Introduction
Speaker after speaker came forward on the stage to denounce the pelegos
(government unionists) who controlled the state-sanctioned sindicatos
in the city. They demanded an end to the onerous imposto sindical (union
tax), called for the abolition of state intervention in industrial relations,
and blasted the cozy relationship between the pel egos and the indus-
trialists. Factory commission activists from metalworking establish-
ments throughout the munic{pio of Sao Paulo and its suburbs of Osasco,
Garulhos, Santo Andre, Sao Bernardo, Sao Caetano, and Diadema
packed the rented hall in the Liberdade section of Sao Paulo. These
insurgents from grass-roots factory commissions staged their rally far
from union headquarters to energize rank-and-file metalworkers in Sao
Paulo for the upcoming election of a new union directorate. Speaker
after speaker called on those gathered to throw out the entrenched
pelegos and bring the open politics of their factory commissions to the
closed state-sanctioned unions.
What impressed me most about this May 1987 rally was how much
its rhetoric mirrored that of the struggles for union democracy Sao
Paulo's metallurgical and textile workers had waged in the 1930s,
1940s, and 1950s. The 1987 calls for union democracy were near-
perfect representations of the language of rank-and-file insurgency
expressed in similar meetings held throughout the mid- 1940s and early
1 950s.
1
Along with the language of union democracy, these workers in
1987 continued to rely on a system of factory commissions as their own
form of independent organizing. These factory-based groups of any-
where from five to fifty workers first played a role in grass-roots protests
in the 191Os. At times, the commissions were workers' only institutions
for negotiating wage increases and changes in work conditions. At
other times, the commissions made up the grass roots of the city's
unions. In the late 1970s, workers from insurgent factory commissions
succeeded in breaking
the power of the state-sanctioned sindicatos and
created an alternative structure known as the "New Unionism," which
workers later institutionalized as the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT).2
These calls for a grass-roots insurgency to oust pelegos and to take con-
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