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Maria Berenice Godinho Delgado
Affirmative Action in the Trade Union Movement –
Its experience concerning the quota system in the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores – CUT – Brazil

During the last few decades, women’s participation in the trade union movement has been constantly increasing. A variety of initiatives have been developed in order to enhance women’s presence in trade unions and to include their concerns in the trade union’s guidelines. This is a phenomenon that can be observed, to a greater or lesser degree, all over the world. It must be said that this has been mainly the result of the pressure that women themselves have exerted upon the trade unions in their quest towards achieving a real incorporation of women workers as an inherent part of the trade union’s organisation and political activities.

This report details an experience which is part of this broader process and which takes place in Brazil, a country located in the southern part of Latin America; to be more precise, it takes place in the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (Workers Trade Union Center) – CUT –. The topic of affirmative or positive actions was introduced into the CUT a few years ago, and its most important achievement has been the adoption of a minimum quota of women’s participation in the leading positions of the CUT. This is going to be the main topic of this paper. It shall deal with the debate concerning the quota system, the reasons for its proposal, the polemics involved in this measure and what it has meant for this organisation itself and the entire trade union movement in Brazil.

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Brazil: A brief Survey

First of all, it is necessary to give you some brief information about the country in which the CUT operates. Brazil is a country that encompasses a total area of 8.511.996 km and with a total population of 152.374.603. Brazil’s working population (10 years of age or older) is made up of 74 million people, out of which, 40,4% are women. Approximately half of the working population holds jobs that are neither protected by the labour laws nor the social security system. [DEPARTAMENTO INTERSINDICAL DE ESTADÍSTI CA E ESTUDOS SOCIO-ECONOMICOS Anuário dos trabalhadores 1996-97, 4a.ed., Sao Paolo, DIEESE, 1996, p. 26, 77, 86. Oficial data form the Insituto Brasileiro de Geografía e Estatística (IBGE). Data concerning the population was taken from the Censo Demográfico/ 1991 and the Pesquisa Nacional por Amostragem de Domicilio – PNAD/95, the data concerning the labour market is found in PNAAAD/95.]
This country can be listed among the worst in the world when it comes to the distribution of income. According to statistical data from the World Bank and the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografía e Estatistica (IBGE), in 1995, 10% of the most wealthy part of the population amassed 47% of the national income, while 20% of the poorest only received 3,1%. [DEPARTAMENTO INTERSINDICAL DE ESTATISTI CA E ESTUDIOS SOCIO-ECONOMICOS op. cit., p. 35.]
75% of the population lives in the cities, due to the fact that the question concerning land property is, nowadays, still one of the most explosive sources of conflict and violence. Since there never was an agrarian reform in Brazil, there are huge extensions of land or large estates, the so called "latifundios". In the year 1995, there were more than 500 clashes in rural areas between peasants, "latifundistas" (owners of the large estates)

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and the police, resulting in 41 dead; mainly among the peasants and the landless workers. [DEPARTAMENTO INTERSINDICAL DE ESTATISTIC A E ESTUDIOS SOCIO ECONOMICOS op. cit., p. 40, Datos de la Comissao Pastoral da Terra.]

On the other hand, the country has gone through an important modernisation process in the last few decades and has reached a very significant industrial development in the Latin-American continent. It goes without saying, that its development and the political options of its governments follow the neoliberal tendencies that are predominant nowadays.

This is the reason why currency stability comes hand in hand with a complete opening up to attract foreign investments, the dismantling of national industry, a constantly increasing unemployment rate, a steep rise of the poverty level and the deterioration of public services and education. Privatisation is seen as the ultimate panacea that should solve the structural problems of both the economy and the Government. All this, of course, exacerbated by the deeply rooted tradition of corruption which is typical of all countries in Latin America.

Brazil is nowadays a representative democracy that went through a military dictatorship which lasted from 1964 until the mid ‘80s. This system was replaced by freely elected governments with a presidential system.

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The Central Ùnica dos Trabalhadores: Origin and Representation

The Central Ùnica dos Trabalhadores (CUT) was born as a result of the extreme mobilisation that developed in Brazilian society between the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s in its struggle towards democratisation and a better representation of the concerns of the workers, employees in general, and those who lived in the densely populated areas on the outskirts of the cities.

