Brazil Union’s Highway Occupation Cancels GM Layoffs

Two thousand members of the Brazilian Metalworkers Union took over a key highway last week, demanding a stop to permanent layoffs at GM.

Five days later, they achieved their goal: a workers’ assembly on Tuesday voted to accept an agreement that suspends the layoffs.

Early on August 2 near São Paulo, the union members blocked the Presidente Dutra Highway. Burning tires and banners helped stop traffic, which was backed up for 13 kilometers. The highway was blocked for an hour and ten minutes.

After the highway occupation, the workers whose jobs were immediately threatened, returned to their plant to stand outside in protest. There they were joined on strike by other GM workers who make the newly launched Chevrolet S10 pickup. The workers voted to stay on strike for 24 hours while continuing to meet in a general assembly.

Subsidies at Stake

Behind the threat of 1,840 job losses lurks the threat to close completely the 7,200-worker São José dos Campos plant, the largest GM complex in Brazil. Workers there occasionally walk off the job for shift rallies at the gate.

During the action, banners called on President Dilma Rousseff to “Shut Mantega up and prohibit the layoffs,” a reference to Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega, who had said he would not interfere in GM’s decisions. Mantega had argued that GM hadn’t broken its agreement to maintain jobs.

The president had promised she would take away tax benefits from companies that fired workers. In a letter to the president, the union said, “It is unbearable for two thousand breadwinners who run the risk of losing their jobs to be treated by the minister simply as statistics.”

The highway occupation projected political as well as economic pressure. This route connecting Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is more crucial to Brazil than any single interstate is in the U.S.

GM decided to convert the strike day into a paid leave, perhaps hoping to quell the rebellious spirit.

GM cannot afford to completely stop production in Brazil, but the company might want to close plants in the militant parts of the country and move north. Ford did this some years ago with production that went to the impoverished state of Bahia.

Hashing Out the Deal

GM agreed to the settlement after nine hours of negotiations under the gun of the occupation and the workers’ demands on the Brazilian government. The political appeal is partly based on GM’s having taken government incentives in return for promises to maintain the workforce.

The union agreed to some temporary layoffs at full pay pending further negotiations with the government.

The agreement is that GM’s Classic model production in São José dos Campos will be kept at a rate of 20 vehicles per hour. This would ensure the maintenance of 900 threatened jobs until November.

The other 940 workers will go on paid time off temporarily. After a 15-day vacation period, each worker will be off for four months while receiving job training and earning full salary, paid by the government and the company.

GM will also offer voluntary layoffs.

As negotiations continue, the union wants to ensure all jobs and new vehicle manufacture at the plant are maintained. Besides the Classic, the plant produces the S10 pickup, the Corsa, and engines.

Union Vice President Herbert Claros says, “We maintain our position that there is no reason for the layoffs. We'll go on demanding from Dilma's government measures to cancel the layoffs completely.”

Macapá Antonio Ferreira de Barros, the union president, said: “We won't bow to the company's attacks and to the irresponsibility of Mantega, who prefers to defend GM's interests and to underestimate what it means to dismiss 2,000 workers.”

Ron Lare retired from Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Michigan, and is a member of United Auto Workers Local 600.

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