The Crisis of Mexican Unionism

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Alejandro Toledo Patiño

AN INTELLECTUALLY RICH and critical tradition of research and writing on the history of Mexico began in the United States with the publication of Marjorie Ruth Dark’s classic Organized Labor in Mexico in the 1930s. Almost half a century later appear the works of Barry Carr, The Labor Movement and Politics in Mexico: 1910-1929 and James D. Cockcroft’s Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation and the State. Dan La Botz’s The Crisis of Mexican Labor (Praeger, New York, 1988, $37.95 hardback) is in this tradition.

La Botz deals with the period from the 1920s—the golden age of “Moronismo”—to the middle of the 1980s—when we witness the decline of “charrismo.”(1) The Crisis of Mexican Labor, based on interviews with prominent contemporary labor unionists, contains a substantial bibliography. The author deals particularly with the most important episodes of the workers’ struggles and labor politics In looking at the connections between the labor movement and political power, La Botz throws into relief the issue of independence and labor union democracy.(2)

Especially in studying the ’20s and ’30s, La Botz’s analysis depends too much upon the notion of the Bonapartist state. It therefore proves insufficient in handling the complexity involved in the mechanisms of consensus and coercion of labor by the Mexican state. The post-revolutionary Mexican state is a corporativist type that has historically expressed itself as an authoritarian, presidentialist, one-party regime.(3)

But rather than debating theoretical interpretations and political nuances concerning the meaning of these early decades, I want to focus on the past two decades. In its last two chapters The Crisis of Mexican Labor fails to capture the problematic of the workers’ movement in these years of crisis in a really comprehensive way.


In 1906 Werner Sombart asked the question about the evident absence of a socialist workers’ movement in the United States in his book Why Is There No Socialism In The United States? More than half a century later, Jose Revueltas formulated an analogous question in his Essay On A Proletariat Without A Head: Why did the Mexican proletariat lack class consciousness?(4)

Sombart responded by referring to the tendency of the working class to become petty bourgeois, to electoral populism, and to the presence of an improving standard of living for the workers, and the expectation of social mobility. Revueltas averred that the ideology of the Mexican Revolution—with its anti-imperialist declamations, its notion of the state that was above classes, its revolutionary-nationalist rhetoric—was the principal impediment to the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat.

When Revueltas wrote his Essay, capitalism in Mexico was preparing to enter into an intensive stage of development: the incorporation of new technologies, advances in the process of industrialization, the rise of what had come to be called peripheral Fordism, changes in the size and composition of the working class. Economic growth, fed by intensive mechanisms for generating a surplus, permitted a clearly rising tendency of the industrial wage. That tendency was prolonged until the mid-70s, when wage gains came to overtake the growth in productivity.

Having exhausted an historic model of development, the Mexican economy entered a period of crisis According to the perspective put forward by Revueltas, the structural character of the economic crisis would once again place the question of the ideology of the Mexican revolution more at the heart of the workers’ movement From this point forward the ideology of revolution and its institutional character within the labor movement entered into a crisis that still has not been resolved.


In 1971, differences developed in the Congress of Labor over the unification of union organizations in the electrical industry. This conflict rapidly became part of a wave of workers’ struggles. Over the next four years union insurgency, combined with governmental policy based on a model of flexible salaries, timidly attempted a renovation of the structures and a reformism of the most archaic charm unionism.

This process was centered in. a) the creation and/or democratization of company-wide unions; b) the democratization of national industrial unions; c) the upsurge of unions among bank workers doctors, and university employees.(5) Economic demands, as well as demands for democracy and union independence, were all raised.

The Democratic Tendency of the electrical workers’ union, (SUTERM), based on a national industrial union with a long tradition of struggle, constituted the backbone of the union insurgency. (See La Botz, chapter 7.) In May 1975 the Democratic Tendency published the “Declaration of Guadalajara,” outlining its union and political platform: a) creation and democratic reform of union organizations; b) reorganization of the union movement on the basis of national and industrial unions; c) raising of the standard of living of the workers (sliding scale of wages, broadening of social welfare system, development of workers housing, etc.); and finally d) application of a combination of economic measures (collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of the bank, expropriation of trans-national companies, state monopoly of external trade, planned development of the state sector, workers’ control of production, etc.).

This program, seen as the “Mexican way to socialism,” was based ideologically on revolutionary nationalism; its goal was “to carry the Mexican Revolution forward” strengthening the “progressive and anti-imperialist” wing of the government and of the state.

In the face of the growing economic crisis, the appearance of a breakdown in the mechanisms of negotiations-representation of the bourgeoisie and the state, and pressures and threats from the official union bureaucracy, this wing ceased sheltering the dissident labor movement.

