On October 10, 2019, then President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka left behind his Washington offices for the city of Curitiba, Brazil to show solidarity with his union colleague, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who at the time was serving the second year of a 12-year corruption conviction which was later overturned on both procedural and factual grounds.  After chatting with Lula for over an hour in the improvised cell he occupied in the Curitiba Federal Police building, Trumka headed over to the Lula Livre encampment across the street, where he led an impromptu rally with Lula supporters and human rights campaigners from across Brazil.

That striking image of US-Brazil labor solidarity is only one snapshot of a transnational union partnership which has proved to be long-lasting and institutional, yet adaptable.  New political, social and legal convergences have brought the labor movements of these two countries closer together over the past decade, as both are now contending with challenges to their representativeness and social legitimacy in times of extreme political polarization and growing labor precarity.

In a recent paper, I dissect three contemporary cases of US-Brazil union solidarity in an attempt not only to better understand the mutual survival strategies of these two embattled labor movements, but also to contribute to the conceptualization of global labor action, above and beyond the strategies of single-employer or sectoral transnational union networks that have been the focus of a substantial part of Global Labor Studies literature.

Together with my co-author, I postulate that the success of diverse forms of transnational labor action is often predicated on objective limits imposed by the overarching external economic and political context, which impacts on the correlation of forces between labor and capital.  At the same time, I also acknowledge that transnational solidarity is an important lifeline for unions confronting direct and indirect repression, that, in the best of cases, can translate into unexpected positive outcomes for workers and their organizations.

The first example involves the North American hospitality sector union UNITE HERE, which was interested in building global solidarity for workers trying to form a union at three Canadian hotels branded under the French multinational Accor. Due to the Brazilian tourism boom in the early 2010s, brought on by the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil as well as the generalized increase in purchasing power for leisure activities of the Brazilian working class, the country quickly transformed into one of Accor’s prime markets.

In 2012-2013, UNITE HERE worked with the Brazilian hospitality and service sector union confederation, CONTRACS, as well as other Brazilian hospitality sector unions, to successfully pressure Accor to recognize the right to freedom of association for the Canadian hotel workers.  Once this goal was reached, the Brazilians took advantage of technical and political assistance offered by UNITE HERE and the Global Union Federation IUF in order to engage Accor, at the time the largest transnational hotel brand in Brazil, in company-wide social dialogue, focused on improving the occupational health and safety of housekeepers. Despite a promising start, the Brazilian unions were not able to achieve their objective of a company-wide agreement, as the French multinational backed away from the bargaining table just when the Brazilian economy began to plummet, as the “boom” years of the Workers’ Party administrations came to a close in the mid-2010s.

However, this did not signal the end of the UNITE HERE – CONTRACS partnership, as they then decided to focus their energies on strengthening rank-and-file organizing among hotel housekeepers. Together, the unions designed and implemented training curricula with over 300 primarily Afro-Brazilian women workers across the country, resulting in more housekeepers joining CONTRACS-affiliated unions. In this way, the Brazilian unions were able to leverage a strategic partnership, built on non-transactional solidarity and fueled by mutual trust, in order to increase their representativeness and gender inclusivity.

The second case analyzed the relationship between US and Brazilian unions representing workers in the retail, food processing and meatpacking industries.  Since 2017, when the Brazilian Congress voted into law an ultra-neoliberal labor law reform which disfigured collective bargaining, introduced new forms of precarious contracting, and eliminated unions’ principal source of funding, Brazilian labor organizations have struggled to increase their membership and revenues.  Faced with this challenge, Brazilian unions in the food and retail sectors contacted their US counterparts to learn more about organizing under a legal situation analogous to “right to work.” US union leaders shared their expertise with the Brazilians through a series of high-level delegations and dense information exchanges.  In turn, Brazilian unions supported efforts to improve working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic at US meatpacking plants owned by the Brazilian conglomerate JBS, in this way creating another unexpected positive result engendered by non-transactional solidarity.

The third case study, alluded to at the beginning of this article, analyzed the participation of the US labor movement in the Lula Livre campaign after the conviction and imprisonment in April 2018 of the Brazilian labor and political leader Lula da Silva.  Despite the fact that a significant swathe of Democratic Party politicians and US-based human rights organizations were hesitant to back the campaign, the AFL-CIO and many of its affiliates embraced it wholeheartedly when called on to do so by their counterparts in the Brazilian labor movement. This support materialized not only because of the personal connections that Lula possessed with important US labor leaders, including Trumka, but primarily due to the understanding by US unionists that an attack of this nature on Lula was an attack on workers’ political power writ large.

The role played by the AFL-CIO in the campaign, which was essential in bolstering pro-Lula public opinion outside of Brazil and in galvanizing support for Lula’s freedom among members of the US Congress, also strengthened the ties between the US and Brazilian labor movements in general.  Even though the international solidarity campaign was not the only factor which helped secure Lula’s eventual release, it led to other unforeseen positive developments, such as the consolidation of a pro-Brazilian democracy lobby within the US Congress, which was instrumental in helping to diffuse potential and real coup attempts in the wake of the contentious 2022 Brazilian presidential elections.

In summary, the three case studies outlined in our paper document the possibilities and limitations of transnational solidarity networks, in their diverse shapes and forms.  In many cases, the functioning of these networks is complex and therefore cannot provide a “quick fix” to intransigent national-level labor problems.  Likewise, network strategies can be negatively impacted by unfavorable external political and economic conjectures. For this reason, transnational labor solidarity cannot substitute local or national union action but can be an important (and symbolic) complementary strategy, not only to achieve specific organizing or bargaining goals but also to help gestate larger pro-worker transformations in the labor movement and in society as a whole.  The hope and optimism generated by the annulment of Lula’s convictions, followed by his phoenix-like reelection to the Brazilian presidency in 2022, gives us a taste of what those pro-worker changes, fueled by labor solidarity, can look like.

Jana Silverman is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Center for Global Workers’ Rights, Penn State University, and a Research Fellow at the Washington Brazil Office (WBO)

To read more, see Jana Silverman and Stanley Gacek, “From Union Networks to Lula Livre: An Analysis of US – Brazil Trade Union Solidarity Movements in the 21st Century” in Journal of Labor and Society 2023.