About the new National Union of Workers:

The slow breakup of PRI's

corporative unionism in Mexico

By Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #16, Jan. 20, 1998)


. The PRI (Party of the Institutionalized Revolution) has ruled Mexico not just by manipulating elections, but by establishing a system of co-optation and control. Special attention was paid to subordinating mass organizations to the state and the party. Through corrupt deals, strong-arm tactics, heavy-handed state regulation, and even outright murder of militants and recalcitrant leaders, the PRI subordinated almost all of the Mexican trade union movement to itself.

. Today, as PRI's rule totters, its domination over the unions is beginning to loosen. Some small unions, such as those in FAT (Authentic Labor Front), have been independent of PRI for some time, and there are now more breakaways from the PRI unions. The struggle of the bus drivers of Route 100, Mexico City (whose union is SUTAUR--Ruta 100) helped inspire the formation in 1995 of the May 1st Inter-Union Coordinating Committee. Most recently, on November 28, 1997, the UNT (National Union of Workers) was founded, claiming to represent at least 1. 5 million workers in 200 workers' unions and peasant organizations. This is the largest breakaway from the PRI unions yet.

. Unions with a truly independent class stand would be of tremendous value to the Mexican working class. They would help the working class ensure that its demands wouldn't be bulldozed over in this period of political crisis in Mexico.

. But the UNT itself is dominated by union leaders with a long tradition of PRI-style unionism.There is the danger that the old PRI unionism will not be replaced by truly independent unionism but by a new, somewhat slicker reformism. Moreover, so far, the PRI's domination of Mexican unions is only beginning to crack. The overwhelming majority of unions are still affiliated to the PRI.

PRI unionism

. On the surface, Mexico appears to have a good deal of union activity. According to the International Labor Organization, about 20% of the world's workers are in unions, and only 14.2% of those in the U. S. , while 42. 8% of Mexican workers are in unions. But what type of unions are these? Almost all are tied to PRI, and they serve to pacify the workers. Many, perhaps most, unionized workers are covered by what are called "protection contracts": the protection being referred to is for the employer, not the worker. The employers pay off the union leaders, who in turn protect the company from any organizing among the workers, just like a Mafia protection racket. Many workers are in "ghost" unions, where they never see a union official or even know they are in a union.

. In some PRI unions the workers do have certain benefits guaranteed them by their contract.Nevertheless, the rank-and-file have little or no say about who their union officials are or what the union's policies are. The PRI, the company, and the union leaders make sweetheart deals among themselves.

. The PRI works through a variety of unions and union associations, which are grouped in CT (the Congress of Labor). The largest member of CT is CTM (the Confederation of Mexican Labor), but there are also CROC (Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants), CROM (the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers), a few smaller federations, and some industrial unions that are directly affiliated to CT rather than one of its constituent federations.There has been a proliferation of PRI unions for historical reasons, as the PRI and its predecessors bought off or bludgeoned into submission one union federation after another. But their continued existence serves the function of splitting up the workers in an industry into several different unions. Moreover, not only did these unions affiliate to PRI, but, until recently, workers in these unions were usually automatically enrolled in PRI or even forced to do support work for PRI. It was only in December 1990, with PRI and the unions in crisis, that they alleged that the affiliation of individual workers to PRI would now be voluntary.

. Mexican labor law is another way in which the PRI ties the workers hand and foot. The government can refuse to register, or recognize the existence, of an independent union. It can refuse to allow that union to represent the workers at a particular workplace. It can, and often does, declare strikes non-existent or illegal. It has a multitude of restrictions on unions in general and on unions in particular occupations, and there is pretty free use of the military and police to squash struggles. Much of this may remind the American reader of the National Labor Relations Board, the Taft-Hartley Act, the Landrum-Griffin Act, and other laws hemming in union activity and seeking to blot out militancy. But this legal system has been applied with even more severity in Mexico because PRI could have the courts and government do whatever it wished.

