Connecting Brazil’s historical labour relations to the international Global Labour History debate
Brazil, Latin America’s largest country in size and population, is known for its diversity in social and cultural matters. This also holds true for labour in both historical and current contexts. The country has witnessed a broad range of work experiences and labour relations, from plantation slavery and other forms of unfree labour, through “classical” industrial work to precarious, informal, or self-employed labour. In the last two decades, historians have started to systematically address this diversity, thus turning Brazilian labour history into an important reference point for the international debate about a renewal of labour and working-class history. In addition, historians from Brazil working on labour have broadened their conceptual scope by integrating issues of gender, race, and ethnicity.
Brazilian Labour History – New Perspectives in Global Context (published as Special Issue 25 of the International Review of Social History) not only showcases Brazilian labour history, but also actively engages with current debates in Global Labour History. The nine articles assembled in this Special Issue offer a rich sample of the current state of the field in Brazil. They form the most comprehensive compilation on Brazilian labour history ever published in English.
The Special Issue encompasses a wide geographical scope, with studies ranging from the Amazon region to the extreme South, through the Northeast and the central areas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The contributions express the recent trend for integrating labour histories from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, covering a broad array of types of workers: slaves, maids, prostitutes, industrial workers, rural workers, etc. The volume also presents a renewed historiography of movements and organizations, offering insights into workers’ collective actions and everyday life experiences, as well as into workers’ relations with institutions, the state, and politics. The topics explored by the authors resonate with core debates in Global Labour History, such as free and unfree labour; labour in “frontier” environments; transnational circulation of militants and ideas; gender, race and class; labour laws and the state; labour and space; populism, patronage, and workers; labour movement in an international perspective; and experiences of labour under dictatorships.
Scholarly interest in labour history in Brazil is thriving. The development of labour history in Brazil, as in other countries, is interconnected with major political conjunctures, economic transformations, changes in the composition of the working class, and the collective presence of workers as social and political actors (as well as shifts in the intellectual perception of this presence). Recently, an important milestone has been the emergence of “new unionism” in the late 1970s: as a political development it marked the starting point of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). This ultimately led to Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva becoming the country’s president. Among historians, it inspired a turn to a working-class history from “below”, stressing the agency of workers to act and organize independently.
In the same period, the established field of the history of slavery engaged in a dialogue with this new historiography on industrial workers. This led to an intellectual tradition that emphasized the need to study and analyse the history and experiences of slaves and “double-free” wage workers as part of the same historical process. It not only rejected the artificial boundaries and chronologies that divided the academic fields, but also envisioned an enlarged conception of “work” and “workers”.
More recently, the presidencies of “Lula” and Dilma Rousseff (2003–2016), one of the main protagonists of Latin America’s early twenty-first-century “red tide”, have provided a political context in which a broadened labour history became intellectually vibrant and closely connected to wider public debates about such central issues as the legacy of slavery and racism; the ongoing presence of unfree labour; the (often unpaid) work of women; and the plight of rural workers. It remains to be seen what the latest political developments around the impeachment of President Rousseff (considered by many observers as a judiciary-parliamentary coup) will mean for this new Brazilian labour history. These topical issues and the larger historiographical context are comprehensively covered in the Introduction to the Special Issue.
About the author:
Dr David Mayer is currently a research fellow at re:work, an International Research Center about “Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History” at Humboldt University (Berlin). He also acts as associate editor of the International Review of Social History.
Main image credit: Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo. Fundo Última Hora. Used by permission.