Why Brazilian Workers Love Lula

Lula rose from humble origins to become a leftist icon, exuding working-class authenticity and successfully bringing working people into the country’s political life. And his story isn’t over: he could soon return to power.

Lula Da Silva participates in the 12th Congress of the Brazilian Workers Union (CUT) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 2015. (Douglas Magno / AFP via Getty Images)

The past five years have been unbelievably tumultuous for Brazil’s leading leftist politician, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In 2016, Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) was cast from office after thirteen years in power when his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached on spurious grounds. Two years later, Lula himself was arrested on corruption charges and far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro was elected president. Despite international calls for his release from the likes of Bernie Sanders and Diego Maradona, Lula had never been so low.

Then, in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the court that sentenced Lula had no jurisdiction over his case. He was released but barred from seeking office. And finally, earlier this year, redemption: Brazilian authorities deemed Lula eligible to run for president. Polls now show the former president with a strong chance of returning to power as Bolsonaro’s popularity plummets.

John French’s new biography of Lula is the best analytical work yet on the former president, offering profound insights into Lula’s rise and his enduring appeal through shifting political tides. French, a professor of history at Duke University, is one of the most prominent Brazilianists working today, and his book explores Lula the person without falling into the personalist trap that many critics associate with the PT.

When Lula declared in a 1981 interview that “I will never give up my right to be Lula,” he was getting at something deeper than his own self-expression. It was “a declaration of independence,” according to French, an insistence on transcending the limited social role previously reserved for working people in Brazilian political life. The PT was designed to be the institutional lever to make that happen for Lula and others like him.

Lula’s Life Story

Lula’s biography is well known. Born in 1945 to illiterate peasants in the arid backlands of Pernambuco, a relatively poor state in Northeastern Brazil, he migrated with his family to the booming state of São Paulo at the age of six. As a child, he worked informally around the port city of Santos as a courier and a shoeshine boy.

He finished elementary school, but his studies were interrupted in early adolescence when he moved into the city of São Paulo, where his mother managed to get him a spot in a machinist training course. He later joined the Metalworkers Union of São Bernardo do Campo, rose to the top, and led historic strikes that culminated in the PT’s founding in 1980. This account of Lula’s life — simple, triumphant — has been recounted in movies, academic and journalistic works, and even a comic book.

French offers a more textured account. A biography of the former president, he writes, “would fail if, in fixating on the myth known as Lula, it overlooked the thousands of his friends, allies, and admirers, the tens of thousands of rank-and-file workers, and the tens of millions of voters.”

Rather than a mere individualistic account, the book is a complex history of the seismic changes that reshaped Brazil’s social relations — relations between parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, labor and capital, intellectuals and factory workers — in the twentieth century. Lula and His Politics of Cunning thus stands out not only for its account of the trajectory of a remarkable figure but for the way it inserts this figure in the country’s history.

Lula grew up in a country that was changing rapidly. From 1900 to 1973, Brazil was the fastest-developing country in the world — growing at an average of 4.9 percent per year. Nowhere in the country expanded as much or as fast as the São Paulo metropolitan area, with its Ford, Volkswagen, GM, and Fiat factories that employed thousands of workers, many of whom had just left the countryside to pursue better lives in the city. “In retrospect,” French notes, “it’s clear that a new Brazil was coming into being in the metropolis’s factories, markets, and makeshift settlements.”

In the early 1960s, Lula’s mother, practically out of sheer force of will, secured a coveted place for the penultimate of her eight children in a vocational course offered by the National Service for Industrial Training (SENAI), the largest institution for professional and technological education in Latin America. Training as a torneiro mecânico — a machinist who uses a lathe, a device designed to hold a section of material to be carved, cut or shaped — Lula became part of what French calls the “working-class intelligentsia,” a step removed from the average “unskilled” worker readily subject to the whims of industrial capitalism.

Lula speaking during a press conference in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, 2021. (Alexandre Schneider / Getty Images)

Many years later, Lula credited SENAI for his success in life. “Senai gave me citizenship,” he said in 2012. “Out of eight siblings, I was the first to take a trade course, the first to have a house, a car; I was the first to work in a factory, the first to participate in a union and, from the union, I founded a party and, through this party, I became president of the Republic.”

If the vocational course at SENAI elevated Lula within the working class, it also thrust him into a larger world of debate, reflection, and conflict. As French points out, skilled workers were much more likely to become involved in the union and the political process through the Communist Party and other left-wing organizations linked to organized labor. Lula’s natural skills and charisma allowed him to thrive in that world, eventually leading to his election as president of the influential Metalworkers Union of São Bernardo do Campo.

Lula’s Political Ascent

Lula quickly realized that, as French puts it, “industrial life provided little evidence that one could avoid getting screwed simply by going along with whatever the bosses wanted; that sort of submissive, unseemly behavior typified ‘flatterers’ and ‘ass-lickers.’” Nobody — workers, bosses, politicians — could respect a lackey as the voice of the working class. This was a political lesson Lula learned early, even before he was formally invested in an explicitly political life.

Still, unlike his older brother (a member of the Communist Party), Lula as a young man was uninterested in politics. He saw the union as unresponsive and essentially conservative, a relic of a postwar generation content to have any representation at all. The youthful Lula was much more interested in dating and nurturing the fellowship of workers like him. Besides, Brazil had been under military rule since 1964, with violent repression peaking in the early 1970s. The future president was understandably wary of involving himself in potentially dangerous forms of activism. Gradually, however, he came to see the union as a tool — a way to fulfill his personal ambitions and defend the interests of average workers in an economy that produced astronomical growth rates at the expense of decent wages for the working class.

