In late 1969 I was travelling across Latin America, doing a questionnaire on wages, benefits and working conditions in the auto industry. I was hosted by the national metalworkers's unions in every country but Paraguay. I met with the workers, gave a speech on the hazards of the multinational corporations, transfer pricing and dealing with unionism under military governments. Then I did my interviews for the questionnaire which would be collated and evaluated by the new IBM computer the UAW bought at Solidarity House in Detroit. It was an amazing and educating experience.
I was accompanied by the local metalworker leadership, the national metalworker leadership and two Latin American specialists from the International Metalworkers Federation in Geneva. In each venue, the local unionists had assembled groups of 25-30 autoworkers from different sections of the production process to fill in my questionnaire, after we adressed them and explained who we were and why we were doing this. They asked many questions and I, and the others, tried to answer them.
In a meeting room, near a wonderful outdoor steak restaurant, in São Bernardo do Campo near São Paulo we met with a group of shop stewards from the auto plant. They listened to us and then started to ask questions. Many asked about what was happening in other auto plants in Latin America; whether there was profit-sharing; how was overtime remunerated; health care provisions, etc. However, there was one shop steward who was particularly outspoken. His questions were about the union bureaucracy; why the union wasn't fighting for additional parking places for the workers near the plant; how the union chose who could go the union's recreational centre; why the leadership travelled overseas so often. I couldn't answer these questions and the local unionists were embarassed by the need to answer his queries. We continued and finished the questions on the questionnaire.
After the workers left we had a discussion about the meeting. The local union guy apologised for the harsh questioning we overheard. I told him that this was very interesting. I strongly advised that the recalcitrant steward be hired out of the plant and made a union official. I could see he was not only clever, but brave enough to speak up when he had a chance. The union needed people like that. As Lyndon Johnson made it clear "It would be better having him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in". They asked how they could hire such an agitator. and unconventional shop steward onto the staff. I pressed my point but didn't insist. We left the next day to Buenos Aires to continue our research for the questionnaire.
Two days later, we were leaving Argentina for Chile when my good friend Dirck Henry Kloosterman, the head of SMATA (the Argentine metalworkers) took me aside and said he was told by the IMF Regional office that the Brazilians had hired the shop steward I had picked out to be a member of the union staff. They also said that if he screwed up they would hold me and the American companeros, personally to blame.
I was pleased to watch the career of that shop steward scale the heights of political power. It was with immense pleasure that I heard the news yesterday that he, Lula, had been chosen to run for the Presidency again. I reflected on the phrase he always used and which became a watchcry for many Brazilian workers. They would shout it at all the politicians when they justified their acts. The workers would shout "Fala tudo!" ("tell it all"). Perhaps it is time to address Bolsonaro with the same demand and to vote for Lula.