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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Labor Reforms in México

from the Oct. 20, 2021 Bulletin

labor unions Mexico-US history

Jeffery Hermanson has been a union organizer for over 40 years, working with unions ranging from the ILGWU and the Carpenters to the Writers Guild of America West. From 2000 to 2003, Hermanson directed the Mexico Country Program for the Solidarity Center, a Washington, D.C.-based worker rights group, and later founded the Center’s Trade Union Strengthening department to help build union capacity worldwide. He currently serves as the lead organizer for the Solidarity Center's Mexico program.


México's 1917 Constitution has strong labor protections. These provisions give workers the right to organize unions and to strike — and promise an eight-hour day and a living wage. Have these rights been upheld?

You could say that the Mexican Revolution of 1910 began as a labor dispute. A strike at the American-owned Cananea Copper Mine in 1906 and the French-owned textile factory in Rio Blanco Veracruz in 1907 were both brutally suppressed, with hundreds killed, leaders executed, and zero gains for the strikers.

These events showed the Mexican people how the dictator Porfirio Diaz was catering to foreign interests while repressing Mexicans. These two strikes essentially provided the backdrop for the labor provisions in the 1917 Constitution.

The Constitution’s powerful right to strike forbids employers from hiring replacement workers and, yes, this right to strike has been enforced, with some important exceptions. Once the red-and-black strikeflag goes up, plants shut down.


So why have wages and working conditions in México been so bad?


The law hasn’t undermined workers. Corrupt unions and government controls have.


In the 1930s, President Lázaro Cárdenas decided to nationalize foreign companies in basic industries like oil, electric, and rail. Workers carried out these nationalizations, taking over workplaces by force. Wages rose, and for the limited number of workers in these and other basic industrial sectors, life would be good. But Cárdenas also fused the CTM — the Confederation of Mexican Workers into the PRIs party-state corporativist structure.


Beginning in 1988, with President Salinas de Gortaris embrace of neoliberalism, national unions found themselves attacked and weakened. Wages fell, the cost of living rose, and the unions submitted to the government’s new line that keeping wages low would stimulate employment.


For the next 30-some years, corrupt unions used the right to strike to extort payoffs from employers and as a lever to negotiate protection contracts,deals often signed without worker knowledge or even before workers might be hired. These contracts benefited only the union leaders and the company. The union collected dues, often paid directly by the employer without worker knowledge, but did nothing for the workers.

Has AMLOs government been significantly different? Last year, Mexican officials arrested the activist labor lawyer Susana Prieto on charges that included inciting to riot. She asked for but didnt get help from AMLO.


The AMLO government has taken a radically different labor stance. AMLO doubled the minimum wage in the border areas where most maquilas operate, and that minimum went up 25 percent in the rest of the country. The maquiladoras then refused to raise wages proportionally as required by their unusually good CTM contract, and that prompted a spontaneous walkout by thousands of workers.

Employers called on AMLO to put down the strikers, the typical past practice, but the government instead told the employers to go to the bargaining table. In the face of worker pressure, employers and the CTM union eventually gave in to the worker demands, a 20-percent wage increase and a bonus worth $1,600.


In the aftermath of the strike, a huge defeat for both employers and the PAN government in the state of Tamaulipas, Susana Prieto was arrested on state criminal charges. AMLO and the federal secretary of labor denounced the arrest as a fabrication of crimes, but under the Mexican Constitution they had no power to reverse the arrest. Ultimately, pressure from the federal government and the US labor movement led to her release.


AMLO’s labor reforms represent a real sea change that dismantles the old corporatist system. Before the reforms, representatives of just three parties heard labor disputes: the government, the employers, and the unions. But none of these three parties represented workers, since the union representative always came from the corporativist unions. 


The new labor system does away with the tripartite labor boards and establishes labor tribunals, under the judiciary, to resolve disputes and oversee union elections. Establishing this new system, a monumental task, will take three years and come in stages. Inspectors to ensure fair contract votes need to be recruited and trained, labor tribunals set up. To its credit, the US Department of Labor has contributed $180 million to help speed the process.


Workers at the GM Silao plant recently scored a big win when they voted to throw out the CTM contract. Do you see the new independent SINTTIA auto union, formed by workers themselves, as likely to become the Silao plant’s new union representative?


I would call the contract vote a defeat for CTM, but not yet a victory for the workers. By making the old contract end on November 3, instead of immediately after the August vote, the Mexican Labor Secretary Luisa María Alcalde has given the CTM almost three months of access to workers, three months to convince them to vote the CTM back in. At the same time, GM has restricted the activity of the new union and subjected its leaders to company-administered drug tests, a ploy historically used by GM to fire dissidents at the plant.


Winning the right to negotiate a new contract will require a vote of 50 percent plus one, and without some restraint on collusion between GM and the CTM, SINTTIA is going to have a difficult time succeeding.


One key problem: México has little history with bottom-up union organizing. Most independent unions have formed in single plants after spontaneous worker rebellions against corrupt unions and their protection contracts. SINTTIA, a new union formed by workers themselves, has little experience in organizing, no staff, and no organizers.


But the SINTTIA activists do have courage and the credibility of being active workers, not corrupt union officials. They also have the support of the independent labor movement and international allies like the Solidarity Center. I believe they have a fighting chance.


Has the vote to throw out the union contract at the Silao GM plant encouraged workers in other plants and industries to reject corrupt charro contracts?


Yes! Just in the short time since the Silao vote, workers at least five major plants have rejected their CTM contracts. But we don’t know yet what unions, if any, will replace the CTM in these plants. The lack of experience organizing democratic unions, the lack of union infrastructure outside of the corrupt corporativist unions, remains a serious problem.


We also should be careful not to consider every union that calls itself independentor autonomousto be progressive. We’re already seeing sweetheart unions in the old mold spouting a radical-sounding discourse. Other self-styled “independent leaders more interested in personal advancement than organizing democratic unions are taking advantage of labor unrest to jump in front of the crowd. Charro traditions will be hard to eradicate. Mexican workers have unlocked the door, but they’re going to need courage and commitment to kick it open and walk through and that wont be easy.


What do you see ahead for Mexican labor?


Mexican workers 20 years ago, when I worked as the Solidarity Centers Mexican rep, faced a truly grim situation, with only a few rare examples of legitimate unionismlike the independent VW and Nissan unions. Today workers have hope. They’re facing a watershed moment, just like US workers did in 1935 after the National Labor Relations Act’s passage.


Mexican workers must figure out, hopefully with the solidarity and support of other labor movements, how to be like the early CIO in the United States, how to form national industrial unions that, at long last, make worker empowerment their first principle.