LABOR: The State Labor Bureaucracy

September 25, 2007

The Mexican State has aggressively stimulated capital accumulation with subsidies to private enterprise through the electrical, oil and rail industries, protective tariff barriers, generous concessions to exporters and one of the lowest tax rates in Latin America. However, it is the State's tight control over the labor movement which has allowed General Electric, Westing- house and other private companies to impose the levels of exploitation described above. When the world-wide economic crisis hit Mexico in the early 1970s, workers responded with a wave of labor insurgency far greater in intensity and consequence than any mobiliza- tions since the national railroad strike of the late fifties. With each attempt to defend their standard of living, Mexican workers, like their counterparts in the United States, found them- selves thrown into immediate conflict not only with the companies, but with the traditional labor bureaucracy of union officials who had become increasingly separated from the rank and file. As the union officialdom sided consistently with the companies and the State, democratic challenges to the traditional bureaucracy emerged among the rank and file in several of Mexico's largest industry-wide unions of rail- road, mine, and telephone workers, and ironical- ly, among the relatively well-paid oil and electrical workers. To a much greater extent than in the United States, however, the class consciousness of the Mexican workers - the result of the higher levels of exploitation and oppression, the unbroken Sept./Oct. 1977 2526 NACL Repor tradition of anti-imperialism, and the relatively more advanced development of forces in the Mexican left - poses a real challenge to bourgeois rule. As the "democratic tendencies" within the trade union movement demonstrated their abili- ty to mobilize hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, and students in militant protests across the nation, they threatened to topple one of the central pillars of the Mexican state, its labor bureaucracy. In Mexico, the labor bureaucrats are called charros, and the undemocratic, pro- capitalist unionism they promote is known as charrismo sindical. ORIGINS OF THE STATE LABOR BUREAUCRACY To understand the full impact of the recent labor insurgency, it is necessary to review quickly the structure and history of Mexico's trade unions and the process through which they became iricorporated into the state apparatus. The first craft unions - that is, unions organized. among workers of a specialized skill, such as typographers, carpenters, and mechanics, as opposed to industry-wide unions - were formed during the Mexican Revolution after 1910. But as imperialist expansion into Mexico increased the process of industrialization and concentra- tion of industry, the first industrial unions were organized within the large foreign monopolies by 1916. One of the first national unions of significance was the SME (Sindicato Mexicano. de Elec- tricistas, Mexican Union of Electrical Workers), organized within the foreign-controlled Mexican Light and Power Company. The SME was key in organizing the general strike of 1916 which paralyzed Mexico City and alerted the bour- geoisie to the need for new forms of control over the emerging industrial proletariat. The Revolu- tionary Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM, Confederacion Revolucionaria de Obreros Mexicanos) was organized under the auspices of the government in 1918 - one of the first attempts by workers to form a national confederation, and the first effort of the newly consolidating State to bring the trade union movement under its wing. All efforts by workers to organize independently of the CROM after its establishment were brutally fought by the government. However, as foreign monopolies continued to expand their control over the mines, railroads, oil fields and electrical industry, ever greater num- bers of workers were brought together in industrial unions through a period of courageous, anti-imperialist struggle in the twenties and thirties. The CROM was increasingly incapable of containing the militancy of these new unions which sought organization independent of the state. The 1930s marked a turning point for the Mexican labor movement. Two hundred strikes rocked Mexico in 1934 and another 600 in 1936, with general strikes called in several cities across the country. 