The strong mobilisation against the military regime found its strongest ally in the trade union movement. This was mainly due to a sector of the Brazilian trade union movement that was known as the "nuevo sindicalismo" (new trade unionism). This emerged in those days in the midst of important industrial trade unions like the Metal Workers’ Trade Union in the region known as the ABC Paulista [This is the name given to the industrial region located in the outskirts of Sao Paulo. It is made up of the cities; Santo Andrè, Sao Bernardo do Campo, Sao Caetano do Sul e Diadema where the car and metal mechanical industry were concentrated. During those days, it was the country’s strongest industrial belt and also the main source of the origins of the workers struggles and the nuevo sindicalismo in Brazil’s recent history.], especially in the Sindicato de Metalúrgicos de Sao Bernardo do Campo y Diadema, but also in some trade union’s opposition groups which were mainly set up in an attempt at replacing their trade union’s passive executive boards as was the case with the trade union’s opposition group of the Sindicato Metalúrgico of Sao Paolo city and the opposition group of the Sindicato Bancario (Bank Employee’s Trade Union) of the city above mentioned (by the way, this trade union was elected in 1970 as the largest trade union in the country representing this professional group and later became one of the main pillars of the nuevo sindicalismo).

This nuevo sindicalismo also erupted in other sectors, such as, professional workers, civil servants, small rural entrepreneurs etc. It was mainly against the current trade union’s structures and work methods which were anchored in the official laws governing trade unions of the ‘40s. It called for the setting up of a trade union system that would be "independent, autonomous and democratic" and which should develop its work by organising huge men and women worker’s strikes and through open confrontation against the military government.

In August of 1983 the CUT was born out of this sector of the trade union’s movement and was to become the most representative Trade Union Center in the country and in Latin America. At the moment, the CUT is made up of 2,570 affiliated organisations with 6.028,620 organised female and male workers out of a total 19.451,589 of the workers represented (Data from the CUT’s

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General Secretariat). This Center is organised all over the national territory and encompasses very important sectors of economic activity and services. Among them are modern industrial sectors such as the metal and mechanical, chemical and pharmaceutical, banking and transportation, public services, paid rural workers and small-scale rural producers.

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The Organisation of Women within the CUT

The organisation of women within the CUT ran parallel to the evolution of the Center itself. During the first two years of its existence (1983-85), many female trade unionists implemented organisation initiatives for the women workers of various affiliated trade unions and of some provincial sectors of the CUT which brought about a better mobilisation in the quest towards a national organisation. This was achieved in 1986, during the CUT’s 2nd National Congress. The COMISSAO NACIONAL SOBRE A MULHER TRABALHADORA – CNMT – (National Committee for the Working Woman) was created then and it still exists and functions. This is quite surprising in Latin America where most women’s organisations in trade unions usually are short-lived or suffer long interruption pauses in their activities.

Various factors played an important role at the beginning of the organisation of women within the Trade Union Center:

First of all, in the last few decades, there has been a considerable increase of women’s participation in the labour market in Brazil. In 1970, the female workforce represented 18% of the total female population, a percentage that went up to 35,5% barely eight years later. During the same year in 1970, women accounted for 20,9% of the Brazilian economically active population. In 1995, they already made up approximately 40% [Data extracted from the Insituto Brasileiro de Geografía e Estatística (1980), cit. In Githay et al (19982:91) and IBGE/PNAD.] of it. Furthermore, women have gained access to the modern sectors of the economy such as the electric and electronic, chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. They have entered an expanded service sector, the public services, banking and financing – some of the most important impulses towards the recent trade union mobilisation and organisation took place in some of these areas.

