How Lula's imprisonment is uniting workers in Brazil

Michael Fox reports on the growing mobilization of workers against austerity, privatization and repression in Brazil

Thousands rally on Workers' Day in Curitiba, just a few blocks from where former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is imprisoned.
Photo: Michael Fox

This Workers’ Day in Brazil was like no other.

Thousands traveled from across the country, not to Sao Paulo, or Rio de Janeiro, or Brasilia – although events were also held there – but to the mid-sized city of Curitiba, in Southern Brazil.

They came in caravans of buses, riding overnight for 4, 8, 12, or even 24 hours.

It was the first time that all seven of Brazil's major union confederations had united for Workers’ Day since the fall of the country's military dictatorship in 1985.

‘This May 1st is historic,’ Raimundo Bonfim, the head of the Union of Popular Movements, told a sea of red and white – Lula’s face adorning many of the shirts in the crowd. ‘It unites not just the central labor unions, but also the two [social movement] fronts, the Popular Brasil Front, and the People Without Front, in working class unity never before seen in the history of the country.’

A crowd attends commemorations that brought together all seven of Brazil's trade union federations for the first time for Workers' Day.
Photo: Michael Fox

The groups are clear about their single common goal: Freeing Lula.

For the last month, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been serving time in a federal prison in Curitiba.

In a controversial trial and appeal, judges convicted him of corruption, for allegedly accepting a beach-side apartment from a company seeking government contracts. He was sentenced to 12 years.

But Lula and Brazilian workers say he’s innocent. And the thousands that travelled shouted it loud and clear, throughout the day.

Eliana Rocha is one of them. She’s a 62-year-old mother of two who is doing her PHD in public policy at the Rio de Janeiro State University. She journeyed by bus from Rio with dozens of companions.

‘I am here against this absurd decision by those behind the coup to jail the country’s most important leader. He’s innocent. That’s why everyone is here, to say that his imprisonment is unjust,’ she told New Internationalist.

Lula’s supporters – and roughly half the country, according to recent polls – believe his imprisonment is just a ruse to knock him out of the running for this year’s presidential elections. Despite prison, Lula is still well ahead in the polls.

Since Lula’s jailing, hundreds have participated in an around-the-clock vigil just down the street from the prison where he is being held. Activities, speeches, performances, and workshops are on-going throughout the day.

With supporters from around the country, the crowd swelled on Workers' Day into the thousands.

‘Good Morning, Lula,’ they shouted, at 9am, hoping the former president would hear them in his cell, just two blocks away.

Katia Garcia holds out a cage. Inside is justice and red paint, symbolizing Marielle Franco's blood. Garcia — who teaches geography and history to convicts in Brasilia — travelled across the country for the Workers' Day celebrations in Curitiba. Photo: Michael Fox

Most of Lula’s supporters at the vigil camp less than a kilometer away, at an area they’ve named Marisa Leticia Encampment, in honor of Lula’s late wife. It is a sea of tents, sleeping bags and black plastic tarps, tucked onto a piece of land just back from the road and beneath rows of tall trees. Food is cooked communally. Decisions are made collectively. Ahead of Workers’ Day, camp residents readied an adjacent plot to make room for the hundreds of arrivals, who would be staying there – like Katia Garcia.

She arrived the day before Workers’ Day. She traveled 23 hours from Brasilia, where she teaches history and geography to convicts. She said she cried when she saw the prison where Lula is being held, because she knows the conditions inside.

‘Since Michel Temer came into power, he has been rolling back all of our rights. Each day they are ripping up another page of the Constitution,’ she told New Internationalist. ‘We know that the more you take away Brazilian citizen’s rights, more people will end up in jail. We have a prison population in Brazil of more than 600,000 people. Many of them are in jail, because the benefits of the state did not reach them. Democracy is the constitutional right of the whole country. So we have to fight for it.’

Workers have taken a beating under president Michel Temer, who rose to power after the impeachment of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Last year, congress passed a law that facilitated the outsourcing of jobs, and a new labor reform, gutting workers’ rights, and opening the door to side-step unions. If he’s free, Lula, they hope, could turn the tide.

‘At this moment we can see that the coup was not against president Dilma Rousseff, it was against the workers, and it unified all of the workers under the goal of looking to defend Lula and revert this reality, which is disastrous for the working class,’ said José Jorge Maggio, the president of the Union of ABC Professors, in Sao Paulo.