1 In the midst of the Great Depres- sion, with nationalism running high throughout all classes in Mexico, the major industrial unions (including the electrical workers' SME) called a national congress in 1936 for the formation of an organization with the potential for uniting the Mexican working class into a powerful force during such a period of revolutionary upheaval. However, in just two short years after its founding, this organization, called the Confeder- ation of Mexican Workers (CTM, Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos), was transformed into the opposite of what the workers had envisioned: the primary mechanism of bourgeois control over the labor movement for the next half a century. How was this possible? Three crucial factors were the quick consolidation of collaborationist leadership, the efforts of the Mexican state to guarantee capitalist develop- ment despite the depression, and the ideological weaknesses of theMexican left. Collaborationist leadership: Within the founding congress of the CTM, the industrial unions like the SME, with significant left and especially Communist Party (PCM) influence, were pitted against the likes of Vincente Lom- bardo Toledano, perhaps the best known of the social democratic trade unionists in Latin Ameri- ca, and Fidel Velazquez, the current "George- Meany-and-then-some" of Mexico.* * Both Lombardo and Velazquez have main- tained very close working relations with the conservative leadership of the U.S. trade unions from Samuel Gompers through Meany and have been key in promoting a collaborationist union- ism through the various regional labor institutes established over the years in Latin America, including the CIA-supported ORIT. 2 26 NACLA Reportt 127 Despite the strength of the PCM-led unions, Lombardo and Velazquez gained control of the CTM at its inception, through manipulations and the support of the labor bureaucrats who controlled the federations of small "company unions" - a term used in Mexico for unions organized within a single company, as opposed to industry-wide. As a consequence, to this day only 24 percent of the economically active population of Mexico is unionized, 4 and the majority of the unionized workers are organized into "company" unions whose small size and isolation prevent any real challenge to the labor bureaucrats of the federations to which they are affiliated. It is the bureaucrats of these federations, rather than the leadership of the industrial unions, who have made up the top leadership of the CTM since the forties.s The State: As in the United States, the depression of the 1930s brought about in Mexico new challenges to bourgeois rule from the working class, and as a consequence gave rise to the populist government of Lazaro Cardenas. Unlike Roosevelt in the U.S.,however, Cardenas faced not only challenges from the working class and very serious divisions within the bourgeoisie, but also an imperialism made ever more vicious by foreign monopolies seeking to maintain profit levels through the depression. In his efforts to "modernize" the political system, foment eco- nomic growth and thus assure the survival of capitalism in Mexico, Cardenas sought to rebuild the base of social support among the workers and peasants which had been largely eroded by policies of the bourgeois governments after the Revolution. On the one hand, he implemented a sweeping agrarian reform, 6 and on the other hand he supported crucial labor conflicts with foreign companies, as in the case of the oil industry which he nationalized in 1938 after a long conflict with the foreign monopolies. In the electrical power industry, Cardenas supported the two major unions in their negotiations with the foreign companies, Mexlight and Ebasco. As a consequence, workers in the key oil and electrical power industries made gains far greater than other workers during the period, a fact which helped create a relatively privileged sector which Cardenas could count on in his conflicts with the right and the foreign companies. Cardenas also threw his support behind Lombardo in the CTM, and, in 1938, manipulat- ing the genuine anti-imperialism of the workers, negotiated the formal incorporation of the CTM into the reorganized ruling party (predecessor of the current PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institu- cional). Since then the CTM has remained one of the three institutional structures which forms the PRI, along with the peasant and business sectors. As a result, the trade unions have been vertically tied to the state via the ruling party for forty years. (Though the electrical unions remained outside the CTM, they, too, eventually affiliated with the ruling party - the SME during WWII and the STERM, called FNTIE at the time, in the '50s.) The Left: A key factor in allowing the incorporation of the labor movement into the state structure was the ideological weaknesses of the Mexican left. Lombardo, as well as the Mexican Communist Party, promoted an ideolo- gy of what in Mexico is called "revolutionary nationalism" - that is, the view that a potentially revolutionary force existed within the state and the ruling party, as a result of the revolutionary struggle initiated in 1910. Fierce contradictions did exist between imperialism and sectors