Labor After the PRI
Will Fox Ride Roughshod Over Mexican Workers?
by Dan La Botz
Multinational Monitor magazine, March 2001
Vincente Fox is President of Mexico, the National Action Party
(PAN) is in power, and that means that many things will be changing
for Mexican workers. Just how they will change is a matter of
Fox promises that both employers and workers will get a fair
shake in the new political and economic order. He talks about
productivity, but also about ending the old abuses and promoting
There is no question that the old system of labor relations
in Mexico, in which workers either went without union representation
or were forced into corrupt unions affiliated with the ruling
party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is in desperate
need of reform. And with the PRI out of power for the first time
in 70 years, the virtual monopoly of the PRI-affiliated unions
appears set to end.
Whether the new space is filled by democratic unions, company
unions or no unions at all remains a question. And how will the
PRI-affiliated unions will adapt remains in doubt, as well.
Many Mexican workers fear that Fox, who frequently campaigned
in a cowboy hat and while mounted on a horse, is likely to ride
roughshod over unions and workers. For much of his life, Fox was
an executive for Coca Cola, managed the Fox family boot manufacturing
business and ran a ranch. Shortly after his election, a series
of news articles revealed that he ran the ranch with child labor.
All of his training and experience appear to put him on the side
MEXICO ENTERS A NEW ERA
Whatever Fox does, it is going to be very different than what
came before. For 70 years, the PRI had been virtually identical
with the Mexican state, controlling the presidency, the legislature,
the courts, the governorships, and even most municipalities. The
one-party state also controlled the Congress of Labor (CT) and
the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and the other "official"
labor federations (CROC, CROM, etc.).
As Fox and the PAN ran for office, they promised to turn Mexico
away from the PRI and its corrupt labor unions. They promised
to end the PRl's corrupt "socialist" economy and return
the country to the free-market based on the model of Monterrey
in the state of Nuevo Leon, where the only unions have been company
Yet where the PAN won mayoralties and governorships in cities
and towns in northern Mexico in the 1980s, its candidates promoted
big business and soon reached an accommodation with the old PRI-controlled
unions. PAN governors and mayors often represented the worst of
both worlds, a combination of a more aggressive pro-business politics
with the old corrupt PRI unions.
As governor of Guanajuato, say labor rights activists, Fox
did nothing for workers.
"We know of no initiative that he has taken to improve
the labor rights of the workers of Guanajuato," says Carlos
Rodriguez, the director of the Center for Labor Reflection and
Action (CEREAL), a Jesuit labor rights organization. "There
is a striking contrast between the situation in Guanajuato and
the improvements in labor policy in the [Mexico City] Federal
District, for example, where there have been efforts to protect
the most vulnerable groups such as women and children."
Many observers expect Fox to follow a similar pattern in the
presidency, though the balance of power is more uncertain with
the PRI out of office.
"Fox will do four apparently contradictory things simultaneously,"
predicts Hector de la Cueva, the director of the Center for Labor
Investigation and Consulting (CILAS), a Mexico-city based group
that advises workers and unions. "First, he will continue
to work with the old official unions of the CT and the CTM when
that serves his interest. Second, he will promote the company
union model of northern Mexico. Third, he will do as PAN governors
have done- simply ignore the unions. And fourth, he will, when
he has to, deal with the independent unions."
Fox indicated his future direction by his choice for Secretary
of Labor, Carlos Maria Abascal Carranza. Abascal is the former
head of COPARMEX, the Mexican Employers Association, and had previously
negotiated a "New Labor Culture" agreement with Fidel
Velazquez, the former head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers
(CTM). Under that agreement, the unions promised to raise productivity
and quality in cooperation with the employers, but workers got
nothing in return. In fact, their wages actually fell.
In the last 20 years, multinationals have introduced new technologies
and forms of work organization such as team concepts and new payment
methods. These have profoundly changed the Mexican workplace.
Some of them, like pay-by-hour, violate Mexican labor laws, which
require pay by the week or day.
Now Abascal promises to revamp Mexican labor relations in
their entirety, by creating a new federal labor law and a new
system of industrial relations in line with many of these already
established new technologies and work relations.
Within a month of taking office, Abascal had deeply offended
some sectors of Mexican society and angered labor union leaders
and workers with his combination of piety, parsimony and repression.