‘Democracy is the constitutional right of the whole country. So we have to fight for it’

A few people throughout the day even drew parallels to the Haymarket struggle that birthed the first May Day in 1886.

‘The reduction of the work day was an historic moment, then, even though seven companions were jailed and sentenced to death. Today, they have convicted our most important leader. It’s the same story. The same narrative,’ said the Florianopolis Workers’ Party President Carlos Eduardo de Souza. ‘Lula has become a martyr in Brazil and this will have an impact on the workers’ struggle.’


The official Workers’ Day event began in the afternoon, in downtown Curitiba, amid a packed Santos Andrade square, beneath towering araucaria trees. Supporters sat talking on the grass or chanted endlessly on the steps of the Paraná University building. There was a carnival feel, with street vendors hawking Lula t-shirts and rainbow flags. The smell of hot dogs, skewered meat and fried Brazilian empanadas, called pasteis, danced on the air. Singers – including samba legend Beth Carvalho – performed for the crowd, which seemed to grow throughout the day, like a rising tide.

Less than a year before, social movements, workers, and leftist parties had also rallied in the same square in defense of Lula, when he first appeared to testify in his corruption case, before judge Sergio Moro. No one imagined that less than a year later, he would be jailed and his chances of running for the presidency seriously in question. (According to Brazil clean slate rules, Brazilians convicted of corruption and other crimes are barred from holding office for eight years.)

Lula supporters rally in Santos Andrade square during Workers' Day celebrations in Curitiba, Brazil.
Photo: Michael Fox

On stage, union leaders stood beside each other. Lula’s imprisonment has paradoxically united the country’s left in a way that has not been seen in decades. Unions. Social movements. Leftist parties.

But unity is not always easy. Representatives from the 27-year-old central labor union Força Sindical – which represents roughly 10 million workers – also called for Lula’s release. Their participation in the event was applauded by other leaders on stage, but they were heckled by the crowd for their willingness to negotiate with the Temer government in recent years.

But this may be a turning point. As many pointed out during their speeches, at stake, is nothing less than the fate of Brazilian democracy.

‘This May 1st, is for the workers’ struggle,’ Guilherme Boulos – PSOL pre-presidential candidate and the head of the Homeless Workers’ Union – told the crowd. ‘But it is also the fight for the country’s democracy. A democracy that is being wounded each day.’

‘They killed Marielle. And they locked up Lula, but we are here to say that Marielle lives. Lula lives. Long live democracy’

For most of the crowd, Lula is a political prisoner. They hold signs reading ‘Elections without Lula is fraud.’ His imprisonment, they say, is the extension of the 2016 coup against president Rousseff.

Under the Temer government, the country has also seen a dramatic rise of the right, hate groups, and violence. The killing of campesinos in the countryside is at a 14-year high. Afro-religious churches in Rio have been assaulted. During a speaking tour just before he was jailed, shots were fired at Lula’s caravan. Less than a week ago, the pro-Lula camp in Curitiba was attacked by a gunman. Two people were injured. One of them hospitalized.

The bullets were found to come from police stocks, just like those used in the assassination of Marielle Franco – the Black LGBT councilwoman from Rio, whose killing sparked international outrage in March. The calls for justice for both Marielle and Lula rang out from the stage.

A banner down the block from the pro-Lula vigil reads: ‘Marielle, Present - Her fight, is our fight.’
Photo: Michael Fox

‘They killed Marielle. And they locked up Lula, but we are here to say that Marielle lives. Lula lives. Long live democracy. The struggle continues,’ said Olivia Santana, a long-time leader in the Black Movement, who spoke on behalf of the Union of Brazilian Women.

The significance of the union of these two issues: Marielle and Lula, is not lost on those in the crowd, who are clear that their very existence depends on their ability to undo the relentless austerity, privatization, and roll back of rights that has been ushered in under Temer. One thing is clear. The organized left is more united than ever. The question is if it will be enough to turn the tide.

The months leading up to the October election will likely define Brazil for the coming years. If Lula is allowed to run, it will only be because of the unity and organizing happening today in Curitiba and across the country.

Michael Fox is an independent multimedia journalist based in Brazil and a former editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas. More of his work can be found at his website:

The October 2017 edition of New Internationalist magazine takes a special look at Brazil’s soft coup