of the bourgeoisie, and the left hoped to exploit those to their advantage. Instead, however, Cardenas managed to use the left and the trade unions to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. That the left allowed itself to be used in this way is partially explained by the Communist Party policy of the "united front against fascism" which, as implemented in Mexico, led to discouraging any conflicts with the populist government that supported the Allies. The SME- and the PCM-led unions supported Cardenas, as the CPUSA supported Roosevelt, as an alterna- tive to the potential rise of fascism. And in 1936, when the SME and the Mexican Communist Party unions left the newly organized CTM over differences with Lombardo, Earl Browder of the U.S. Communist Party attended an emergency meeting with PCM leaders which resulted in the reaffiliation of the Communist unions with the Cardenas-supported Confederation.' The critical question today, however, is not whether the left and the trade unions should tactically have supported Cardenas and the CTM, but to what extent the ideology of "revolution- ary nationalism" limited the workers' ability to make an objective analysis of class forces and formulate a revolutionary strategy appropriate to the conditions of the day. As it turned out, in fact, the relations between the state and the labor movement changed Sept./Oct. 1977 2728 NACLA Report radically with the end of the Cardenas regime and World War II. However, the CTM remained locked into the apparatus. The bourgeoisie was greatly strengthened by the Cardenas reforms and by the opportunity provided by the Second World War to expand industrialization via import substitution. The CTM became less important as a means of mobilizing workers' support for government programs, and increasingly impor- tant as a mechanism to control the working class which bore the brunt of development policies. In 1947, with the recently initiated govern- ment of Aleman [one of Mexico's most powerful industrialists], the army and police broke a general strike of petroleum workers; in 1948, the regime imposed and sustained, with its 'forces of order,' a spurious leader in the Union of Railroad Workers, and a little later did the same in the case of the mine workers. 8 CONTRADICTIONS IN THE STATE LABOR APPARATUS Throughout the fifties and sixties, the State wavered erratically at times in its attempts to maintain control over the labor movement. In 1959, for example, when a mass rank and file movement called a national strike of railroad workers and threatened to topple the bureau- cratic leadership of the union, the government, shortly after a meeting with President Eisen- hower, 9 brutally smashed the strike and jailed some 60 union leaders including PCM organizer Valentin Campa and strike leader Demetrio Vallejo who spent the next eleven years in prison. A year later, however, the government needed to mobilize the SME and the STERM electrical unions to support its nationalizing of the foreign power companies. The government has continued to accede to many of the militant demands of these two unions since the time of the nationalizations, preserving the relatively higher wage status of their workers in the hope of avoiding a major conflict in this key industrial sector. Current minimum wage for workers in the state's electrical power companies, for example, is twice that of the national minimum, and 60 percent of the employees of the government Federal Elec- trical Commission have been able to buy their own houses with company funds. 1 0 A similar situation prevails in the nationalized oil industry. The relatively good relations between the electrical unions and the state since the period of Cardenas have helped cushion the government- employed electrical workers from the same decline in wages and intensification of work that we have seen affect workers in the private monopolies like General Electric, Kelvinator and Westinghouse. For this reason, the workers in the electrical power industry have been more in- clined to accept the theory of "revolutionary nationalism." And while this ideology has not diminished their courage and militancy, it has led them to support erroneous evaluations of the class nature of the Mexican state put forward by their unions' leadership. (See next article for a critique of this ideology.) The special treatment afforded the state's electrical power workers, however, has been the exception, and the state labor bureaucracy's role as policeman of the trade union movement has been the rule - logically undermining its ability to carry out its other important task of legitimizing the rule of the PRI in the eyes of the working class. The mechanism of control itself has become a catalyst for discontent and alienation. At the same time, the internal power balance of the CTM has been threatened by the growing