The Crisis in Brazil and the Debate in the Left:
The Brazilian government and the economy have been brought to the brink of collapse by a nation-wide shut-down of commercial transportation. For 9 days truck drivers across Brazil have led a work stoppage which has included blockades along major highways. On Sunday President Temer agreed to a number of key demands - a reduction in the price of diesel, a minimum price for freight shipments and a number of small tax reductions for trucks.
However the movement has continued with wide numbers of truckers seeing the concessions granted as insufficient. On Monday and Tuesday much of Brazilian transportation remained locked down. Some sectors have called for the fall of Temer's government. The far right has also been able to capitalize on the movement with a number of protests asking for "military intervention". Blockades have mostly been stopped since the government offered concessions, but work stoppages continue and while commerce is being slowly restored the crisis is far from over. An illegal strike launched by Brazilian Oil workers has the potential to catalyze the movement and popular discontent into a new, more radical direction.
As of the 9th day there has been a reduction in the size of the protests and in adherence by the truckers, though popular support remains overwhelming with 87 percent of Brazilians supporting the strike. The concessions granted by the government are seen as insufficient, yet it appears unlikely that anything better will be won without a more thorough strategy. The cause of the high prices that sparked the protest lie more fundamentally in the government's neoliberal approach to the oil industry.
The continuing privatization of the once state-owned Petrobras oil corporation means that domestic gas and diesel prices have become more closely linked to their dollar value on the world market. With the the rise in world oil prices the cost has become unsupportable for most Brazilian consumers, working class commuters and sections of Brazilian industry and commerce. Since what remained of the rail system was dismantled during the years of the military dictatorship, Brazil is almost totally dependent on highway transportation for essential goods. 58% of freight transport in Brazil is by highway, one of the highest rates among major economies. The truckers hold enormous potential power which has been amply shown in the last couple weeks. Whole sections of supermarkets have been left empty, unable to restock. Gas stations are running empty across the country awaiting resupply, something which threatens to shut down buses and public transportation.
The Left's Reaction:
The character of the movement has generated strong debate among the left. The mobilization is clearly of a cross-class character, which is to say that both the truckers themselves as well as the myriad transportation companies are promoting the protest. The demands as they have been formulated so far amount to state subsidies for commercial transportation. The solution offered, a temporary reduction in the price of diesel, will help the truckers slightly but will not in any way resolve the broader crisis of high gas prices that affect the rest of Brazil and which has been the source of popular support for the Truckers.
A transportation strike in and of itself is not necessarily progressive. It was famously a strike driven by transportation companies and independent owner-operators which played a major role in the overthrow of Allende's government in Chile. However there is no comparison between the current corrupt, unelected austerity government of Brazil and Allende's popular front. The far more relevant and recent example however is the 1999 strike of truck drivers against the government of Fernando Cardoso - a movement which mobilized around similar demands of a reduction in the price of diesel and a reduction in taxes on the truckers.
Perhaps the most extreme position against the strike has been taken by the MRT (FT, Left Voice in the US), members of whom have condemned the movement as having a reactionary character, one which is inherently helping and sympathetic to the far right. In their words "The truckers movement shows itself with each passing day more clearly to be a reactionary movement." Taking on this argument is useful not only as a polemic, but also an opportunity to establish more thoroughly the real contradictions and potentials of what is unfolding in Brazil.
Part of the justification for declaring the truckers reactionaries has been that the movement essentially is seeking state financing and subsidization of the private transportation companies, money for which will necessarily be taken from funds destined for health or education. For a leftist argument it painfully mirrors the logic of austerity, accepting the limitations set by a competition for limited resources. Temer's government has already shown itself more than willing to wrest every cent from health and education which it can get it's hands on, further cuts will not be stopped on the balance pages of accounting books but only through the capacity of workers, students and users to resist. Our capacity to break Temer's government and render Brazil ungovernable (something the truckers are quite effective at right now) is the only reliable limit which exists to prevent further budget cuts.
Attempts to wrest financing from essential services to support these subsidies poses once again the question of a left resolution of the crisis. Our resolution to this crisis is the fight for the re-statification of Petrobras, driven and controlled by workers, and it's functioning in service to the needs of Brazilians rather than international markets. Saying that a truckers victory seizes resources from more needy sectors is an argument one could expect from the PT or any other party aspiring to governance within the limits imposed by capital, however it has no place in the arsenal of any revolutionary organization aiming to radically transform Brazilian society and break the limits of neoliberal governability.
Arguments against the truckers have come from both the political center and the far left by pointing towards the presence of far right sectors within the movements. Far right sectors have expressed themselves within the movement, with small groups declaring their support for military intervention. This right wing support should also not be exaggerated however, evidence has been anecdotal, most citing small protests seen in Curitiba - already one of Brazil's most right wing states. 16% of the Brazilian population supports the pro-military, semi-fascist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. It should not come as a shock if a small but active sector of the truckers reflects this support which exists throughout Brazilian society.
However the best way to fight this is not by denouncing the movement and declaring it reactionary. It is a huge section of the workforce which is in motion, shutting down the Brazilian economy. It is absolutely essential both to our present political power, and to any possibility of a future socialist government in Brazil, that the truckers are won away from the right and towards left positions. Any other alternative is strategic and economic suicide.
Alternative examples of the left wing potential of the movement are present but have been far less reported by the national media. In Santos for example, a group of Oil workers went to show their solidarity with the Truck drivers, explained the broader crisis, the relationship of solidarity necessary to fight together, and the potential to struggle together to restore Petrobras. The wider political slogan which has captured the support of many of the Truckers is around the slogan "Out with Temer", hardly a right wing demand at the present moment.
