Mexico’s “New Labor Culture”: An Interview With Union Leader Benedicto Martínez

Benedicto Martínez, a leader of Mexico’s Authentic Workers Front (FAT), talks to NACLA about the bleak prospects faced by workers in an age of global labor markets and an anti-labor state.

Fred Rosen

In July, NACLA’s Fred Rosen interviewed Benedicto Martínez, a longtime leader of Mexico’s militant, independent labor federation, the Authentic Workers Front (FAT) and vice president of the broader independent labor alliance, the National Workers Union (UNT). Martínez spoke to Rosen by phone from the FAT offices in Mexico City.

The FAT was founded in 1960 to provide workers with a democratic and independent alternative to Mexico’s “corporate unions”—that is, unions that were incorporated into the then ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although the PRI is currently out of power, corporate unionism persists in Mexico, and the FAT finds itself playing the same role it played almost five decades ago. In 1998, the group became part of the larger, more powerful UNT, which has attempted to form an autonomous movement to promote workers’ rights and interests, and to democratize and fight for the independence of the country’s trade union structure.

Martínez spoke about the current state of labor in Mexico and about the attempts of the current ruling party, the National Action Party (PAN), to implement legislation that would bring about what some members of the PAN have called a “new labor culture”—a “culture” that would weaken workers’ ability to engage in union organizing and collective bargaining and, in general, make labor relations more “flexible,” work contracts more informal, and employment more precarious.

Since the 1980s, keeping wage inflation low and making the country an attractive low-cost production site for export-oriented transnational companies have been key components of both PRI and PAN economic policy. The unions that have historically been incorporated in the PRI have been called upon to keep wages under control, and in the process, they seem to have cemented their reputation as institutions whose first loyalty is to their political party rather than to their members. In this context, how would you describe the current state of workers’ well-being in Mexico?

Well, over the long period you mention, there has been a worsening of working people’s conditions accompanied by the ceding of workers’ rights to the global labor market. There has been a concerted attack on independent unions, a retreat in adherence to labor laws, and a greater control of the work process by employers. There has also been a generalized attack on collective contracts.

And things are not getting better. Last year, the first year of Felipe Calderón’s government, the minimum wage [to which many workers’ wages are tied] rose by 3.9%. But at the same time, the cost of a basic basket of goods just about doubled. Half the labor force is now working in the informal sector, without benefits or protections. More than half the new jobs created by the Calderón government have been temporary. The companies, in their desire to compete, have sacrificed many benefits, like paid sick days, that used to be standard. Little by little, employers—big ones as well as small ones—have been reducing benefits to cut costs. So there is a serious problem.

At the beginning of the decade, when Vicente Fox was president, his labor secretary, Carlos Abascal, tried to promote what he called a “new labor culture,” which would make labor more “flexible,” cut back on social protections, and in general make labor relations more compatible with the administration’s neoliberal economic model. While his anti-labor reforms never became law, they must have had an effect on the mood of working people.

People live defensively, trying to figure out how to earn enough to live on, how to complement their wages. And today more than ever, unemployment haunts the dreams of workers as the global labor market moves jobs from one country to another. Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution establishes a series of conditions of welfare for the working class, but it is not being complied with. In that sense, working people’s welfare is only a discourse, not a reality.

And what do workers think about this contradiction between discourse and reality?

Workers don’t have time to listen to this discourse. We try to keep them informed about issues like labor law reform, but they are mainly worried about concrete things like the disappearance of good jobs, growing insecurity on their own jobs, and the dramatic rise in the cost of living. Many export-based companies are reducing production, and in the auto industry, for example, there have been some plant shutdowns and layoffs. On top of this, the PAN government is trying to make it harder for workers to defend their rights. This creates a climate of insecurity and fear.

This “climate of insecurity and fear” must be driving the explosive growth of migration.

Yes, but there is another factor behind migration. Rural areas are being abandoned because government help and resources no longer exist, so the younger generations are no longer interested in remaining in the countryside. They can no longer live with dignity. But as you suggest, not only campesinos are migrating to the United States. People from the cities are also migrating because the problem of jobs and wages is very serious. This phenomenon has correctly been called a political safety valve.

Does Mexico need better labor laws, or is the problem that existing laws are being violated?

It’s a combination of things. It’s a question of the global labor market, which has brought a new dynamic to the companies. And with NAFTA and the opening of the economy, many companies have not been prepared for a competition of the order of magnitude that’s now going on. There are many pressures to cut costs, and the easiest costs to reduce are the wages and salaries of the workers.

On the other hand, the government has not given priority to the well-being of wage earners. They have left it to the good will of the employers, who can basically do whatever they want. The labor reform that began to take shape during the Fox administration, named after Abascal, finally turned out to be a setback for the working class. Today many things are happening that the Abascal reforms didn’t contemplate, but are becoming regular practices of the Labor Boards [the local committees that administer Mexico’s labor laws].