The struggle at Han Young

, An example of what Mexican workers are up against can be seen in the ongoing struggle at the Han Young auto parts plant in Tijuana, which is a feeder plant for Hyundai Precision's nearby tractor-trailer plant. This is an important struggle because it is an attempt to bring independent unions to the maquiladora plants. These are foreign-owned plants given special privileges by the Mexican government in order to attract foreign investment; in particular, the Mexican government colludes with the owners to keep wages down. The workers have either no unions or PRI unions which help control the workers.

. The workers at Han Young are upset over unsafe working conditions and low wages, and over Hyundai's efforts to take over their barrio and convert it into an industrial park. Supposedly represented by CROC, the workers never saw anyone from CROC set foot in their plant. In 1996 workers at Han Young and other Hyundai-associated factories began a struggle. Eventually Han Young workers went on strike for two days, demanding that the bosses negotiate with their representatives and not CROC. Although Han Young management said they agreed, they proceeded to hire an anti-union consultant and stepped up pressure on the workers. They fired eight strike leaders and otherwise harassed the workers.

. It was hard for the Han Young workers to get the Mexican labor boards to schedule a representation election. CROC and the company sought to prevent it. When the Tijuana head of the National Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JNCA), Antonio Ortiz, set the election process in motion, he was forced out of his post by the Governor of Baja California, Hector Teran Teran.A new official, Carlos Perez Astorga, regarded as even more partial to the maquiladoras, was installed.

. Nevertheless, on Oct. 6 last year, the election was finally held. As is typical in Mexican union elections, there was no secret ballot, but Han Young workers had to publicly declare which union they supported, CROC or the independent union STIMAHCS (Metal, Steel and Allied Workers Union, associated with FAT). CROC lost badly. But the labor board reopened the election a bit later in the day to let in a new group of "Han Young workers", including Han Young supervisors and people who had never been seen at Han Young before and who had a hard time remembering the very name "Han Young". Nevertheless, even with this group voting, the final result was 55 for STIMAHCS and 32 for CROC.

. But the rejoicing at this result was premature. The Mexican government refused to certify STIMAHCS as the bargaining agent at Han Young. There was of course various challenges to the voting to be decided on: STIMAHCS challenged 25 votes and CROC 2. But no matter how the labor board decided on this issue, it wouldn't change that CROC lost. Meanwhile various observers who had attended the election were harassed by the Mexican government, which wants the workers to have to declare their choice in public but the labor board to be able to manipulate the results in private. Finally, on November 10, the JNCA labor board denied recognition to STIMAHCS, on the ground that the makers of auto-parts were supposedly not metal workers and hence not eligible for membership in STIMAHCS. Meanwhile Han Young fired more pro-STIMAHCS workers.

. The workers and their supporters waged a campaign against this blatant denial of their choice.They obtained, on December 13, an agreement from both Han Young and Hyundai to recognize an independent union (not necessarily STIMAHCS), reinstate fired workers with full back pay, raise wages 30%, and re-establish a health and safety commission. They also obtained a written agreement from the Baja Calif state government to recognize a new independent union within 30 days (so that even if STIMAHCS was bound up in legal red tape, the workers could flee PRI unionism to the new union). (1) A second election was held on December 16. Despite both threats and 1,000-peso bribes offered by Han Young management, the workers again voted CROC out and STIMAHCS in. Finally, it appeared that all bases had been covered.

. However, the Han Young bosses reneged on the deal, and appeared on December 19 before the labor board to ask that a PRI union from CTM be recognized anyway as the bargaining agent. On December 22, when an agreement was to be signed between the independent union and Han Young management at the labor board, management didn't appear. So the struggle was still on.

. It took until Jan. 14 this year for the local labor board to accept STIMAHCS as the legitimate union at Han Young (and Han Young management has still not signed). (2) This required pressure on the Baja California government from the Mexican federal government, which was embarrassed by the international campaign being waged around Han Young and was faced with a legal action under a labor side-agreement to NAFTA. Meanwhile the fired workers workers appear to have been reinstated, at least for the time being, although Han Young management is still conspiring with the CTM against STIMAHCS. If the workers now succeed in making gains at Han Young, it will be an important precedent for other maquiladora plants.