Secondly, at the onstart of the decade of the ‘70s, Brazil experienced the emergence of an extremely expressive, autonomous, and feminist women’s movement which came hand in hand with a surge of popular neighbourhood movements where women were the main protagonists. Both movements were involved in the struggle against the military dictatorship and the quest towards democracy. The women’s movement has followed very peculiar dynamics which created a link between feminism with its radical ideas and the women who were being organised and stimulated by some sectors of the Catholic Church demanding basic services such as child care facilities, water supply, etc. The feminist's discourse and that of the Church, albeit of a conflictive nature when it referred to basic aspects of life such as the role of the family and sexuality, found a common denominator in raising women’s consciousness concerning their right to be independent and to lead their own lives (Souza-Lobo 1991). The variety of motivations and organisational possibilities found by Brazilian women are reflected in the emergence of a "broad and renewed conception" of feminism in this country which went beyond the needs of the middle class women and involved those belonging to other parts of society, including female trade unionists (Cappellin 1989). There has always been a dialogue between the women of the feminist movement and those of the CUT. The result of it has been the creation of an important reciprocal relationship. Many women who came form the autonomous women’s movement – researchers, activists – have collaborated since the very beginning with the CUT’s trade union activities for women. This dialogue has had an important repercussion on the development of the CUT’s organisation of women. It developed along the lines of the topics and discussions proposed in the sphere of the feminist movement, especially when it came to a strong criticism of

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women’s role within the trade unions movement and the relationship between men and women within the CUT herself.

The third factor that plays an important role was the profile of the nuevo sindicalismo. It was progressive, dynamic, daring in its demands to the trade union system and overwhelming when it faced up against the entrepreneurial powers and those of the State. This sector of trade union movement was created and influenced by people who came from a sexist culture discriminatory of women, nevertheless, it never ignored the surge of the other movements which were developing in the Brazilian society, among others, the women movement. Furthermore, the trade unions already had some experience when dealing with women’s demands. To this end, some important trade unions had been holding congresses for female workers since the end of the ‘70s. The demand for the organisation of women within the CUT in 1986 was seen as one of the many faces of the nuevo sindicalismo. It was considered as something that could not be avoided. Many trade unionists were against it, but they chose to play along for the time being. It is worth mentioning that the proposal presented by the women trade unionists was the result of a careful but resolute process of preparation, consensus and negotiations with active trade unionists and leading members.

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The Debate around the Quota System

The debate concerning the setting up of a minimum quota of female participation in the leading positions within the CUT began in 1991 during the 2nd National Meeting of the Working Women – five years after the National Committee for the Working Women had been created. The first five years of the Committee’s existence were devoted to settling down, consolidating the work to be done, and merely building up women’s place within the CUT. This place meant the introduction of female labour and the organisation of women as topics in the trade unions programmes. It also meant building up women’s respectability in the trade union movement as an inherent part of it, with the right to voice their demands. It meant being recognised as a constituent and special part of the workforce.

This involved, among other things, organising the National Committee and all the other committees in the provinces where the CUT was represented, but it also required the support of each and every branch of economic and service activities represented by the national organisations. It also meant fighting for responsible leaders in the Committee who could dispose of the necessary time to carry out this job. This meant organising consciousness raising activities to make people aware of issues such as working women and gender relations. It also meant intensive negotiations with the executive boards concerning the material and financial resources needed to carry out the work and it also involved the participation of the CUT in women’s debates and struggles in the other spheres of society.

At the beginning the ‘90s, the women leaders involved in this kind of work realised that it was necessary to enhance women’s presence in the decision-making levels. The following diagram illustrates the participation of women unionists in the National Congresses, which are the CUT’s highest decision-making levels and in the Executive Committees which are elected during those events. Up to 1994, when the 5th National Congress was held, which ended up with a 30% of women’s participation in the Executive Board, there had never been more than two women on the Board – less than 10% of its total membership. This was an absurdity considering the participation of women in the labour market. As mentioned above, it was also absurd considering their participation at the grass-roots level of the CUT and their active work in the trade union and in the CUT itself where women’s presence was more than obvious. When it came to trade union membership, by 1988, the official statistics showed a 25,6% female membership out of the total membership of male and female workers organised in trade unions in this country (IBGE/PNAD 1988). Meanwhile, at the most, 14.4% of the total trade union leaders in Brazil were women (IBGE, Pesquisa Sindical 1989).

