For Mexico’s Striking University Workers, A War of Attrition Over Public Education

A three-month strike shutting down one of Mexico’s top universities lays bare class schisms, the López Obrador government’s tepid response to inequality, and organized labor’s limitations in building solidarity across class divides.

July 10, 2019

SITUAM banner on May 1 2019 (Photo by Akuavi Adonon)

For 93 days this spring, black and red strike flags flew from one of Mexico’s leading universities, with almost 10,000 workers either refusing to work or locked out, including adjunct and tenured faculty, administrative, cleaning, and maintenance staff. The strike paralyzed all five campuses of the public Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM), which are located on Mexico City’s working-class fringes. It disrupted research projects, postponed graduations, froze new student intake, and forced administrators to cancel 13 weeks of classes for the university’s 56,000 students.

After a narrow vote for all-out strike in late January, the Sindicato Independeniente de Trabajadores de la UAM (Independent Union of Workers of the Metropolitan Autonomous University, SITUAM), the sole union representing UAM staff, had demanded a 20 percent pay hike and a serious investigation into violations of its collective labor agreement. The union claims the university has systematically employed irregular and non-union staff to institutionalize precarity and undermine workers’ position in the university. The dispute foregrounded profound inequalities at the public university while also underlining some limitations of the Mexican labor movement: weakened by division, clientelism, and attacks on workers’ rights, it has often failed to coordinate collective action, let alone build coalitions across class divides.

The UAM strike formed part of an unexpected upsurge of Mexican labor unrest in early 2019. However, the dispute also drew on much longer traditions of public sector militancy with SITUAM, a combative union that grew in part out of progressive social movements of the 1970s, pitted against a conservative administration and faculty in one of the city’s most important public institutions. As well as a microcosm of class tensions in Mexico City, this strike was a harbinger of growing domestic problems for the new government of President Andres Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, and his MORENA party. While its rhetoric of egalitarianism and national renewal has inspired grassroots radicalism, its budget cuts are now being felt across the public sector, affecting both workers and ordinary citizens.

Although right-wing and foreign commentators had raised the specter of a “far-left” Mexican government, the MORENA administration has proved a relatively tame animal. Promising no new taxes and no new debts, its economic policies have sought above all to assuage the fears of the financial markets. Although it has introduced new social programs, it has made no attempt to confront or redistribute private wealth in this deeply unequal country. This has left its “republican austerity” program—originally pitched as a drive against corruption and for national renewal—looking increasingly like old-fashioned financial austerity, with new programs funded by cutbacks elsewhere in the public sector. Controversially, the government has cut funding for daycare facilities, healthcare, shelters for women who have suffered abuse, among other programs.

New Labor Militancy

An upsurge in Mexican labor militancy in early 2019 largely took place in maquiladora production facilities near the U.S. border, against a backdrop of efforts by Mexico, the United States, and Canada to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to NAFTA. The unexpected outbreak of wildcat strikes, centered in the city of Matamoros, won a series of victories, including substantial pay raises and union recognition, and spread to companies previously untouched by labor unrest, including Coca-Cola and Walmart. After years of strike activity languishing at an all-time low, the events prompted much speculation in the Mexican media about a renaissance of labor politics, “awakening the sleeping giant” of Mexican syndicalism.

In addition to local and regional struggles, Mexican labor conditions were also the subject of high-level political negotiations between the United States and Mexico, as part of the USMCA ratification process. On May 1, on the heels of the strike wave, AMLO signed a labor reform package into law, mandating new forms of mediation, collective bargaining, and internal union democracy, intended to prevent collusion between firms and corrupt union leaders. Domestically, the López Obrador government pitched the reform package as an extension of “Fourth Transformation” values of probity and transparency to the workplace. “The rule of law has come to the world of work,” wrote Luisa María Alcalde, Mexican Secretary of Labor.

AMLO’s government had been hesitant about the package, largely due to a skeptical business community. The major pressure for reform came from Washington, where the narrative pushed by U.S. media and politicians focused on trade union corruption in Mexico. The reforms, U.S. negotiators suggested, would allow for genuine collective contract agreements, posited as an innovation for Mexico and a model for future labor relations. The outcome, went the story, would be stronger unions and new collective rights south of the border. This would eventually push up Mexican wages, lessen labor cost disequilibria, and halt the flow of jobs from the United States to Mexico. 

But that rhetoric presented a very partial view of Mexico’s labor history. For more than a century, fragmentation, corruption, political collusion, and bouts of government repression have plagued Mexican unions. One result of this has been pseudo-unions, who conniving with employers at the expense of their own members. But the right to collective labor rights and contracts have also long existed in the country, enshrined in law and the Constitution. But establishing collective rights are a new theater of this struggle, one where conflicting interests must be mediated.

