World Politics

CONCLAT: an undeniable setback

Ernesto Herrera *

It was a stirring call. The Working Class Congress (CONCLAT) in Brazil proposed to unify, in a new classist centre the trade-union, student and popular currents; all that are resisting the Lula government’s and the bosses’ offensive. And, at the same time, confront the trade-union centres (CUT, Força Sindical, etc.) that have yielded to the government and the capitalist order.

The CONCLAT was held on 5 and 6 June in the city of Santos in Brazil.   The massive turnout reflected the expectations created: 4,000 participants and 3,200 delegates, about 350 unions, associations, movements and associations representing, according to organisers, more than 3 million workers. In the previous months, 926 grass-root assemblies had gathered around 20,000 workers to discuss the various documents, to make proposals and to choose delegates.

Numerous foreign delegations turned up from 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, United States, Europe and Japan. They brought in to CONCLAT the essential international dimensions. Particularly moving, was the presence of Sotiris Martalis from the teachers’ union in Greece, belonging to the ADEY (Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions), who recounted the struggle of the Greek workers challenging the brutal capitalist attack on wages, employment, and retirements.

Power relations
For the thousands of participants involved with the unification, the CONCLAT was a kind of synthesis of their diverse experiences. It was an act of translating these experiences to an organisational and programmatic level and the beginning of a trade union and popular restructuring. Albeit in a defensive situation, it is built from an opposition to the neoliberal agenda of the employers’ government headed by Lula. It expressed, on the other hand, efforts to unify the struggles, wage demands and seek consensus on issues that divided the class-conscious and anti-capitalist camp.

Although still a vanguard phenomenon, a minority of the whole working class and without the presence of a crucial sector of the exploited, such as landless peasants (mostly organized in the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sim Farm Terra-MST), this process of unification reflected the social energy accumulated in the significant layers of the popular movement.

In fact, the CONCLAT expressed at a certain level, the emergence of a new unionism. A trade union which, in turn, binds more concrete demands of the working masses in all the mobilisations of the exploited and oppressed by an anti-capitalist perspective. Hence, the emergence of CONCLAT initiated the possibility (and only that) for an alternative to contest the global power relations.
Since it attempted to build an instrument to modify (or to endeavour to modify) the power relations between class-conscious trade-union camp and the trade-union councils subordinated (politically and materially) to the capitalist state apparatus.   On Thursday June 3, a note in the daily Folha de Sao Paulo revealed the scandalous price of this subordination: the trade unions allied with the government, had received since 2008, the sum of 228 million reais ($ 126.3 million) as “reimbursement” of the “union tax.”  
The CONCLAT faced the challenge to overcome – in the benefit of the working classes and oppressed - the “bankruptcy of militant and independent left-wing union project,” that started with the major workers’ strikes in the years 1978-1980 and the establishment of the CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores). Therefore, the challenge demanded a development of the construction of a class-conscious alternative with decisive impact on key sectors of the working class. One delegate, from the education sector, summed up the feelings of the common activists: “refound class unionism.”

However, this opportunity was diluted by the events of the Congress. What weighed much more, for the Intersindical and Conlutas union apparatus was the “rightness” of their arguments and the “victory” of their proposals. They incited their troops. They heard nothing. They imposed - from the gallery and discussion groups – the logic of competition. They gave priority to the dispute over the balance of power within the CONCLAT....

Unfortunately, the CONCLAT failed to secure the path of unity. In contrast, it ended up producing a serious rupture. And this “interruption of the process of unification” - that was growing from the World Social Forum of Belem (January 2009) - is, from every point of view, a heavy setback. Unable to conceal or disguise, it was enough to see the bitter, desolate and angry expressions of workers and popular social activists - who came with thousand sacrifices from throughout the country - to perceive the consequences of failure. Suddenly, the contagious hope of the previous days had gone.

Majority leaderless
The call to CONCLAT sparkled in the flags and T-shirts: “Let’s unite to strengthen the fight.”  This simple slogan raised the tasks: the Congress to overcome the fragmentation of the trade union left, the new centre as a tool to organize the struggle against capital.

The different documents submitted  at the Congress contained significant convergence and divergence, for example, on the future functioning of the centre, proportionality, integration and powers of leadership. The same could be said about the analysis of the national situation: there was an “underlying tension” marked by the election campaign. In the Congress, the rivalry became apparent between those who supported the candidacy of Ze Maria of PSTU (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado) and those who supported Plinio de Arruda Sampaio-PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) as two distinctly different ways  to express the struggle and the interests of workers against the two bourgeois parties (PSDB and PT). The claim of “responsibilities” around the non-realisation of the Left Front was a constant during the Congress.

