The Unified Workers Confederation (CUT) is the biggest and most important union confederation in Brazil. During the 1980’s the private sector workers constituted the main economic category in CUT’s unionism. More recently, public sector workers have outnumbered private sector workers in CUT’s congresses and boards of directors.

This paper seeks to explain these changes in CUT’s unionism by examining the Confederation’s occupational profile at three different institutional levels: its rank and file, its congresses, and its boards of directors. This work demonstrates that the so-called expansion of CUT’s unionism in the service sector could be more precisely defined as expansion of CUT’s unionism among public employees within the service sector.



There is general agreement among Brazilian scholars on the increasing importance of service sector workers in the rank and file of the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT). However, there is little empirical data on the participation of these workers in CUT’s congresses and boards of directors.

The aim of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of CUT’s unionism by providing quantitative data on the Confederation’s social profile at three different institutional levels: its rank and file, its congresses, and its boards of directors (national and state level).

Current thinking on these issues points to an increasing participation of service sector workers in CUT’s unionism (Jácome Rodrigues, 1995; Nogueira, 1999; Cardoso, 2001). Most of these studies are based on aggregated data regarding CUT’s influence in three major economic sectors: rural, industrial, and service.

Our research challenges this conventional wisdom by conducting a desegregated analysis of CUT’s unionism by economic sector, in which public workers are separated from private workers. In doing so, this paper shows that the so-called “expansion” of CUT’s unionism in the service sector does not reveal the real growth trajectory of CUT during the last two decades. As we intend to demonstrate, public workers – not service sector workers – represent the predominant economic sector comprising CUT’s unionism.

The Expansion of Public Unionism at CUT

In 1997, in an article published in the weekly newsletter of the Workers Party (PT), João Felício – former president of the Teachers’ Union of São Paulo (APEOESP) – presented an optimistic view of CUT’s growth during the three years preceding its 6th National Congress:

Initially, it is important to emphasize the growth of CUT between its 5th and 6th National Congresses. We have had an increase of 27.0% in the number of union members, jumping from 2,009 unions in 1994 to 2,558 in 1997. The number of represented workers in our rank and file has grown 31.0%, jumping from 17.5 million to 19.5 million. Finally, the number of unionized workers has also increased from 4,103,824 (23.5% of rank and file) to 6,056,064 (31.0% of the rank and file).2

These numbers are truly significant, especially if one considers that over the last two decades, in most Western economies, union density has tended to stagnate or to decline (Cardoso, 2001; Locke, Kochan, and Piore, 1997; Martins Rodrigues, 1999; Jelle Visser, 1994). It is also worth noticing that this negative trend has been especially strong among private sector workers (Troy, 1994).

Nevertheless, in order to have a precise idea of CUT’s growth at the end of the 20th century, it is necessary to analyze carefully the set of data supplied by CUT’s ex-general secretary. It is particularly important to determine which activity sectors are most responsible for the growth of CUT’s unionism. In order to do so, this work compares data collected by Comin (1994), Jácome Rodrigues (1997), and Jard da Silva (2000).

According to Comin (1994, 384), in June 1993, there were 1,917 labor unions associated with CUT, with 857 (44.7%) from the service sector, 635 (33.1%) from the rural sector, and 420 (21.9%) from the industrial sector. In the same year, the service sector accounted for 55% of CUT’s unionized workers, the industrial sector accounted for 27%, and the rural sector accounted for 18% (Jácome Rodrigues, 1997).

Four years later, analyzing data from 1997, we found important differences related to CUT’s social composition according to sector of activity. Among the 2,453 unions associated with the Confederation, 1,117 (45.5%) were in the service sector, 874 (35.6%) were in the rural sector, and 462 (18.8%) were in the industrial sector.

