The Brazilian Oilworkers Who Want Greener Public Power

Natalia Russo

Unionized workers at Brazil’s largest company, the oil and biofuels giant Petrobras, are organizing to resist privatization and lead a clean energy transition on their terms.

An offshore Petrobras oil platform. (Agência Brasil / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Keith Brower Brown

As aspiring empires clash and the climate crisis intensifies, energy politics worldwide are in upheaval. In Brazil, a single energy company has become a pivot on which national politics swing.

Petrobras, Brazil’s oil and biofuels giant, is majority state owned but hugely dependent on private investment for new development. Since an epic oil find off the Rio de Janeiro coast in the 2000s, Petrobras became the nation’s single largest company, generating over 13 percent of the country’s GDP. The drilling boom was key in funding the landmark social programs of four Workers’ Party (PT) governments, as well as the corporate payoffs that set the stage for the right-wing ruse to bring them down.

As September elections pit far-right president Jair Bolsonaro against the PT’s returning champion, Lula da Silva, privatization, union power, and clean energy transition are potentially at stake. Bolsonaro’s planned privatization this year of Eletrobras, Brazil’s national electric company, makes those stakes painfully clear.

Just as extraordinary is how militant unions have shaped Brazilian energy politics. Unionized Petrobras workers have launched major strikes against privatization of the company’s oil, fertilizer, and biofuels plants and often succeeded in stopping or delaying the sell-offs for years. Now those unions are preparing to strike to stop a potential coup attempt by Bolsonaro.

Jacobin contributor Keith Brower Brown sat down with Natalia Russo, a socialist elected leader in the largest union at Petrobras, to discuss how oilworkers are fighting to keep the company public and lead a clean energy transition on their terms. Russo’s union, Sindipetro-RJ, has 15,000 members across oil platforms, refineries, logistics, and offices in Rio de Janeiro state. She is a member of Resistência, a current of Brazil’s Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), which has a significant section in the oilworkers union, and is supporting Lula in the presidential election.

Keith Brower Brown

How did you start working at Petrobras, and how did you become a union leader?

Natalia Russo

I was active in the student movement at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Before getting a job at Petrobras, I already knew activists working there who were former student militants or connected to the same socialist current. I took a public service test and got in as an office worker in platform construction planning, hoping to help the union fight. Our union has all the areas of the company, including the industrial jobs on platforms.

Once I started, I started participating in the union movement right away. My first leadership role was getting elected to the worker safety committee, which is a powerful place to challenge the boss in many industrial unions in Brazil. I gained the second-highest vote tally in that election. After that, I felt called to run for the top union leadership layer, in part because I wanted more women to lead there. I won one of the director seats. We have forty-eight directors from across our 15,000-member union. I’m currently the director of political education and anti-privatization campaigns for our union.

Keith Brower Brown

How has it been organizing among oilworkers as a woman leader? That’s far from common in oil unions in the United States.

Natalia Russo

It’s been a process and not always easy. We suffer a lot of machismo in the company, and the union, sometimes. Women are a minority, about 16 percent of Petrobas. The company and unions across Petrobras had been very male run. We’ve fought for quotas in leadership to guarantee women get included.

We’ve also fought for a specific union leadership position, a secretary dedicated to fighting oppressions. We didn’t have anything like that before. A gay comrade and I started that project in 2014. Since then, I became active in the National Federation of Oil Workers (FNP), helping spread some of those ideas.

This is a very complicated topic for oilworkers. The fight against machismo is a big one. We have to organize ourselves; women’s solidarity has been key, especially to stand up to harassment when you’re one of a few women working on an oil platform. It doesn’t always exist, but we’re winning it more.

Keith Brower Brown

Could you give a brief history of Petrobras as a public company? When did privatization start?

Natalia Russo

Petrobras was started as a public oil company in the 1950s but really took off in the 1970s during the oil crisis. From the start, there was always a dispute between using Brazil’s oil resources for deals with foreign companies or for national development. It was formed through social movements fighting for it, against the idea that Brazil couldn’t develop without expertise and ownership from abroad.

In the 1990s, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso started trying to privatize Petrobras as a whole, as a huge plank of his neoliberal program. In 1995, oilworkers went on strike to stop the privatization. Cardoso sent tanks to try and stop the strike. By shutting down refineries and production around the country, we didn’t win all of workers’ demands, but we were able to block the total privatization of Petrobras from going through.

Keith Brower Brown

Under the Workers’ Party governments, what was the situation for oilworkers? How did unions at Petrobras relate to the government?