Obviously, a candidature presented under the slogan of the Left Front, would have created better conditions for altering the false “centre-left/centre- right” polarisation. The sociologist Ricardo Antunes described this as a danger of “Americanisation” of the Brazilian political system.

Anyway, there was a basic consensus on the situation of trade union and popular struggles, especially regarding the program that further encouraged the possibility of unification.

There was no agreement on two central questions: 1) the nature of the centre, 2) the name of the new centre. In eleven meetings of the Commission for the Reorganisation / Coordination of the Centre these differences were not resolved. They agreed to go by the criterion of “workers’ democracy”, i.e. voting in Congress. All of us now know the outcome of that decision. Apparently very democratic indeed.

A clear majority of delegates voted in favour of the Conlutas proposal: a trade union, peoples’ and student centre. Undoubtedly, a winning formula in tune with the plurality of social groups involved in the trade-union and popular reorganisation. Intersindical proposed a trade union that articulated in a National Forum with the student movement. Following the proposal from Conlutas, the same majority voted for the integration of students in the leadership of the new centre.

As for the name, a thin majority (impossible to quantify the extent as the votes were not counted), forced the name “Conlutas-Intersindical/Trade –Union and Popular Centre.” The delegates from Intersindical (who already denied the use of their name in the name of the new centre), MAS  and Unidos pra Lutar  rebelled against the “outrage” and left the Congress. The unification process was “interrupted.”

The “restoration” of Congress - after the withdrawal of the delegates from Intersindical / Unidos/ MAS deepened the split. The majority that finally formed the “new trade union confederation is mainly Conlutas. Other currents to accompany were Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sim Teto (MTST) Terra Livre (Popular Movement of the cities and the villages); Movimento Popular pela Reforma Agrária (MPRA) and, surprisingly, the Movimento Terra, Trabalho e Liberdade (MTL), an organisation that integrates an opportunistic fraction of PSOL.  

The formalities say that the Congress decided. There was a majority (which is not disputed) and a minority. There was a “democratic legitimacy.” Already without the atmosphere of enthusiasm and with little more than half the delegates in the hall, the formation of the new centre was announced and the integration of a “Provisional National Executive Secretariat” of 21 members agreed by consensus with ample pre-eminence of Conlutas.  It shall be responsible for “routing decisions” and to re-establish relations with the section who walked out of the Congress.

The main forces have commented on the result. According to Conlutas: “What could have been a great victory for the reorganisation process, unfortunately, turned into a defeat by the decision of the Intersindical/Unidos/MAS walking-out from the Congress after losing the vote on the name of the new entity.” For Intersindical: “Unfortunately, we did not want what happened! We had to interrupt the process of setting up the centre. The debate over the construction of the new centre (nature, politics and name) revealed the utter lack of willingness on the part of most Conlutas, to build a synthesis of divergent views. It preferred to carry out the opinion of the majority (small and casual) of delegates in Congress to impose a single vision.”

Almost everyone agrees to continue exploring ways of unity. Although the prevailing idea is that the break is “irreversible” if the majority maintained their positions and the methods, which led to ultimate failure. It is attributed, of course, to the “responsibility” of Conlutas and the political force that hegemonises it: the PSTU.
One does not discover anything new to say that the PSTU have a decisive bearing on Conlutas and in many social struggles. It is impossible to understand the genesis and development of Conlutas without considering the boldness and the active engagement of activists and union leaders PSTU in this process. Therefore, the majority in Conlutas adheres to PSTU and it has unquestionable political legitimacy.

It is also true that there is a responsibility of Conlutas/PSTU in the CONCLAT failure. Because of the “abuse” of its majority? Because of the “knocking down” of the minority? It would be too unilateral and sectarian explanation. The drama lies in not being able to exercise leadership over anyone else apart from the majority obtained in CONCLAT. A leadership that transcended the borders of Conlutas / PSTU, i.e. beyond its defined field of membership and influence already achieved. A Leadership that, ultimately, promote and ensure both the agreements and consensus. Essential in any process of unification - as it opened the CONCLAT- involving very different forces, traditions, and practices; a process which should secure the maturity and credibility of a leadership, a capability that, in addition, came under consideration of broad sections of the society which came to meet in the CONCLAT.

