Putting Democracy on Hold in Mexico

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Dan La Botz

Democracy on Hold: The Freedom of Union Association and Protection Contracts in Mexico, Maria Xelhuantizi-Lopez (Washington, D.C.: Communications Workers of America/ CWA, 2002), 128 (8×11) pages, end notes. Order free copy at www.cwa-union.org/international.

MARIA XELHUANTIZI-LOPEZ’S DEMOCRACY on Hold represents one of the most important contributions to the study of the Mexican labor movement in the last several years.

While the book would be important in any case, it takes on additional significance because it represents the view of Francisco Hernandez-Juarez, head of the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM) and one of the three co-chairs of the independent National Union of Workers (UNT). As Xelhuantizi-Lopez writes in her introduction, he is “the intellectual author of this project.”

What makes Xelhuantizi-Lopez’s book so important is that she puts the “protection contract” at its center. Such contracts, which protect employers from genuine labor union organization in Mexico, may represent as much as ninety percent of the 600,000 registered union contracts in Mexico.

Moreover, Xelhuantizi-Lopez argues that it was the Mexican “corporatist” system, a system of state control over the unions, that gave rise to the “protection contract.” Her book traces some of the history of the Mexican state, the historic ruling party, and their relationship to the labor unions, explaining how the state created the corrupt, violent system of corporatism and employer protection.

Without a doubt, “corporatist labor unions” and “protection contracts” stand at the center of any discussion of Mexican labor unions, as I argued in my own study about ten years ago. (Dan La Botz, Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today [Boston: South End Press, 1992].)

Xelhuantizi-Lopez directs our attention to the central fact of labor relations in Mexico, and makes some suggestions for solving the problem. Yet while this book represents an important contribution to the current debate, I would disagree with its underlying argument and its prescriptions for the labor and political movement.

Diagnosis and Prescription

Xelhuantizi-Lopez’s argument — that is to say Francisco Hernandez-Juarez’s argument — is that the rise of “corporatism” and “protection contracts” produced both bad labor unions and bad corporations or bad capitalism.

Mexico is not as efficient, productive, wealthy and prosperous as it might be because the state, and its corporatist labor structure with its protection contracts, distorted Mexican development. Unions became state-run, corrupt, violent and worthless for workers. Companies became inefficient, unproductive, uncompetitive and therefore unable to globalize.

As she writes:

“Corporative labor was the alternative to unionism and entrepreneurism that the belligerent groups of the political and economic oligarchy found to insure their permanence and continuity, but also to articulate themselves with a global capitalist movement that was aggressive and challenging to them and against which such factors as nationalist, revolutionary and patriotic demagogy served to protect and legitimize them. Today the result of all this is a backward bourgeoisie, incapable of globalization and having long-range vision, always ready to submit to multinational capital interests.” (122)

The Problem of Partnership

What is to be done? The answer, she suggests, is to create healthy labor unions that can work with the corporations to produce good contracts that represent a miniature version of a social pact. As she writes, “The collective bargaining agreement is, in essence, a micro social pact.” (2)

This argument suggests that the labor movement and its political allies might also enter into a social pact with capital at the national level. The fundamental basis of Hernandez-Juarez’s argument (as expressed through Xelhuantizi-Lopez) is that labor and capital can and should enter into a partnership, whose goal is to raise productivity so that capital can compete more effectively and really be successful at globalization.

The argument raises a number of questions. Can and should labor and capital be partners? Will capital be willing at this moment in history to enter into social pacts?

Should the goal of the labor movement be to help corporations be more competitive in the world struggle between corporations and national capitals that is called globalization? Or do unions have another mission?

Pacts and Partnership Today?

In certain ways the proposal for bilateral contracts and national social pacts may be attractive, especially at a moment when in general the labor movement and the working class at home anywhere and abroad everywhere is going to hell in a handbasket.

Many would like to return to the world of the thirty-year period from 1945 to 1975, when the big industrial labor unions and the Democratic Party in the United States and Social Democrats in Europe (and in their own way Communist Parties in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc) were able to provide a system of social welfare — even as they all three opposed a democratic social transformation to create a more equitable society.

With labor unions and the left in general retreat — Brazil perhaps being an exception<197>we can understand the desire to return to a (somewhat mythical) past of social pacts. But capital seems little inclined to enter into them, when it can produce a profit from the new flexible, non-union, political eviscerated working class that it has created in the last twenty-five years.

Even if healthy bilateral contracts and social pacts were possible at this moment, should unions help to make their corporations and countries more competitive, when that really means that they work to defeat other corporations and other countries in the world market?

Looking for a New Partner

Rather than being a partner with capital, shouldn’t labor propose its own project for the reorganization of society not to make corporations successful, but to create an economy, a society, and a polity that benefits all working people, and ultimately all of the world’s people?

Shouldn’t workers develop their own program to save the world from the mess we’re in? Doesn’t that mean that workers have to develop their own program to resist the corporation and the governments they control that now run the world? Doesn’t that mean not partnership but a class struggle by workers against capital?

No one will find it surprising that Francisco Hernandez Juarez wants partnership. He began as the militant, leftist leader of mostly women telephone workers in the early 1970s, and rose to become the general secretary, top officer of the Mexican Telephone Workers Union.

But by the late 1980s he had joined in partnership with Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the Mexican president who carried out the opening of Mexico to the world markets and the privatization of Mexico’s national industries.

When Carlos Salinas wanted to privatize TELMEX, the Mexican Telephone Company, Hernandez Juarez supported him in exchange for protection for telephone workers jobs. But the privatization of TELMEX was a key move in the general privatization of mines, railroads and other industries that cost the jobs of tens of thousands of other workers, destroyed unions, and weakened labor contracts.

In those years, a friend of the president, and a member of the executive committee of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Hernandez Juarez argued for a new model of unions, working with the new private employers to create more productive enterprises.

But then came the invasion of new telecommunications competitors, most of them owned by foreign capital, and Hernandez Juarez and his union found themselves being ground down by the competition. (We might mention that unfortunately this is a story that Xelhuantizi-Lopez, since she is Hernandez Juarez’s pen, cannot and does not tell in this book.)

Hernandez Juarez and the UNT

Chastened by those experiences, Hernandez Juarez took his allies in the labor movement — mostly employees in modern high tech industries, such as the flight attendants — and their little labor federation FESEBES, and moved to ally with Mexico’s more independent and democratic unions.

Joining with the Union of Workers at the National Autonomous University (STUNAM) and the Social Security Workers Union (SNTSS), and the small but significant federation of Authentic Labor Front (FAT), he helped to create the National Union of Workers (UNT).

The UNT has proven to be a genuinely independent labor federation, sure that it must build unions separate from and different than those of the Congress of Labor (CT) and the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM), long controlled by the PRI and now beholden to president Fox of the National Action Party (PAN).

But the question is on what basis will the UNT create a new union movement? Will it try work in partnership with corporations? Or will it attempt to organize workers in the long and difficult task of building a working-class alternative to the savage capitalism Mexican workers have faced?

Will the UNT embrace Hernandez Juarez’s project of partnership? Or will the FAT once again raise its old 1970s banner of workers control of the factory? Will some sector of the Mexican labor movement put forward the notion that the project should not be partnership with capital — but a labor project of democratic socialism?

ATC 104, May-June 2003