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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Union-Party Links and the Reconfiguration of the Labor Movement: Brazil and Mexico 1990-2007

  • Author(s): Miljanic, Andra Olivia
  • Advisor(s): Collier, David
  • Collier, Ruth
  • et al.

This study examines the reconfiguration of labor movements in Latin America, focusing on the automotive sector in Brazil and Mexico and comparing the two countries across two crucial decades--the 1990s and the 2000s. The analysis situates this reconfiguration in a crucial historical context. Thus, the transitions to democracy and open-market economies that began in most Latin American countries in the 1980s prompted a restructuring of relations within the labor movements, connected with changing relations among labor, state, and business actors. The automotive industry, a pillar of the Brazilian and Mexican economies, experienced a similar economic transition and pattern of foreign direct investment across the two countries. However, over the last two decades, cooperation among auto worker unions--which historically have been among the most important labor actors in these countries--has evolved in opposite directions. Cooperation has increased in Brazil, and declined in Mexico. How is this contrast to be explained?

Cooperation within the labor movement is understood here as involving a low level of representation conflicts among labor unions (i.e., disputes over the scope of membership to be represented by each union) and a high level of joint projects, joint actions, and networks among unions. The dynamics of cooperation/non-cooperation revolve in part around the fact that both centrist and leftist unions are found in the automotive sector, yielding distinctive issues about the terms of cooperation. Highly cooperative relations within the labor movement can increase the bargaining power of labor actors and consequently strengthen the unions' response, for example, to investors' preferences for weaker, acquiescent unions and for reductions in contractual protections of workers' rights. In addition, a labor movement with a high level of cooperation can be an important source of political support for governing parties who may, in exchange, address labor demands.

This study focuses in particular on two dimensions of cooperation among auto worker unions--i.e., both within and among peak labor organizations. It examines the links between labor unions and political parties as a key factor in explaining these dimensions. Crucial here is the interaction between (a) the type of party in government at the national level--left or non-left; and (b) whether the governing party is associated with a labor central.

Three specific arguments are advanced. First, if (a) the party in government is not of the left and (b) is associated with a labor central, the result is greater cooperation within that labor central and low cooperation between labor centrals. Increased cooperation within the associated labor central is triggered primarily by an exchange between the governing party and the labor central, involving an allocation of state resources by the party in return for political support. State resources are not distributed to other labor organizations, as the non-left party's constituency includes non-labor actors such as business. Consequently, the party does not need the support of the entire labor movement. No significant change in cooperation occurs within the labor centrals that are not associated with the party in power. Examples are Brazil in the 1990s and Mexico in the 1990s.

Second, if (a) the party in government is of the left and (b) is associated with a labor central, this increases cooperation both within and between labor centrals. Generally, association between the party in government at the national level and a labor central increases cooperation within that labor central. The ties between the governing party and the associated labor central are reinforced on both pragmatical and ideological grounds, prompting a high level of cooperation within the central. Moreover, the left party needs the political support of the entire labor movement and consequently engages in a broad distribution of resources across labor centrals, stimulating cooperation within and between centrals. Finally, the moderation of the left party in government leads to moderation of the associated labor central, bringing its strategies closer to those of labor organizations further to the right and subsequently facilitating cooperation across labor centrals. This pattern is found in Brazil in the 2000s.

Third, if (a) the party in government is not of the left and (b) is not associated with a labor central, the result is decreased levels of cooperation within and between centrals. This is expected because the party's electoral base is located outside the labor movement. Moreover, due to the lack of association with a labor central, the party's strategy for controlling labor consists of building links with specific investor-friendly unions rather than with an entire peak labor organization. This scenario is illustrated by Mexico in the 2000s.

Overall, this study maps out critical trade-union dynamics--at a time of great transformation in the automotive industry, emergence of new centrist and leftist currents in the union movement, and critical issues concerning the capacity of unions to improve the position of auto workers. The study's distinctive contribution also lies in the fact that only a limited amount of comparative research on trade unions has appeared in recent years. The analysis seeks to address this gap by offering new comparative insight into this key economic sector.

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