First, he shocked many Mexicans when he organized a special
mass for the Department of Labor employees, a radical change after
70 years of not only secular but anti-clerical government. Then
the Mexican Labor Boards (which no one believes are independent
of the executive) declared an almost month-old sugar workers strike
to be "non-existent," i.e. illegal.
Next, Fox's head of the Mexican Institute of Social Security,
Santiago Levy, denied an increase in benefits to hundreds of thousands
of working class retirees, saying that any improvement would jeopardize
Finally, the Fox government's National Council of Minimum
Wages (CNSM) handed down an increase in the minimum wage of 6.9
percent, just about the inflation rate, when most unions had demanded
25 percent, equivalent to the workers' loss of purchasing power
in the last six-year presidential term. The national minimum affects
the pay of millions of Mexican workers, those who earn the minimum
but also the much larger number whose wages are pegged as a multiple
of the minimum.
Abascal is taking over the Labor Department at a time when
Mexico's entire labor system is in a profound crisis. While the
CT and CTM have long been in decline, the defeat of the PRI will
likely lead to their further disintegration. Without the PRI to
defend them, the CT, the CTM and other federations like the CROC
and the CROM will offer fewer attractions for either employers
or workers. Without economic support from the government, and
without backing in the Labor Boards (JFCA), some of the old "official"
or "charro" unions could soon collapse altogether.
The crisis in the old "official" unionism can be
seen in a variety of manifestations:
* Last year's rebellion in the Sole Union of Electrical Workers
of the Mexican Republic (SUTERM) challenged the leadership of
Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine for the first time in 25 years. Rodriguez
also heads the CT and CTM and is the country's most powerful labor
official. He defeated the insurgency and won the SUTERM election
only through what many believe to have been a corrupt process.
* Longtime Miners and Metal Workers Union (STMMRM) President
Napoleon Gomez Sada was unable to overcome objections to his attempt
to install his son Napoleon Gomez Urrutia as the next STMMRM head,
leading the union to lose its "juridical personality,"
or right to legal existence before the Secretary of Labor and
the Labor Board.
* In the Petroleum Workers Union, historically the flag
ship of the Mexican industrial unions, a variety of dissident
opposition groups have challenged the national and local leaders
both in local union elections and in public demonstrations.
* The continued gangster-style leadership of Victor Flores
Morales of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union (STFRM) remains
a national embarrassment to Mexico's labor movement.
Overall, Mexico's "official" unions are more corrupt,
more challenged, and more unstable that at any other time in their
While Fox and the PAN may use their power to support this
or that union or official, they are likely neither to prop up
the old unions nor create a new system tied to PAN patronage.
Rather, Fox will be pragmatic and opportunistic in making ad hoc
alliances with union leaders and organizations. Fox has found
in Elba Esther Gordillo, a leader of the Mexican Teachers Union
(el SNTE), a leader both of the unions and of the PRI who is willing
to work with him on both education and political issues. Other
union leaders, such as the notoriously corrupt and violent Flores
Morales have also indicated their willingness to cooperate with
Some fear that Fox and Abascal will attempt to pass a reform
of the federal labor law (LFT) that will so weaken unions as to
make them insignificant, or failing to pass such a law, take practical
measures to brush them aside.
Fox and Abascal are also likely to promote company unions
(sindicatos blancos or sindicatos patronales) such as those that
exist in the city of Monterrey and the state of Nuevo Leon. Company
unions-unions organized and supported by the employer-as well
as company social welfare programs have long been the northern
Mexican elite's preferred alternative to both government unions
and genuine independent unions. Organized on a company or plant-by-plant
basis, such unions have little or no bargaining power, do little
to represent workers and function primarily to block the formation
of independent unions.
PUBLIC UNION MILITANCY
At the same time, Fox and Abascal will have to confront challenges
from democratic and militant currents within some "official"
unions and the independent labor union movement.
During the last two years, the Mexican Electrical Workers
(SME), a politically independent union (though it remains in the
CT), organized a broad Front Against Privatization of the Electrical
Industry and succeeded in holding off former president Ernesto
Zedillo's plan to sell off the government-owned electrical power
generating industry. For several months the Electrical Workers
Union, other workers, and university students demonstrated and
marched against privatization, and even received support from
Public employees have also evidenced a newfound militant streak.