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Total of delegates

% of women

National Board (total)


National Executive Committee (total)




















(1st CONCUT)










(2nd CONCUT)











(3rd CONCUT)











(4th CONCUT)







(5th CONCUT)







Sources: CASTRO; M. Silvia Portella et alii. Retrato da CUT. Sao Paolo, CUT 1991, p. 12; CUT-Resolucoes do 1°CONCUT 1964; Resolucoes do 2° CONCUT 1986 (excepting the percentage of women in the Congress, data of the CUT Estadual Sao Paulo); Resolucoes do 3°,4°, 5° CONCUTs (1988, 1991, 1994).*

* [Beginning at the 4° National Congress (1991), The National Board started having a variable composition depending on the meeting (number of representatives of the provincial bodies and of the different branches of economic and service activities of the national organisations) keeping up, since 1994 – the year in which the quota system was introduced – the required minimum and maximum percentage of each gender per meeting.]

When the National Committee for the Working Women presented their demand to introduce a quota system, their basic arguments were the existing internal and external discrepancies which were the result of a situation of exclusion and inequality in the relations among the genders. They made an appeal towards recognising the need to "go forward towards achieving a broader representation within the CUT, a representation that will take under consideration the diversity of the political subjects that make it up, among others, women." (CUT/DNMT 1993, p. 23). [All references concerning the quota system proposal made by the National Committee of the Working Women are to be found in the document titled "Participaçao das Mulheres nas Instancias de Direçao da CUT" which was presented to the CUT and published in the magazine "CUT – Espaço de Mul heres e de Homens" – CUT/CNMT, Abril 1993, p. 22, 23.]

The experience with the quota system in Brazil, meanwhile, did not begin in the trade Union Movement. It rather started in the Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT – (The Worker’s Party) which is the most important left-wing political party in the country which was established in 1980 also as a result of the struggle towards democracy. The women members of the PT introduced this debate citing the experiences gathered in progressive political parties in some European countries. During the year 1991, the First Congress of the PT approved a minimum quota of 30% women in its directive positions. This was the result of an intensive debate that was followed very closely by some members of the trade unions and which has had very significant repercussions on the Party itself and outside of it.

In the CUT, the discussion went on for two years before a definite decision in favour of the quota system could be reached in the year 1993. This was achieved during the 6th National Plenary Assembly of the CUT. It followed a very intense and difficult debate during which, for the first time, all men and women finally paid serious attention to the issue of female participation in the trade unions and gender relations. Discussions were held at provincial levels; leading personalities were called upon to deliver their positions in public. The topic came to life and heated up day to day trade union activities. Many people who followed the discussions all along and took part in the last two national forums where the decisions were to be taken concerning this issue, since it was part of the agenda (1992 and 1993), said that the quality of the debate had been very high and that the discus-

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sion concerning the quota system had been one of the few topics where the CUT had gone into such depth.

Another novelty which resulted from this issue was the dissolution of the voting "as block" following the political tendencies that had built up within the CUT during its development. Generally, the men and women delegates to the congresses or to other decision-making forums, voted as a block according to the position taken within each of the political groups to which they belonged. As a result of this dissolution, the "political discipline" came apart, so that in each group – with just a few exceptions – pro and con positions were vehemently expressed in public.

The relations of power were at stake for the CUT. The then president, Mr. Jair Neneguelli, who had defended the introduction of the quota system from its onset, stated it very clearly in public: "the discussion around the quota system has explicitly shown how predominant men’s presence is in the spheres of power within the CUT. This is the reason why it is so difficult to accept a proposal such as this: It is all about sharing power with women." [Report published in "Precisamos de representacao real. Sim à quotal" done by the CNMT/CUT, in June of 1993.]

It is important to underline that the women trade unionists of the National Committee of the Working Woman were prepared to win the acceptance of this proposal. It was not an easy challenge in spite of the fact that the PT had previously paved the way with its decision. Many women and men trade unionists who are affiliated to the CUT are also affiliated to this political party. Despite its renewal, the trade union movement still holds on to its hierarchical structures; historically and traditionally speaking, it has always been controlled and formed by men; women always held marginal positions, were almost excluded. It is a fact that the CUT was born with a progressive and open approach to new issues, but it is also a fact that the "macho" culture still predominates among its male members. Most of the male leaders and members of the trade unions failed to foresee the confrontation that was going to arise from such a transgressive proposal to involve women. For many trade unionists this proposal was to a certain extent, simply in bad taste. As long as – only – the Committee existed, the conflicts that it had with the other directive committees at national and provincial levels were handled as part of the normal trade union work. Nevertheless, decisive changes that affected the space so jealously protected by most men, were perceived as extremely excessive – even by some of the protagonists of the nuevo sindicalismo.

