Collective Struggle: UNICAB (Brazil)

“To confront, to resist and to persist”

The National Union of Hawkers, Street and Market Vendor Workers of Brazil – UNICAB was founded in July of 2015, after many years of struggle led by diverse activists in several Brazilian cities. To understand how the organization was created and how it boosted the struggle of street vendors in Brazil, we spoke with the members of the Executive elected in the 2019 Congress, Juliano Fripp and Maria de Lourdes do Carmo (also known as Maria dos Camelôs), in order to share their perspective about the evolution of UNICAB and the collective struggle for hawkers and street and market vendors in Brazil.

Mobilization around the World Cup 2014

The creation of UNICAB was boosted by the World Cup in Brazil, in 2014. From the moment the country was chosen to host that international megaevent, social movements in Brazil and around the world started preparations to prevent abuses that had taken place in other countries. As Juliano explains “When there is a World Cup, the politicians try to hide those things that are ugly for tourists, they sweep them under the carpet, to show a beautiful and wonderful city. In Brazil, there was no difference. They tried to hide homeless people, and especially hawkers and street vendors”.

For StreetNet, this sort of international megaevents had already been identified long ago as an added risk for informal traders’ rights. Therefore, before the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, StreetNet had developed the campaign World Class Cities for All, to keep the preparations for the World Cup from harming street vendors and their right to work.

The campaign was then replicated in Brazil, starting in 2011. The current Organizer for the Americas Region, Maíra Vannuchi, started to work as a representative of StreetNet in the country, meeting with many activists for the rights of hawkers and street and market vendors, and establishing a network of contacts between several hotspots of collective struggle which had been scattered until then. The national coordination of informal traders’ leaderships from the host cities resulted in the document “World Cup for All – the portrait of street vendors in the host cities of the World Cup of 2014”, published in a reportage and in a national meeting of Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA), in Sao Paulo, which resulted in a national letter to FIFA.

“UNICAB was actually born in 2013, before the World Cup, when there was great mobilization through StreetNet” remembers Juliano. “People from different States of Brazil were encouraged to meet others involved in the struggle of street and market vendors in each capital. And that really strengthened the movement”.

Activists from Rio Grande do Sul, such as Juliano for example, went to visit their comrades in Rio de Janeiro and vice-versa, for what we at StreetNet refer to as exchange visits. This approximation allowed them to understand the similarities of the various struggles fought by informal traders in various points of Brazil.

“When we started to talk to each other, we felt the need to organize a national movement to answer to the demands of hawkers, to have that national representation. And we created UNICAB” summarizes Maria. “It was the effort of activists from several States. Because we needed that national umbrella to properly defend the rights of informal economy workers, urban hawkers and vendors”.

The articulation between several movements and the national mobilization led to immediate results at the local level. Juliano highlights the Corridor of the World Cup (Corredor da Copa) in Porto Alegre, a space available for street vendors to work from the Porto Alegre Stadium to the historical center of the city, as an important achievement. Similar successes were achieved in other cities through the struggle of local movements, supported at the national level.

However, this mobilization would not have been possible if not for the previous work of the activists themselves. As Juliano explains “the work of mobilizing, the work of struggle, it did not start with StreetNet or with UNICAB. It started before. I have worked in the streets since 1990. In 2001, we created the Association Feira Rua da Praia – ASFERAP, the first association focused on this category of workers in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. Meaning, the mobilization work started many years ago. And it continued after the World Cup”.