Now Calderón’s secretary of labor, Javier Lozano, has proposed further anti-labor reforms that would make it even harder to organize. For example, the Lozano reforms would mandate that workers go through a series of hard-to-comply-with requirements before they could call a strike against a company that refused to sign a collective contract. Among other things, workers calling for a collective contract would have to publicly identify themselves beforehand, leading to the easy formation of a “blacklist” of pro-union workers who could be fired before any union was in place. The Lozano law would also allow for virtually indefinite series of temporary, probationary, and training work contracts, all of which would leave workers in a totally unprotected work situation.

The opposition to the Lozano reforms has been strong, but the employers are moving ahead with their designs for labor flexibility, and in that sense, while the law hasn’t been reformed, daily practice is incorporating many measures to make labor more flexible. Much of this, in fact, goes against the letter of the law, but it is being implemented in the spirit of the law that follows from the reform of the “new labor culture.”

What does that mean in practice?

In practice there are “training contracts” that simply state that you are working in a company that is offering you some on-the-job training and therefore paying you less. In addition, they are also establishing shifts that are convenient for the company. There are also contracts in which workers have lost parts of their benefits and part of their wages.

What’s worse is that the government is combining the new discourse about individual rights with new alliances with the old corrupt and undemocratic corporate unions. It has promoted old-style “protection contracts” in which the company makes a deal with a corporate union to “protect” it from the organization of a legitimate union. It has also permitted the evasion of constitutional labor responsibilities through subcontracting and outsourcing many jobs. All this has made employment more precarious.

According to the government and the business community, it’s the only way to maintain levels of competition. When it was out of power, the PAN used to be critical of the corporate unionism of the PRI. They used to argue for a democratization of labor relations. Now that they are in power, they have closed ranks with some of the most corrupt corporate unions of the PRI, particularly the National Teachers Union, to cut the power of independent unions and workers in general.

Under the old corporate system, workers were generally better off if they belonged to a union, no matter how corrupt that union happened to be. You seem to be saying that’s no longer the case.

There’s a distinction here. There are independent unions and there are corporate unions, many of which have pledged their loyalty to the PAN. Many corporate unions have no real presence in the workplace. They are not particularly concerned with the welfare of the workers. The union leadership allows the company to make decisions as long as the leadership gets a share of company revenues. And the company decides according to its own needs. This is a problem.

We in the independent union movement are on the defensive, trying to avoid situations in which workers lose rights they have already won. Many workers are working under “protection contracts,” in which not even they know that they have a union. That’s even worse than a normal corporate contract. Under those conditions, the firm decides everything. For example, just recently a worker came to us for help. His union, a corporate union, is about to hold an assembly in which they will announce that they have agreed to remove all the benefits that the collective contract now has, and the workers will be left with nothing more than their wages. The assembly has been called to inform the workers, nothing more, not to discuss, just to inform them that the collective contract has been modified. In cases like these, the workers have no way to defend themselves from these abuses.

How can the FAT and the UNT help workers in that kind of situation?

We can help them organize themselves, but that is the serious problem we have. When workers get together and try to organize, the company responds with repression and firings. So given the difficult situation workers are living through, there’s a fear of losing their jobs. So there are many abuses here. Nonetheless, although the situation is hard, there are groups of workers that decide to organize and look for help. They come to us or to other groups to look for help, but in many cases they simply end up switching from one corporate union to another. The problem is the lack of knowledge that would be useful and helpful in really changing their work situation.

Does the UNT see itself playing a broader political role?

Now more than ever the UNT expresses the demands of the workers and the independent unions, and is in the forefront of opposition to the Lozano Law, which is even worse than the earlier version of labor legislation proposed by Abascal. Although the proposed Lozano Law has not been put up for a vote, there is a fear that in the next session of the legislature it will be presented. So the UNT has been demonstrating, educating workers, and defending them from this law, which would circumscribe the right to unionize even further. And the UNT has also come to the defense of a broader alliance with the campesinos and with the progressive organizations of civil society for a struggle in defense of the energy sector and progressive social legislation.

Does the UNT represent significant sectors of the labor movement?

The strongest unions are those that represent telephone workers, social security workers, university employees, pilots, and flight attendants—basically the unions that founded the confederation about 10 years ago. They are also bringing in more local sections and national unions, not enough to change the world of labor here in Mexico, but yes, we are making progress.

Has the electoral situation been discouraging to you?

The struggle of the FAT, since its founding, has been to democratize the Mexican workplace and to democratize the labor movement as well. A strong party on the left would be very helpful to this struggle. So far, with all its internal discord, the PRD has been unable to play that role.

But I don’t have very much confidence in the political parties. I think the challenge will come from a coming together of social organizations. Citizens have to pressure for change from below. This economic policy that’s being carried out to benefit just a few has to be changed from the grass roots. I also think the alliances from below have to stretch across national boundaries. I think that’s the only alternative we really have. There have to be links at the international level. Today it’s clear, for example, that we can’t fight against Monsanto on the question of grains without international allies. We have a situation now where these big companies blackmail workers in various countries. They say to workers in the United States, for example, if you don’t accept the conditions we are offering you, we will simply move to another country. That’s what we have here as well. We still have a long way to go, establishing common demands about wages, social security, and minimum standards in all countries.


Fred Rosen is NACLA’s senior analyst.
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