In the case of UAM, the university’s wide-ranging, highly-detailed collective contract has been the focus of bitter and recurring disputes. This has often involved specific wage claims and demarcation conflicts. More generally, this represents a long-term struggle between ideals of public education and neoliberal values that, as elsewhere, have filtered through the Mexican higher education system in recent decades.

A War of Attrition Over Public Education

Leftist accounts of the 2019 labor unrest often folded the UAM strike into depictions of spontaneous shop-floor insurrections. But there was a crucial difference between the northern strikes and the public sector dispute in the capital. The maquiladora movement was offensive in nature, taking advantage of the changed political climate to pressure union leadership and win concessions. But the UAM strike was essentially defensive. It marked the latest moment in a decades-long war of attrition aimed at whittling down the collective rights university workers achieved in the 1970s—namely a robust, detailed collective contract regulating both intellectual and non-intellectual work at the university.

UAM Xochimilco campus (Photo by Claudio Briones)

Both the university and its collective contract are products of the 1970s. UAM was founded in 1974 as part of President Luis Echeverría’s “Education Revolution,” a paternalistic, top-down expansion of public education in response to Mexico’s population explosion and the extraordinary growth of its capital city. As its name suggests, UAM’s campuses were deliberately planned to be metropolitan, established in the impoverished periphery of what had recently become the world’s largest city. Today, the UAM student body is markedly poorer and browner than the city’s other leading universities, and less well-connected to networks of influence and employment. It is not uncommon for graduates to end up working at the university as cooks or cleaners. 

UAM’s campuses may have been established by an authoritarian regime, but they were also home to experiments in pedagogy and alternative academic structures, with strong links to social movements. But unlike other new experimental universities of the era—for example in Sussex, England, or Nanterre, France—here radicalism extended to labor relations. In 1976, a hard-fought strike secured the collective work contract at UAM. For SITUAM, now the established closed-shop union, the agreement represented a quasi-constitutional ruling document, establishing workers as equal partners in the running of the institution. Crucially, the union was established as a “mixed union,” meant to represent both academic and non-academic staff. This emphasized their common status as working people, with all contributing to the university as a community and a site of knowledge production. Even today, union officials point out that their labor activism secured academics’ rights to sabbaticals.

The principle of a mixed union deteriorated over the decades. As elsewhere, neoliberal values came to infuse educational institutions. As in the United States, the university has increased its use of precarious adjunct teaching labor in recent years. But the distinguishing feature of Mexican higher education, and UAM above all, is a system of academic compensation combining neoliberal values with Mexico’s baroque bureaucracy. In the 1980s, high inflation eroded university salaries, prompting fears of a brain drain. To counteract this, the federal government and university administration introduced elaborate bonus systems for academics, based on points awarded for every imaginable academic task, which must all be logged, documented, authenticated, and submitted for approval.

Today, these individualized “stimulus payments” amount to around 75 percent of tenured academics’ salaries: a subtle form of precarization, meaning incomes are not secure, even if positions are. The system has tended to undermine collective spirit among academics, hardly the profession’s strong point at any time. Over the decades, academic participation in SITUAM dropped steeply, undermining the principle of the mixed union and fueling class tensions around collective bargaining and rights. As one UAM historian, an opponent of the union, told me: “It’s quite simple: workers’ and academics’ interests are radically different.”

For SITUAM, Mexico’s mid-1990s neoliberal turn brought an intensifying campaign of attrition against collective labor rights, with the university seeking at every turn to outsource work and evade the collective agreement. As elsewhere, administrative salaries increased as real wages at the bottom stagnated. The union accuses the university of “theft of the material of work,” arguing that management has ruthlessly outsourced work and responsibilities rightfully belonging to the organized workforce. Clearly, this involves a conception of work and ownership radically different than management’s emphasis on flexibility, productivity, and international rankings.

A Defensive Strike

When the strike began on February 2, workers occupied and shut down all five campuses of the university. In Mexico this kind of occupation is generally not regarded as a violent or particularly provocative act. At UAM, the union informed university authorities ahead of time and carried out the take-over in an orderly manner. But with SITUAM as the only official union, the occupation meant that all employees, including tenured faculty, found themselves on strike and largely without income, whether they supported the union or not.

The university agreed to talks but refused to discuss most union demands. Authorities insisted that a 20 percent pay hike was financially unrealistic and organizationally impossible, since budgets were established at federal level. In response, union supporters publicized senior administrators’ elevated salaries, dubbing them the “golden caste,” and proposing that redistribution of this money could cover wage increases at lower levels. Financial disparities are steep: a cleaner or adjunct professor makes around $400 a month, while the university’s best paid administrator earns over $15,000 a month, a vast sum in Mexico. In pushing for redistribution, the union used the language of the new government, which has ruled that public salaries cannot exceed AMLO’s $5,700 monthly earnings, though autonomous universities are not obliged to follow suit.

