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Mexico’s Labor Movement in Transition

Dan La Botz teaches history and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, and is the author of several books on labor in Mexico, Indonesia, and the United States.

The Mexican labor movement has been undergoing a profound transformation in the last ten years, the result of twenty years of neoliberal economic policies and the transformation of the Mexican one-party state.1 A new independent labor movement has emerged which has not only broken with the old state-controlled labor-relations system, but has also put itself forward as the leader of the social movements, and, at the moment, appears as a real political force that can challenge the government.2

In 2004, for example, while the economy remained weak, political parties wallowed in corruption, and conservatives continued to press their reactionary and pro-business political agenda, Mexico’s new independent labor movement stood its ground, fought back, and stepped forward to lead social and political opposition to the government. Created by two independent labor organizations, the Union, Peasant, Social, Indigenous, and Popular Front (FSCISP) rallied broader forces in a combination of demonstrations and brief work stoppages in late August and early September to oppose the neoliberal agenda of President Vicente Fox and the National Action Party (PAN). With the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) cornered in Chiapas and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) covered in disgrace following the revelation of political payoffs, one could say that the FSCISP has emerged as the real potential force of the Mexican left.

The appearance of an independent labor movement takes on more significance given the current crisis in Mexican politics. In April the Mexican Congress voted to strip Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of his executive immunity and federal prosecutors indicted him on a felony, a process that will likely make him unable to stand for president in the July 2006 elections. The vote of the delegates of the PAN and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to eliminate López Obrador, the front-runner of the PRD, is seen by many as an attack on Mexico’s new and fragile political democracy. The emergence of an independent labor movement at the same time as this crisis in democracy raises the possibility for the first time in more than a decade of a mass movement attempting to transform Mexico’s political system and move it toward the left.

The Transformation of Industry and Unions

Like labor movements in Canada, the United States, and around the world, Mexican unions continue to undergo a process of realignment and reorganization as workers and their allies seek new tactics and strategies to defend their rights and improve their standard of living in the face of globalization. The changes in Mexican labor have resulted principally from the neoliberal economic agenda introduced by the PRI in 1982 and continued by President Vicente Fox of the PAN since his election in 2000. But changes have also arisen from within the labor movement itself, from unions and workers as they sought new strategies to adapt to a dramatically new situation.

Current developments only make sense in historical context. Between the 1930s and 1982, Mexico pursued a strategy of import substitution industrialization in a mixed economy with a large state-owned sector. The Mexican government owned the oil, railroad, electric power, telephone, and many other industries in over a thousand government-managed firms. Labor was kept under control by the secretary of labor and the Mexican Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration which strictly managed Mexican labor unions, contracts, and strikes. At the same time, the PRI controlled the majority of Mexican labor unions organized into the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and other “official” labor federations brought together in the Congress of Labor (CT), a system called corporativismo. For public employees there was the Federation of Unions of Workers at the Service of the State (FSTSE) and for farmers and peasants the National Peasants Confederation (CNC). These unions, often under corrupt and violent labor bureaucrats appointed during the Cold War, were commonly known as sindicatos charros. The role of the official unions was to maintain labor peace, keep wages low, and thus make Mexico profitable for Mexican capitalists and attractive to foreign investors.3

In some parts of Mexico, particularly in the state of Nuevo Leon, there were also company unions, sindicatos blancos, completely controlled by the corporations, though they were not very important in the national system. In the 1960s, a radical worker upsurge, insurgencia obrera, led to the establishment of independent unions, sindicatos independientes, in manufacturing, and particularly in the university sector, and some rank-and-file caucuses, corrientes democráticas, in some sindicatos charros such as the miners. Nevertheless, these independent unions and democratic caucuses couldn’t break the stranglehold of the official unions.

The Neoliberal Transformation

The process of change began in 1982 when PRI President Miguel de la Madrid adopted a neoliberal economic agenda that included structural adjustments and free trade. In keeping with this shift, in 1986 Mexico joined the World Trade Organization (then known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). In 1994, it became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and in that same year entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

As part of this shift from economic nationalism, Mexico adopted a policy of privatizing state-owned industries and opening them to foreign investment. During this period Mexico shut down old industrial plants, like the Fundidora de Monterrey steel mill, and sold off about a thousand state-owned industries, including the famous Cananea copper mine, the telephone company (Telmex), and the Mexican National Railways. At the same time, the border industrialization program expanded with the opening of hundreds of new maquiladoras and the gradual development of a new northern industrial zone a couple of hundred miles south of the border.

