Union politics and workplace militancy : a case study of Brazilian steelworkers in the 1980s
The thesis analyses the relationship between shop-floor militancy and union politics in the period after the birth of "new unionism" in Brazil in the 1980s and addresses the problems and dilemmas faced by this new type of union movement. It is based on a case study of steelworkers at the National Steel Company and their representative union, the Metal workers' Union of Volta Redonda, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The research design has emphasised qualitative methods such as in-depth interviewing and field observation. The researcher has also made use of the computer in the analysis of data, through a new type of computer software which is being introduced in sociological research. The objectives of the thesis are two-fold. First, it offers an in-depth study of the relationship between shop-floor politics and union politics in a steel plant. The theoretical framework is based on the concept of "politics of production" introduced by Michael Burawoy, and on the debate around levels of leadership representation of union members, as inaugurated by Robert Michels. The second objective is to assess the developments of "new unionism" in Brazil, ten years after its birth, and to discuss the extent to which it has actually broken with populist and bureaucratic types of unionism and advanced towards more democratic forms of union politics. With the knowledge available today of national level politics, it is possible to argue that in the course of the 1980s the "new unionist" movement developed a significantly more legitimate and democratic relationship between union leaders and their base, and that this helped to break with the "regulated citizenship" of working-class groups in society by expanding their labour rights, by successfully pressing for changes in the Labour Code and by participating in national level politics. The analysis of the case study suggests that the contribution of the new union movement was especially significant in the politicised use of the CIPA (Internal Committee for the Prevention of Accidents) and in the innovative use of the Labour Courts. The significance of these dimensions was that they involved an attempt to expand workers' rights as well as to create new bases under which the rights were granted. On the other hand, the case study suggests that the internal dynamics of the "new union" movement still have elements which may be characterised as non-democratic, and that this generated a new set of problems and dilemmas for organised labour in Brazil for the 1990s.