According to this data, the rural sector and the service sector have been responsible for most of the growth in the number of unions associated with CUT in recent years. The rural sector grew 37.6%, and the service sector grew 30.3%. At the same time, the industrial sector grew by only 10%.3

The growth in the number of service sector affiliated unions has been just enough to maintain the relative weight of this sector at the Confederation. On the other hand, the increase in the number of associated unions from the rural sector has produced a striking imbalance in the relative clout of rural workers and industrial workers at CUT. Apparently, the former increased its relative weight at the expense of the latter:

Between 1993 and 1997, there was no significant change in the proportional weight of the service sector in CUT’s unionism, which continued to comprise about half of CUT’s unionized workers (Figure 1). However, the members of the rural workers' unions increased from 18% of CUT’s members in 1993, to 32% in 1997. At the same time, the industrial sector members decreased their representation from 27% in 1993 to 18% in 1997.


Figure 1. CUT’s Membership by Economic Sector



Source: CUT (1993), CUT (1997b).

The relative weight of unions by economic sector in CUT follows the international tendency of the labor market, with the growth of the service sector and the retrenchment of the industrial sector (Jácome Rodrigues, 1997; Nogueira, 1999; Osterman, Kochan, Locke, and Piore, 2001). However, there is another factor that has contributed to the decrease in the relative weight of the industrial sector in CUT’s activism: the increase in the number of unions and unionized workers from the rural sector.4

Is CUT a blue-collar Confederation?

In a pioneer work on CUT’s social profile, analyzing data on the 3rd National Congress of CUT, Martins Rodrigues (1990) divided CUT’s influence into three major economic sectors:

  1. State sector – telephone; oil; data processing; urban services (gas, electricity, water, and sanitation); public servants (federal, state and municipal employees); health, education, and pension systems.
  2. Private sector – rural; chemical; metal; and textile.
  3. Service sector – transportation (aerial, marine, subway, rail); commercial (hotel, retail and wholesale, tourism, warehouses and private health system); and banking.

One may observe that in some activity sectors it is possible to find both public and private workers. In fact, not just in Brazil, but around the world, it is likely that the same union represents both state workers and private workers. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a clear line between private and public workers. However, the academic literature on this theme observes that public unionized workers outnumber private unionized workers in economic sectors in which both are represented by the same union.5

As we have already observed, it is possible to find both public workers and private workers in practically all activity sectors of CUT’s unionism (Table 1). However, in public administration, health, education, and urban services, almost 90% of CUT’s activists are public employees. Inversely, among the workers in construction, the metal industry, and agriculture, more than 90% of CUT’s congress members are private employees.


Table 1. Union Delegates by Economic Sector
5th National Congress of CUT

(percent %)

Source: DESEP/CEBRAP (1996).

In the financial and transportation sectors, the presence of public workers and private workers is balanced. For instance, among the transportation representatives who attended the 5th National Congress of CUT, 52.2% came from the private sector and 47.8% from the public sector. In the financial sector, 64.1% of representatives came from the public sector and 35.4% from the private sector.6

As one can observe (Figure 2), about 39% of CUT’s rank and file comes from the rural sector, 25% from the state sector, 23% from the service sector, and just 12% from the industrial sector. Consequently, about two-thirds of CUT’s rank and file comes from both the rural and state sectors. It is also worth noticing that the public workers constitute the second most important sector in CUT’s rank and file, surpassing the private workers from the industrial and service sectors.

This paper also reveals a significant change in both rural workers’ and public workers’ weight regarding the number of CUT’s unionized activists. While rural workers declined in relative weight among the unionized workers, dropping from 39% to 31%, public workers strengthened their participation among unionized activists, increasing from 25% to 34%. Meanwhile, neither service nor industrial workers from the private sector significantly shift their relative weight among CUT’s unionized members (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Rank and File, Unionized Workers,
and Paying Members by Economic Sector

Source: CUT (1997b)

Nevertheless, the most significant data on the relative weight of public workers in CUT’s unionism refer to paying members, that is, affiliated workers who regularly pay their dues and are eligible to participate in CUT’s congresses and directing boards.

Public sector workers nearly doubled their relative weight among paying members, increasing from 25% of CUT’s rank and file to 47% of CUT’s paying members. Accordingly, public workers are the most important economic sector among CUT’s paying members, followed by service sector workers (23.2%), industrial sector workers (16.8%), and rural sector workers (13.5%).

As the paying members are those eligible to participate in CUT’s collective deliberations and to make up CUT’s directing board, one might consider that the public workers are those with the greatest opportunity to influence CUT’s decision making.