The reality is that a political conjuncture has been opened up by the trucker's movement. It's a conjuncture which is completely open to the possibility of being contested actively from the left and workers movement through effective solidarity strikes. Sections of the Oil Workers are, against a government ban, attempting to make exactly this kind of workers intervention a reality. However the far left has simply not been in a position to effectively organize and lead this more broadly and decisively. The grip of the reformist PT on most trade unions remains solid and has prevented any more combative movements from the workers movement which would put forward a real left alternative in the midst of the economic crisis.
The Class Character of Truckers
Underpinning much of the opposition to the movement has also been an analysis of independent truckers as being petty-bourgeois. This hyper-orthodox definition would effectively see every low-wage worker in the US who moonlights working for Uber or Lyft condemned as a petty-bourgeois. The long term, world-wide, strategic defeats of the working class over the decades since the 1970s have allowed capitalism to reconstruct its profitability on a foundation of a precarious, "independent" workforce. Truckers have been one of the most affected sectors - an independent status has more often meant debt obligations and the "freedom" to work superhuman hours.
In Brazil the official statistics around the composition of freight truck drivers show that 1.09 million belong to private companies, 554 thousands belong to autonomous owner-operators and a much less significant 23 thousand are controlled by co-operatives. Those blocking the highways and forming the core of the protests are the independent truckers, while the trucking companies have been supporting and adhering to the movement they have not provided the manpower for the protests.
Highway transportation is a sector of the capitalist economy which for it's labor intensive character and continuing technological limitations (which self-driving trucks may soon threaten) has remained uncharacteristically open to the proliferation of owner-operators. Short of a state monopoly on the transportation and distribution of goods, it is also a difficult one to resolve. The cost of a truck, the key capital involved, is not outside the reach of many workers and indeed the better conditions prevailing for wage labor in the industry, the more easily accessible the transition to owner operator will be.
An independent owner-operator of a truck however retains a clear material interest in defense of trucker wages. While a portion of the owner-operators income represents a potential return on this investment in capital (the truck), the value of their contracts is inextricably tied to the value of wages. The majority of what they sell remains their labor power, as the value of that labor falls it will inevitably be reflected in more dire conditions for the owner-operators.
The reverse also applies, in any industry where independent owner-operators or contractors make up a sufficiently large portion of the workforce an attack on them will be reflected in broader working conditions for that labor force. The United States has seen under the veil of "disruptive" start-ups an unprecedented proliferation of unregulated, precarious jobs for employees locked into the category of independent contractors. This has then created a negative, downward pressure on wages for workers in these industries.
In the same way that economic forces like inflation are often used as an opportunity to depress real wages, the independent contractor is vulnerable to an attack on wages which comes disguised through the rising price of any of their basic costs. The independent truck drivers, responsible for bearing the costs of their own fuel, have experienced precisely this evaporation of their wages in the face of contracts which reflect the old costs. They have experienced a massive attack on the value of their labor power, one which would if not resisted become reflected in the pay and working conditions of all Truckers.
Even if one were to adopt the ultra-orthodox position that only the 1 million, formally employed truck drivers are to be considered part of the working class, they cannot possibly escape the catastrophic consequences which would result from half a million owner-operators seeing a massive reduction in the value of their labor power. There is a clear, working class interest in the victory of the strike and it's one which the employed truck drivers have inherently recognized through their passive and active support of the movement.
Contradictions and conflicts have been opened up by this conflict within the proper Brazilian ruling class. The strike is causing major losses to some sectors of the business elite. Other sectors are more open to the demands precisely because they see the movement being partially led by transportation companies and because their businesses find themselves negatively impacted by the high cost of fuel. Nethertheless the concessions offered over the weekend have seen the capitalist class increasingly united, with most Brazilian media beginning to more clearly demand an end to the movement.
The majority of owner-operators and salaried truck drivers will not see their problems resolved by the government's concessions. The reduction in the price of diesel is temporary and the wider processes driving up prices continue. The crisis of transportation can only be resolved through ending the disastrous policy of privatization affecting Petrobras, something which requires a decisive conflict with the government and a left wing political perspective. However the potential of the movement has been clearly demonstrated and may lay the foundation for future mobilizations.
There is a massive, essential infrastructure upon which the entirety of Brazil's economy rests and depends upon. It is incredibly labor intensive, at least in comparison to alternatives (for example a rail system, in which fewer workers are able to supervise the delivery of far greater cargo), requiring an incredible number of man hours. The truckers have shown that when shut down or even partially impeded, the entire Brazilian economy grinds to a halt.
While the movement has lacked a political perspective and class independence which would be necessary to achieve real lasting gains, it has demonstrated the tremendous power which sections of the working class hold to shut down the country. With the entrance of the oil workers onto the political scene, there is the potential for a real working class alliance that can confront the Brazilian state and fight for a lasting solution, uniting the vast majority of the population behind substantial demands like the re-nationalization of Petrobras under workers control.
The left has an essential role to play in this, but the left must participate, it must fight to win the working class over, it must seriously think through and fight for a solution to the challenges faced by owner-operator truck drivers. Any other alternative is unthinkable, ignoring their demands and leaving the movement to be capitalized by the right would lead to a situation in which even if we were to take power tomorrow, the day after we would be brought down. The left must support and win over the truckers because without them there simply will be no chance to take or maintain power for a real left political project.