May Day, also called Labor Day, is a Brazilian national holiday. Since the Second International adopted May 1st as Labor Day, in support of Chicago’s labor unions struggle for the 8 hour day in 1886, the day had become a sensitive topic for many western governments by the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – agitation and labor activism built around the date.
The first politically convenient means of ending labor organizing was suppression, and it was also used against May Day. However, given the nature of politics, a second strategic step was taken to seize the date and co-opt unions, putting labor under state tutelage. “If you cannot win, join them,” but the state has to have the final say in labor organizations.
In Brazil, it was not different. During his first administration (1930-1945), in particular during the New State dictatorship (1937-1945), Getúlio Vargas tried to win over support from industrial workers in the country. He created the Labor Justice on May 1st, 1939, to take care of legal disputes arising from the new labor legislation implemented since the early 1930s. He announced the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT) on May 1, 1943, which are still in effect as the main regulating code for workers in the country.
Can you see how May 1st had its meaning changed under Getúlio? The New State was able to take control of the spontaneous manifestation of the people in favor of better working conditions and transformed it in a symbol of the repressive, bureaucratic and centralizing state.
What would the Haymarket anarchists think of it, after knowing that a dictator was able to seize their memory and use it to impose labor regulations carbon copied from Carta del Lavoro, the fascistic, corporate bill imposed by Mussolini’s regime in Italy?
It is important to remember two things about that time in Brazil. First, the bureaucratic-managerial economic system, as an alternative both to classical liberalism and to state socialism, was mostly well accepted in the world and that it was nothing but the Nazi or fascist regime. An economy controlled by state corporations, without state property of the means of production.
Getúlio Vargas was firmly in line with that. One thing that was required by that form of economic organization, opposed both to the “anarchy of the market” as well as to “communistic subversion”, was the control of spontaneous movements by workers. Unions had to be closely supervised, controlled, regulated, bureaucratized, and allied with the government. The natural path was the creation of union monopolies in Brazil: only one labor union is allowed to represent a class in a given territory, which in legal jargon is called “syndicalist unity”. Today, every worker, be they members of a union or not, has to pay a state tax directed to the union monopolies, something called the “union contribution”. What would the Haymarket anarchists think about unions that extort workers?
Second, the political capture and centralized re-purposing of people’s movements were all too widespread under Getúlio Vargas. Carnival itself, which used to be celebrated in a freer and more anarchic way, was transformed and became similar to a military parade. To this day, that is the format of Rio’s “samba schools parade”. Ângela Castro Gomes shows that the New State adopted a cultural policy of highlighting certain African-Brazilian and popular manifestations at the same time as it deprived them of spontaneity and self-affirmation:
Many recent researches have paved the way to think about how much recreational, sports, carnival and dancing associations by the poor and black urban populations, especially in the capital, were able to legitimize themselves in the First Republic, after attempting to and succeeding in getting permits and having their rights respected by republican institutions, city authorities and policemen. That was well before the 1920s! Amidst the daily police prosecutions – also very common after the 1930s – carnival groups imposed to the cities their forms of socializing and celebrating carnival. On the other hand, even though cultural and political branches of the New State valued black and popular cultural expressions, their choice of what characterized the true popular and national was nothing but discretionary and involved a good deal of prosecution and censorship against the candomblés, popular leisure organizations and samba lyrics.
The Brazilian Labor Day, under this legitimizing view that links the CLT to monopoly unions, is not even a holiday for all the working class, since we cannot even say that labor regulations and unions benefit all Brazilian workers. More than 40% of them work “informally” and as street peddlers, because of labor laws themselves. If labor regulation benefits do not even help all formal workers, and some even hurt them (such as forced savings by FGTS, returning lower than market interest), for the informal worker, they matter even less.
For that share of the labor force, the labor benefits celebrated by the government mean nothing. Street vendors, for instance, are regularly chased off by the police, under various justifications, that range from not having permits to their revoking without warning. May 1st is but a slow day in which nothing is really worth selling on the streets, in an informal economy that, annually, moves hundreds of billions of dollars, and does so by getting around the state.
The state does not represent workers. The state has weakened the workers’ cause and transformed their free organizations in branches of the government. It is time we took back May Day.
Translated from Portuguese into English by Erick Vasconcelos.