The weekly newsletter of the México Solidarity Project


August 30, 2023/ This week's issue/ Meizhu Lui, for the editorial team

Women Workers Rise Up from Disaster

In New York City in 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, employer of 500 young immigrant women garment workers. The exit doors were chained shut by the owners to stop workers from taking breaks or stealing cloth. No fire escapes on upper floors, doors that opened inward instead of out, obstructed walkways between the rows of sewing machines —  these were a few of the many safety violations that killed 146 workers, some jumping to their deaths from the 10th floor to escape the flames.


In México City in 1985, a massive earthquake shook down many buildings — some of them housing garment workshops. Seamstresses worked 10-hour shifts with only a half hour lunch break in illegal sub-standard buildings. As in New York, exit doors were locked to prevent theft. Buildings collapsed under the weight of the sewing machines and the rolls of fabric. After the quake, the bosses saved the rolls of fabric and the sewing machines before they tried to rescue survivors — some of whom were uninjured but died from thirst or suffocation in the rubble.


In New York, survivors organized a fight for safety standards, and unions took up their demands. In México City, seamstresses set up a protest camp and formed labor organizations. In both countries, because of these militant public actions, women workers saw that they themselves could and must fight for better conditions.


Gender-based oppression of women is often invisible, accepted as normal. It took — and often still takes — horrific disasters to get women’s issues into public awareness. As Rosario Ortiz recounts in today’s interview, the work is far from done. But the growing leadership of women trade unionists gives us hope.


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Women Fight for Rights on the Job

Rosario Ortiz Magallón helped found and remains active in the national Red de Mujeres Sindicalistas, an organization of women workers that fights for labor and human rights of women. She has served as a federal deputy in México's Congress and a national officer of the Telephone Operators Union of the Mexican Republic (STRM).

What led you to become a union activist and an advocate for women workers?

I was born in México City and was still in high school when I became political. In the ‘80s, I joined the youth section of the Trotskyist political party, the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT). It was an illegal organization, and students were severely repressed.

At one of our Congresses, we decided comrades should join the worker’s movement by getting jobs mainly in industrial sectors. We wanted to oppose the CTM and the corporatist unions, and to fight for real worker power. There is no other way to bring democracy to a rotten union except from below!

I went into the telecommunications sector and joined the Telefonista union, where my job was maintaining equipment. Because the building had to be climate controlled, I worked in a closed space with no windows.

At that time, few women had production jobs. Where I worked, out of 1200 technicians only three of us were women. Women were hired only in the health, education, or service sectors. These jobs are precarious, without social security or legal contracts, and are paid roughly 30% less than the jobs reserved for men.

A key moment in México’s labor and feminist history was the seamstress struggle after the 1985 earthquake. How did that affect women’s union consciousness and participation nationally?

The earthquake destroyed more than 800 garment workshops, most of them clandestine facilities where thousands of women worked without any social protections. Hundreds were crushed to death. More than 40,000 seamstresses were left unemployed and had no right to severance pay.

Photograph: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

The surviving seamstresses organized massive protests and publicized for the first time their exploitative work situations — as well as the labor violations of the owners. It was a shock to the public. Left wing feminist activists, who were organizing about violence against women in general, rallied in solidarity, creating a connection between the feminist and labor movements.

The seamstresses had a profound impact on women throughout the country, including in workplaces with CTM unions. The seamstresses denounced the sexual violence and harassment in these companies.  It was a moment where women became conscious that their oppression was not individual but based on their gender.

The PRT had a process of political formation that included organizing study groups about labor rights, violence against women, and union democracy. My trade union participation allowed the PRT to learn more about the problems of women workers, including obstacles in the family space, since many of them had to ask permission to attend the meetings.

While the '80s and '90s were decades of great mobilizations for improving working conditions, workplace democracy, and trade union independence, we failed to achieve protections for women workers. CTM-controlled workplaces used threats, beatings, and firings against members who defied union leaders.

Peter Menzel/Science Photo Library 

What motivated you and other women to form the Red de Mujeres Sindicalistas (Network of Union Women)?