French argues that Lula’s great political gift is his ability to continually relate to diverse constituencies over time, maintaining distinct and often contradictory personal relationships. This did not always come naturally. Early on, Lula was annoyed by left-wing intellectuals eager to anoint (and fetishize) him as a genuine working-class tribune. “The best way for students to help the working class is for them to stay in their universities,” he declared. Over time, however, Lula’s cunning enabled him to hear and be heard by groups with different, often divergent, interests.

The “subaltern origin” of Lula’s leadership style would help shape a left-wing party characterized by intellectual diversity. “After all,” French writes, “Lula was not authorized to rise to where he did by the social, political, or cultural order that governed Brazil. He reached the presidency through the relationships he established with the population, both above and below, through the resonance of his words, who he was, and what he came to symbolize.”

For Lula, union activity yielded a life of “drama and relevance,” in French’s words. The future president traveled abroad for the first time and interacted with politicians, intellectuals, and journalists previously far removed from his reality. Along with his second wife, Marisa Letícia, a young widow he met in 1973, Lula realized that union leadership also brought certain risks.

The dictatorship tolerated very little criticism. In 1975 his older brother José Francisco da Silva, known widely as Frei Chico, was arrested by the political police and tortured. Chico at the time was the vice president of his union and secretly active in the Communist Party. While most accounts of Lula’s rise assert that this moment had a radicalizing effect on the future president, French is more circumspect, pointing out that Lula’s family resented Chico’s risky political activities. Still, Lula fought for his brother, displaying a combative streak that ultimately helped secure Chico’s release after seventy-six days in custody (many dissidents in this period were killed and disappeared at the hands of the police).

Whatever his circumstances, Lula always exuded working-class authenticity. As he began to gain national prominence some forty years ago, he was asked about his sartorial choices after he was spotted wearing a three-piece suit. Shouldn’t a spokesperson for the working class wear something more appropriate to his station? “If it were up to me,” Lula replied, “I would…always [be] well dressed because I like it.” Every worker, he said, should be paid enough to “buy a nice suit, to have a car [and] a color television, so that he can finally possess all that he produces.”

The ABC Strike

In 1978, at the age of thirty-two, Lula led a massive strike in the industrial outskirts of São Paulo, a region known as the ABC Paulista, over the dictatorship’s anti-worker economic policies. The walkout launched Lula onto the national stage — but the success of the strike was not a given.

“Lacking unity of action and a common group consciousness,” French observes, “ABC’s metalworkers hardly seemed fruitful terrain for organizing, much less forceful, massive insurgency.” While the dictatorship was beginning to loosen its repressive grip, no one believed that strikes would go unpunished. The regime had not been so openly challenged by workers in over a decade. How, then, to explain this outburst of union militancy that turned Lula into a household name and, in so doing, changed the course of Brazilian history?

Typically, this iconic moment is ascribed almost entirely to the preternatural charisma of the man who would become president two decades later. But, as French rightly recalls, Lula was still unknown to the vast majority of workers in 1978. Very few actively participated in the life of the union, and even fewer knew who its leader was. Engaged militants such as Alberto Eulálio — better known as Betão, who at the time worked at the Ford plant— formed the front line of the strike movement, “foot soldiers of the army of peons that Lula came to command” in the late 1970s.

Lula greets supporters following his release from prison. (Pedro Vilela / Getty Images)

As worker militancy blossomed amid an economic downturn, the number of workers like Betão gradually increased, each one supported and driven by the activity of their peers. The creation “of spaces of convergence across difference” and the construction of new “horizontal and vertical” relationships galvanized workers to take a stand when they did. The workers themselves, including Lula, were going through a process of self-discovery and assertion. By 1979, “a remarkable mobilization led to a surprising love affair between the masses and Lula, followed by a lasting marriage between organization and charisma.”

Lula refused to set himself apart from the rank and file. Interviewed by a prominent newspaper baron in 1978, he framed his ascent as inseparable from his class background. As union leader, he simply said “what any worker would wish to say if he were placed in front of a microphone.” He claimed not to imagine the effect that indignant truth-telling from a worker like him would have. “The working class should never be an instrument,” he said. Rather, as the majority of the country, the working class should be treated as “a living force with a real voice.”

Lula’s public insistence that he was a worker first — more fortunate in some ways but no better than his peers — became an enduring and potent part of his political appeal.

Lula’s Bond

In French’s view, Lula has always been an institutionalist, whether in favor of his union or his political party. “He never sought an unmediated relationship between atomized individuals and an anointed savior,” an element usually deemed “central to ‘charismatic’ or ‘populist’ leadership.”

Nor was he particularly radical. “Even at his most combative,” French explains, Lula “was always reaching out to those who did not share his party’s politics, thus creating a web of relationships within a space of convergence that helped transform (though not overturn) existing social and political relations in Brazil and . . . Latin America as a whole.” French’s assessment recognizes Lula’s tact while remaining attuned to the limits of his political horizons. It has not always served him or the country well, but it is a mistake to underappreciate Lula’s willingness to meet and negotiate with political figures across the political spectrum.

This openness has consistently attracted critics from the Left even as it enabled the PT’s extraordinary growth. It is undoubtedly working to Lula’s advantage as he gears up to take on Bolsonaro in next year’s election. No other PT candidate would fare as well against the current president. While this is a clear sign of weakness for the party, it is also testament to the relationship that Lula arduously built over many years with a huge part of the electorate. That kind of bond cannot be forged overnight.

In 2017, on a visit to a new multidisciplinary institute at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Lula was lovingly greeted and, as the photo adorning the book’s cover depicts, danced amongst the crowd. A student interviewed spoke about the importance of having a university campus in the Baixada Fluminense, a working-class region in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region: “It brings you that feeling of ‘let’s give it a shot.’”

In a way, this is a neat distillation of Lula’s life story — a story that, it is worth remembering, is yet to be fully told.