All of these changes led to an economic recomposition of the Mexican working class as thousands of jobs were lost in steel and metal production, the center of industry shifted somewhat toward the north, and more women entered the workforce. Within the plants, employers introduced new forms of work organization under the rubric of “flexibilization.” Outside the workplace, drastic currency devaluations in 1982 and 1994 effectively cut wages and Mexican workers have continuously lost purchasing power since 1982.4

The neoliberal policies failed to lift Mexico into the first world and exacerbated many social problems. Mexico has a population of over 100 million; today 50 percent of all Mexicans live in poverty, 20 percent in extreme poverty, and 18 percent of children suffer from malnutrition.5 Mexico has 45 million workers: today 30 million work in the informal sector, that is, where employers pay no taxes, offer no social security coverage (for health care and pensions), have no labor unions or contracts, pay lower wages, and offer no benefits. Most of the moderately and extremely poor do not enjoy social protections, such as health care.

The Decline of Labor Union Density

The consequences of privatization and industrial reorganization on union density were dramatic. During the period from 1984 to 2000, Mexico’s labor union density (the percentage of workers in labor unions) declined in the formal sector from 30 to 20 percent.6 Union density, however, does not afford a good measure of real union power in Mexico since so many unions are controlled by the government or by the employers. That is, many of the so-called unions were not real labor unions. Mexico’s Department of Labor, labor boards, and its courts have cooperated with the government, employers, and “official” labor unions to prevent the creation of independent unions, stop democratic movements, prevent strikes, and in general maintain labor peace. Many unions in Mexico were “ghost unions” created by management with “protection contracts” that defend the employers against real worker organizations. Some authorities believe that 80 percent of all labor union agreements may be “protection contracts.”7 The decline of real union power during the period under consideration was therefore even more dramatic than the figures on labor union density would indicate.

Labor Unions Reorganize

These developments had a powerful impact on the entire labor movement, not only on the state-controlled “official” unions of the CT, but also on the independent labor unions. Most of the leadership of the CT and the CTM proved unwilling, unable, and above all uninterested in defending the workers. their only interest was preserving the union as an institution of economic enrichment and political power for themselves. Change would have to begin somewhere else.

Francisco Hernández Juárez, a militant leader of wildcat strikes in the 1970s who had become head of the Mexican Telephone Workers (STRM), led the break with the dinosaurs of the CT. While he had begun as a radical, in the 1980s Hernández Juárez became the darling of President Carlos Salinas, helping him to privatize Telmex and sell it to Salinas’s friend Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico. As head of the newly recognized Federation of Unions of Goods and Services (FESEBES)—which included telephone workers, flight attendants, pilots, streetcar workers and others—Hernández Juárez was promoted by Salinas as a modern trade union leader. But when Ernesto Zedillo became president, Hernández Juárez suddenly fell from grace, and without political support, his union was very vulnerable. Hernández Juárez, who had never gotten along with the leaders of the CT and the CTM, began to look for allies both among the “official” and independent unions.

The movement began first in the spring of 1996, when twenty-one unions, including ten from within the CT, held a series of presentations which they referred to as the Forum: Unions Face the Nation, promoting a debate about a variety of issues of importance to labor. These unions became known as the Foro group, and eventually the discussion led to a more serious debate about the role of the unions in Mexico. In November 1997, the Telephone Workers Union, the National Union of Social Security Workers (SNTSS), and six other unions pulled out of the CT and joined independent unions such as the Union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (STUNAM) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) to create a new labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT).8

The New Independent Labor Movement

The new UNT put forward a program of democratic reform in unions and the workplace. The UNT called upon the PRI and later Vicente Fox and the PAN to carry forward and complete the “democratic transition” in Mexico, and urged the government to enter into negotiations with the labor and social movements to negotiate “a new social pact.” The UNT has expressed its willingness to work with employers and the government to increase productivity within the framework of a social pact that gives workers real labor union freedom, that is, the right to organize unions of their own choosing.9