Natalia Russo

Under Lula, in the 2000s, Petrobras led the drilling boom on the huge “pré-sal” oil discovery off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state. Lula’s government had a contradictory strategy. On one hand, he put serious public investment into Petrobras. On the other hand, he pushed hard for unions to be conciliatory with the company. Even worse, Lula’s government sped up the shift to auction untapped oil fields to foreign companies. That said, it did raise royalties those companies had to pay and kept a share of that oil under public ownership.

Up until the 2010s, most Petrobras unions across the country were part of a federation (FUP) closely tied to the Workers’ Party. Other oilworkers were with the FNP federation or independent. In 2013, the FNP unions launched protests to fight the oil auctions to foreign corporations. A lot of social movements joined us. The FUP unions opposed selling off the new oil fields in theory, but they didn’t join the protests. Dilma Rousseff sent the army to confront the protests. We didn’t win that round.

At the end of 2014, the government appointed a new CEO of Petrobras, Aldemir Bendine, who began the process to sell and privatize parts of Petrobras. This began under Rousseff, the Workers’ Party president, in a pact with companies aimed to reduce pressure on her from the Lava Jato corruption scandal. Petrobras was at the heart of that scandal to begin with, and we know now there was enormous pressure and espionage from foreign companies to get favorable oil deals. Some of that pressure helped motivate the coup that came soon after.

Bendine was a guy from the core of the PT but committed to Rousseff’s conciliation plan with investors. With that appointment began a worker movement of resistance to Bendine, which brought out differences with FUP union leaders. The rank and file organized around the necessity to stand up to the Rousseff government to defend public ownership of the company.

During the Lula and Rousseff years so far, we had been accustomed to always getting a few more protections, benefits, and raises over time. Oilworkers were used to getting that just through negotiations. And suddenly, in 2015, they proposed to cut our rights and benefits.

In 2015 we launched a historic strike against those cuts. Even more, it was a strike against the process of privatization and public disinvestment that was beginning then at Petrobras. That was the fruit of Lava Jato and of the international takeover that had been expanding under Rousseff.

Since 1995, there hasn’t been any strike that strong at Petrobras. It was gigantic, at oil terminals, refineries, and platforms, lasting about forty days. It was only the FNP that called the strike, but then FUP unions came out as well. In that period, the FUP unions were the large majority of oilworkers, with the strongest share on the drilling platforms. Their decision to join the strike is what really shut down production.

Keith Brower Brown

What’s changed for the oilworkers’ union since then, after a parliamentary coup impeached the Workers’ Party government and Bolsonaro rose to power?

Natalia Russo

After the 2015 strike, refineries and other parts of Petrobras have grown in membership compared to the drilling platforms. The left wing has won more internal union elections: the FNP federation and allies now have five oilworker unions, with a majority of all Petrobras workers, compared to the unions with the Workers’ Party–aligned FUP. Rio used to be all FUP. In my union, Petrobras’s largest, the radical left won a majority on leadership in elections in 2018. Just a few months ago, the Left won a big election at an important refinery and power plant with over two thousand workers in Caxias, just north of the city of Rio.

For the Left in the oil unions, our principal program is to defeat Bolsonaro and his aim to privatize enormous public resources. His government is trying to sell off parts of Petrobras everywhere in the country, often to foreign companies, or to a bank tied to his own finance minister. They have a different strategy this time: instead of selling the company all at once, like in 1995, now they’re trying to sell it off in parts. With four more years of Bolsonaro, privatization will happen. We believe that even if he loses, he wants to cut bargain deals to sell off huge chunks of the company in his last months in office.

There’s a kind of unity between FNP and FUP oilworkers in opposition to Bolsonaro and privatization. We want even more unity. Our victory in Caxias was because the former FUP union leadership wasn’t paying attention to the demands of workers, let alone fighting for them. Our campaign was focused on how the union needed to fight, not just negotiate, and how it needed to foster demands from the rank and file. Defending health insurance was a key issue.

Even during the pandemic, we’ve continued strikes. In the middle of 2020, there was a national oilworker strike in solidarity with workers at a Petrobras fertilizer plant in Paraná state. The government planned to sell the plant, in which case all the existing workers would be fired. In my union in Rio, workers were largely working from home. We got creative using social networks and protests to build public attention. We didn’t have a ton of direct economic power, but we still had a strike that raised the pressure.

Keith Brower Brown

If Lula is elected this fall, what do you think will change for Petrobras workers and privatization?

Natalia Russo

At very least, we expect Lula to stop the bleeding. But honestly, we don’t expect an enormous change.

I believe the central problem with Petrobras today is that 70 percent of its active capital is private. The state still has a majority of the company’s endowment, but its stock is 70 percent private and 40 percent from companies abroad. If we don’t grow the public investment in the company, we’re going to have big problems.

