amendments, through blackmail, in a political context of offensive by the Bolsonarism brings countless difficulties to the interests of the working class in Brazil. The tiny economic results have not been enough to reassure the living conditions of the class. Discontent and the beginning of an erosion of the government's popular base are already announced in 2024 – see the example of the strike by teachers and administrative technicians at Federal Universities and Institutes. The government's trend of losing popularity also points in this direction. The neoliberal economic policy, the austerity line around fiscal adjustment and the non-implementation of the social-based electoral program that elected Lula make the scenario very difficult. What lessons will workers take from this scenario? As long as Lula is on the defensive, in a government under siege and subordinated to neoliberal forces, the situation is worrying. Social mobilizations on the left and with class independence that dispute political and economic agendas across society will be essential. It remains to be seen how the social forces of labor and the Brazilian trade union movement will act in the coming period. The resumption of strikes is an important social indicator. But it is still too early to make any hasty conclusions, after all, history is an open field of possibilities.

*Michelangelo Torres is a professor at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Rio de Janeiro.


DIEESE. Balance of the 2023 Strikes. Studies and Research n.109, April 2024.

IBGE. Continuous PNAD Additional Characteristics of the Labor Market 2023. Released on 21/06/2024.

Integrated Labor Relations System. Distribution of Unions by Union Central (updated until 24/06/2024), available at: htp://ório/painel/GraficoFiliadosCS.asp


[I] If we observe the impacts after Law 13.467/2017, the reduction in the unifying power of unions has, in fact, been imposed in a decisive way.

[ii] Dieese divides the number of strikes into four categories, which can often be combined: purposeful, defensive, in protest and in solidarity. The first include mobilizations for the expansion of rights and new achievements; while the defensive ones are those that include the defense of current working, health and safety conditions (against non-compliance with established rights and non-withdrawal of rights); in the third case, they include more structural agendas and protests that go beyond work relations; while strikes in solidarity – not counted in 2023 – are mobilizations in support of strikes in other categories.

[iii] In 2020 and 2021 there is no record of IBGE data collection due to the impacts caused by the Pandemic and the political orientation of the Bolsonaro government.

[iv] Source: Pnad continua 2023, IBGE.

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