Brazilian Union Assists in Land Takeovers, Showing Power of a Good Example

As the U.S. Social Forum approaches, here in Detroit, we at Labor Notes have been talking a lot about how unions can work with other movements to pursue common goals. Uniting different movements is what the Social Forum is all about. One recent example comes from California, where an SEIU local worked with environmentalists and won two victories over an oil refiner trying to process dirtier crude. (The story’s not yet available online—subscribe today to have that issue sent to your doorstep.)

In Brazil last week, I was lucky to meet activists from another terrific example: a metalworkers union, whose members are pretty high paid by Brazilian standards, who helped organize a movement of poor people to take over vacant land and build houses for themselves.

The new community is called Pinheirinho—Little Pinery—for the pine trees that grow there. There are now 2,800 families living there, each with a small yard and a house, usually brick.

I met with the executive board of the metalworkers union, which represent 40,000 workers in many plants in the Sao Jose dos Campos region, east of Sao Paulo. (One of the biggest is General Motors, with 8,700 workers and three assembly plants.) Some years ago in the area, there was a small movement of people, about 50 families, who’d occupied some land nearby. They’d had several confrontations with the police. The union chose one leader to take lost time and work full time with these folks. Other current and former leaders—including one former local president who’d gone on to become a labor lawyer—also spent many hours sharing their organizing skills.

In 2004, this group waited till the police were busy downtown with Carnaval, Brazil’s Mardi Gras. They brought tents and took over a big vacant piece of land next to a highway, owned by a millionaire, who was letting it sit idle, hoping to speculate on it.

And slowly, they built houses. They “borrowed” electricity and water from the utility companies. And a few weeks ago they won a court ruling: electricity and water are basic human rights. The companies may not shut them off. Earlier, they’d won a court ruling legalizing their settlement. Each house has an address, like Street 9, Area B, #2.

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Pinheirinho is self-governing, and the residents have created many rules. Parents are required to see that their children go to school, and I saw many mothers walking their kids home. Drugs are not allowed. If a man beats his wife, he’s thrown out. If she asks that he come back, OK, but if it happens again, the whole family must leave.

A majority of the families are headed by women, who go outside Pinheirinho to work as domestics or perhaps collecting plastic to recycle. People are still poor, no question—but their situation is so much better than before.

The residents have weekly meetings on Tuesdays by sector (about 100 families), and on Saturday a meeting of the whole. They crowd into a meeting space furnished with old sofas and chairs, dimly lit. Introduced as an American journalist, I asked what their living conditions had been like before. Each told of situations like the whole family living in one or two rooms. I asked what their greatest victories were. A man said, “The houses, the water, the light.” A woman said, “Our consciousness.” They don’t take money from non-profit social service groups—the leaders believe this would turn them into charity cases and prefer to see people making their own decisions.

The Pinheirinho people are part of the Movement for Urban Housing (literally, Urban Movement of those without Roofs). People were careful to explain that their movement is not of the “homeless” in the sense we use the term in the U.S.; they think of people begging in the streets. The housing organization is part of a union federation, CONLUTAS, that represents 2 million people and includes not just unions but other “popular” organizations.

It was inspiring to meet people who had literally created something from nothing. In the U.S., I told them, more and more people are losing their homes and we have many vacant houses, but people seldom take them over. Why not?

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.