NEW YORK – President Joe Biden and his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, focused on workers’ rights as the leaders of the Western Hemisphere’s largest democracies met Wednesday in New York.
A new partnership committed to labor rights comes amid differences between the presidents over Russia’s war in Ukraine, the U.S. embargo of Cuba and other issues. Still, Biden and Lula, in remarks to reporters, were eager to display their shared goals at the start of their meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Biden sought to tie the meeting to domestic matters. Long a champion of labor unions, Biden is navigating strikes in the U.S. by autoworkers, screenwriters and actors who are seeking better pay and protections in a changing global economy. He has declined the request by the United Auto Workers leader to join the picket line.
“When the middle does well, everybody does well,” Biden told Lula. “Working-class folks have a chance to move up. And the wealthy still do fine, as long as they pay their taxes.”
Lula said he had never heard an American president speak so highly of workers, and described their common cause as a chance to transform ties between the countries.
“This meeting here, for me, is more than a bilateral meeting; it is the rebirth of a new era in the relationship between the U.S. and Brazil. It is a relationship of equals,” Lula said. He later described it as “a golden moment for us.”
Initial hopes that Lula would prove a staunch ally for Biden have been tempered in recent months, with the Brazilian leader voicing opposition on some issues and at times even seeming to thumb his nose at Washington.
That has included dismissing allegations of Venezuela’s authoritarianism, calling for decreased dependence on the dollar for global trade and accusing the U.S. of fueling bloodshed in Ukraine by providing military aid. In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Lula criticized the U.S. embargo and sanctions targeting Cuba.
Biden had frosty relations with Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, an open admirer of Donald Trump who waited weeks before recognizing Democrat Biden’s 2020 election victory over Republican Trump.
After Bolsonaro’s defeat, his supporters stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace in Brasilia in an attempt to oust Lula from power. The circumstances bore a clear resemblance to Trump and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Lula quickly traveled to Washington, where he and Biden reflected on the challenges to democracy they had both overcome.
Their labor partnership will be a way for trying to stop the exploitation of workers, forced and child labor as well as workplace discrimination, according to U.S. officials.
Biden sees support from organized labor as an essential part of his 2024 reelection efforts, stressing that his policies will create factory and construction jobs that do not require a college degree. Lula got his start in politics as leader of a powerful metalworkers’ union and, on Wednesday, highlighted that he spent more than two decades in factories and has no degree himself.
“This gesture we are doing here is an awakening of hope for millions and millions of Brazilians and Amdericans who need to have the opportunity to live life, to triumph, to work and build their family decently,” Lula said.
Also expected to be on their agenda was environmental preservation.
Lula has presented himself as a leader on this front, and his administration has made significant progress in the Amazon.
Deforestation of the Amazon had soared to a 15-year high under Bolsonaro, who called for the development of the rainforest, emboldening loggers and miners to invade protected areas, while defanging environmental authorities. Lula began rebuilding those agencies, created eight protected areas for Indigenous people, and expelled thousands of miners from the massive Yanomami Indigenous territory. Deforestation dropped by nearly half in his first eight months.
He has sought international contributions for Brazil’s Amazon Fund, but donations have been small and symbolic. In February, the U.S. committed to a $50 million donation to the initiative, though it has yet to be provided. Biden later announced he would ask Congress for an additional $500 million, which has yet to be committed.
“It is very important that the United States sees what is happening in Brazil at this historic moment of ecological transition, of changing the energy matrix, the potential our country has for investment,” Lula said.
Boak reported from Washington.