August 21, 2007 at 11:42 am

Labor leader's spirit of cooperation gets job done

Brazilian union chief abandons confrontation, works with Ford, GM.

S├O BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil -- If the South American labor movement has a face, it is JosÚ Lopez Feijˇo's.

Feijˇo is the president of the Sindicato dos Metal˙rgicos do ABC, the main autoworkers union in Brazil, as well as the executive director of the Central ┌nica dos Trabalhadores, the Brazilian equivalent of the AFL-CIO.

Sporting a leather jacket and a Castro-esque beard, he is a labor militant who has spent his life fighting to improve the lot of autoworkers throughout South America. He also has helped lead a quiet revolution within his own union, overturning the confrontational culture of the past and establishing a new spirit of cooperation with Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. that has been key to their success in the region.

While there are important differences between the situation facing autoworkers here and in the United States, his story nonetheless shows what can be accomplished when autoworkers and automakers put their differences aside and work to ensure that both have a future.

From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, trade unions were effectively banned under Brazil's long military dictatorship. "The repression was very hard," recalled Feijˇo, pronounced "fe-zhoh." "It was not uncommon for union leaders to be arrested inside the plants. A lot of companies were complicit in this repression."

He and other autoworkers defied the dictatorship to organize Brazil's first unions, starting with a Ford factory here, SŃo Bernardo Assembly. Feijˇo lost his job in the process and was banned from Ford property.

The labor movement flowered after Brazil returned to democracy in 1986, but tensions between the union and automakers remained. Ford did not formally recognize the union until 1989. It took three more years for Feijˇo to get his job back. By then, the Brazilian automotive industry was in a steep decline. The union sent a delegation to Detroit to ask for job guarantees from Ford and GM, but times were hard there, too.

Faced with stark realities, the union proposed a new alliance that would bring together representatives from labor, government, the automakers and their suppliers. Together they negotiated a landmark agreement that transformed Brazil's auto industry. The automakers agreed to build smaller, more affordable models; the union agreed to temporary wage cuts to make sure the companies were profitable.

The plan worked, but as more automakers entered the Brazilian market, established companies like Ford found it harder to compete. By 2001, rumors of an imminent Ford pullout were rampant.

Feijˇo made his own pilgrimage to Ford's Dearborn headquarters. He negotiated a five-year deal that allowed Ford to eliminate several hundred jobs and consolidate two factories in exchange for guarantees for workers who remained. The union also dropped its opposition to Ford's plan for a new factory in the state of Bahia in which suppliers would run their own assembly lines alongside Ford's.

The president of Ford's Brazilian operations, Marcos Oliveira , said the union's help was instrumental in turning Ford's operations in the country around. "(Feijˇo) faced the same reality that we faced as a company. It was a matter of survival. We all had to do our part."

Feijˇo's strategy seems to be paying off.

Ford will soon unveil a new product for the SŃo Bernardo plant that will help guarantee jobs for existing employees and likely allow the company to rehire some of those who lost theirs during the last consolidation.

Autoworkers make good wages in Brazil. They average $1,200 a month in a country where the minimum wage is just $200.

"For me, it's excellent work," said Newton Dos Santos, a spot welder with 13 years at SŃo Bernardo.

Guaranteeing that work continues is more important to Feijˇo than worrying about Ford's previous collaboration with the dictatorship or his long exile from the company. "In the military period, there was no other way but confrontation. Now, having a government that opens the door to negotiations, we do not have any alternative but to negotiate."

"The repression was very hard. It was not uncommon for union leaders to be ...