Organized in the Federation of Unions of Workers at the Service
of the State (FSTSE), Mexico's public employees surprised everyone,
including themselves, when they carried out a huge national mobilization
at the end of 2000 demanding a bonus at the end of the six-year
presidential term (called the sexenio). An uneasy coalition of
crusty union bureaucrats and feisty rank-and-file workers who
came together at the moment of the defeat of the PRI on the basis
of opportunism and anxiety led the FSTSE demonstrations and job
actions. Whether or not some local union leaders and workers might
turn this into an on-going democratic and militant movement remains
to be seen.
Meanwhile, a dissident strain of the teachers union has already
protested against their union leadership's backing of Fox. Led
by teachers from Michoacan, the National Coordinating Committee
of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) and other dissident groups
within the teachers union have carried out a series of mobilizations
against Elba Esther Gordillo, the power-behind-the-throne of el
SNTE. While their immediate demands are the right to hold state
union conventions and elect their own state leadership and delegates
to the national union, they have also attacked Gordillo for her
role as a leader in the PRI, and her link to Fox and the PAN.
One manifestation of the crisis of the Mexican labor system
has been the rise in recent years of independent labor action.
Led by three important unions- the Mexican Telephone Workers (STRM),
the National Union of Social Security Workers (SNTSS), and the
Union of Workers of the National Autonomous University (STUNAM)-
the independent National Union of Workers (UNT) claims 1.5 million
members (though some believe that figure to be inflated) and is
the major organizational alternative to the PRI-affiliated labor
organizations. While the UNT has had a few successes, including
a victory in an auto parts plant in Puebla, it has yet to fulfill
the hopes of most members and allies.
The Authentic Labor Front (FAT) remains Mexico's most democratic,
militant and internationalist labor federation. Despite its small
size (less than 50,000), the FAT is an important factor in the
UNT, and in linking Mexican labor to civil society and to potential
foreign labor allies. The FAT alliance with the U.S.-based United
Electrical Workers Union (UE) is the best model of international
solidarity between U.S. and Mexican unionists.
Much of the democratic upsurge has taken place outside of
the major unions and federations. During the last year, health
workers in hospitals around the country engaged in demonstrations,
job actions and unofficial strikes both to protest government
budget cuts, deteriorating conditions in public hospitals and
clinics and to fight for higher wages and better benefits for
themselves, scoring some significant local victories. Although
ultimately thwarted by the Zedillo administration, many groups
of public employees took advantage of a Mexican Supreme Court
ruling to attempt to organize independent labor unions in federal
Provoked by wage chiseling, on top of long hours, low pay
and miserable working and living conditions, the migrant workers
in San Quintin, Baja California Norte, periodically erupt in riots,
burning packing sheds and police cars. The multinational and national
corporations in agribusiness, the state-controlled labor unions,
local caciques (political bosses) and police repression have made
it impossible for the largely indigenous migrant workers to organize
and fight for economic and social justice; any labor federation
or political party which succeeds in giving those workers some
leadership will harness a tremendous force.
THE GATHERING STORM
For years now, the Mexican government has suggested that the
country has had virtually no strikes, or at least no official
strikes, since most are declared illegal by the Mexican labor
boards (JFCAs). But even the most casual observers notice hundreds
of walkouts, demonstrations and other labor protests each year.
In the last 18 years-since the beginning of a succession of
PRI technocratic or neoliberal presidents, Miguel de la Madrid,
Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo-there have been not a few dozen
strikes but several thousand, according to a recent study by the
Universidad Obrera de Mexico (the Mexican Workers' University
or UOM). The UOM reports that under the last three presidents
there were 11,382 strikes of all sorts. During Zedillo's term,
there were 1,738 strikes, or almost one a day. Public employees
carried out a virtual strike wave, involving 74 federal government
unions and 32 state unions.
The slow-motion collapse of the PRI labor system is being
matched by the rise of a new more independent, more democratic,
and more militant labor movement.
While Fox may plan to install a system of company unionism,
these new militant unions have no intention of being swept aside.
Dan La Botz is the author of several books on Mexico and editor
of Mexican Labor News and Analysis, an electronic newsletter published
in conjunction with the UE and the FAT.