My current in the union has other demands ready for a new Lula government. One is on gas prices. Lula’s already been talking about an end to the policy of setting domestic oil prices at international market rates and instead to “Brazilianize” gas prices toward our much lower domestic costs of production. We’ll demand that happens.

Another demand is to stop the privatization of Petrobras and put the company in service of national development. That means publicly investing to expand renewable energy.

Keith Brower Brown

What will it take to win those demands under a Lula government?

Natalia Russo

For sure, you have to have mobilization and independence of the working class. The unions can’t make the same errors as in the past. We need to keep political independence to be able to make our own demands and to build social organizations that can stand up to privatization.

The FNP unions decided to stay neutral in the first round of the election and present a ten-point program to defend Petrobras. I expect we’ll take a position of critical support for Lula in the second round. The FUP unions decided to support Lula in the first round, and they have a good program too. There are other tendencies in the oilworkers movement supporting the United Socialist Workers’ Party candidate, Vera Lúcia.

But no doubt, the rank and file is hugely for Lula. Support is especially strong among the drilling platform workers who had such a jobs boom during his first two terms.

All of us are worried that Bolsonaro might try a coup if he loses the election. We’ve already been discussing with the comrades at refineries and platforms how to launch strikes against a coup.

Keith Brower Brown

You mentioned the need to publicly invest in renewable energy. Have Brazilian oil unions developed a program on climate change and an energy transition?

Natalia Russo

Here in Brazil, it’s very new for most of the union movement to take on environmental politics. I believe it’s more common elsewhere in the world, principally in Europe, like in Portugal where there was a “strike for the earth” and a lot of discussion about green jobs.

Among Petrobras workers in general, the degree of destruction under Bolsonaro’s government led us to start more discussion about the environment. Bolsonaro pushed to sell off all our public wind-power plants, and slashed investment in new ones. Today, Petrobras management has climate plans that only cut emissions in the oil production process while cutting investments in renewable energy. Management talks about increasing the use of gas power as a way to reduce emissions. Bolsonaro and Petrobras executives don’t have a plan for an energy transition, just to trim emissions to look good for investors.

In 2020, Petrobras started trying to sell off its biofuels division. Workers there feared being fired. Oilworkers from three unions and three states went on strike for twenty days to defend Petrobras Biocombustível, with over 80 percent stopping work. We demanded a right to relocation, with new Petrobras jobs for any workers affected by the sale. We haven’t won that yet, but we built organization and community support in many cities. It’s already been two years since the government began trying to sell the biofuels division, and we’ve succeeded in stopping the sale so far.

Compared to other biofuels companies, which mostly use soy and sugar from agribusiness, Petrobras is special for developing a much broader range of fuels from local crops around Brazil, like dendê palm in Bahia. We’ve supported that work and other efforts under Lula to support family agriculture rather than just agribusiness.

Bolsonaro has tried to destroy all this and instead develop power plants using gas from the offshore oil fields. That’s a big step backward for Brazil. Up until now, Brazil has had a relatively clean electric system overall, with a base in hydroelectric power. We know new dams flood forests, causing emissions and displacing indigenous people and peasant farmers. That’s why a transition to really clean energy is still needed.

My political current, Resistência, has a program for Petrobras to be a driving force in an energy transition for Brazil. That includes participating more in debates with environmental organizations about just transitions.

A crucial question is transportation. Brazil has a mode of transportation hugely based on roads and highways. It’s absurd how much our transportation of food and everything else depends on diesel trucks. It’s vital we shift our transportation away from fossil fuels.

Another key topic is agriculture. Our country still hasn’t done a real agrarian reform to redistribute land, like has been done in other countries. That would mean expropriating land from major agribusinesses. We see it as crucial to win a real land reform, with a major investment in agroecology.

Our focus, for obvious reasons, is on energy. We always give the obvious example of Norway and its problems. Norway created a national oil company, which built a huge sovereign fund. Today, that money is driving green transitions there and calls itself the “greenest capital” in the world. But at the same moment, Norway is buying various oil projects in Brazil. We see this as part of environmental racism, transferring the weight of environmental problems to countries on the periphery of the world economy.

Because we’re a country on the periphery, we have a strong dependence on foreign capital. To protect our environment, it’s essential we have sovereignty over our energy system, instead of giant corporations controlling our natural resources.

We say all the income from Brazil’s offshore oil should be used to power a renewable energy transition, through a public fund and green jobs at Petrobras. For the politics of our country, Petrobras is fundamental. There are two major state companies in energy: Petrobras, which is being sold off in parts, and Eletrobras, which owns the hydroelectric dams and electric system, and is being sold off entirely this year.

We want to renationalize these companies and make them truly public. Public power is fundamental to changing the terms of energy in our country.