Andréa Novais

Andréa Novais

The Brazil Business


Labor Unions in Brazil

Andréa Novais

Andréa Novais

The Brazil Business


As we have reported in several of our articles, Brazilian workers are granted with several benefits that are unheard of in many foreign countries. Many of these benefits and regulations are the result of agreements between entrepreneurs and labor unions. Learn in this article how the concept of labor unions works in Brazil and what its particularities are.


The history of labor unions has followed the history of work. They were already present in medieval Europe, but it was with the Industrial Revolution in England that the concept of labor union as we know today was born and its importance became more evident. Workers started to realize that abuses were being made and that they should get together in order to claim their rights.

Labor unions are considered to be a direct result of the capitalist mode of production as this mode configures a relation between exploiter and exploited (employer and employee). The purpose of the labor union is to promote a certain balance in this relation.

In Brazil, labor unions are the direct result of a change in the economic scenario. By the end of the 19th century coffee was no longer the main economic activity and in the 20th century Brazil was entering the industrial world.

At this time, working 14 or even 16 hours a day was considered to be normal, as well as the exploitation of women and children. Besides receiving very low salaries, workers would also suffer salary reduction as a punishment.

The first strike in Brazil dates from 1858, when typographers from Rio de Janeiro interrupted their activities as an attempt to stand up for themselves against employer’s abuses. Almost 50 years later the first Brazilian Workers’ Encounter took place in Rio de Janeiro, giving room to several professional associations.

In 1930 a revolution that would configure the transition between an agrarian economic model and the industrialization of the country took place. As an attempt to control the labor unions, Getúlio Vargas, who was the Brazilian president back then, created Ministério do Trabalho, a branch of the federal government that would try to organize the union policy.

The main purpose of Ministério do Trabalho was to promote a balance in the relations between employers and employees. It was this Ministério that created the minimum salary and established regulations regarding working hours.

Although these changes have brought some positive effects to workers, they have been criticized by idealists of the workers’ movement who claimed that this kind of interference of the federal government had mischaracterized the movement as labor unions went from an independent organization to a kind of branch of the federal government.

Benefits to the affiliates

In order to attract affiliates, labor unions offer several benefits to their members. The most common are:

  • College tuitions discounts;
  • Leisure activities such as resorts, water parks and discounts for gym memberships;
  • Health insurance discounts;
  • Partnership with several educational institutions;
  • Dental plans discounts;
  • Legal services;
  • Drug stores discounts;

Major labor unions in Brazil

The impact of a labor union is measured by the number of members it has, so the major labor unions in Brazil are composed by those who work in factories, stores and banks. It is not out of nothing that the major labor unions in Brazil are:

  • Sindicato dos bancários (banker’s association);
  • Sindicato dos metalúrgicos (metal worker’s association);
  • Sindicato dos comerciários (commerce worker’s association);
  • Sindicato dos professores (teacher’s union).

Labor unions for liberal professionals are not so popular due to the low number of members. Also, the previously mentioned unions have a more traditional background.

Every labor union is affiliated to a major organization. The three major organizations of this kind in Brazil are:

CUT – Central Única dos Trabalhadores

The largest labor union in Brazil, CUT is present in all Brazilian economic branches. It is the fifth labor union in the world with 3326 affiliated entities in 2004.

Its strict relation to PT, the Brazilian labor's party, has been the target of hard criticism and has caused the leave of several of its members.

Conlutas – Central Sindical e Popular – Coordenação Nacional de Lutas

When president Lula was elected, CUT was getting more incorporated to the federal government and started to support all the reforms proposed by it, such as the agrarian and the social security reform.

Unhappy with the direction CUT was taking, some members of the organization decided to leave and created a new one. In 2010, Conlutas had as affiliates 140 unions and two million workers.

Força Sindical

Founded in 1991, Força Sindical was a direct opponent of CUT. Its members were concerned with the course the unionist movements were taking: they were either too radical to be taken seriously or completely resigned.

Força Sindical claims that its goal is to lead Brazilian workers to modernity, promoting an open dialog with society. However, those who are against the organization claim that it was “sold” to major corporations and is no longer a representative of the working class.

The organization has never claimed to be against Capitalism, despite its involvement with a political party, PDT - Partido Democrata Trabalhista -, that claims to be one of the most socialist political party in Brazil.

According to Estadão, in 2011 Força Sindical had 14% of the affiliates.

Most important achievements

Even though many people might argue that labor unions no longer represent the working class, they were responsible for several rights Brazilian employees are granted with today, such as:

  • Legal advice;
  • Paid weekly rest;
  • Stability in case of occupational accident;
  • Maternity leave and stability to pregnant women;
  • “Aviso prévio”: workers must be notified 30 days prior to their dismissal;
  • “Adicional noturno”: those who work from 10pm to 5am in urban areas receive 20% extra over their nominal wage.

Labor unions are also involved in agreements regarding holidays, labor gymnastics, working hours and wage raise. One of the major causes of the labor unions nowadays is the reduction of working week from 44 to 40 hours.