In 1996, a few of us Mexican women labor activists were invited to Canada by the Canadian auto workers union. They introduced us to a labor project that organized, analyzed, and trained women to become union leaders. We realized that women workers needed a political organization to promote women’s leadership, and the Canadian project became our model.

Originally there were three of us — Inez Gonzalez,  Ginny Cooper (who  was an academic), and me. The Canadian auto union funded us to start our collective of working women, both union and non-union. The organization of the workers was essential to draw attention to inequality, discrimination, and poor conditions in their lives and  at work. It was necessary to break the silence.

The Red de Mujeres Sindicalistas saw that policy reform was necessary to improve the lives of women workers. Did you influence the negotiations of the USMCA/T-MEC, or the labor reforms of 2019?

Historieta:  A graphic presentation of the new labor rights in the 2019 Labor Reform by Red de Mujeres Sindicalistas

No officials ever consulted Mexican unions while negotiating NAFTA and then the USMCA/T-MEC. But we did have a voice in the Mexican labor law reform of 2019. For instance, we launched a campaign about violence against women that received wide publicity. 


At long last with the labor reform, we won a ban on discrimination against women and against gender-based harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. We also made sure that women would be included in union elections and in all union affairs. The government funded the dissemination of information about the new rights. 

Do you feel there is a new openness to women working in the industrial sector and taking leadership in the labor movement?

Yes! Look at the auto sector for example. At Audi, 33% of workers are women. Women are on the production line at VW, GM Silao, and other plants. Because women work right next to men, men are accepting that we have equal skills. They are learning to respect our abilities and willingness to fight for better conditions for workers of all genders.

Women have been elected to negotiating teams and union leadership. For example, Alejandra Morales heads SINTTIA. Despite internal conflicts, she is clearly capable of navigating difficult issues — she’s holding it together.

In the past, the PRI government and the company/charro unions couldn’t care less about women. That has changed. Even CTM unions, thanks to new legal requirements and the shift in public opinion, are recognizing the special oppression of women.

Alexandra Morales, SINTTIA General Secretary: Casa Obrera del Bajío

They are still terrible in practicing union democracy, but they’ve made progress around gender issues — and in the workplaces, they are now informing the workers about women’s rights. So, after fighting for years, we have made great strides. We have the legal space to defend women, improve the public’s understanding of gender-based issues for women workers, and created a new layer of women leaders.


But gender issues run deep in our society. We must keep fighting until we replace the culture that normalizes male dominance in all aspects of our lives.


Primero Los Pobres 

One of Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s favorite slogans is: “Por el bien de todos, primero los pobres.” “For the good of everyone, the poor come first”. The phrase featured prominently in his three presidential campaigns and in many ways sums up his governing priorities.

The slogan isn’t merely empty words. Recent data from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) revealed that over 5 million people had been lifted out of poverty since 2020 — despite the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic. Under AMLO’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, fewer than a million people rose out of poverty during his entire 6-year term. 

This reduction in poverty results from AMLO’s labor-friendly policies, his historic public investment in the poorest regions of the country, and an increased minimum wage. The government also instituted programs to support rural workers and universal social programs, such as a pension for senior citizens. AMLO’s critics have tried to claim that poverty alleviation is due to everything but government policies, a claim that is intellectually dishonest at best. 


But even among those who admit AMLO’s shift in policy is indeed responsible for lifting the poor, some have attacked him for implementing universal rather than conditional social programs that have work or other requirements or are means-tested (such as an income cut-off). For example, Bloomberg’s Eduardo Porter criticizes AMLO’s universal social programs, feeding the reader cherry-picked studies about the efficacy of conditional programs over universal ones. He sees Mexico’s experience as proof — but as the data shows, when we compare AMLO and Peña-Nieto’s record, these conditional and means-tested programs, firmly rooted in neoliberal orthodoxy, had a limited effect.


The superiority of a universal approach is backed up by research. Stephen Kidd, Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways, wrote, “From a technical perspective there really is no argument: universal provision is vastly superior in reaching those living in poverty and in reducing both poverty and inequality.”


In 2015, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reported that governments throughout the region have moved away from the “structural adjustment policies” that emerged in the region during the heyday of neoliberalism, and that demanded cuts in social spending.