The public sector at the 6th National Congress of CUT

The strong presence of public workers among the paying members of the confederation provides these workers with a privileged place in CUT’s meetings and board of directors. Nevertheless, beyond analyzing the public workers’ participation in the 6th National Congress, it would also be interesting to describe the social profile of the union representatives attending this congress.7

Figure 3 shows a decreasing tendency in the participation of young activists over the last three national congresses of CUT. Consequently, we notice an increase in the participation of 40-year-old or older activists in CUT national meetings. From the 4th to the 6th National Congress, the participation of 20-year-old activists decreased from 0.3% to 0.1%; between 21-year-old to 29-year-old activists, participation dropped from 21.9% to 10.4%; and from 30-year-old to 39-year-old activists decreased from 57.9% to 48.9%. On the contrary, in the 40-49 year-old age group the participation increased from 17.8% to 32.3%. In the same period, the participation of the 50-year-old activists increased from 2.1% to 8.3%.


Figure 3. Delegates Ages at the 4th (1991), 
5th (1994), and 6th (1997) National Congress of CUT

Source: CUT/UNITRABALHO (1997).

Figure 4 shows the increasing participation of delegates with long union activity in CUT’s congresses. While participation of activists with up to 10 years of activism decreased, the presence of delegates with more than 11 years of activism increased. The participation of union delegates with up to 4 years of activism declined from 16.7% to 11.5%; delegates with 5 to 8 years of activism dropped from 33.9% to 23.1%; and those with 9 to 10 years of activism decreased from 20% to 17.2%. Inversely, union delegates with 11 to 14 years of activism increased from 15.4% to 22.3%; and among those with more than 15 years of activism, the participation increased from 13.9% to 25.9%.


Figure 4. Delegates by years of activism at
V CONCUT (5th Congress) and VI CONCUT (6th Congress)

Source: CUT/UNITRABALHO (1997).

Most participants at the 6th National Congress of CUT had a high educational level. From the 4th National Congress to the 6th National Congress the delegates with only a few years of school increased their participation from 7% to 10.3%; while those of medium educational level decreased from 43% to 38.6% (presenting their lowest level of participation during the 5th National Congress: 35.3%). In the same period, the highly educated activists increased their participation from 48% to 51.1% (during the 5th National Congress the highly educated activists constituted 55.6% of CUT’s delegates).


Figure 5. Delegates by educational level
at the 4th (1991), 5th (1994), and 6th (1997) 
National Congress of CUT

Source: CUT/UNITRABALHO (1997).

At this point, it is important to note that not more than 3% of the Brazilian population reaches the educational level reached by more than 50% of the activists attending the 6th National Congress of CUT. In this sense, the data related to the 6th National Congress of CUT reinforce Martins Rodrigues’ and Cardoso’s hypothesis that union activism tends to be stronger among highly educated workers (Martins Rodrigues and Cardoso, 1993). However, it is worth noting that the high educational level of the confederation members is closely related to the strong presence of public workers in CUT’s meetings (Table 2).


Table 2. Educational Level by Activity Sector
(percent %)



Source: DESEP/CEBRAP (1996)

The activity sectors where the public workers have the largest presence are those in which the educational level of CUT’s activists is highest. Public workers constitute 89.8% of union delegates from the educational sector, 89.3% from the health sector, 95.6% from the urban service sector, and 64.1% from the financial sector (CUT, 1996). Workers of these sectors, along with civil servants, have the highest educational level in CUT Congress. On the other hand, in the transportation, metal, construction, and rural sectors most activists have low and medium educational levels.


Figure 6. Delegates by sex at the 4th (1991), 
5th (1994), and 6th (1997) National Congress of CUT

Source: CUT/UNITRABALHO (1997)

The female participation has significantly increased over the last three national congresses of CUT, from 19% at the 4th National Congress to 27% at the 6th National Congress. Considering the delegates' participation in the 6th National Congress by activity sector, we found the largest number of female delegates in the public sector. They represent 49.8% of the education sector, 48.3% of the health sector, and 35% of the public administration sector.