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), another usually independent-minded union, was invited to join the UNT, but declined to leave the PRI-dominated CT.10 Nevertheless, in August 1998 the SME, while still remaining part of the CT, drew together some forty other unions, peasant organizations, and urban poor peoples movements in an independent labor coalition (not a formal federation) called the Mexican Union Front (FSM). The FSM defines itself as an attempt to create “an alternative unified, democratic, working class, anticapitalist unionism.”11 But like the UNT it was primarily motivated to fight against the agenda of neoliberal economic reform, particularly the privatization of the Mexican Light and Power Company, a state-owned firm which employs all of the SME’s members.

The fact that the UNT puts forward a clearly reformist program and the FSM puts forward a nominally anticapitalist program does not really explain much about their political behavior. As already noted, the UNT has leaders who remain members of the PRI, but the FSM continued in the PRI-dominated CT after the UNT had left, and to this day has not left (despite several announcements that it was doing so). When the UNT organized the FSCISP, the SME and the FSM, which it leads, at first declined to join except as observers. Now both the UNT and the FSM work to build the FSCISP. In truth, the UNT and the FSM both represent independent labor formations each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Despite their differences, both have joined together, at least for the moment, in a common fight against privatization, labor law reform, Fox, and neoliberalism.

Most recently, in December of last year, the million-member Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), headed by Elba Esther Gordillo, led a breakaway of twenty-one of thirty unions from the FSTSE and formed the Democratic Federation of Unions of Public Servants (FEDESSP). Gordillo, a long time leader of the PRI, is a Machiavellian political operator close to Vicente Fox. The new FEDESSP represents a conservative modernizing labor politics more or less in line with the PRI technocrats or even the PAN. Today in Mexico then, the government control over the labor movement has been greatly weakened, and we have a broader spectrum of labor organizations from the FSM and UNT on the left to the CT and the new FEDESSP on the right.

Vicente Fox and the Neoliberal Agenda

President Vicente Fox, the former Coca-Cola executive, shoe manufacturer, and rancher won the election in 2000 with widespread support from many sectors of Mexican society. His victory held out the hope that with the end of the PRI’s one-party-state, government control over the labor movement would end. As a candidate, Fox had signed a document put forward by the independent labor movement, in which he promised to uphold workers’ rights, including the right of workers to choose their own unions. However, once elected, Fox appointed Carlos Abascal Carranza, a former head of the Mexican Employers Association, to be Secretary of Labor, and Fox and Abascal quickly established a friendly relationship with Leonardo Rodríguez Alcaine, head of the CTM and the CT. Just as in the past under the PRI, Fox’s new PAN government protected the labor officials, and, by and large, they supported the president’s conservative political and economic agenda.

Fox’s agenda focused on cuts in the federal budget for social programs, continued privatization of industry, reform and privatization of the social security systems, the passage of regressive tax legislation, and labor law reform. While the CT supported Fox, the UNT and the FSM opposed him, and gradually during the last four years, the organizations have both come closer together, becoming more critical and more militant, partly because of government attacks on their member unions. Fox’s privatization program directly threatens the SME based in the Mexican Light and Power Company, while his attack on the social security systems threatens the Social Security Workers Union. Labor law reform threatens all of the independent unions, because the pro-business plan pushed by Fox and Abascal would give control of the shop floor and of industrial relations to the employers.

A Broad National Front

Faced with this challenge, the UNT called for the founding of a broad front to oppose the Fox agenda. In 2002 the FSCISP was founded by the UNT, El Barzon (the debtors’ union), the Permanent Agrarian Congress (CAP), the Countryside Can Stand No More (El Campo no Aguanta Más), and the Movement for National Unity in the Fight against Neoliberalism (la Promotora por la Unidad Nacional de Lucha en contra del Neoliberalismo), as well as many other smaller unions, farmers’ and peasants’ organizations, and urban social movements.12 The FSCISP not only stands opposed to Fox and his political agenda, but also calls for a struggle against neoliberalism and its effects, attacking NAFTA, criticizing the role of the WTO, and opposing the U.S. war in Iraq. The FSM, which initially declined to join the FSCISP except as an observer, has become an active builder of the coalition. The organization of the FSCISP, with its hundreds of member organizations, provided the labor movement with a broader base and a more powerful instrument with which to challenge Fox.

