Brazil: PT lefts fail its first big test under Lula government

Lula government’s pension "reform" bill passed first reading in House of Representatives with most PT lefts voting in favour.

The night of August 5 saw the first vote on the pensions “reform” bill cutting back pension rights for public-sector employees and opening the road to privatised pension funds. The vote was 359 against 126 with 9 abstentions.

This majority was only possible with the votes of 65 federal representatives from the right-wing opposition to the Lula government. Almost half the PSDB (party of former-president Cardoso) and PFL (traditional right-wing party) voted with the PT government.

The government rushed the vote through for fear of big demos by civil servants on strike against the "reform" since last month. Some 80,000 workers took to the streets of Brasília on August 6 to protest the vote of the previous day and to demand withdrawal of the bill.

The struggle will continue. Another vote is due on or around August 20 and then the Senate will vote twice.

Lula made concessions to the right-wing state governors to get this majority and accepted demands from the judges to maintain their earnings and pension levels. But for the workers and the left, all the government offered was police repression, a refusal to really negotiate anything, attacks on civil servants and threats to expel the PT federal representatives who said they would vote against the bill.

A few days before the vote, on August 1, the police attacked a civil servants demo in Brasília and PT Senator Heloísa Helena from the state of Alagoas was severely attacked by the federal police riot squad.

Position of PT representatives

Of the PT’s 92 federal representatives, 80 voted with the government and against the civil servants, 8 abstained and only three voted against.

Even the PcdoB (Communist Party of Brazil, former Maoists), for the first time ever, was split when 7 of its 11 representatives voted with the government and 4 against.

The PT’s left wing failed its major test by voting these anti-worker measures under the Lula government.

Only the three PT federal representatives known as the ’radicals’ – Luciana Genro, João Batista Babá and João Fontes – voted against the bill. The PT National Committee meets on September 11 and is likely to vote to expel them.

Of the federal representatives on the left of the party, 24 voted for the reform and then issued a statement criticizing certain aspects and justifying their position in defence of PT unity. But this will not stop the civil servants unions from including them on their lists of ’betrayers of the workers’. Their names and photos will be on the union’s posters and stuck on walls and lampposts throughout Brazil.

Eight of the left parliamentarians abstained. They said they were really against the bill but this position did not mean they were renouncing the PT. They ended up with the worst of both worlds. The PT leadership threatened to expel them for not accepting the decision while the civil servants unions still labelled them as betrayers.

These parliamentarians then went on to vote for another set of measures taxing retired civil servants and raising the ceiling for judges salaries at state level, thus regaining the confidence of the PT leadership and clashing with the civil servants unions.

The main organized tendencies on the left of the PT took the following positions:

Left Articulation (Articulação de Esquerda)

  • The biggest of the PT left currents had its origins in a left split from the majority Articulation current. Their 9 federal representatives all voted for the pensions "reform" bill. There is a heated debate with many rank and file sections and some leaders criticizing the decision taken by their parliamentarians.

Socialist Democracy (Democracia Socialista)

  • This is the Brazilian section of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International. The official position of the DS leadership was to call for a vote in favour of the reform for the sake of PT unity. Two of their federal representatives ended up abstaining (Walter Pinheiro from Bahia and Orlando Fantasini from São Paulo) and the tendency leadership publicly criticised them. The rest voted for the bill.
  • These two congressmen subsequently accepted the decision taken by the leadership of the PT and the government and went on to vote in favour of the further taxing pension benefits and raising the salary ceiling for judges at state level.
  • One of the key leaders of this DS tendency is Miguel Rosseto, the current Minister for Agrarian Development, responsible for land reform.
  • Another DS member is Senator Heloísa Helena, but she has been much more to the left than the rest of this tendency and is being threatened with expulsion from the PT because she has declared she will vote against the bill when it reaches the Senate.

Socialist Force (Força Socialista)

  • Originated from left groups in the 1970s and 1980s, Socialist Force got three federal representatives elected. One of them was Nelson Pelegrino (PT-Bahia) who was elected leader of the PT group in the House and then took up a position clearly in favour of the government’s neo-liberal policy; he voted in favour of the pension "reform" bill and formally is no longer a spokesperson for this tendency.
  • The two remaining Socialist Force federal representatives, Ivan Valente (São Paulo) and Maninha (Federal District) abstained on the “reform” bill but later voted for another set of measures taxing retirees pension benefits and raising the ceiling for judges salaries at state level.

