Early 20th Century Social Conditions
The interwar years in Brazil saw an increase in labor agitation as the economy expanded, industrialization and urbanization stepped up, and immigrants flowed into the country. Coffee overproduction by the turn of the century had provoked subsidization programs at the state and national levels that helped the planters but could not prevent the decline in the economy's capacity to pay for imported manufactured goods. Local industry began to fill the gap. World War I restricted trade further, and Brazilian industrial production increased substantially. The government stressed the need for more industrial independence from foreign producers and stimulated import substitution, particularly in textiles. Many of the factories were small, with an average of twenty-one workers. In 1920 about a million urban workers were concentrated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Brazil was just beginning to develop its industrial base, but it was still mainly an agricultural country with 6.3 million people working the soil.
The living conditions of urban workers were bad. Housing, transportation, sewerage, and water supply trailed far behind the rapid population growth and produced serious public health problems. The clean-up campaigns at the beginning of the century struck at the high incidence of yellow fever, malaria, and smallpox in Rio de Janeiro, Santos, and Northeastern seaports. The city centers were made safer, but the workers who crowded into sordid "beehives" (cortiços --small crowded houses) and favelas (shantytowns) suffered all sorts of ailments.
The federal and state governments subsidized immigration from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Japan to provide workers for the coffee plantations. However, many immigrants soon fled the rough conditions in the countryside for better opportunities in the cities. They flooded the labor pools, making it difficult for unions to force factory owners to pay better wages. Women, who were the majority of workers in the textile and clothing industries, were frequently active in organizing factory commissions to agitate for improved conditions, freedom from sexual abuse, and higher pay. Strikes had occurred in 1903, 1906, and 1912, and in 1917 general strikes broke out in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Recife, Santos, and Porto Alegre.
Because the mentality of the industrialists was rooted in the slavery era and emphasized their well-being over that of the commonwealth and because they functioned on a thin profit margin, they tended to fire workers for striking or joining unions. The industrialists also blacklisted troublemakers, employed armed thugs to keep control inside and outside the factories, and called on the government to repress any sign of labor organization. There were no large massacres of strikers, as occurred in Mexico and Chile, but the physical violence was marked.
Some advocates of reform were heard. For example, economic nationalists like Roberto Simonsen argued for improved pay incentives to prevent individual workers from unionizing. During the 1920s, the Roman Catholic Church, as part of its effort to revive its status, organized the Young Catholic Workers and preached the example of the Holy Family accepting "the will of Providence, in pain and in happiness." By 1930 church societies, private charities, factory-sponsored recreational clubs, and government agencies strove for more control over workers' organizations and leisure time.
During the Old Republic, Brazil changed at a frightening rate. As its population increased 162 percent between 1890 and 1930, it became more urbanized and industrialized, and its political system was stretched beyond tolerance. Concern over the resurgence of labor activity in the late 1920s was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Old Republic in 1930 and to the subsequent significant change in labor and social policy.
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