In the beginning, the National Committee organised a workshop with the goal of drawing up a strategy that would increase the possibilities of creating an overall opinion favourable to the quota system. [For this activity we had the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Brazil.]
In order to pave the way, the following actions were planned: talking to influential people both within the CUT and the trade unions, elaborating a list of arguments in favour and against the quota system, strengthening women trade unionists members of the Committee in their knowledge of the matter and preparing them for the debate concerning these arguments, preparing information materials in relation to the proposals, making sure the debate and the international experiences became public knowledge, informing public opinion about the favourable positions of the women and men leaders and letting them know about the positions they held, identifying male and female allys and involving them in the process, organising debating forums in different parts of the country stating favourable and unfavourable positions, delegating the different activities among all the members of the National Committee as well as among those of the provincial committees in their trade unions in close co-operation with the steering committee at national level, setting up a chronogram of activities up to the very date when the decision-making national forum would meet which would carry through the discussion concerning the quota system while at the same time drawing up an evaluation of the process and a final

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strategy to follow during the National Plenary Assembly.

The quota was introduced using the slogan "CUT – a space for women and men", which expressed the content of the proposal. In 1992 and 1993, when the national plenaries took place and this issue was discussed, the men and women delegates were extremely mobilised and the slogan "Without the quota" was printed on brochures and on adhesive tags worn by those who agreed with this demand. T-shirts and adhesive tags made by the Women’s Committees of the CUT in the provinces were added to the propaganda material produced by the National Committee; all this being a clear expression of the discussion’s dynamics in the country. A leading trade unionist who was against the quota system said: "this was a marketing victory, there was no discussion". With this comment he tried – without success – to disqualify the intensive debate that had gone through a two-year process.

We had planned an effective course of action. Our aim was to achieve the approval of the quota system while at the same time trying to bring about an ample and profound reflection on the issue of gender relations and the inequality inherent to them. We wanted to win the battle, we wanted to use it as a channel towards a better trade unionism. We wanted to do away with prejudices, wanted to contribute towards the creation of better values and new ideas concerning social relations, in particular, those relating to the genders. We also wanted the creation of new ideas concerning the role of trade unions vis-à-vis women. In this respect, our experience has shown that this question emanates the power of mobilising people. It awakens feelings and emotions which mix positively in politics and lead to reflections which, strictly speaking, go beyond those things experienced within the framework of a trade union’s practical work. In a way, the men and women trade unionists members of the CUT have gone through a privileged moment of discovery and dismantling prejudices and hatreds; a moment of fear of change and an even more intense longing for that change; a moment when they felt courageous enough to bring about these cherished changes.

The fact that the quota system was approved – which meant the recognition of the existing inequality between men and women and the decision to do something in order to overcome it – is the best example of the prevailing will to change the establishment.

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The Arguments in Favour and Against the Quota System

The National Committee for the Working Woman’s defence of the quota system was based on the existing reality concerning the participation/exclusion of women, as previously stated. The urgent need for action that this situation called for, had to become a must for the CUT. This organisation, herself based in the principles of democracy and equality, was called to "adopt strict measures that will bring about the elimination of all internal forms of discrimination" (CUT/CNMT 1993, p. 23). The quota system would contribute to make that process develop faster, accelerating, at the same time the creation of equality.

The arguments against the quota system were basically the following: [Concerning the arguments brought up during the debate re lating to the quota, also see the article written by SOARES, Vera – "As trabahadoras, os sindicato see CUT: incluir as mulheres nas direçoes". CUT/CNMT – CUT espacio de mulheres e de homens. Sao Paolo, CNT/CUT, April 1993, p. 17-21.]

  • it is an administrative, bureaucratic and statistical measure

  • it does not guarantee the presence of women that identify themselves with the struggle for women’s issues

  • it does not solve the problem of female participation

  • it is a paternalistic measure, it is not a conquest, it is just a grant

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  • there are not enough qualified women to take over leading positions

  • this measure is a slap in the face of democratic trade union elections; a participation will be imposed which had not necessarily been elected. It favours a certain segment, a group

  • it means the quest for power for the sake of power itself. Women are already participating in trade unionism, their presence and work is already being recognised

  • women are not going to be chosen due to their political capabilities, they shall only be included because their inclusion will be obligatory

  • the quota system is a proposal which is only supported by the feminists within the CUT. The women at the grass-roots are not involved in it.