The United Hawkers Movement –  MUCA was also created many years before the World Cup by a group of hawkers led by Maria in July of 2003, as a response to an assault by the Municipal Guard of Rio de Janeiro that she suffered while she was pregnant

The coming together of several scattered movements allowed them to identify collective challenges and priorities. One of the examples highlighted by Juliano is the issue of camelódromos, closed areas for popular markets created by municipal authorities to accommodate hawkers and street vendors. Although projects of camelódromos were initially supported by movements of vendors, such as the case in Porto Alegre in which ASFERAP negotiated and supported the creation of a camelódromo in the city in 2009, the takeover of this space by private management in the following year resulted in the expulsion of several vendors for not being able to afford rents. From 800 street vendors set up in the first year, just 100 managed to keep their stores until today, while the rest of the space is occupied by small businessmen. “The struggle is intense. Now, those 700 vendors who left the camelódromo went back to the streets” explains Juliano. The streets are dangerous because “every now and then, policemen come and apprehend, beat, steal merchandise. So, the next struggle for us is to be able to regularize informal economy work in Portalegre. Maria in Rio de Janeiro and comrades in Recife, Sao Paulo, Paraíba, all engage in this struggle, which is the same. It is the struggle for the right to the city, for the right to work”.

As UNICAB positions itself in several fronts, the organization keeps growing and can assert itself as a political force. For Maria, the creation of the organization itself as a united front of several movements of informal traders is its biggest achievement.

The political affirmation of hawkers and street and market vendors in Brazil

The creation of UNICAB as a national entity representative of hawkers and street and market vendors in Brazil was essential for the political affirmation and recognition of these workers.

“Anywhere where we fight those struggles, we present ourselves as representatives of UNICAB and that is very powerful when you are facing the Municipal Council, the Mayor, or the Governor. No, we are representatives of a national entity” says Juliano.

Despite the distance between the several organizations that compose UNICAB, its members interact regularly and coordinate actions. This articulation is beneficial for UNICAB as a national entity, but it also strengthens the local movements. An excellent example of the local/national dynamics that UNICAB managed to develop is the quick response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic started, we were immediately concerned. What about informal economy workers?” remembers Juliano. Along with the group of UNICAB and diverse social and trade union movements and allied federal congressmen, they managed to pressure the political power and achieve a project of basic emergency income of the Federal Government at the National Congress.

The initial proposal was a basic income of 1000 reais against the proposal of 200 reais from the President Jair Bolsonaro. The final agreement was a basic emergency income of 600 reais for six months, which were then prolonged until December of 2020. “We did not get the 1000 reais, but the basic emergency income completely changed the situation. And that was our struggle, an articulated struggle, in which all informal economy workers participated. It is a historical legacy” states Juliano.

Besides achieving the basic emergency income (you can read more about that policy here) UNICAB also managed to gather the necessary signatures from Federal Congressmen to create a Parliamentary Front to defend the rights of informal traders at the Brazil National Congress. For the first time in history, this category of workers will be represented at the highest sphere of political power at the national level. “The Parliamentary Front is an achievement that will completely alter our relationship with the governments, because we will have several congressmen from different States defending the work of hawkers and street and market vendors” underscores Juliano “It is an impressive legacy”.

What sets the collective struggle in Brazil apart from other contexts?

For an organization created less than ten years ago, UNICAB has many great achievements, especially considering the unfavorable political context with President Jair Bolsonaro in power and a government hostile to the struggle of labor and social movements.

From Juliano’s perspective, something that might distinguish the collective struggle of informal traders in Brazil from other contexts is the political approach of UNICAB. Although the organization is not associated with political parties, it has a clear left-wing political orientation. And it is not afraid to become involved in party politics to advance its agenda.

“Many movements do not agree with the participation of municipal council members and congressmen, due to ignorance. But we have always brought them along. I do not know if that sets the struggle in Brazil apart, but it might. We have a relationship with left-wing parties, and we have established mutual respect, we respect them, and they respect us. It is a two-way street; they help us when they are in power and we help them to be reelected. It is a very good relationship. And it makes a difference, in all States”.

However, another more innovative initiative is encouraging hawkers and street and market vendors themselves to be candidates in political elections at the local level. In the municipal elections in Brazil, in November of 2020, several members of UNICAB were candidates to Municipal Council members. “For example, Maria was a candidate in Rio, João Baptista was a candidate in Sapucaia do Sul, Jacque da Tinga in Porto Alegre, Belloto in Recife” says Juliano. Despite the votes not being enough for them to be elected, the presence of these candidates forced informal traders’ rights to be part of the political agenda for the elections. “When the candidates show up on TV defending street vendors, that influences society” underscores Juliano.

