May Day 2003: Drawing strength from Brazil

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Hundreds of workers and fair trade activists celebrated May Day here by gathering to hear union and Workers’ Party activist Marcelo Borges Sereno describe “Organizing to win union power: How Lula did it.” Sereno is chief of staff to President Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva of Brazil. The Milwaukee County Labor Council (MCLC), the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign, and the AFL-CIO Field Mobilization Department sponsored Sereno’s trip.

Sereno drew on the history of May Day, which began as a commemoration of the repression of union protesters in Milwaukee and Chicago. Just as the events of 1886 had an “impact on trade unions throughout the world,” Sereno said the success of the Workers’ Party could act as a similar example. However, he stressed, “change in the world will not occur without change here in the U.S. We need you.”

He recounted an address that Lula gave to workers as he took office where he told them “my success is tied to yours.” Sereno said the Workers’ Party of Brazil cannot afford to fail because there would be “consequences for the left wing throughout the world.”

Sereno said the Workers’ Party’s fight, beginning in 1980 at the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, “was a fight for democracy.” He described how the Workers’ Party developed a broad coalition of social movements, landless peasants, progressive Catholics, and various Marxist organizations in addition to trade unions, who were all committed to democracy and the fight for free elections. Sereno, a former organizational secretary of the Brazilian Labor Federation (CUT), paid tribute to the special role labor played in the fight for democracy, highlighting the ten general strikes from 1980 to 1990 as part of that fight.

Though the Workers’ Party and the coalition have come a long way, the new government faces many challenges. Sereno explained how the government faces neo-liberal policies of past administrations, including large debts. Their first challenge was to stabilize the national currency and to curb inflation. They were forced to make cuts in various government programs, such as pensions for public sector employees, while transferring some funds to the private sector. This has naturally led to disagreements and tensions within the coalition, which is all part of the challenges facing this new government.

John Goldstein, president of the MCLC, described the tour as a “great opportunity to hear the story of how opposition to unfair trade policies helped propel workers to victory in Brazil.”

Steve Watrous, an activist with the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign, said “the Workers’ Party campaigned against the same unfair trade policies, such as NAFTA expansion and the World Bank, that have decimated Milwaukee’s industrial base and now threaten services.”

The author can be reached at babette37@juno.com