Compounding the university’s refusal to negotiate, union representatives also accused officials of adopting a domineering attitude, claiming they “spoke to us [workers’ representatives] like patrones,” a word connoting more than boss, closer to a feudal overlord. In short, the authorities refused to acknowledge, let alone practice, the “bilaterality” so important to the union: the idea that all UAM employees are equal, legitimate interlocutors, with shared responsibility for the institution, its values, and its history.       

But the union also attracted vehement criticism. While it claimed the strike was based on careful democratic consultation, opponents told me that the shutdown lacked any legitimacy and that a small, unrepresentative group of delegates had forced it through. Critics of the strike I spoke with generally portrayed the union as a corrupt, nepotistic, and backward organization defending its own privileges while increasing costs and preventing innovation. Other allegations have claimed SITUAM is dominated by families who control appointments by frequently selling access to unionized jobs. Union supporters say clientelism is ubiquitous in Mexico—rampant in academic appointments, for example—and that critics exaggerate accusations of corruption while holding the union to standards not applied elsewhere.

On social media, academics opposed to the strike regularly derided unionized workers as a pampered minority benefitting from rare secure employment in a country where the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates nearly 60 percent of the labor force works in the informal economy. But the idea can be turned around: in circumstances like this, what worker would not cling to principles supporting a secure existence? Academics, after all, hold fast to the idea of tenure and know what its abolition would bring.

For its part, the union was ill-prepared for industrial action. One activist, a secretary at a UAM campus, told me she expected the strike to last just two weeks and that the 20 percent pay demand was intended as a provocative, symbolic figure. With the university stonewalling, the result was a stalemate. As the strike dragged on for months, the media increasingly aired criticism of the union, with unsympathetic commentators depicting the strike as boneheaded, futile, and damaging. Stories emerged of students being denied opportunities to study abroad, research projects being abandoned, and professors being forced to work as Uber drivers to make ends meet.

The union’s strike fund quickly depleted, prompting a turn to more radical tactics. In early April, UAM workers began the so-called casetazo, commandeering toll booths on five highways in and out of Mexico City. Opening the barriers, they asked drivers to pay contributions to the strike fund instead of tolls. The casetazo continued for several days without violence; federal police were present but did not intervene. The money raised allowed the strike to continue, but the tactic was controversial within the union. Some activists emphasized its use by other protest movements, including families of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students. Others argued that public-private highway partnerships made tolls a legitimate target. But many officials worried that the tactic gave the strike an air of banditry, alarming the middle class while undermining the union’s legalistic focus on collective rights.

Twenty-two rounds of negotiations left the two sides locked in their positions, although the union did eventually reduce its pay claim. Authorities ruled out using force to reclaim the occupied campuses and administrative buildings: a violent history of police campus interventions, above all in 1968, made this deeply problematic. For its part, the union did little to publicize its case; its few public demonstrations were relatively small. Meanwhile, its failure to establish alliances with unions striking in similar circumstances, including at universities in Chapingo, Oaxaca, and Sonora, highlighted its insularity and tactical limitations.

Strike Ends, but Austerity Looms

After 90 days, with funds running low and morale declining, the union began to negotiate a return to work. Another unusual feature of public-sector strikes in Mexico is the partial repayment of salaries withheld from strikers during work stoppages. In this case, the university first proposed 50 percent repayment, but later upped its offer to 100 percent. The union accepted the proposal on May 2, calling off the strike. With the lost salaries restored, the university immediately resumed its business two days later.

For the authorities, the priority was normalization: the faster university business was restored, the quicker the union’s visibility would be reduced, dissolving the implicit recognition the strike accorded. Among workers, opinions were mixed on the strike. Some saw it as a clear defeat, while others spoke of increased “bilaterality” between workers and top administrators, implying the union had won back some of its role in the institution. Others emphasized that the strike had transformative potential, offering a glimpse of emancipated public education in keeping with UAM’s original culture. Some intellectuals suggested a university could best reflect on its mission while at a standstill with its financial and class relations laid bare. Those academics who had suffered inconvenience and hardship in the strike expressed little patience with that argument.

In the meantime, the political context has continued to shift. A clause in the USMCA labor reforms may abolish the closed shop at UAM, fundamentally changing the union’s position. Over the years, academics alienated from SITUAM have coalesced around SPAUAM, an unofficial trade union; this may now achieve parallel official status, complicating collective negotiations. More immediately, universities and academics are already among the next targets of government cutbacks. Bonuses paid to Mexican academics seem set to become taxable, amounting to de facto pay cuts of 20 percent or more. Persistent rumors suggest that the MORENA government is likely to radically downgrade health insurance for all UAM staff, workers and academics alike. Ironically, this would be a perfect moment for cross-class solidarity in defense of shared interests. But so soon after a prolonged and acrimonious labor dispute, this may be in short supply.

Brían Hanrahan (@hanrahanistan) is a journalist and translator who lives in Mexico City.

His thanks go to Ani Frere and all those, pro and contra, who spoke to him about the strike.

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