  • this is something that is being transferred from the First World and has nothing to do with our own culture

In the end, the argument of the classes was reintroduced as the only concept left to destroy the heterogeneity of the women and men workers, which was supposed to have disappeared:

The CUT already represents the classes, no further divisions should be created. The quota system insists in fragmenting, not in uniting.

The argument concerning the political capabilities of women, that is, stating that the quota covers up the recognition of the women trade unionists’ true qualities was widely used by women in leading positions who used their own example to prove that the trade union movement was dully recognising women trade unionists based on their professional capabilities. This recognition would lend more legitimisation to their mandates than the mere stimulation of being part of the quota. Many women who were against the proposal feared being identified as "quota women leaders" and not as "courageous women leaders", which would mean a devaluation of their role.

As counter arguments, those in favour insisted that:

  • the quota system is a political measure that interferes in the decision-making processes and alters them

  • it is a women’s conquest thanks to their struggle to find their place in the trade unions as active participants. It is a way of overcoming the dynamics of exclusion which is taken for granted

  • it is coherent with the principles of democracy and equality that have been the CUT’s guidelines since its very creation and should also guide the relations between the genders

  • it is an impacting measure which means that people have realised that nothing is going to happen if they keep on expecting "natural" cultural changes to take place; cultural changes have to be provoked

  • the quota is not a space reserved for women who are conscious of the gender issue, but it can certainly foster their awareness as well as amplify women’s general potential of intervention when it comes to decision-making

  • it also amplifies the possibility of having women’s issues such as the gender issue become part of the debate and the decisions of the executive committees

  • the quota system creates a new possibility of access for women into the decision-making spheres. There are so many capable women trade unionists that have never participated in a directive committee

In the end, there were so many arguments questioning the quota system as being old fashioned and not up to date enough to cope with modern women’s concerns.

The parity system was seen as a fairer measure towards achieving equality, since a 30% as a minimum participation of women was considered to be a very moderate demand vis-à-vis the real participation of women. They also argued that the quota system would, in fact, only be a proposal that would end up giving men’s

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spheres of power even more legitimisation since it only demanded a larger number of women participating in a sector predominately made up of male practices, ideas and behaviour. Seen under this light, the quota system did not reach the core of the problem: the power structures.

Meanwhile, reality came along and set up some limitations obstructing the way for those who longed to achieve more radical changes. The option that we, the women trade unionists in the National Committee longed for was to achieve as much progress as possible: we wanted a de facto enhanced women’s presence in the decision-making bodies. The demand of having half the number of the Executive Committee be made up of women was not feasible at that moment. It was not even possible to fight for a different, more ideal or more abstract structure.

It was all about changing, as much as possible, what the CUT had to offer – the directive bodies with their male predominance – and in the long run, people hoped that this process would bring about other new changes. This is the reason why these two approaches which seemed much more advanced, were left untouched because, in the end, they would not change anything. The minimum quota of a 30% female participation was much more powerful and feasible considering the existing reality within the CUT.

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The Quest towards Equality: The Quota is Approved

The proposal formulated by the National Committee of the Working Woman called for a minimum of 30% participation of women in the CUT’s directive committees at national, provincial and regional levels. It also formulated a recommendation for trade unions to plan the make up of their directive committees taking under consideration as minimum the percentage of women workers organised at the grass-roots of the trade union in question. This was brought up during the CUT’s 5th National Plenary Session in 1992, which was followed by an endless debate. However, it was agreed to postpone the decision until the next year’s Plenary. During the year, in the two forums, the National Committee decided to come up with a new formulation that was presented in the 6th National Plenary in August of 1993. It was not until then, that a minimum percentage of 30% and a maximum of 70% of each gender were finally approved by the directive bodies of the CUT. This is the new wording: "this is an initial measure in order to build up equal political relations". [CENTRAL ÚNICA DOS TRABALHADORES – Resumo dos Resoluçoes da Plenaria, Sao Paulo, CUT, 1993, August (documents not published). The CUT’s National Plenary Sessions are annual deliberation forums held between Congresses which take place every three years. The participants are men and women delegates from all over the country who have been elected in their provinces and national organisations according to the economic or service branch they represent (federations, confederations). These Plenary Sessions have the power to deliberate about issues that have been postponed by a Congress or have come up after one and require a position from the CUT. The 4th CUT’s National Congress in 1991 accepted the demand of the National Committee to introduce the issue of the quota system and postponed its decision in this respect until the next National Plenary in 1992, where, once again, the decision was postponed for the next year. In 1994, during the 5th National Congress where a new Executive Committee was elected, the quota system was implemented.]
The new wording to describe the quota system was just an attempt to make it more acceptable since it made people aware of the need to put an end to insufficient representation for one of the genders. The background of both wordings could be discussed at length but this would go beyond the scope of this report.