importance of the industrial unions throughout the rapid industrialization and monopolization process. The growth of the industrial unions has challenged the traditional leadership, whose power rested on the multitude of small, dispersed unions. Consequently, when the recession of the '70s necessitated profound economic readjustments initiated by the state - promotion of exports, fiscal reforms, cuts in government spending, etc. - and as President Echeverria found himself in conflict with important sectors of national and foreign capitalists, the logical place to which he could turn for support, the state labor bureaucra- cy, was wracked by the challenge from mass rank and file movements. Relations between the Echeverria government and the state labor bureaucracy fall into two distinct periods. 1 2 The first, from 1971 to mid-1973, was characterized by serious conflicts between the President and the labor bureaucrats, as he attempted to force a "modernization" not only of the too-long-protected private companies and the unwieldy state enterprises, but also of the state labor apparatus, as part of his plan to rebuild once again the drastically eroded social base of the state. The efforts to reform the labor 28 NACLA ReportSept.Oct.197729 apparatus largely failed, due to the relative independent power of the labor bureaucracy and to the negative impact of Echeverria's economic policies on the working class. By 1973, inflation had seriously eroded the workers' buying power and unemployment ran high for the first time even among the unionized workers.'" At the same time, the democratic tendencies within various unions, especially within the STERM, had gained tremendous momentum and popular support, while reaction- ary sectors of the bourgeoisie strongly opposed the government's attempts to restructure the traditional economic and political models of the country. Thus, in 1973, Echeverria was forced to seek a rapprochement with the state labor bureaucrats, relying on them once again to bring the labor movement under control and to strengthen the government's position vis-a-vis the right-wing sectors of the bourgeoisie. Over the years that followed, in the attempt to reestablish the legitimacy of the CTM in the eyes of the workers, Echeverria granted the bureaucrats three important concessions with which to respond to popular demands: emergency wage hikes, the forty-hour week for government employees, and the establishment of INFO- NAVIT, a low-cost housing agency. The serious challenge faced by the Mexican state and the ways in which it responded to the labor insurgency are illustrated most vividly by the struggle of the electrical workers whose victories and setbacks, struggles and limitations are analyzed in the following pages.

LABOR BUREAUCRACY 1. Mark Elliott Thompson, The Development of Unionism Among Mexican Electrical Workers (unpub- lished Ph.D. dissertation), Cornell Univ., September 1966,p.157. 2. For more about Lombardo, Velasquez and the Mexican trade unions' relations with U.S. labor and intelligence organizations, see: Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, Penguin, England, 1975; Fred Hirsch, An Analysis of Our AFL-CIO Role in Latin America or Under the Covers with the CIA, San Jose, Ca., 1974; Harvey A. Levenstein,Labor Organization in the U.S. and Mexico: A History of Their Relations, Greenwood Press, 1971; and Jose Steinsleger, Imperial- ismo y sindicatos en America Latina, Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, Mexico, 1976. 4. Juan Felipe Leal and Jose Woldenberg, "El sindicalismo mexicano, aspectos organizativos," Cua- dernos Politicos (Mexico), #7, January-March, 1976, p. 37. 5. Ibid., p. 48. 6. For more about Mexico's agrarian reform, see "Harvest of Anger," NACLA 's Latin America & Empire Report, July-August, 1976. 7. Thompson, op. cit., p. 184. 8. Rolando Cordera in Mario Huacuja R. and Jose Woldenberg, op. cit., p. 2 6. 9. NACLA interview with Demetrio Vallejo, Mexi- co, 1975. 10. NACLA interview with employee of the Co- mision Federal de Electricidad (CFE), Mexico, 1977. 11. For more about the current economic crisis and Echeverria's policies, see, "Balance de 6 anos de lucha de clases," Punto Critico, 1/31/77; "Notas para el estudio de la conyuntura mexicana," Punto Critico, #s 19, 22, and 23; Roberto Castaneda, "Los Limites de reform- ismo: la crisis del capitalismo en Mexico," Cuadernos Politicos, #8, April-June, 1976; Rolando Cordera, "Los limites del reformismo: la crisis del capitalismo en Mexico," Cuadernos Politicos, #2, October-December, 1974; and Carlos Peyrera, "Mexico: los limites del reformismo," CuadernosPoliticos, #1, July-September, 1974. 12. See Punto Critico, 8/73, and 1/31/77. 13. Cordera, op. cit., p. 56.

Tags: Mexico, electric industry, working class, labor repression

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