Why British Unions Reject the Coup in Brazil

25/05/2016 17:07 | Updated 25 May 2016

The seizure of power by Vice President Michel Temer in Brazil, while President Dilma Rousseff fights the impeachment Temer has backed, is deeply troubling. Like the main trade union confederation in Brazil, the TUC considers the regime of Temer to be illegitimate.

We are in regular contact with our colleagues in the CUT in Brazil, and I met with Joao Antonio Felicio, the former Brazilian union leader who is now President of the International Trade Union Confederation, when he visited London last week. What he told me about developments in Brazil alarmed me greatly.

First, the manner in which President Rousseff has been - at least temporarily - been ousted are riddled with flaws. A profoundly corrupt legislature - led by a Speaker of the lower house who has himself subsequently been suspended - has concocted allegations of illegality against the democratically elected President. Her crime is to have given an overly-optimistic appreciation of the nation's finances: a misdemeanour which most political leaders around the world are guilty of at some time or another.

As the Economist - an unlikely ally of the Workers' Party President - has made clear, there is no suggestion that President Rousseff is personally corrupt. But the same cannot be said of her accusers, and Vice-President Temer himself faces far more serious accusations. Many legislators clearly voted against President Rousseff not to stop corruption in Brazil, but to allow themselves to continue to get away with it.

Second, there is the question of legitimacy. President Rousseff has won a popular mandate twice, as did fellow Workers' Party President Lula before her. The appropriate way to punish a democratically elected politician for exaggerating the health of the economy is to put them to an electoral test. But there is every sign that the current impeachment process is precisely designed to prevent President Lula's return at the next Presidential elections, when he will again be eligible to stand. Temer certainly won't be standing, as he has past convictions for electoral malpractice!

The economic elite - which still dominates many of the 25 parties in the national legislature, as well as the country's media - have lost four Presidential elections in a row, and don't seem to want to run the risk of a fifth and sixth under the charismatic former trade union leader, twice President and global figure Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He could prolong their exclusion from power to a staggering 24-year period.

But thirdly, there is the question of what will happen to Brazil's people, and especially the poor, under a Temer government. Despite disagreements, the trade union movement in Brazil continues to back the Workers' Party under President Rousseff because of its achievements in tackling poverty and worker exploitation. Brazil's record under Presidents Lula and Rousseff has been to narrow the inequality gap while it has widened globally. Poverty and illiteracy rates have fallen, as a result of world famous programmes like the Bolsa Familia, increases in the minimum wage and other progressive social and economic policies.

These are under threat from Temer's illegitimate regime. He has moved swiftly to appoint an all-male, all-white Cabinet and abolished the Ministry of Human Rights. But his plans for longer-term reform are even more chilling. Our friends in Brazil tell us that his government is likely to scrap legal rights to maternity leave; annual holiday entitlements; year-end bonus payments; double payment for overtime; and guaranteed redundancy payments for long service.

They also plan to reduce working hours and implement corresponding reductions in wages; end anti-slavery workplace inspections; scrap fines on employers in cases of unfair dismissal and end workers' rights to claim compensation in labour courts; as well as promoting sub-contracting core business activities to reduce wages and workers' rights.

These plans demonstrate the true purpose behind Temer's legislative coup. He and his backers want to roll back over a decade of social progress under the Workers' Party that the trade union movement set up. And they will also take out from global politics a progressive, democratic voice in the south.

That will be the backdrop to the Rio Olympics this summer, along with increasing repression of public opposition to the illegitimate regime, as trade union and civil society organisations speak out and demonstrate against the elite's seizure of the power which should belong to the people.

The British trade union movement has pledged to our sisters and brothers in Brazil that we will not stay silent as their rights are attacked, their democracy dismantled, their social advances rolled back. We will protest at every step the Temer government takes against the poor and the working people of Brazil. And we will use the links between Brazil and the British economy - as well as the public focus on the Rio Olympics and Paralympics - to raise awareness of the coup in Brazil and its effect on ordinary Brazilians.

Frances O'Grady is the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)