In August of 1997, the 6th National Congress of the CUT was held. There was a 27% participation of women delegates and the second Executive Committee was elected which was made up of 30% female participation. Before the Congress took place, the CUT’s provinces had already held their local congresses in which they proceeded to elect their directive bodies based on the criteria laid down by the quota system.

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The Quota System Extends all over Brazil

The IV World Women’s Conference organised by the UN in Beijing, China in 1995 had a great

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impact on the experiences made concerning the quota system both in the trade unions and the political parties. The World Conference stressed the urgent need to extend women’s presence in the spheres of power. When the women Members of Parliament who had been at the World Conference came back, they launched a debate in the National Parliament and succeeded in getting the approval to their demand that all political parties should include a minimum of 20% women candidates for the municipal elections of 1996. In the aftermath of this law’s approval, an intense campaign under the slogan "Women do not fear power" was launched in order to stimulate women to become candidates. This campaign was supported by the women’s movement, trade union centres, NGOs, etc. The result of this was that, compared with the previous year’s electoral campaign, double as many women were elected as municipal councils at national level.

Based on this experience in 1997, the National Parliament approved a binding measure for all parliamentary elections at all levels, according to which, all political parties must present a minimum of 25% women candidates for the elections of 1998 (for the federal and the provincial parliaments) and a minimum of 30% starting in the year 2000 (when the next municipal elections will be held).

The adoption of the quota system was also extended all over the trade union movement. On March the 8th of this year, together with the celebrations of the International Women’s Day which has always been promoted by the three Brazilian Central Trade Union Organizations, the president of the CGT – General Workers Confederation – announced publicly the introduction of this measure in this central organisation. According to a statement made by the trade unionist Nair Goulart, Forca Sindical’s Secretary for Women’s, Children’s and Youth’s Issues, the second largest Central Trade Union Organisation in Brazil which was created in 1991, their Trade Union Congress held last August approved the minimum quota of a 20% women’s representation at all directive levels of the organisation that might be elected this year, and a minimum of 30 % as of the year 2000. According to this leading woman, the trade unionists of Forca Sindical are leaning on the CUT’s experiences as the main support of their own process, adopting strategies, arguments and materials based on those produced by the women of the CUT which have paved the way for Brazilian and Latin American trade unions. [Report presented during the Seminar "Gender and Trade Union Action" organised by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on October 20-21, in Bonn, Germany.]

It is important to point out that in all the cases in which the quota was included in the agenda – ever since the First Congress of the Workers Party in 1991 – the press coverage and the repercussions were quite noticeable, which comes to show the kind of impact that polemic demands formulated by women actually have. This topic has social repercussions, provoking outright favourable or unfavourable opinions, making people aware of women’s marginal status in all areas of politics. It also had repercussions on gender relations because it made people realise that women were struggling for equal opportunities.

Against this background, there have been many important changes during the last few years in Brazil in the attempt to eliminate the marginalised status of women at decision-making levels and in the spheres of power. It has not been eliminated, of course. Nevertheless, there have been very daring activities, the results of which are very significant; both in concrete and in symbolic terms.

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The Quota is Part of a Broader Strategy

The quota system is one of the many measures of affirmative or positive action that can be adopted to alter the relation between men and women at an institutional level. Affirmative actions "are a strategy of social politics whose aim is to achieve equal opportunities for men and women in the different organisations, in the labour market, at political level, etc." (Cappellin 1996, p. 13). These strategies are well known

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in the United States and in Europe where they have been introduced at all levels, but it was not until the ‘90s that an intensive debate around them was developed in Latin America. When the CUT’s National Committee of the Working Woman formulated its proposal, they were quite aware of the broad context that this issue encompassed.