The split in the PRI unions

. The gauntlet faced by the Han Young workers shows what faces workers who defy the "corporativist" deals between labor board, government, and capitalists. But splits are developing in this cozy system of management-union-government cooperation. The new National Union of Workers originates in large part from a recent split in the PRI unions. The head of the UNT is Francisco Hernandez Juarez, head of the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM). He began as a leftist, coming to lead STRM in 1976 as part of a revolt against the former PRI hacks in favor of a more democratic and militant union. But eventually he was co-opted by CT and PRI.Indeed, he was CT's president in 1987. He became the leader of the "new unionism", which accepted the neo-liberal turn in PRI's economic policies, advocated labor-management cooperation, and accepted privatization of the telephone company and the productivity drive ("flexibility"). Working with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, he formed a new union grouping, FESEBES (the Federation of Unions of Firms of Public Goods and Services), but it didn't grow as he had hoped.

. More recently, as the economic crisis deepened and PRI's trouble mounted, he has looked in another direction (and brought FESEBES along with him). He was a leading figure in the formation on Sept. 4, 1995 of the union grouping called El Foro (the Forum--Unions Face the Nation). This group displayed some dissatisfaction with the policies of CT and CTM, and raised such issues as unemployment, democracy in Mexico, and the modernization of the unions.Composed mostly of CT unions, along with some independent unions, it indicated a crack in the structure of PRI unionism, but it was organized by the old PRI-affiliated leaders and did not indicate any basic change in the structure of the unions involved.

. As the crisis in Mexico and in the unions deepened, the plan arose to found a new union federation, including the Foro unions, the more left-wing May First Inter-Union Coordinator, and other independent groups. This is the origin of the UNT. However, along the way some splits developed. The Foro group itself divided over the idea, and a number of major unions, including the largest ones in El Foro, decided to stay out. The May First group also decided to stay out, holding that the new federation wasn't really independent of PRI or committed to fighting the employers; some May First leaders accused Hernandez Jaurez of wanting to be another "Fidel Velasquez"--the recently deceased charro (labor hack) of all charros, who led the CTM for many decades. There may also have been disagreements over the relation of the union center to the political movement and to community activist groups. (3)

The new union federation -- the National Union of Workers

. But, encouraged no doubt both by the death of Fidel Velasquez and by the PRI's setbacks in the July 6 election, the UNT was founded in November. It contains part of the Foro group, the independent unions of FAT, several peasant organizations, and some other unions. Claiming to embrace 1. 5 million working people, it is the largest independent union federation in Mexico, but the PRI-affiliated unions still embrace the vast majority of workers. For example, FAT's STIMAHCS is one of the few significant unions of industrial workers within the UNT.

. The largest unions in the UNT are

* the 350,000 social security and national health system workers of SNTSS;

* 100,000 university workers including 23,000 in STUNAM, the Union of Workers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico;

* and 35,000 telephones workers in STRM.

. The UNT has three presidents, one from each of the three largest unions inside it. They are

* Francisco Hernandez Jaurez, still the head of STRM, who is also still a member of PRI.

* Antonio Rosado Garcia, head of the SNTSS, and also still a member of PRI.

* Agustin Rodriguez Fuentes, head of STUNAM, who sympathizes with the reformist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution).

. It had been reported at one time that the Foro unions and the May First group differed over whether peasant groups should be allowed in a workers' federation, with the Foro leaders opposed. However, five peasant unions have joined the UNT, apparently including both unions of rural proletarians (such as day laborers) and general peasant organizations. They are UNTA (the National Union of Agricultural Workers), CCC (the Cardenist Peasant Federation), UNORCA (the National Union of Autonomous Peasant Regional Organizations), CODUC (the Coalition of Democratic Rural and Urban Organizations), and UGOCP (the Workers', Peasants', and People's General Union.

. The formal structure of UNT may be more democratic than the traditional PRI-style structures of the CT and CTM, and it may talk of internal union democracy. However, there is no indication that the internal structure of the Foro unions that joined the UNT has changed. Yet the activation of the mass of workers at the base is the fundamental task if there is to be an upsurge of struggle in Mexico. The UNT program is reported to call for many of the popular reforms demanded by others, but none of this can be achieved without the mass struggle.