The UNT, the FSM, and the FSCISP organized massive demonstrations and walkouts—we might call it a symbolic general strike—against President Fox’s proposed labor law reform and further reforms of the social security system. In the most militant labor action since the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of workers throughout Mexico—many of them social security health workers—walked off the job on August 31 and September 1, some for just an hour and some for the day, to protest the government’s neoliberal free trade policies. Thousands of others joined in protest demonstrations and marches, the largest of them a huge procession of hundreds of thousands through Mexico City. The mass protest at the end of August was followed on September 8 by another at President Vicente Fox’s State of the Union address to the Mexican legislature where police held off thousands of angry demonstrators.

Thus over the last four years, while Fox succeeded in a partial privatizing reform of social security and did pass regressive tax measures, he has, for the time being, been stopped from privatizing the electric power and petroleum industries, and he has had his plans to reform labor law stalled.

The Left within the Labor Movement

The left, broadly conceived, plays a small but noteworthy role within the broad progressive labor and social movements discussed here, though it is organizationally weak and ideologically in flux. The old Communist Party of Mexico dissolved itself in 1989 into the PRD, eliminating Mexico’s oldest and largest left party from the political spectrum.13 A small Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party remains active. Other groups of various political tendencies united in the Socialist Alliance are also visible, and there are many other small socialist groups. The Frente Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (FZLN), the civic arm of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, remains active in a few areas though it has never taken off. Many Mexican social movement activists consider themselves altermundistas, antiglobalization activists who believe another world is possible. For many, political parties have become suspect, and consequently many Mexican leftists participate as individuals in the broad movement and in the labor unions.

Yet, the classical socialist paradigm—the notion of workers and peasants joining together in a political movement to create a government to run the economy for the benefit of all—remains an influential idea in the left and labor milieu. In general, the Mexican left and the more politically conscious activists in the labor movement tend to support the Cuban Revolution and incline toward Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The main issue is the defense of these Latin American countries from the United States. The left opposes the U.S. war in Iraq and U.S. imperialism in general, and expresses solidarity with the Palestinians. Mexican leftists are advocates of democracy in the union movement and society and are defenders of nationalized industries and social programs. These views are the common coin of Mexican radicals. The principal issue that confronts the Mexican left is that of building a working-class political party, and now that issue has been raised by the growth of the FSCISP.

In December 2004, the UNT, the FSM, and other organizations convened a National Dialogue.14 Some 164 organizations and 1,700 participants participated in the plenary and workshop sessions which raised the question of the role of the social movements and particularly of the UNT, FSM, and FSCISP in contesting political power in Mexico. With the elections of 2006 looming, the labor left has no political party and no candidate, though virtually all agree that they want to vote against the neoliberal economic agenda. Some see themselves as voting for the PRD, others who don’t like the party would vote for its candidate if that were Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City. Still others suggested Rosendo Flores of the SME should run for president as “our Lula.” Unfortunately it appears that working people will have no candidate in the next election, though they could begin to construct a working people’s party for the future.15

The Progressive Forces in Mexico

The FSCISP protest at the end of August 2004 represented an important change in Mexican politics. During the last decade, the Mexican left found expression in various vehicles: the populist left-of-center PRD, the radical EZLN, and the reformist civil society movement Alianza Civica.16 In none of these movements, we might note, was the working class and organized labor central to the struggle for social change. At the moment, these organizations do not have the ability to lead Mexican society. The Zapatistas remain cornered in Chiapas and have never figured out how to speak to and lead the broader forces of Mexican society. The PRD, eclipsed by the PRI and the PAN in the last election, has been utterly discredited by videotapes broadcast on national television showing high party officials taking payoffs from businessmen. Finally, Alianza Civica, which in the name of civil society brought together youthful reformers, environmentalists, feminists, old leftists, social movements, and the do-gooders of nongovernmental organizations in the 1980s, more or less vanished from the scene in the 1990s. None of those organizations has proven capable in the 2000s of leading the social movements and the Mexican people.