The electrical workers strike of July 1976, begun in order to force the labor authorities to reinstate the leaders of the Democratic Tendency in the Executive Committee of SUTERM, was broken by the military occupation of the firm’s plants. The wave of the worker insurgency began to decline, and the Democratic Tendency dissolved two years later. The backbone of union insurgency was broken.

Beginning in 1978 and extending into the middle of 1983 there would appear a new tendency to revive strikes, led fundamentally by the workers of heavy industry (mines, steel, automobiles, and chemicals) as well as by workers involved in communications, education and health. But this time there was no core group of workers pulling the movement together, even when the most important mobilizations were organized by the National Coordinating Center of Education Workers (the CNTE).(6)

The labor bureaucracy did not act politically as a mere appendage of the state, or as a simple transmission belt for the government.(7) The Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM) in particular has constituted a center of power where a multitude of links and contradictions of the Mexican “political class converge from the level of the municipalities and states to the federal level.(8) It might even been said that Fidel Velazquez (eighty-six years old, fifty years as head of the CTM) came to exercise a vice-presidency sui generis.


In the six-year presidential term of Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) the relations between the government and the official labor unions generally rolled along smoothly. The petroleum “boom” revitalized—as the official discourse put it—”the historic alliance between the state and the organized workers’ movement” Just as the bonanza of loans and petrodollars permitted him to overcome the disequilibriums and contradictions of the productive apparatus, so in the political realm, this boom united the unions; for the same reason, the outbreak of the crisis in’82 caused the tensions between the heads of government and the leaders of the official labor movement to reappear.

The relations between the administration of Miguel de la Madrid (19821988) and the official labor unionism were marked by contradictions. These were derived not only from the situation of the economic crisis itself, but principally from the project of capitalist restructuring the government initiated.

In June 1983 official labor unionism—followed by the sectors of independent labor unionism—launched an offensive at the national level. These strikes did not simply force the new administration to enter into a price control pact, but also demanded change in the political economy. The government did not give in. The labor union gerontocracy retreated under its pressures, and the independent labor movement, which had taken the labor bureaucrats’ saber rattling seriously, was defeated in its isolated strike movements. (See La Botz, chapter 9.)

The defeat of the strikes of June 1983 marked a tendency toward a workers’ retreat. But it also signaled the breakdown of the historic political role played by the labor bureaucracy.

Miguel de la Madrid’s economic project—economic opening, reprivatization, administrative decentralization—were contrary to the interests of the corporativist labor unionism, an institution which derived its power from protectionism, statism and centralism. Faced with the system of capitalist modernization, the labor union gerontocracy came to represent one of the most important bastions of the corporate system. In so far as the interests of the bureaucratic caste coincide in the fundamentals with the most backward sections of capital and the political bureaucracy, official labor unionism came to constitute an authentic dilemma for capitalism and the Mexican state.

On the one hand the official union was useful for controlling the workers and keeping down wages; on the other hand, it grew increasingly more dysfunctional as an institution reproducing a set of values contrary to a modern factory discipline. By its very nature, the labor union of the Mexican Revolution is a “labor union of circulation,” but, inscribed within the corporativist logic, it influences production by causing over-employment (especially in the government and in state-owned industries) poor quality labor and corruption.

This is the substratum of the historic crisis of corporativist labor unionism. During the six-year presidential term of Miguel de la Madrid the crisis expressed itself “from above” in the relations between the labor bureaucracy and the government, not as a crisis “from below.”


Salinas de Gortari, just like Miguel de la Madrid, was not a candidate suitable to the highest echelons of the union leadership. They preferred Alfredo del  Mazo, who offered to conciliate the dictates of industrial reconversion with the preservation of the interests of corporativist labor unionism. The labor union bureaucracy’s unhappiness with Salinas even reached the point that the head of the very powerful petroleum workers union, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, known as “La Quina,” backed Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas with organization and financial support.

Paralleling this sharpening of the struggle between “technocrats and labor bureaucrats,” the elections of July 6, 1988 clearly revealed the failure of the official unions as a mechanism to deliver the vote for the FRI. Within the insurgency of the citizenry on that day, the unionized workers, the majority of them voting for the opposition, escaped the controlling structure of state unionism. Slowly but inexorably, the bureaucracy has seen the crisis grow worse, both “from above” and “from below.”

Between September and November 1988 there appeared clear signs of internal decomposition confrontations and armed clashes between various trades and factions of the official unions. Then, with Salinas in office for less than a month, La Quina was arrested.(9) From Salinas’ point of view; La Quina represented the prototype of the union boss and stood in the way of the restructuring of the petroleum industry. But on the political plane, La Quina constituted the armature around which the union bureaucracy, especially the strong core of the CFM, could assure the continuity of a united leadership (given Fidel Velazquez’s advanced years).(10)

With the arrest of La Quina, in an unconstitutional operation, Salinas made it clear that official efforts to modernize the structures of the official labor unionism will be carried out with an authoritarian and presidentialist style typical of the Mexican political system. From this angle there is no hope that the current governing team desires a profound democratization of the labor movement. In reality what they are after is a more flexible labor market. This involves a recomposition of state unionism and not, obviously, its elimination.