Independent lefts and regional collectives

There are some " independent " PT federal representatives on the left of PT or from regional tendencies, but they all voted with the government and against the workers.

  • Rep. Luis Eduardo Greenhalgh from São Paulo became Chair of the House Commission for the Constitution and Justice; since then he has taken a totally pro-government position.
  • Rep. Chico Alencar of the Refazendo [Rebuilding] group (a loose bloc of several tendencies, collectives and left PT members from Rio de Janeiro), criticised the pensions bill, abstained on the vote but then voted for taxing pension benefits and raising the salary ceiling for judges.
  • Rep. Lindbergh Farias adopted a position that reflects the confusion among sections of the left in Brazil. Farias was president of the National Union of Students (UNE) in 1992 when it led the movement that overthrew the Collor presidency. He was then elected as a federal representative as a member of the PCdoB. Halfway through his term he split from the PCdoB, declared for Trotskyism and joined the PSTU. Later, more recently, he left the PSTU and joined the PT to support its left wing.
    At the beginning of the Lula government he was very critical and risked reprisals by the party leadership. Then he retreated, became clearly pro-government and even congratulated House leader João Paulo (PT -São Paulo) when he allowed the militarised police to enter the premises of the legislative power and repress demonstrators.
    He ended up voting with the government on pensions and many of the team working with him have split from him.

Civil servant strike continues

The federal civil servants continue on strike even after the first House vote on pension "reform". The strike was strengthened as several sections of state civil servants joined in, including professors at São Paulo State universities.

The CUT union leadership is headed by the Articulation tendency which is politically associated with the majority section of the PT and the government. It has not fulfilled its role as a union of giving firm support for the strike and building unity between civil servants and the other sections of the working class.

There are many land occupations in the countryside and homeless occupying buildings or lots in the city. There are strikes against mass lay-offs at auto plants and several sectors of workers have contracts coming up soon, so the situation is right to unify these struggles. This could stop the Lula government from going further with the neo-liberal policy imposed by the IMF and create the conditions to build a left political alternative to the leadership of the PT and the government.

There will be another demo in Brasília on August 19 organized by the civil servants unions coordinating committee. It will probably be larger than the previous demos because more state-level civil servants are likely to join the struggle.

Build a left alternative

The profound right turn of the PT, the possible expulsion of the ’radicals’, the hesitancy of sections of the PT lefts, splits, reorganization and realignments involving practically all the left tendencies – all this poses the possibility of building a new left party in Brazil.

The debate on the way forward and the tasks of the left will now involve all members of the PT and activists in the social movements.

They are all discussing whether it is still possible to fight inside the PT and win it over to a consistent left position. The same applies to the Lula government.

In this situation, members of SR, the Brazilian section of CIO/CWI, have been firmly supporting the strike of the federal civil servants. By strengthening and unifying these struggles, we work to create the bases for a fight against the right-wing policies of the PT leadership. We have supported the movement and won new members among federal civil servants. Our comrades working in the civil servant unions and at universities are working to support the struggle of the federal civil servants.

We are against the hesitation of leading sections of the PT lefts, but also against the sterile sectarianism of some sections of the left outside the PT. SR defends unity of the left (inside and outside the PT) on the basis of an anti-capitalist and socialist program.

There is a real struggle between the classes going on inside the PT. The working class rank and file of the PT and the PT’s basis of support in society will not continue to support an openly right-wing leadership applying IMF policies. So building a left political alternative is crucial.

The real struggle is for the consciousness of millions of workers who still have illusions in the PT and Lula. We must mobilize, educate and organize the most advanced layers of worker and youth to enable them to dialogue and win over the other sections – the majority- who have yet to draw conclusions from their experience of the PT.

At the same time, any hesitation would mean that an entire generation would be lost and demoralized by the role the government Lula is now playing.

Even if Lula, in the future, faced with deep economic crisis and a generalized wave of struggles, is eventually forced to adopt polices that do not satisfy the IMF (after all, even the bourgeois Kirchner government in Argentina is clashing with IMF policy), the task of building a consistent left alternative will still be posed, and this is what SR is working for.

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August 2003