“Radio PeÃ£o” – a set of codified rumours between workers – has been central to the continued paralysis in the construction of Brazil’s second biggest oil refinery. Almost the entire work force of 30,000 workers have walked out. This despite the continued repression on the part of the workers’ own syndicate, their employers and the military police that has so far led to the deaths of two.
The demands of the COMPERJ workers in Itaborai, Rio de Janeiro, include an increase in salary and food tickets, the fulfillment of housing already promised to workers, and holiday pay to visit their families. Most people are migrant workers from the North and North East of Brazil – a historic and constant journey made by those looking for work in the more industrialized south. This work is usually of a fixed period before workers travel elsewhere to find employment. What one worker described to me as the worst working conditions he has ever experienced, and the repression of workers’ resistance, has turned the strike into an ongoing rebellion at the refinery.
For the past two years work stoppages have been conducted intermittently. In the days before the “Dia Nacional de Luta and ParalisaçÃ£o” on 30th of August 2013, COMPERJ workers went on strike in solidarity with 300 workers at a nearby business, some of whom had not been paid. This built trust and confidence that a longer strike would be possible despite the violent responses of business and syndicate. The official syndicate is affiliated to the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores [CUT], the biggest central syndicate in Brazil. The CUT remain connected to the interests of the PT government, over those of workers.
Nationally Brazil has been experiencing a surge in resistance in the midst of a brutally hot and dry summer. Temperatures in Rio de Janeiro state often reached 45 – 50°C, and still people at COMPERJ were forced to continue their work in humiliating conditions. Some were fired for fainting on site. The first of the worksites to walk out did so in rage after an insect was found in the food. Company officials attempted to force their way into one construction site, and were fought off by workers wielding iron bars. The next day all entrances to the area were blocked. Some later took bars with them on marches to the city center in order to face the military police.
The strike committee set up by the workers went unrecognized by the official union, who sabotaged their assemblies, blocked their speakers from addressing workers and delivered death threats to several workers. In a spontaneous response at one assembly a car belonging to a syndicate official was set alight.
The committee worked with CSP-CONLUTAS, a central union that has formed as an alternative to the CUT and other central syndicates since 2010. It is one of several syndicates who broke with the CUT in order direct away from the PT’s hegemony.
“Radio PeÃ£o” became practically the only method of co-ordination between the 30,000 at COMPERJ. They also used Facebook and some distribution of pamphlets which was done in secret. With this fragile means of communication they faced a mafia syndicate. The strike committee held alternative assemblies that were sabotaged by syndicate officials. A gun was fired from an unmarked car that is believed to have belonged to the same officials. One worker died and another was injured. The death threats continued and another worker’s body was found dead near a place where pickets were held.
Then came news of the victory of the garis’ (street cleaners) victory in Rio de Janeiro city. The garis’ autonomous organization of their strike, also not recognized by their syndicate, won them a 40% salary increase amongst other gains. This has spurred on other striking workers within the state, such as at COMPERJ, health workers and university workers.
However the strike at COMPERJ was temporarily called off after forty days. Workers accepted a 9% pay increase. It had been hunger that defeated workers at COMPERJ, not the repression. Many felt the strike was exhausted, and needed food and their wages. It soon came to light that the businesses running COMPERJ had made no proposal to increase pay, as the syndicate had claimed. Many were dissatisfied with ending the strike in the days before. The kitchen staff, some of the only women working at the complex, expressed the need for resistance to continue. The anger was not far from the surface, and the strike has now been re-instated.