Origins of Mexico's Labor Law Reform

September 25, 2007

During the seven long decades of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) rule, unions formed an important part of the party’s corporate system of patronage and clientelism. These “official” unions played a pivotal role in the political system, turning out their members to vote for the PRI’s candidates. In return, their leaders received government payoffs and political positions as governors or congressmen.

The PRI prevented strikes and the organization of independent unions, and carefully controlled collective bargaining and its outcome. The Federal (and local) Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration (JFCAs), which oversaw union recognition, collective bargaining and the legality of strikes, had a tripartite structure. Since the PRI and its unions held two-thirds of the votes, and the employers the other third, it was nearly impossible to obtain the legal documents necessary to represent workers, to win legal recognition of a union or to gain recognition of democratically elected or independent union officials. The Boards routinely declared strikes illegal. When workers in the state-controlled unions attempted to democratize their unions or to form an independent union, they were expelled through the use of the exclusion clause.

For the past half-century, there have been repeated worker rebellions against the system. The Authentic Labor Front (FAT), a small, independent labor federation formed in 1960, has been a leader in the fight for workers’ power on the job, union democracy and political reform. Independent unions also formed among auto-parts workers and university employees and a powerful democratic caucus developed in the teachers union.

The Mexican state has historically responded to reform movements and strikes with repression. The army, for example, was used to crush the railroad workers in 1959, and the electrical workers in 1976. Police and military action also accompanied the privatization of state-owned industries in the 1980s; the army occupied the mine and town of Cananea in 1989 and police used bazookas to attack the petroleum workers’ union headquarters the same year.

Official unions routinely colluded with employers and the labor authorities to fire, threaten and sometimes beat workers, and even occasionally killed them. The system today still functions in the interest of employers who bring in “ghost unions” to provide “protection contracts” that lock-in only the bare legal minimums, while keeping out genuine labor unions. Some authorities estimate that today between 80 and 90% of all labor union agreements are such sweetheart, substandard and fraudulent contracts.

Union reformers, such as the FAT, first broached the idea of labor law reform in the 1960s and 1970s, during a period of democratic reform within unions and worker militancy in the workplace and in society, raising the idea of labor law reform as part of an effort to end the one-party state. Workers, they argued, should be able to conduct democratic elections in their own unions, form independent unions, freely bargain collectively and strike. Some demanded independent tribunals and a public registry of unions and contracts. These reforms, however, were never able to muster the necessary political power to force the PRI to make the changes.

Surprisingly, in 1995 the National Action Party (PAN) put forward a labor law reform project authored by attorney Néstor de Buen that included elements of the pro-worker reform put forward by the democratic union movement as well as the pro-employer provisions now included in the flexiblization of the Abascal Plan. This did not pass, but served as a touchstone for future proposals.

Since the late 1990s, the democratic and independent union movement has succeeded in changing the terms of public discourse, making issues of union elections by secret ballot and public access to information regarding unions and contracts matters of public debate. This forced Secretary of Labor Carlos Abascal to include representatives of the independent National Union of Workers (UNT) in working sessions he convened to come up with a consensual legislative proposal for labor law reform. And when these discussions broke down, the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) succeeded in having a democratic labor law reform bill introduced with the support of 100 deputies.

What we see now is a struggle between two different visions for labor law reform, one proposal is based on flexibilization and the other on democratization; one seeks only corporate productivity, and the other is grounded in workplace democracy.

Dan La Botz teaches history and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of books on labor unions in the United States, Mexico and Indonesia. He was formerly a labor activist, union and community organizer. Robin Alexander is director of international labor affairs at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

Tags: Mexico, labor, labor law reform, PRI, unions, neoliberalism

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