"The setting up of a minimum quota of women’s participation in the trade union’s directive bodies …. should be part of the processes known as ‘affirmative actions’, well known and already adopted in the trade union organisation of various countries. They are part of a policy of concrete measures that has been introduced in order to reduce the existing inequality between men and women which shall bring about a real change of these situations in a given space. … The quota is not an isolated proposal. It is part of a bundle of concrete measures that, in the end, when an enhanced and more effective women’s presence in the everyday trade union activities is achieved, shall contribute to create a significant and positive alteration of the dynamics in the trade union relations within the CUT" (CUT/CNMT 1993, p. 23)

The quota has been up to now the most radical and most impacting measure. Among the measures carried through in the CUT, two should be emphasised, which were taken before the quota system was introduced.

The first one was the incorporation of the gender issue as one of the topics of the national policy of trade union training. This meant the formulation and implementation of an appropriate program made up of a package of regular activities; both, for women only and also for men and women. These activities were to be organised by the National Secretariat for Education and Training together with the National Committee of the Working Woman. It also meant that they had to try – something which is still not an easy task – to make the gender issue cross over to the different issues which make up the trade union’s training policy.

The other measure was guaranteed child care facilities during trade union events, which slowly became a general rule and turned into one of the main items to be considered during the preparation of these events.

The quota system should not be considered as the end of the tunnel. Quite on the contrary, it is but a new beginning, as challenging as the setting up of a women’s organisation in the trade union world. In order to really consolidate the quota system, a set of prerequisites is required. Among them: support for those women who enter the directive bodies; stimulation of the discussion between men and women concerning the difficulties involved in women’s participation and finding out ways to overcome them; keeping the issue of women’s presence alive; looking for ways of attracting women to take over these new roles; keeping up an intensive struggle in order to change the structures and the ways the trade unions and the central organisations work which usually put obstacles in the way of women’s participation; linking to this discussion the questions of the roles that men and women are expected to play in society, the role of the family and the division of labour based on gender in all areas.

In conclusion, the role of women’s organisations is of paramount importance both to the Central Trade Union Organisations and the individual trade unions. Women’s organisations must always be reinforced since they constitute the foundation upon which the victory achieved by the introduction of the quota system can be maintained and extended. They are the basic ground upon which structural changes can be launched that will make trade unions much more attractive for women and turn trade unionism into a space where women and men can both have their own place.

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CAPELLIN, Paola – "Acoes afirmativas: uma estratégia para corrigir as desigualdades entre homens e mulheres." In: CENTRO FEMINISTA DE ESTUDOS E ASSESSORIA/ELISABETH LOBO ASSESSORIA- Discriminacao positiva – acoes afirmativas. Em busca da iguadade. Brasilia, CFEMEA/ELAS, 1996.

CAPPELLIN, Paola – "Silenciosas e combativas: as contribuicoes das mulheres na estrutura sindical no Nordeste 1976/1986". In: COSTA, A.O. e BRUSCHINI, C. (orgs.) – Rebeldia e submissao: estudos sobre condicao feminina. Sao Paulo, Vortice/Fundacao Carlos Chagas.



FUNDACAO INSTITUTO BRASILEIRO DE GEOGRAFIA E ESTATÍSTICA – Pesquisa Nacional por Amostragem de Domicílio1988; e Pesquisa Sindical 1989. GITHAY, Lede et alil – Operárias: sindicalizacao e reivindicacoes (1970-1980). Revista de Cultura e PolÍtica, 8. Sao Paulo, junio, p. 90-116.

SOARES, Vera – "As trabalhadoras, os sindicatos e a CUT; incluir as mulheres nas direcoes". In: CUT/CNMT – CUT – espaco de mulheres e homens. Sao Paulo, CNMT/CUT, abril de 1993, p. 17-21.

SOUZA-LOBO, Elisabeth – A classe operária tem dois sexos. Trabalho, dominacao e resisténcia. Sao Paolo, Brasiliense/SMC, 1991.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Oktober 2001

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