They now prioritize a “rights-based” approach to social protection that aims to achieve universality. Increased social mobilizations and the election of leftist and progressive governments generated this shift, and the shift stands in stark contrast to trends in the Global North, where politicians and policymakers have worked for decades to make it harder for the poor to get relief.


The question of implementing universal over conditional programs is not only about adopting policies that are easier to administer and that garner greater buy-in (think Medicare in the US) — but an ideological one. Peoples throughout Latin America, including México, have made their choice with the ballot. They’re saying, we survived the neoliberal era. Now we choose leaders who take a rights-based universal approach to social protection, for the good of everyone, where the poor come first.

José Luis Granados Ceja, a Mexican freelance journalist, is currently studying human rights and popular democracy at the Autonomous
University of Mexico City. His writings on democratic struggles in Latin America appear regularly on social media at José Luis Granados Ceja 


Recent news reports and commentaries, from progressive and mainstream media,
on life and struggles on both sides of the US-México border.


Kurt Hackbarth, AMLO Is Reducing Poverty in Mexico Jacobin. MSP member Kurt Hackbarth reveals that under President AMLO and Morena, Mexico is outpacing even the most optimistic projections, the result not only of social programs, but of rising wages and labor reforms.


Violeta Vázquez-Rojas, El 7 de septiembre: certezas e incertidumbres Milenio. La contienda no será tanto para disputar la Presidencia —tan lejana por ahora para el frente opositor—, sino para ganar el mayor número de escaños en el Congreso.


Mexico's military builds cheaper than private companies – AMLO BNAmericas. AMLO highlighted that the Felipe Ángeles airport (AIFA) was built for 75bn pesos, while the previous administration’s now-scrapped Texcoco airport was estimated to be 300bn pesos.


Viri Ríos, El inesperado no-despegue de Xóchitl Milenio. Los medios mexicanos han estado prediciendo un ascenso meteórico para Xóchitl Gálvez, una senadora del Partido Acción Nacional que intenta conseguir la nominación de su partido para la carrera presidencial. Las encuestas no lo confirman.


Adriana Barrera, Mexico says it won't modify decree on GM corn ahead of USMCA panel Reuters. The United States last week escalated its objections to the restrictions imposed by Mexico on imports of GM corn.


César Arellano García, Travesía por México hacia el 'sueño americano' La Jornada. El fenómeno migratorio debe atenderse desde un enfoque de derechos humanos, afirmó la ministra de la Suprema Corte de Justicia (SCJN), Yasmín Esquivel Mossa.


Andres Oppenheimer, The nuttiest idea from the Republican debate? DeSantis’ call for the U.S. to invade Mexico. Miami Herald. If the Republican candidates’ misleading Mexico invasion rhetoric keeps heating up during the campaign, it will gain traction among growing numbers of voters.


Carolina Gómez y Andrea Becerril, El obispo de Aguascalientes pide en misa unirse a marcha contra libros marxistas La Jornada. La senadora de Morena Olga Sánchez Cordero advirtió que con esa actitud el clero viola la Constitución.


Two months of strike at Mexico’s Peñasquito mine IndustriALL. The union claims that the profit-sharing bonus fell far short of the mandatory 10 per cent of the previous fiscal year's profits, and that the company underpaid workers for time worked on public holidays.


Pedro Iniesta, Tamaulipas: encuentran “campo de exterminio” en rancho del ex gobernador Cabeza de Vaca De Raíz. El terreno fue adquirido por el exgobernador por el Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) a través de una empresa fachada.


The Mexico Solidarity Project brings together activists from various socialist and left organizations and individuals committed to worker and global justice who see the 2018 election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of México as a watershed moment. AMLO and his progressive Morena party aim to end generations of corruption, impoverishment, and subservience to US interests. Our Project supports not just Morena, but all Mexicans struggling for basic rights, and opposes US efforts to undermine organizing and México’s national sovereignty. 


Editorial committee: Meizhu Lui, Bruce Hobson, Courtney Childs, Victoria Hamlin, Agatha Hinman, Peter Shapiro. To give feedback or get involved yourself, please email us!


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