Counterpoising itself to what can be identified as Salinas’s project of neo-corporativist labor union, the crisis “from below” has begun to make itself felt since 1988. In particular, the SNTE (National Union of Educational Workers), the organization of the teachers and other educational workers (more than 800,000 members, a pillar of the labor unions and party officials) has been involved in an unprecedented wave of rank-and-file mobilizations organized by the CNTE. In addition to achieving some of its economic and trade union demands, the movement toppled SNTE head Carlos Jonguitud in April 1989. But it could not avoid the government’s involvement in the union and President Madrid appointed the new National Executive Committee of the Union.

In this era of political transition charrismo is crumbling. Because of the close relationship between the state and the unions, the course of the political transition and of the “twilight of the bureaucrats” will be closely related. It is possible to foresee a typically neo-corporativist outcome to the Mexican labor crisis. This would form part of a crippled political transition in which the unions’ subordination to the state will prevail.

First, there are those changes which are caused by the crisis (the collapse of wages and the explosion of unemployment). Second, there are those that result from capitalist restructuring (new technologies and labor processes what affect strategic and growing sectors of the working class, modifications of the contractual model which has shaped the wage relationship). Third, are those that derive from the working-class resistance itself: a union movement that, rising from the depths of the crisis, confronts the possibility of leaving behind practices based on ideological dependency and state paternalism.

But the actual developments will depend upon the rise of a labor union life and culture with a democratic content, which contributes to the development of the class consciousness of the workers.


  1. Moronismo: Luis N. Morenes was the head of the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) from about 1920 to its decline in the mid-1930s. Morones supported and was supported by the Mexican Presidents Obreon and Calles. Morones gave his name to this state-labor-unionism, which also had a corrupt and gangster aspect to it Charrismo: Jesus Diaz de Leon, known as El Charro (the dude), was installed as head of the railroad workers union in October 1948 with the help of government political police and the military. Similar coups in other unions ousted legitimate labor union officials and replaced them with union bosses loyal to the government Since that time the Mexican labor union bureaucrats, supported by the military and police power of the state, have been referred to as the charros.
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  2. The won “independence” comes up several times in this article. When used in discussions of the Mexican labor movement it usually refers to independence from the official labor union organizations (the Congress of Labor or CT and the Mexican Workers Confederation orCTh4 and others) which are affiliated to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Ultimately “independence” refers to independence from the one-party state.
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  3. The term “estado coiporutivo” can be translated a “corporate state” or better a “corporativist state” and implies a similarity Put only a similarity) to Mussolini Fascist “corporate state” where the various corporations or sectors such as business, labor, the church were tied to and incorporated into the state. It is a theory developed by the Mexican “new left” of the 1960s and ’70s to explain the stability of the Mexican state.
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  4. Jose Revueltas was a Mexican novelist and political activist and member of the Mexican Communist Party from which he was expelled or resigned at various times. Eventually he formed his own small political group. He wrote the Essay on a Proletariat without a Head in 1961 and it was published in 1962. A short except in English can be found in: Luis E. Aguilar, Marxism in Latin America (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1968) 240-44.
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  5. Virtually all doctors in Mexico are public employees working for the public health system and are paid about at a level comparable to public school teachers. The university workers unions which appeared during the 1970 were made up of both white-collar and blue-collar workers.
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  6. La CNTE is a national rank-and-file movement within El SNTE, the National Union of Educational Workers. It was formed in December 1979 to challenge Vanguardia Revolucionaria (or Revolutionary Vanguard, the pro-PRI caucus which runs the SNTE. With its strongest base in the state of Oaxaca, La CNTE survived a decade of repression and today claims 300,000 members or about one-third of the teachers union.
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  7. President Luis Echeverria Alvarez (Dec. 1, 1970-Nov. 30, 1976) promoted a number of populist measures including peasant land seizures, new more radical labor unions, and the formation of new socialist parties with the intention of shaking up the labor bureaucracy and the PRI.
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  8. The term “political class” is commonly used to refer to the ruling party bureaucracy and its various extensions in the labor movement, the peasant movement, the small businesses and vendors, the military, and so on.
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  9. On January 10, 1989 police and military forces using high powered weapons stormed the petroleum workers union office in Ciudad Madero and arrested “La Quina” and several other union leaders. “La Quina” was jailed to await trial on charges of corruption and the possession of large quantities of weapons.
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  10. The candidates likely to succeed Fidel Velazquez are three: Emilio M. Gonzalez, a former governor and the current leader of the Senate; Alfonso G. Calderon, also an ex-governor, Blas Chumacero, the CFM leader in the state of Puebla.
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July-August 1991, ATC 33