Mexico’s Labor Movement After the Elections: A House Still Divided

January 27, 2013

As bad as things seem to be now, there will be even darker days ahead for working people in Mexico. The Mexican elections of 2012 amounted to a victory for all that is worst in the country’s political and social life, and sent a disheartening signal of defeat to the country’s workers.

The election to the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will strengthen the politically dependent, thoroughly bureaucratic, and profoundly corrupt labor unions that belong to the PRI, while weakening the position of the country’s independent unions and democratic labor movements. Peña Nieto and the PRI, most likely in alliance with the conservative National Action Party (PAN), may well attempt to pass a labor law reform that would weaken workers’ rights to form unions and to strike, thus undermining job security and increasing part-time and temporary work. With or without such reform, as Peña Nieto showed in his violent suppression of a popular movement in the municipality of Atenco when he was governor of the Mexico State, he is prepared to use his power—and savagely if need be.

The unions, which entered the elections thoroughly divided, have come out of them with a choice of either reaching an accommodation with the PRI or fighting a battle for their lives. Employers—most of whom backed the PRI—will take advantage of this situation to resist unions, to drive down wages, and to speed up work.

Mexico’s independent unions and democratic labor movements did not fare well during the outgoing administration of Felipe Calderón. The PAN’s secretaries of labor generally favored entrepreneurs and bosses, ignored violations of labor law, and effectively eliminated the right to strike. They acted, comments labor attorney Néstor de Buen, “as if it were a sin to have good working conditions.”

When Vicente Fox of the PAN became president in 2000, many observers saw his election as an opportune moment to dismantle the entire corporate system of state-party control over the labor unions. What happened, however, was quite different. While most of Mexico’s major labor federations—like the Congress of Labor (CT) and Federation of Government Unions (FSTSE)—retained their affiliation with the PRI, they reached an accommodation with Fox and the PAN. The Mexican government’s overriding interest proved to be maintaining a policy of labor peace—that is, no strikes—along with a policy of low wages. Many union officials were happy to oblige the government, as long as they retained their positions as union leaders, and often as congressional representatives or senators as well, with their salaries, perquisites, and, above all, opportunities for graft.

With the tacit support of presidents Fox and Calderón, the union movement in the private sector became even more corrupt as employers brought in ghost unions (unions unknown to the workers) and protection contracts (which provide only the legal minimums) to keep out real unions and to damp down real demands. These came to represent 80% or 90% of all labor agreements. At the same time, the two biggest public-sector unions, the National Teachers Union (El SNTE) and the National Social Security Workers Union (SNTSS), drew closer to Calderón, supporting his calls for educational reform and the continued narrowing of social security.

The most significant development of the recent period, however, was the PAN’s attack on the two of the country’s most powerful and more independent labor unions, the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM) and the Mexican Electrical Workers. As bad as things seem to be now, there will be even darker days ahead for working people in Mexico. The Mexican elections of 2012 amounted to a victory for all that is worst in the country’s political and social life, and sent a disheartening signal of defeat to the country’s workers.

Then, in October 2009, the Calderón government suddenly sent police and military units to occupy the installations of the federally owned utility, Central Light and Power, whose members belonged to the independent SME. Within 24 hours the company was liquidated, its 44,000 workers terminated, and the union devastated. Despite the union’s heroic struggle since then to fight for its life and for its members’ jobs, the government has refused to make any concessions. We might add to this the Calderón government’s neglect of the 6,000 workers of Mexicana Airlines who lost their jobs when the company went bankrupt in August 2010. They too are still fighting for their jobs.

The Mexican union movement began to fragment back in the 1990s as a result of the impact of the PRI’s adoption of neoliberal policies beginning in the mid-1980s under presidents Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas, and Ernesto Zedillo. A group of unions left the PRI’s official Congress of Labor and founded the National Union of Workers (UNT), a labor federation, while another created the Mexican Union Front (FSM), a union coalition. The UNT and the FSM tended to collaborate with the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Most unions are “official” and so they naturally supported Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI in the recent election. The Congress of Labor, the powerful Confederation of Mexican Workers, and the industrial unions remained loyal to the PRI, especially with the PRI’s Peña Nieto leading in the polls from the beginning. The loyalty to the PRI was cemented by commitments to put union leaders into political office. Carlos Romero Deschamps, for example, the corrupt labor dictator who heads the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM), ran for the Senate as a PRI candidate.

Yet some major unions opted to support the conservative National Action Party, having been won over by that party’s blandishments during its 12 years in power.

