Official and Independent Unions Angle for Power in Mexico

September 25, 2007

Mexican workers, whose newly developed
labor movement had radical socialist and
anarchist leadership, played a major role in the
Mexican revolution of 1910. The pact between the
Constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza and the anarchist House of the Workers of the
World was the beginning of what is rhetorically
known in Mexico as the "historic relationship
between the working class and the State."
Article 123 of the new post-revolution Constitu-
tion enumerated a series of labor rights and pro-
tections: it guaranteed the right to organize
unions and to strike; it established the eight-hour
workday, and minimum-wage and over-time stan-
dards; it protected the rights of women and chil-
dren; it mandated health and safety protections;
and it declared that workers must share in indus-
try's profits. The Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM)
was founded in the 1930s. With the backing of
President Lazaro Cardenas, it quickly became the
dominant labor federation in Mexico. Fidel
Veldsquez was the first organizational secretary of
the CTM; in 1940, he became general secretary, a
post he has held ever since. To limit the power of
the CTM and strengthen government control over
the unions, Chrdenas oversaw the creation of-
apart from the CTM-a mixed organization of
farmworkers and small property owners called the
National Confederation of Cooperatives (CNC),
and an organization of public-sector workers, the
Federation of Unions of Workers at the Service of
the State (FSTSE). He made the CTM, CNC, and FSTSE official affili-
ates of the Mexican ruling party, the PRI. As a
result, most union members were until very
recently required to join the PRI. In many cases,
dues were automatically deducted from workers'
pay for both the union and the party. Unions of
this type have become known as "official" unions, because of their direct relationship with the PRI.
The PRI-CTM links are especially tight. Many
CTM leaders are important PRI politicians, often
controlling the PRI machine at the local level.
These politicians/union bureaucrats control vast
amounts of patronage, and have the police at
their disposal. The official unions lack democratic
procedures such as membership meetings and
secret-ballot elections.
In addition to the official unions, there are the
sindicatos blancos (white unions), which are com-
pany unions that are not independent in any real
sense. These unions are particularly prevalent in
Monterrey, the base for two sindicato blanco fed-
erations. Even more pernicious is the practice of
Unions Angle for Power in Mexico
"protection contracts," whereby official unions sell
companies a contract which remains in a drawer until such time as a real union appears on the scene. Thus, workers may go for years without any knowledge that they are "represented"-with no knowledge of their officers, no meetings, and no actual representation.
Until very recently,
most union mem-
bers were required
to join the PRI. Dues
for both the union
and the party were
often automatically
deducted from
workers' pay.
During the 1970s, move-
ments for indepen- dent, democratic unions developed
in many different
sectors. These were met with a combi-
nation of violent repression and co- optation.
As part of its modernization
effort, and to improve Mexico's
image abroad, the Salinas govern- ment has attempt- ed to distance
itself somewhat from the official unions. Salinas has attacked many of the old-line, corrupt CTM bureaucrats, often replacing them with "modernizers" who support
his program. The government has, however, con- tinued to viciously attack all efforts by workers to assert their rights, or to organize independent or
democratic unions outside of state control. Government hostility is the major reason that independent unions are such a small part of the Mexican labor movement. Mexican labor law
requires that unions obtain "juridical personality" (a charter granting legal recognition) from the government. The government has enormous power to intervene in the labor movement, to arbi-
trarily dismiss union leaders, to declare strikes "ille- gal," to militarily seize workplaces, to grant or withhold legal recognition, and to delay the pro- ceedings by which workers can change union rep- resentation.
Despite these enormous obstacles, a small, gen- uinely independent militant wing outside the PRI- controlled Congress of Labor has emerged. The Authentic Labor Front (FAT) is a federation of inde- pendent unions, cooperatives, and farmworker and community organizations, comprising some 50,000 members. Formed in 1960, FAT now represents workers in a wide variety of industries in over half
the states of Mexico. Over the years, FAT has pro- vided crucial organizational and political support to many parts of the independent union move- ment which were not formally connected to it, as well as to democratic currents within the official unions. Although relatively small, FAT has influence dis- proportional to its size, due to its principled deter- mination to create independent, democratic unions under extremely adverse conditions. For example, FAT was a key founder and active partici- pant in the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC), the coalition of over 100 Mexican organi- zations which opposed NAFTA. FAT national offi- cers were, moreover, quoted extensively in the international press. Bertha Lujan, one of FAT's three national officers, has announced that she will run as an independent women's candidate in the upcoming Congressional elections. Democratic currents are present within the offi- cial unions, reflected in the attempts of some unionists to establish independent locals. In the late 1980s, for example, the PRI-affiliated Revolu- tionary Workers Confederation (COR) opposed the government's wage-control program and partici- pated in the founding of a progressive labor coali- tion, the United Workers Front. In response to requests for assistance and affiliation from locals, including the Ford workers from Cuaititlan, COR agreed to submit to the government requests for certification. The actions of the COR leadership did not go unpunished. In July, 1990, the government
replaced the top leadership of the COR with its own loyalists.
The Federation of Goods and Services Unions (FESEBES), formed in early 1990 by unions of tele- phone workers, electrical workers, pilots, flight attendants, and trolley drivers, is yet another example of the new unionism. Breaking with tradi- tion, FESEBES did not require that union locals be members of the PRI. The Electrical Workers Union (SME), which is a member of FESEBES, also has a militant history, and its democratic traditions are greatly respected within the union movement. These unions present themselves as alternatives to the outmoded CTM. Believing that modernization is inevitable, they push for as large a role as possi- ble in controlling how change affects their mem- bers. FESEBES is, however, criticized by many pro- gressives for supporting Salinas' neoliberal policies, including NAFTA. Moreover, recently the head of FESEBES, telephone workers' union president Her- nandez Jubrez, served as chief negotiator during the Volkswagen strike in 1992, which resulted in a devastating agreement.


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