Brazil: air traffic controllers in struggle

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"We have reached the limits of human endurance, we are in no fit condition to maintain this service, which is of great importance to this country, given the way we are managed and treated. WE HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN OUR EQUIPMENT, OR IN THOSE WHO MANAGE US! We are working with rifles pointed at us.." This is how the air traffic controllers([1]) of Brasilia, Curitiba, Manaos and Salvador, dramatically expressed themselves in a Manifesto([2]), before paralysing the services from midday Friday 30 March, by calling a hunger strike and shutting themselves into their workplaces, in order to put pressure on the Aeronautical Command, the military organ responsible for air traffic control in Brazil. At 14.00, at the end of the morning shift at CINDACTA-1 (Centro Integrado de Defense Aérea y Control de Tráfico Aéreo) in Brasilia, which controls 80% of air traffic in the country and employs 120 controllers, the controllers decided to occupy their workplaces in order to continue their movement. Faced with the repressive measures of Aeronautical Command, which ordered the arrest of 16 controllers and threatened "to apply regulations" and imprison the "mutineers", at 18.50 the controllers decided to spread the movement to other control centres. This paralysed 49 of the 67 airports in the country. At 0.30 on Saturday 31st the strike was suspended, after the government revoked the orders to imprison the strikers and agreed to meet their demands; principally taking the air traffic control service out of military control.

Solidarity is the foundation of the struggle

Following the collision of two planes at Mato Grosso, in western central Brazil on 29 September, which left 154 dead, the controllers have carried out various "folded arms" actions against the accusations of the government and military authorities which tried to make them take the blame.

In their Manifesto, the workers defend themselves against these lies: "Six months after the collision there have been no positive signs about the difficulties faced by the air traffic controllers. On the contrary, they have got worse. As if these technical-work difficulties are not bad enough, we are also accused of being saboteurs, in order to try to cover up the faults in the management of the system...".

The strike expressed the air traffic controllers' indignation faced with the response of the government and the High Command; "the repression of the military high command against the Sergeant air traffic controllers has generated such a dissatisfaction that we are not going to remain silent faced with such injustice and the impunity of those truly responsible for this chaos".

This strike has exposed the hypocrisy of the whole of the Brazilian bourgeoisie and its involvement in the crisis of air transport: this applies to today's left 2government as well as to those of the right. They denounce the incapacity of the Lula government and its efforts to hide the long-term deterioration of the air traffic control system - which began before it came to power - and the uncontrollable growth of competition between the airlines, the policy of cutting costs, the over selling of tickets and the increase in the number of flights, leading to the air traffic control system working in extreme conditions. As for Lula he is also responsible, since he has not put in place the necessary operational measures that would benefit the whole of the system. Instead he has given priority to investing in the Grupo Transportes Especiales (GTE), which deals with the Presidential Airbus and flights for the highest reaches of the government, civil and military hierarchy.

The workers' action has put the cat amongst the pigeons. It has made public a situation that has been either hidden or distorted in order that workers in this sector, passengers and the general population did not know what was happening. In this way this strike, short but with a wide impact, is an expression of the air traffic controllers' solidarity with other workers of the sector and with the population which could be affected by air accidents. It shows that the proletariat, through its conscious, political and organised combats, has the capacity to carry out struggles against capital in favour of labour and the whole of society, that it has the means to overcome the impotence and frustration that the bourgeoisie condemns us to.

Government and unions surprised by workers' action

The government and unions were surprised and overwhelmed by these events. The aeronautics authorities believed that the controllers would back down faced with the threat of imprisonment and the application of military discipline. However, these measures only served to radicalise the movement. Faced with the radicalisation of a movement that could have had unpredictable consequences, Lula himself had to intervene (he was on his comfortable Airbus going to meet his colleague Bush), making full use of his past experience as the ‘social fireman' of the workers' struggles, an expertise eagerly gained as a union leader in the ABC of Sao Paulo. It was not because of his democratic credentials or being a ‘worker president' that Lula was able to force the High Command of the Brazilian Air force to negotiate with the strikers, but because of his profound experience as a trade unionist, that is as an agent of the capitalist state amongst the workers. He understood that the workers were determined to take the struggle to its ultimate consequences; that this expression of workers' anger could spread like wildfire. Thus it was vital to undermine this movement.