Most important among the unions that have swung over to the right is the National Union of Social Security Workers (SNTSS) headed by Gutiérrez Fragoso. During the 1990s, the 350,000-member broke with the political establishment, moving to the left and joining the new independent UNT, which tended to align politically with the center-left PRD. But in the 2000s, Calderón succeeded in wooing Gutiérrez, supporting the union leader in his election as a congressional representative on the PAN ticket. In return, Gutiérrez supported the PAN and its candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota. This was no small thing; his union members work in thousands of facilities of the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS) in large cities, small towns, and rural areas.

Another major union, the National Teachers Union (El SNTE) has had quite an erratic political career under the leadership of its powerful and opportunistic leader, Elba Esther Gordillo. Following a rank-and-file rebellion in the 1980s, Gordillo—never a rebel herself—came to head the teachers union through the support of then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI. She remained loyal to the PRI and became one of the party’s top leaders until 2006, when after a fight with another PRI leader she was expelled from the party. Not to be deterred in her quest for power, she formed an alliance with president Felipe Calderón. However, as it became clear that the PAN was likely to lose the national elections in 2012, she changed sides again, returning to the PRI.

Gordillo does not go to any party empty handed. Her teachers union has over 1 million members, the largest union in Mexico, with locals in every state and teachers in every city and town. Using her union as the base, in 2005 she also created her own New Alliance Party (PANAL), allowing her to run her own candidates but also to coalesce with other parties when it served her interest. This year, however, when she attempted to return to the PRI, her asking price—expressed as the number of senators, representatives, and governors she expected to be given—must have been too high, and once again the party drove her away. So Gordillo’s PANAL put forward its own candidate, the environmentalist Gabriel R. Quadri de la Torre.

Mexico’s labor unions on the left, including many dissident teachers union locals, the Mexican Electrical Workers, the Miners and Metal Workers, and others supported Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City. López Obrador’s coalition included the PRD and two smaller parties, the Workers Party (PT) and the Citizens Movement. While the PRD tended to ignore the unions, the PT put independent union leaders such as Martín Esparza of the SME and Francisco Hernández Juárez of the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM) on the ballot, though both eventually lost.

In the end, Peña Nieto led the PRI and its satellite, the Green Party, to victory, not only taking the presidency, but electing (PRI and Greens together) 241 of 500 congressional deputies and 61 of 128 senators. Among those PRI deputies and senators, will be the heads of several of the official unions. And while Gordillo’s PANAL presidential candidate received only 2% of the vote, her party’s 10 congressional deputies will be key to the PRI controlling the Congress, so perhaps once again she has turned out to be the real winner.

The impact of the PRI presidential and congressional victory could be seen immediately in the response of union leaders to the call for post-election protests by supporters of López Obrador or by others who thought the elections had been fraudulent. Both the Mexican Mine and Metal Workers Union and the National Union of Workers announced that they accepted the legitimacy of the election and would not be joining in such protests. After six years of persecution, the Mine Workers are obviously hoping that if they hold out an olive branch, the PRI will respond in kind. Similarly the UNT, most of whose members are government employees, is hoping for some respite from the assault on labor.

Luis Videgaray, coordinator of public policies for the Peña Nieto transition team, has dusted off the PRI’s historic workerist rhetoric, proclaiming that Peña would be a pro-union, pro-worker, pro-labor-rights president. But this pro-union rhetoric will almost immediately come into conflict with the PRI’s and PAN’s plans for labor law reform intended to weaken unions.

The PRI will not be able to reestablish the one-party state that existed before 2000. The old corporate state, as it was called, depended upon the existence of a national economic model, state ownership of much of industry, and a vast social welfare system, all created during the long capitalist post-war boom and in the midst of Mexico’s oil bonanza. All of that, however, has been either swept away or profoundly altered over the last three decades.

Yet the PRI and its captive unions are back, still with enormous political power, and the independent unions are girding for battle. Fearing that they will come under a sustained government attack, leaders of the Union Association of Aviation Pilots, the Mexican Telephone Workers Union, and the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, gathered recently at the 31st regular convention of the Union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (STUNAM), to discuss the creation of a labor union front to resist the PRI’s call for a labor law reform that would make it more difficult for unions to organize and strike while also encouraging employers to hire subcontracted, part-time, and temporary employees. It’s not only labor law reform they fear, it’s the whole shift in political power. Even if it is not the old PRI establishment, that is back it is still frightening enough.



Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer, and activist. He is the editor of Mexican Labor News and Analysis ( and a member of the editorial board of New Politics (


Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2012 issue: "Elections 2012: What Now?"


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