This book focuses on the origins and roles of SENAI (Serviço Nacional de Aprendizagem Industrial/National Service for Industrial Training) and SESI (Serviço Social da Indústria/Industrial Social Service). These were public agencies created by government decrees in 1942 and 1946 that operated as private organizations funded by compulsory contributions from industries and controlled by Brazilian associations of industrialists. Unusual in giving industrialists such a central role in structuring industrial relations, these organizations allowed the self-styled “vanguard” of Brazil’s industrialists (centered in São Paulo) to develop and implement their own “rational” approaches to worker training and social services, while at the same time they minimized state intervention and virtually excluded the participation of organized labor. This “vanguard,” which introduced a discourse of rationalization in the 1920s, sought to increase productivity through rational organization, scientific management, and technological progress; these, it was argued, were the essential bases for achieving higher standards of living and social peace. By claiming for themselves (and their class) the technical and scientific knowledge necessary to modernize Brazilian economy and society, SENAI and SESI also sought to enhance their class image as the key agents of progress and expand their authority from the factory into the larger social and political spheres.

What emerges from this study is a picture of an activist national industrial bourgeoisie with an original and coherent modernization project. However, Weinstein does not romanticize this effort. Indeed, as she shows, the most widely diffused and enduring vision that developed among Brazilian industrialists was one of “privileged hierarchy, technical authority, and close supervision in the workplace.” Given what Weinstein calls the “particularly pronounced” derogatory views that industrialists held of workers’ culture and capacities, even the most “progressive” industrialists allowed no space for worker participation, much less control. Not surprisingly, both SENAI and SESI covertly supported the 1964 military coup and rejoiced when the “revolution” forcibly imposed “social peace”—the essential precondition for continued modernization.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this study is its analysis of day-to-day negotiations and struggles between labor and the agents of the industrialists’ projects. Weinstein argues that the very uneven and erratic implementation of scientific management and rational organization in Brazil did not inevitably lead to intense class conflict between the 1920s and 1964. In a country in which labor had been associated primarily with slaves, not skilled craftsmen, urban labor leaders—including the most militant—supported technological progress and industrial growth as the path to general wellbeing and security. Thus, she argues, labor was receptive to those programs sponsored by the SENAI and the SESI that offered workers the opportunity to obtain technical training, participate in innovations in the productive process, secure “professional” salaries, and enhance occupational health and safety. Nevertheless, although organized labor did not challenge the industrialists’ hegemonic discourse that linked social welfare to rapid economic development, it disputed the share that labor deserved of the benefits of increased productivity and sought (with the help of populist governments) to define and enforce the obligations of employers and the rights of workers. In addition, organized labor did effectively contest industrialists’ claims to being the champions of “social peace.”

This fascinating, well-documented, and richly nuanced study will recast interpretations of the roles of both industrialists and labor in the history of twentieth-century Brazil.