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When the Plumber(s) Come to Fix a Country: Doing Labor History in Brazil

  • John D. French (a1) and Alexandre Fortes (a2)


Those with a sharp tongue might say that labor historians in contemporary Brazil operate in the shadows or, to be more accurate, the shadow cast by the success of Latin America's most famous trade unionist, who served as president from 2002–2010. The field's growth in the number and quality of practitioners, as well as the breadth of their ambitions, cannot be separated from the memorable metalworkers' strikes of 1979 and 1980, the subsequent defeat of the military dictatorship in 1985, and the construction of a militant trade unionism and the radical Workers' Party that ran Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for president in five successive elections between 1989 and 2006.



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2. Anderson, Perry, “Lula's Brazil,” London Review of Books 33 (2011): 312 ; French, John D. and Fortes, Alexandre, “Nurturing Hope, Deepening Democracy, and Combating Inequalities in Brazil: Lula, the Workers' Party, and Dilma Rousseff's 2010 Election as President,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 9 (2012): 728 .

4. Erickson, Kenneth Paul, Peppe, Patrick, and Spalding, Hobart, “Research on the Urban Working Class and Organized Labor in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile: What is Left to be Done?Latin American Research Review 9 (1974): 115–42.

5. da Costa, Emília Viotti, “Experience versus Structures: New Tendencies in the History of Labor and the Working Class in Latin America—What Do We Gain? What Do We Lose?International Labor and Working Class History 36 (1989): 324 .

6. French, John D., “The Latin American Labor Studies Boom,” International Review of Social History 45 (2000): 279310 ; French, John D., “The Laboring and Middle-Class Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean: Historical Trajectories and New Research Directions” in Global Labour History: A State of the Art, ed. Lucassen, J. (Bern, 2006), 289333 (available at

7. Erickson, Peppe, and Spalding, “Research on the Urban Working Class,” 129–30.

8. Bergquist, Charles, “Latin American Labor History in Comparative Perspective: Notes on the Insidiousness of Cultural Imperialism,” Labour/Le Travail 25 (1990): 189–98.

9. Costa, “Experience”: 9, 12.

10. Ibid., 9, 7.

11. Ibid., 16–7.

12. Weinstein, Barbara, “The New Latin American Labor History: What We Gain,” International Labor and Working-Class History 36 (1989): 2530 .

13. French, John D. and James, Daniel, The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers: From Household and Factory to the Union Hall and Ballot Box (Durham, 1997); Klubock, Thomas Miller, Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile's El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904–1951 (Durham, 1998); Farnsworth-Alvear, Ann, Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia's Industrial Experiment, 1905–1960 (Durham, 2000); Tinsman, Heidi, Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950–1973 (Durham, 2002); James, Daniel, “Diálogos: La Clase Obrera y la Clase Intelectual (Entrevista realizada por Horacio González, Maria Pia López, Esteban Verniki, Christian Ferrer, Guillermo Korn, Sebastián Carassi),” El Ojo Mocho: Revista de Critica Cultura (2008): 1129 ; and others.

14. Womack, John, “Doing Labor History: Feelings, Work, Material Power,” Journal of The Historical Society, 5 (2005): 255–96; French, John D. and James, Daniel, “The Travails of Doing Labor History: The Restless Wanderings of John Womack Jr,” Labor 4 (2007): 95116 ; Brennan, James P., “Latin American Labor History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Latin American History, ed. Moya, José C. (Oxford, 2011), 342–66.

15. García-Bryce, Iñigo, “From Artisan to Worker: The Language of Class during the Age of Liberalism in Peru, 1858–79,” Social History 30 (2005): 463–80.

16. O'Donnell, Guillermo A., “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (1994): 5569 offers a provocative theorization of this “type of existing democracies” as it emerged after the end of authoritarian rule in, but not limited to, Latin America. The installation of a democratically-elected government, he insisted, merely opens the way to a second transition to an “institutionalized, consolidated democratic regime,” which is not necessarily inevitable. Emerging in the context of the region's “deep social and economic crisis,” delegative democracies were a type of hyperpresidentialism, marked by a “curious blend of organicistic and technochratic conceptions” where horizontal accountability was “extremely weak or nonexistent” (55–56, 59, 61). His examples included some of the key episodes linked to the implantation of neoliberal reforms and the Washington consensus in postdictatorial Latin America.