UNICAB also has a strong women’s leadership, unlike organizations in some country. “UNICAB’s Executive is mostly composed of women” says Maria “That cause [women’s rights] is in our charter of principles, therefore women are leading that process. Women can assert themselves, present their demands, their concerns”. Many of these women are leaders at the local or state level in their own organizations and, according to Maria, they are already trained to participate in the political debate. “We assert ourselves; we are respected, these are people with a political conscious” she adds.

Another issue which differentiates the Brazilian context from other countries is the relationship with the larger movement for informal economy workers’ rights. Although in some countries the unity of these workers is their strength, Juliano highlights that hawkers and street and market vendors are the only group of informal economy workers without any kind of regulation, whether it is at municipal, State or national level. “We have to be close, yes, but our struggle must stand on its own” he states.

Beside this aspect, while in other countries organizations of informal traders have established strong links with trade unions, this is not a priority for UNICAB. However, they do have a good relationship with the Union Central of Workers – CUT. “There is a very interesting approximation” says Juliano “We just cannot lose our autonomy, ever”.

The relationship between UNICAB and StreetNet

Because StreetNet had a mobilizing role for the creation of UNICAB, the two organizations have a strong relationship. Juliano is the current representative of UNICAB in the StreetNet internal structures and he makes sure that this affiliation is known by public authorities.

“When we present ourselves, I speak about UNICAB and I also bring along StreetNet’s name. And when I say there is an international entity, people tremble” says Juliano, referring to his experience in negotiations with public authorities “The fact that we are affiliated makes us stand out, and it makes us grow”.

Beyond the international credentials, Juliano also acknowledges the essential contribution of StreetNet for the national struggle. “StreetNet achieved for us the ILO Resolution 204” he mentions, as an example. Besides, he considers the training courses organized by StreetNet and the continuous support offered by the organization to be very important. “StreetNet saw that it can, and it should help our movement. Because when UNICAB grows, StreetNet grows as well. Therefore, it is a convergence that becomes the perfect mix for the movement to grow more and more”.

UNICAB is part of the Americas region in the StreetNet internal structures, therefore Juliano, as a representative, is constantly in contact with other comrades from Latin America. “There were and there are meetings and healthy and democratic debates and exchange of experiences throughout Latin America”, he adds.

Best practices of UNICAB’s Collective Struggle to share with other organizations of street vendors

Because UNICAB is an organization that has managed to assert itself in such a strong way in a short period of time, we asked Maria and Juliano if they had advice for other activists who are now fighting their own collective struggles.

Maria suggests that activists “search for unity and demonstrate their confidence for this category of workers. To be righteous, very honest, and to be with the people in the streets, to feel in your skin what those people go through. To seek out partnerships with other people and entities is also very important. Because that gives you the strength to fight, you do not feel alone. To gather the population, gather workers and put pressure on the political power, at the municipal, State and federal level. That political pressure is very important”.

As for Juliano, “my advice is what I do. The construction of a collective process. It means being aware of what we actually need, not you, but all, and fight the struggle. Do not sell yourself, do not surrender and fight with courage. You must face the police and politicians who want to destroy the movement. To confront, to resist and to persist” summarizes Juliano “if you do that, you will go far, but you must build the collective, people need to understand that the struggle is collective. Just one, just two, three, they cannot fight the struggle. But one hundred, three hundred, they can.” He also adds that we must not be afraid of disagreements, we must learn how to debate.

With the impressive legacy UNICAB has managed to create so far, these are advices we must all follow!

To know UNICAB and its tireless work for hawkers and street and market vendors in Brazil, we suggest you follow their podcast Radio Ambulante (in Portuguese).