Lula’s Rise From Metalworker to President of Brazil

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva commonly known as “Lula,” has won the first round of Brazil’s presidential elections by 48.4%, much tighter than many had expected. As we await the second round of election please enjoy this excerpt of Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil by John D. French, which was the winner of the 2021 Sergio Buarque de Holanda Prize for Best Book in Social Sciences, Brazil Section of the Latin American Studies Association and the 2021 Warren Dean Memorial Prize, Conference on Latin American History.


In October 2002 Brazil overwhelmingly elected as president a former metalworker and founder of a socialist party, a man whose family had left the miserable northeastern (nordestino) hinterland five decades earlier, only to face prejudice and hardship in the country’s industrial heartland of São Paulo. The election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) was a clear signal that deep changes were taking place in a country marked by huge social inequalities and a contempt for manual labor engendered by almost four centuries of slavery. The fifty-seven-year-old Lula’s election was not only a remarkable personal achievement for a man born into rural poverty but also a sterling tribute to the Brazilian fight to overcome the legacy of the military dictatorship that had ruled from 1964 to 1985. The amazing story of the four decades from the 1964 military coup to Lula’s election can be captured in two images. Lula’s 1980 police mug shot showed a subversive detained for leading a massive metalworkers’ strike; his presidential portrait of 2003 depicted an older, smiling Lula who would for the next eight years command the very military men who had jailed and persecuted him.

Lula’s emergence as a charismatic personality of unquestioned moral authority was linked to events between 1978 and 1980, when workers repeatedly struck the foreign-owned automobile assembly plants in the suburban ABC region of Greater São Paulo. This wave of industrial militancy, which originated among the highest-paid manual workers in Latin America, quickly spread to millions of others over the next three years. As the first mass strikes since the 1964 military coup, the ABC region’s work stoppages captured the Brazilian imagination. With 1.6 million residents in 1980, this Latin American Detroit stood out as an extreme example of industrial production on a hitherto-unknown scale. The massive Volkswagen plant in São Bernardo, for example, employed between 35,000 and 40,000 workers in a single complex.

a remarkable personal achievement for a man born into rural poverty 

In the late 1970s, Brazil was in the opening phase of a tumultuous struggle for redemocratization, and the strikes of ABC’s metalworkers not only “infused extraordinary new energy into the labor movement,” as Margaret Keck has written, but also “fed the image of an increasingly powerful opposition within civil society to continued military rule.” The sheer scale and intensity of mobilization in ABC excited awe. In order to accommodate the massive attendance—up to 60,000 workers—the union’s general assemblies were held in a local soccer stadium. And in 1980, the workers stayed out on strike for forty-one days despite the army’s occupation of the region, the closing of their union, and the arrest of its leaders.

The ABC strikes also catapulted the president of the metalworkers’ union of São Bernardo do Campo and nearby Diadema to national and international prominence. “Luis Inacio da Silva is to Brazil,” the New York Times noted in 1981, “what Lech Walesa is to Poland.” As strike participation reached 3 million nationwide by 1980, the charismatic thirty-five-year-old Lula came to personify the combative, grassroots-oriented New Unionism that would take institutional form in 1983 as the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, or Unified Workers’ Central). In this national trade union confederation’s first five years, the newly dynamized labor movement conducted the first truly national general strikes in Brazilian history. As Brazil entered a new democratic era, labor had emerged, in the words of political scientist Alfred Stepan, as the civilian group with “the greatest organizational capacity to continue to militate against those still repressive authoritarian features of the Brazilian State and Brazilian social life.”

John D. French is professor of history at Duke University and the author, most recently, of Drowning in Laws: Labor Law and Brazilian Political Culture