17. Winn, Peter, Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1972–2002 (Durham, 2004).

18. Archila, Mauricio, “Latin American Social Movements at the Start of the Twenty-first Century: A Colombian Case Study,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 8 (2011): 5775 .

19. Reis, João José and Klein, Herbert S., “Slavery in Brazil,” in Latin American Historiography, ed. Moya, José C. (New York, 2011), 181211 .

20. Ibid., 182–3.

21. Costa, “Experience,” 12. These interrelated and poorly understood conundrums stood at the center of da Costa's 1994 masterful study of an 1823 rebellion among missionized slaves in Guyana [ da Costa, Emília Viotti, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York, 1994)]. The book combined structure, the dynamics and plurality of group (trans)formation, and an exquisite attention to individual subjectivity, including the missionary who dies in prison allegedly responsible for the revolt led by his congregation. Moreover, she executed a superb intraimperial and transatlantic analysis and narrative long before transnationalism had become a buzzword. And finally, she sketched the successful (mis)communication between the white missionary and his African-born or first generation slave congregants in this colony, recently conquered from the Dutch, while encompassing their masters and rulers within the analysis. See her plea to avoid false dichotomies in New Publics, New Politics, New Histories: From Economic Reductionism to Cultural Reductionism—In Search of Dialectics,” in Reclaiming the Political in Latin American History: Essays from the North, ed. Joseph, Gilbert M. (Durham, 2001), 1731 .

22. James, Daniel, “O Que Há de Novo, O Que Há de Velho? Os Parâmetros Emergentes da História do Trabalho Latino-Americano,” in Trabalho, Cultura e Cidadania: Um Balanço da História Social Brasileira, ed. Araújo, Angela M. C. (São Paulo, 1997), 117–45.

23. Batalha, Cláudio, “A Historiografia da Classe Operária no Brasil: Trajetória e Tendências,” in Historiografia Brasileira em Perspectiva, ed. de Freitas, Marcos Cezar (São Paulo, 1998), 145–58.

24. van der Linden, Marcel, “História do Trabalho: o velho, o novo e o global,” Revista Mundos do Trabalho 1 (2009): 1126 .

25. The classic role of workers' and socialist and communist movements in the various waves through which democratic rights were conquered in Europe was taken up in Eley, Geoff, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000 (Oxford/New York, 2002). His overall conclusion has direct relevance to the contemporary South American context: that democracy cannot be reduced to a set of institutional rules disassociated from the social and class struggles that give them substance.

26. For a recent example of Chalhoub's work, see Chalhoub, Sidney, “The Precariousness of Freedom in a Slave Society (Brazil in the Nineteenth Century),” International Review of Social History (2011): 135 .

27. For an update on archives on labor and social movements in Brazil, with a broader glance at Spain and Portugal and some other Latin American countries, see the volume that came from a conference cosponsored by the CEDOC, the archival section of the CUT labor confederation, and the Brazilian National Archive: Marques, José Antonio and Stampa, Inez Terezinha, eds., O Mundo dos Trabalhadores e Seus Arquivos (Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo, 2009).

28. Fortes, Alexandre, Fontes, Paulo, and Kornis, Mônica Almeida, Trabalho e Trabalhadores no Brasil (Work and Workers in Brazil) (Rio de Janeiro, 2006).

29. “Mostra em homenagem ao Dia do Trabalhador é vista por 250.000 pessoas,” Jan 10, 2007. ADITAL (Agência de Informação Frei Tito para América Latina), (accessed in March 26, 2012).

30. Lara, Silvia H., “Escravidão, Cidadania e História do Trabalho no Brasil,” Projeto História, 16 (1998): 3538 . Law has proven a wonderful avenue for advancing this unifying agenda from the colonial world to the twentieth century: Lara, Silvia H. and Mendonça, Joseli, eds. Direitos e Justiças no Brasil: Ensaios de História Social (Campinas, 2006).