Table 3. Delegates by Activity Sector

Source: DESEP/CEBRAP (1996)

It is also important to note that between the 1st and the 5th National Congress all women who participated in the national executive board of CUT were public sector activists. Only in the 6th National Congress did a woman from the private sector reach the CUT National Executive Board.

Figure 7. Delegates by Type of Company at
the 5th (1994) and 6th (1997) National Congress of CUT

Source: CUT (1997b)

Analyzing the type of company where activists work is particularly important in order to measure the economic sectors’ weight in CUT’s unionism. Combining the percentage of workers employed in state companies (19.3%) with the percentage of workers employed in the public administration (35.7%), we note that more than half of the activists who attended the 6th National Congress belonged to the public sector (55%).

It is also important to register that, from the 5th to the 6th National Congress, only the civil servants and rural workers presented growth in their participation. The civil servants increased their participation from 33.7% to 35.7%, while the rural workers almost doubled their participation, increasing from 7.6% to 13.7%. The other delegates suffered a decline in their participation. Workers from private companies dropped from 32.6% to 29.4%, and workers from state companies decreased from 25.5% to 19.3%.

The public sector participation in CUT’s board of directors

The increasing participation of public workers in CUT’s congresses, especially in its national congresses, has been followed by a significant growth of public union representatives in CUT’s board of directors.


Table 4. CUT’s Board of Directors by Economic Sector

Source: Martins Rodrigues (1990), CUT (1997c).

Unions representing public workers doubled their participation in CUT’s National Executive Board over the last 14 years. They constituted 20% of the Executive Board in 1983 and rose to 48% in 1997. At the same time, the participation of the private sector unions in CUT’s Executive Board decreased. The rural workers union decreased from 26.7% to only 8%, and urban workers union decreased from 53.3% to 44%.

It is worth observing that, except in the 4th National Congress when there was an increase in the number of executive directors, every time that the participation of public workers increased in CUT’s directing board, the participation of rural workers decreased. Inversely, in the 6th National Congress, as public sector workers lost one seat on CUT’s board of directors, rural workers gained one.

The public sector worker participation in CUT’s direction is also informative as we considered the professional status of CUT leaders who constitute the National Executive Board of the confederation. Let us take a look at the board of directors elected at the 5th and the 6th National Congresses:


Table 5. CUT’s Directing Board (1994/1997)

Source: CUT (1997c).

In spite of being distributed across several activity sectors, most of CUT’s professional leaders are public workers. In the Executive Board elected at the 5th National Congress (1994-1997), public servants and employees of state companies represented 76% of CUT’s board of directors (19 of 25). In the following Congress (1997-2000), they constituted 60% of CUT’s direction (Jard da Silva, 2001).

Public sector workers also have a prominent presence in CUT’s board of directors at the state level. Among 27 presidents elected in CUT’s state congresses in 1997, 17 (67%) were public workers (civil servants and state company employees). It is worth noting that all the bank workers elected to be CUT’s presidents at the state levels were employees of public banks: Orency Francisco da Silva – Caixa Economica Federal; Jorge Pedro Caggiano Peres – Banco do Brasil; Roberto Vans Olsten – Banestado; Jorge Alfredo Streit – Banco do Brasil.


Table 6. CUT’s President by State

Source: CUT (1997c).

The public workers’ presence on CUT’s board of directors at the state level is striking, especially in less industrialized states. Since the Brazilian industrial park is concentrated in the southeast region of the country, we conclude that, along with rural workers, public workers have been of fundamental importance in consolidating the national structure of CUT’s unionism.


Table 7. State Level Boards of Director
by Occupational Sector

I.W. (industrial worker), R.W. (rural worker), W.C. (white-collar), P.S. (private service worker), T. & CS. (teachers & civil servants), and PE. & PH. (public education and public health worker). Fonte: Nogueira (1998).

The presence of public workers on the state executive board of CUT tends to be larger in states such as Minas Gerais (52.9%), Mato Grosso (43.5%), Amazonas (47.4%), Pernambuco (37.5%) and Bahia (35.3%). In Paraná and in Rio de Janeiro, civil servants constitute more than 25% of state directing positions. On the other hand, in Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, the participation of civil servants on CUT’s executive is less than 15%.