The UNT's alignments

. A militant trade union movement has to do more than simply separate from PRI; it has to develop an independent class stand from that of the bourgeoisie. How far the UNT is from this can be seen even in its attitude to PRI. The UNT apparently doesn't denounce PRI, since two of its presidents are PRI members, but simply drops its affiliation to PRI. (Its program does call for ending the corporative system, and changing the relationship between the state, political parties, and the unions. ) Hernandez Jaurez apparently advocates a unionism that ignores political issues and demands except those directly related to economic demands. It is true that his loyalty isn't necessarily to PRI; he has recently flirted not just with Zedillo, but with the right-wing PAN as well. And he has led FESEBES into an agreement for labor-management cooperation with the employers' association COPARMEX. No doubt these things are what inspire the denunciations of him as a self-seeking careerist.

. There are also supporters of the reformist PRD in the UNT. For example, FAT is informally allied with the PRD, as is one of the UNT presidents.

. The UNT has been welcomed by the AFL-CIO and other pro-capitalist unions from the U.S.and Canada, which sent representatives to its founding Congress. The American pro-capitalist union leaderships aren't in favor of class struggle, but wish to see the breakup of the utterly servile PRI unionism in order to establish a more subtle alliance with the bourgeoisie. We have reported many times in this journal on how the AFL-CIO officialdom has squashed strikes and other struggles in the U. S. , from the Detroit newspaper strike to the Staley struggle in Chicago.A break with PRI unionism that goes into AFL-CIO unionism will simply replace one chain on the workers' militancy with a somewhat longer one.

. As of now, there is hardly any force in the UNT that sees the problem with reformism or the American class collaborationist unions. FAT, for example, which has a clearer stand towards PRI than Hernandez Juarez, is not only backing the PRD but also has an organizing alliance with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE, which is more active than the AFL-CIO but has a similar policy). Indeed, the AFL-CIO itself is building bridges to FAT. There would of course be nothing wrong with attempting united front work with respect to these American unions, but there is no indication that FAT has any idea of the limitations of these unions. However important it is to have international labor solidarity, workers cannot afford to forget that that the UE and AFL-CIO leaderships only support those unions that stay within narrow limits and will turn on mass struggles that take on the full spirit of the class struggle.

Labor law reform

. The dangers of a new reformism also appear in the debate on labor law reform in Mexico. At this time, just about everyone wants some change in the Mexican labor laws. Those who want to break free of PRI tutelage want an end to the imposition of PRI unions and to government smashing of economic struggles, but the employers also want a change. They want the freedom to freely hire part-time and temporary workers. They want more flexibility to push workers into productivity schemes, and even the Mexican labor code--as favorable to the employers as it is--restricts this. Also they want to be free to dispense with unions altogether and not have to buy "protection contracts". Thus "everyone" agrees that change is needed, but the devil is in the details.

. The danger is that a moderate change, which eliminates the rigid state control of unions but fosters American-style pro-capitalist unions, will be presented to the masses as a worthy goal.Even Dan La Botz--who writes a newsletter about the Mexican labor movement jointly with FAT and UE, and glories in the cooperation between the AFL-CIO and the UNT--worries on occasion about what reformism might bring. He writes that the UNT and other unions, the right-wing PAN, the reformist PRD, and others might end up with a joint labor law reform that

"converge(s) around two dominant ideas: unions independent of the state, and granting employers greater flexibility in the use of the workforce. This might well produce a law which would end the state's tutelage over the unions, but at the same time promote greater cooperation between labor and management to increase productivity and competitiveness.Will state-dominated unions be replaced not by company unions exactly, but by a kind of employer-friendly neocorporatism? At the moment, that's the way it looks."