31. Loner, Beatriz Ana, Construção de Classe: Operários de Pelotas e Rio Grande, 1888–1930 (Pelotas, 2001); do Nascimento, Alvaro Pereira, Cidadania, Cor e Disciplina Na Revolta dos Marinheiros de 1910 (Rio de Janeiro, 2008); Velasco e Cruz, Maria Cecília, “Puzzling Out Slave Origins in Rio de Janeiro Port Unionism: The 1906 Strike and the Sociedade de Resistência dos Trabalhadores em Trapiche e Café,” Hispanic American Historical Review 86 (2006): 205–45; Mattos, Marcelo Badaró, “Experiences in Common: Slavery and ‘Freedom' in the Process of Rio de Janeiro's Working-Class Formation (1850–1910),” International Review of Social History 55 (2010): 193213 .

32. Open access at (accessed September 12, 2012).

33. Popinigis, Fabiane, Proletários de Casaca: Trabalhadores do Comércio Carioca (1850–1911) (Campinas, 2007).

34. Schettini, Cristina, Que Tenhas teu Corpo: Uma História das Políticas da Prostituição no Rio de Janeiro das Primeiras Décadas Republicanas (Rio de Janeiro, 2006).

35. Schmidt, Benito B., Um socialista no Rio Grande do Sul: Antônio Guedes Coutinho (Porto Alegre, 2000).

36. Corrêa, Larissa R., A tessitura dos direitos: patrões e empregados na justiça do trabalho, 1953–1964 (São Paulo, 2011).

37. Fontes, Paulo, Um Nordeste em São Paulo: trabalhadores migrantes em São Miguel Paulista (1945–66) (Rio de Janeiro, 2008); Fortes, Alexandre, Nós do Quarto Distrito: A Classe Trabalhadora Porto-Alegrense e a Era Vargas (Rio de Janeiro/Caxias do Sul, 2004).

38. This statement is broadly true for the labor history elsewhere in Latin America as in the case of a recent prize-winning monograph by Pavilack, Jody, Mining for the Nation: The Politics of Chile's Coal Communities from the Popular Front to the Cold War (State College, 2011). Pavilack offers a compelling reinterpretation of the Chilean Popular Front by taking a bottom-up approach to the role of trade unions and the Communist Party in the country's coal mining region between 1938 and 1947. One might also cite the impressive recent study of the 1932 Communist uprising in El Salvador and its violent repression by Gould, Jeffrey L. and Lauria-Santiago, Aldo, To Rise in Darkness: Revolution, Repression, and Memory in El Salvador (Durham, 2008).

39. Brennan, “Latin American Labor History,” 343.

40. Ibid., 360.

41. Womack, “Doing Labor History”; Womack, John, “On Labor History, Material Relations, Labor Movements, and Strategic Positions: A Reply to French and James (as Nice and Civil as I Can Make It),” Labor 5 (2008): 117–23.

42. Brennan, “Latin American Labor History,” 360.

43. Ibid., 359–61, 342.

44. French, John D., “How the Not-So-Powerless Prevail: Industrial Labor Market Demand and the Contours of Militancy in Mid-Twentieth Century São Paulo, Brazil,” Hispanic American Historical Review 90 (2010): 109–42; Negro, Antonio Luigi, Linhas de Montagem: O Industrialismo Nacional-desenvolvimentista e a Sindicalização dos Trabalhadores, 1945–1978 (São Paulo, 2004); da Silva, Fernando Teixeira, Operários Sem Patrões: Os Trabalhadores da Cidade de Santos no Entreguerras (Campinas, 2003).

45. Rogers, Thomas, “Race, Respect, and Authority in Contemporary Brazil: Interpreting the Stories of Sugarcane Workers,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 8 (2011): 123

46. Archila, “Latin American Social Movements.”

47. Ibid., 65, 74, 71.


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