Finally, it is important to note that the weight of public unionism in CUT’s congresses and boards of directors already attracts the attention of the Confederation’s main leadership, especially those from the private sector, as we can see in the following speech of CUT’s former president, Vicente Paulo da Silva:

It is necessary to explain that 75.0% of CUT rank and file is from the urban and rural sectors, and 25.0% from the state services and state companies. In CUT’s board, most union leaders belong to state companies and state services. Although they act as representatives of all workers, in the next CUT’s congress we will try to choose a direction more representative of our rank and file. We won't assume a merely corporatist position. If that goes on, we will be led to failure.8

Final Considerations

According to Troy (1994), the public sector unionism constitutes a new labor movement. It differs from the private sector unionism in its origins, make-up, goals, and philosophy. In Brazil, as in other countries around the world, public employees’ organizations constitute a distinct political actor in the labor movement.

In this work we demonstrated that public employees constitute the most important occupational category in CUT’s unionism both in terms of unionized workers and paying members. This strong presence among the Confederation’s activists provides public employees with a privileged place on CUT’s congress and boards of directors. Over the last two decades unions representing public employees doubled their participation in CUT’s National Executive Board.

The public sector participation in CUT’s direction is informative of their political power within the Confederation. Most of CUT’s national directors are public employees. Therefore, among all workers represented by CUT, public workers are those with the greatest opportunity to influence CUT’s decision-making. This finding indicates that, behind partisan and ideological issues, CUT’s political positions should also be understood in terms of how the occupational profile of its leadership influences the Confederation’s decision-making.

Finally, this work’s contribution is particularly important to the understanding of CUT’s resistance to structural reforms implemented in Brazil over the last two decades. According to the data provided by this paper, CUT’s opposition to structural reforms should be explained not only in terms of ideological opposition to neoliberalism, but also in terms of the defense of public employees’ interests.

* Sidney Jard da Silva is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, Political Science Department. Also, he is a Visiting Student at the MIT Political Science Department, currently residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Back to Text

1 For fruitful discussions and valuable comments, I am grateful to Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida (advisor), Richard Locke, Deise Recoaro, Seth Racusen, Sylvia Gaylord, Marco Marchese, Andrés Salanova and Rachel Crane. I also thank Professor Leo Troy for thoughtful comments and constructive criticisms. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Sociology Society (SBS), Ceará – Brazil. I have benefited from financial support from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and The State of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

2 See Linha Direta, September-October, 1997. Translated from Portuguese by the author. 

3 Most Brazilian labor unions are financed by compulsory dues of one day’s salary per year, what is known as “union tax” (imposto sindical). According to Cardoso (2000), “This stimulated the emergence of more than one thousand unions per year from 1992 to 1999, unprecedently fragmenting labor representation, so that Brazil has now more than 27 thousand unions, most of which are powerless. That is to say, corporatist legal structure supported rapid union growth in the 1980s, but accelerated union fragmentation in the 1990s.” Historically, CUT has fought against compulsory union dues; however, many affiliated unions rely on this compulsory contribution from their rank and file in order to balance their financial structure (Almeida, 1996; Boito Jr., 1991). CUT, in turn, depends on voluntary contributions from its individual labor unions.

4 This growth of the rural sector in CUT’s unionism has been related to the affiliation of The National Farm Workers Confederation (CONTAG) to CUT in August of 1995 (Informacut, n.º 257, September, 1995).

5 Regarding international literature on public unionism, see Denholm (1994), Freeman and Ichniowski (1988), Johnston (1994), Nisbet (1978), Stieber (1973), Troy (1994), and Von Otter (1983).

6 Taking into account that most of the rank and file of these sectors work in private companies, the financial and transportation representatives were classified as private sector workers. In addition, over the last two decades a vigorous privatization process transferred many state banks and state transportation companies to the private sector.

7 In total 1,840 delegates were surveyed during the 6th National Congress of CUT. Our data refer to 1,640 delegates. See CUT/UNITRABALHO (1997)

8 See Revista Veja, January 31, 1996. Translated from Portuguese by the author.


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