Perhaps for the first time in Mexican history, the working class not only appears to have gotten its act together, but, in doing so, seems to be in a position to put itself forward as the leader of a people’s movement in opposition to a government that represents big business, foreign corporations, and subordination to the United States. These developments in the labor and social movements now coincide with a critical moment, the attempt by the PRI and the PAN to keep López Obrador off the ballot and frustrate Mexican democracy. Together these two developments portend a mass movement perhaps even a massive upheaval in Mexico that could push forward the process of democratization and move Mexico toward the left.

Notes

  1. Thanks to Robin Alexander, International Affairs Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), for her help over ten years in thinking about the Mexican labor movement, and for her advice on this piece. I am also grateful to Roman Mungía Huato of the Jalisco Inter-Union Coalition for his helpful comments. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.
  2. A somewhat different version of this article with more economic data can be found on Mexican Labor News and Analysis, http://www.ueinternational.org/Mexico_info/mlna.php in the January 2005 issue under the title “Mexican Labor Year in Review.”
  3. Dan La Botz, Crisis of Mexican Labor (Praeger: New York, 1988), discusses the Mexican labor movement from its founding through the beginning of the neoliberal era.
  4. Raul Trejo Delarbre, Crónica del sindicalismo en Mexico (1976–1988) (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1990); Dan La Botz, Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today (Boston: South End Press, 1992); Francisco Zapata, El Sindicalismo mexicano frente a la restructuración (Mexico: Colegio de Mexico, 1995).
  5. World Bank, Poverty in Mexico: An Assessment of Conditions, Trends and Government Strategies (Washington, D.C.; World Bank, 2004), http://www.bancomundial.orgmx/pdf/estudiosporsector/povertyinmexico/2.pdf.

    This study contains much valuable information, but its usefulness is vitiated by the conservative ideology and framework on which it is founded.

  6. David Fairris and Edward Levine, “Declining Union Density in Mexico,” Monthly Labor Review (September 2004), Declining union density in Mexico, 1984–2000.
  7. María Xelhuantizi-López, Democracy on Hold: The Freedom of Union Association and Protection Contracts in Mexico (n.p, n.d.), 71.
  8. For a succinct account of the developments in somewhat greater detail see: “Panorama General de las Alianzas Sindicales en México 2004,” http://www.fatmexico.org/index.html.
  9. Find UNT documents on the Web site of STRM, http://www.strm.org.mx /indexa.htm.
  10. The SME has probably remained a member of the CT hoping that might offer it some sort of political protection. The SME’s 40,000 members all work for the Light and Power Company of Mexico City, which has for years been threatened with privatization. There have also been constant threats to merge Light and Power into the Federal Electrical Commission, and thus force the SME into the Sole Union of Electrical Workers (SUTERM), a larger official union headed by Leonardo Rodríguez Alcaine, who also heads the CTM and the CT.
  11. “Primera Asamblea Nacional del Frente Sindical Mexicano,” Trabajadores, November–December 2002, no. 33, http://www.uom.edu.mx/trabajadores/33indice.htm. See also the Frente Sindical Mexicano Web site, located on the Web site of the government of Mexico City, http://www.stps.df.gob.mx/Reciente/FrenteSindMex.htm.
  12. The manifesto calling for the FSCISP can be found at http://www.unt.org.mx/dialogos/manifte2503.htm. Also see Francisco Hernández Juárez’s speech: http://www.unt.org.mx/dialogos/intervfhj2703.htm. The organization’s name and initials have changed, I am using the latest name and acronym throughout this article.
  13. The Mexican Communist Party (PCM) evolved to become the United Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM) and later the Mexican Socialist Party (PMS) with Eurocommunist politics. It was the PMS which entered the PRD.
  14. Documents of the National Dialogue can be found at a Web site apparently maintained by the Alianza Socialista, http://www.dialogonacional1.org/pon41.html.
  15. Arturo Cano & Daniela Pastrana “Avances y tropezonesdel diálogo nacional,” http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2004/dic04/041205/mas-cano.html.
  16. Dan La Botz, Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (Boston; South End Press, 1995), discusses these three forces and their interaction.
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