The unions and associations did nothing to sustain the struggling workers. The Sindicato Nacional dos Tabalhadores de Proteção ao Vôo (SNTPV) which organised the civilian controllers, was forced to publish the Manifesto on its website. It's President Jorge Botelho tried to divide the controllers by declaring that "the Manifesto has only been signed by the military controllers", therefore the civilian controllers joined the strike despite the opposition of the union. As for the other unions in this sector, controlled by the PT (Workers' Party), they were careful not to make any statements that could have made things difficult for their supreme leader on his trip to Washington.

The movement however did come up against illusions and traps. The Manifesto expressed certain illusions that the workers had about the government's ‘democratic opening' and ‘transparency': "Brazil is living through hitherto unknown moments of democracy and transparency with the recovery of ethical values and respect in public life". The workers are still dazzled by the Left's beautiful words. This is the Left of capital, and as such makes use of the hypocrisy of the capitalist class; as well as sustaining the political and ideological machinery of bourgeois democracy though which the bourgeoisie maintains the dictatorship of capital against labour.

Lost illusions

A few days after the strike, the government denied the validity of the agreement signed by its representatives and the strikers, which accepted their demands. In a furious press and public announcement President Lula accused the controllers of being "irresponsible" and "traitors" for not having shown respect for institutions and the military hierarchy: "People have to know that in a democratic regimen, it is fundamental to respect institutions and the hierarchy" (Folha Online, 5/4/07). This announcement opened the way to open repression, reinforcing the bourgeoisie's military's intentions to punish and incarcerate the most combative elements (those who at the beginning of the movement had reacted to the imprisoning of 18 controllers). The negotiations that Lula had demanded were only a ruse to exhaust the movement and win time.

We should not be in the least surprised because governments, whether of the right or left, along with the unions, are nothing but tools used by the bourgeoisie to serve the interests of the ruling class. The proletariat, in Brazil as well as elsewhere, have learnt to their cost that having trust in so-called civil liberties, the promises of the bosses and governments, allows the bourgeoisie not only to combat their struggles, and leaves them disarmed faced with the state's offensives and the whole panoply of repression, reprisals, lay-offs and violence.


The explosion of the controllers struggle has shown that neither bayonets nor the unions (whether controlled by the right or the left) can prevent proletarian struggle. This struggle demonstrated that if the left, under orders from Lula, has been able to contain the workers struggles, they have not disappeared. Despite the anti-working class actions of the PT and the CUT, the Brazilian proletariat is still alive and kicking. In this situation the labour ‘reforms' put forwards by the Lula government cannot fail to provoke reactions from the Brazilian proletariat[3].

In order to gain its real aims, the proletariat has to draw the lessons of its struggles, of the struggles of the whole class. It must criticise its illusions about the capacity of class society to offer a way out of the degradation of its living conditions The air traffic controllers strike has demonstrated that the strength of the proletariat is not only quantitative but also qualitative. The controllers, despite numbering no more than 3,000, have been able to confront the largest state in Latin America thanks to their high level of solidarity, to their organisation and their politicisation, and because they had the implicit support of important sectors of the working class. ICC 04/04/07



[1] The great majority of Brazilian air traffic are military personal with the rank of sergeant. Of 2289 controllers, only 154 are civilians.


[2] The complete text of the controllers manifesto can be read on the website of the "Sincicato Nacional dos Trabalhadores de Proteção ao Vôo" (SNTPV), which organises only the civilian air traffic controllers. The union, despite not offering support for the struggle, was forced to publish the manifesto due to the movement's strength.


[3] The government has ‘reformed' legislation in relation to labour and the unions, under the pretext of ‘jobs creation'. These ‘reforms' do nothing but make work more flexible, and increase the casualisation of the Brazilian proletariat in order to greatly benefit national capital.