The big mistake was not mended and the attempt was not to be a true leader. since from the beginning of Congress there were sniffs of a climate of rupture in the various tendencies of Intersindical (which in turn responded to the fractions of PSOL) that feared being “annexed” by Conlutas and landing into the orbit of PSTU (after votes on the nature and the name of the new centre, there was a stampede of delegates from Intersindical, forcing its leadership to withdraw). Also, because it was well-known that major sections of Intersindical (not involved in the CONCLAT) were negative to unification with Conlutas: why “close the doors” to left-wing currents in the CUT, which are critical of the subordination to the Lula government.
“Political autism“, as one grassroots delegate said? Difficult to judge for a foreign “observer”. However, there is the perception that the “Staff” of Conlutas / PSTU should not force the vote on the name of the new centre. Not only because it did not reflect the trade-union and popular reorganisation process, but because they did not respect the sensitivities and pluralities represented in the CONCLAT.

Before the CONCLAT (3 and 4 June) there was the Conlutas Congress. It was supposed to be a Congress of their “dissolution”. But it was not. The 1,800 delegates, who participated intensely, both in discussions and vote, ended up self-affirming the continuity of Conlutas. Was there a final mandate in defence of “identity?” Two days later, at the time of breaking the impasse in the CONCLAT, there was neither a consensus, nor were there “concessions.” The leadership of Conlutas / PSTU took refuge in a closed centralism for a reorganization process that went beyond their militant forces and their field of influences.
The efforts and last-minute negotiations were unsuccessful. After the vote, hundreds of delegates left the Congress. Mostly Intersindical and many of Conlutas with the feeling that they had lost an invaluable opportunity.

* Member of the Colectivo Militante  (Uruguay), editor of Correspondencia de Prensa.


i. The CONCLAT was convened and organized by Conlutas (National Coordinaçào Lutas), Intersindical, MAS (Movimento Avançando Sindical)); MTST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sim Teto) MTL (Movimento Terra, Trabalho e Liberdade) and the Pastoral worker ( PO - Metropolitana de Sao Paulo).
ii.  The notable foreign trade union delegations were: SUD-Solidaires, unitaire et démocratique (France), National Union of Railway Companies (Japan) Labor Notes (USA) and the, Classist, Unitary, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (Venezuela). Among the international political organisations were: Batay Ouvriye (Haiti); New Anti-Capitalist Party (France) Red Stream (Spanish State) and the Movement for Socialism (Switzerland). In addition, there were numerous groups in Latin America and the Caribbean. On Monday June 7, foreign delegations held a meeting to coordinate Intersindicalnational solidarity campaigns.
iii.  The six trade unions legally receive state funds. All of them are campaigning for Dilma Rousseff, the PT presidential candidate. CUT (trade union wing of the PT) and Força Sindical (divided PCB bureaucracy and recycled during his time by Collor de Mello to curb the “wild unionism” of the CUT) are those that have most members.
iv. The “union tax” was created by the government of Getulio Vargas in 1940. Today is mandatory and is paid by all workers, whether unionized or not. It is the equivalent of a day’s wage and is deducted every March. It is also charged to employers. The two central majorities CUT and Força Sindical received a sum of 50 million reais (approximately $ 29 million) in 2010 only. The “union tax” that the government collects, is distributed among the central trade union federations and business associations since 2008. It is currently the main source of income for the unions. CUT denounces it as a “spurious resource”, but it collects the same nevertheless.
v.  All these are available at sites and Intersindical Conlutas:
vi.  The student representation in the CONCLAT was in charge of ANEL (Asambleia Nacional dos Estudantes – Livre), composed mostly of young militants of PSTU who broke with UNE (União Nacional dos Estudantes) dominated by political forces supporting the Lula government, mainly PCdoB and PT.
vii.  The MAS (Movimento Avançando Sindical), of Stalinist origins, is motivated by the Luís Carlos Prestes Communist Current.
viii.  Unidos pra Lutar is the trade union front of the Corrente Socialista dos Trabalhadores (TSA), a Trotskyist organization integrated in PSOL. Until CONCLAT was part of Conlutas. Its own document in some issues was opposed to the majority Conlutas proposals, particularly with regard to the character and the name of the new centre.
ix. This fraction of PSOL is composed of the Movimento Terra, Trabalho e Liberdade (MTL), Movimento Socialista Esquerda (MES) and former senator Heloisa Helena. This fraction is proposing that the PSOL support the presidential candidacy of Marina Silva (Green Party). They did not support the choice of Plinio de Arruda Sampaio, PSOL presidential candidate. It accepts the “donations” from private companies in election campaigns.
x. The Provisional National Executive Secretariat consists of three militants of Terra Livre, three from MTL, 3 from MTST and 12 from Conlutas.
xi.  The full version of the two statements (in Portuguese) is in Conlutas and Intersindical websites.