So while he dreams of pushing the UNT to the left, he nevertheless worries that Zedillo and Hernandez Juarez might come to an agreement, with the UNT functioning as the labor federation most in tune with this "neocorporatism". (4)


. As the breakup of PRI unionism proceeds, there will be many attempts to have the workers stop short at class-collaborationist or "neocorporatist" solutions. The formation of the UNT is significant not just because it shows that the old PRI "corporativist" unionism is beginning to break up, but because in its present form, it confines the workers' discontent within mild, reformist limits. Whether the UNT will have much influence isn't clear yet, because it is not clear whether it will succeed in leading any major struggles or will fade away. But whatever the fate of the UNT, it shows that the struggle for independent unionism is not over when unions break from direct subordination to the state and the PRI. Instead there will be a struggle between the trend of real proletarian independence and attempts to build up a reformist ideology that may not be a slave to a particular bourgeois party, but will be prey to the ideology of cooperating with the bourgeoisie in general.

. How fast and how thoroughly the workers break out of PRI unionism will be one of the central points of Mexican politics. It will have a major effect on whether the workers can obtain some benefits from Mexican democratization and support other working people. It will effect whether the workers come forward as the center of a new revolutionary movement, or whether oppositional activity is dominated by other classes. It is thus important not only to advocate a break from PRI, but to fight for unions that really fight the bourgeoisie. It also requires building up a workers' revolutionary party, for only a party can provide a consistent orientation to political and economic struggles. It simply won't happen that the economic struggle or unions in themselves will give rise to a consistently revolutionary and militant workers' movement.

. To break up the old unionism requires, of course, not only clarity on the class trends in Mexico, but a high level of struggle. Last year, the strike wave necessary to stop the employers' offensive on a national scale and to destroy the old style of unionism hadn't yet broken out. In fact, the number of strikes had dropped steeply from past years, and was at one of the lowest levels ever.The most dramatic section of labor activity seemed to be that of teachers strikes, mainly centered on the CNTE (National Teachers Coordinating Committee), which is a caucus inside the teachers union, the SNTE. But whatever the level of struggle, it is important for activist workers to distinguish between the different political and social trends vying for influence among them.This helps ensure that the struggles of today are used to prepare for the next upsurge, and are not being led into the trap of a new class collaborationism. All the institutions of Mexico are changing, while the workers are facing the never-ending demands of the bourgeoisie for more concessions. This is a time when the workers' political and economic organizations need to be radically recast as well, both in Mexico and elsewhere around the world, so that the forms which have proved bankrupt in the past can be replaced with real organizations of class struggle.


(1) The Byzantine nature of the labor laws can be seen in that Han Young workers and STIMAHCS supporters felt it necessary to organize this new industrial union, the October 6 Union of Industry and Commerce (named after the date when STIMAHCS won a certification election at Han Young). They believe that having it will facilitate voting out the PRI unions even when the labor board balks on recognizing STIMAHCS. (Return to text.)

(2) What happened on Jan. 14 was that the labor board signed an agreement with STIMAHCS giving STIMAHCS sole bargaining power at Han Young. However, Han Young management has not yet signed over the old union contract to STIMAHCS. (Mexican law provides that when a new union is recognized, it takes over the old contract and then bargains for changes in it. ) Han Young is still conspiring with CTM against STIMAHCS. (Text)

(3) The May First Inter-Union Coordinator is a coalition of unions, caucuses, community activist groups, peasant leagues, and political organizations. It is not directly connected to any one party, but the PRD has a good deal of influence in it. Its formation was related both to the SUTAUR-100 busdrivers struggle and to the official PRI unions canceling their usual May Day march and rally, at least in Mexico City, for 1995. What a demonstration of the crisis in PRI unionism! The May First coalition held the May Day march and rally in Mexico City instead.May 1st was no longer a demonstration of the unity of official labor and PRI, but resounded with slogans against neo-liberalism and PRI's policies. And so it was in 1996 and 1997 as well, but now both the May First coalition and the separate grouping of El Foro unions held their own marches and rallies in Mexico City, while the CTM hoarsely threatened any unions who took part. (Text)

(4) Mexican Labor News and Analysis, October 16, 1997, Vol. II, No. 19, "Analysis: Has the Time Arrived for Labor Law Reform?" (Text)

Back to main page, write us!

Last changed on October 17, 2001.
e-mail: mail@communistvoice.org