Richard Leitch updates his story on the exemplary solidarity work of two unions – the United Electrical Workers of America (UE) and Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front (FAT). Their relationship is an inspiring one for unionists, particularly as it draws heavily on rank and file involvement. The struggle for a new and independent unionism in Mexico involves ghost unions, corrupt bureaucrats, legitimised thuggery and battling drug cartels.
Last century a deeply restrictive ‘corporatist’ political machinery developed in Mexico during the 70-year dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This effectively constrained the development of the labour movement, imposing a network of official union bodies and labour laws which fiercely protect the status quo, and are backed by repression. Tying together state, official union and employer interests, this conservative ‘triple alliance’ has dominated Mexico’s social order for decades, posing real problems for any independent force.
Although the era of the PRI has passed, and multinational employers are displacing national ones, the old system remains strong.The FAT’s response to this has been to build its capacity where possible in strategic economic sectors and geographical localities. From its original base in low-tech manufacture, centred around the states of Guanajuato and Chihuahua, it has expanded to include new unions and federations in the transportation, public and service sectors. In addition, it has responded to corporate globalization by building international alliances with other progressive unions (in particular the UE).
Early on, it broadened its focus to act as a ‘social movement,’ taking up the concerns of other oppressed social sectors (farmers, urban communities, women) and developing a general political vision in opposition to neo-liberal globalisation. This approach has informed its activity within many political movements and independent labour federations. As we explained in our previous report (download), by the end of 2007 the FAT had managed to expand its organising activity to numerous sectors and geographical areas of the Mexican economy, including the public sector. It undertook some effective cross- border solidarity actions (with the UE and others), and helped mobilise growing numbers of ordinary Mexicans.
2008 has proven a difficult year for independent unionism in Mexico. Beyond the structural barriers already identified, a dual crisis – both political and economic – has engulfed Mexican society, creating further problems for independent unionists. We need to recognise that there are other forces active in this area, especially within the Miners’ and Teachers’ unions. For further informaton on this, see 2008 MLNA bulletins here.
The current political crisis has coalesced around battles between drug cartels and the Mexican government, resulting in some 8,000 deaths in the past two years alone. This has instilled a climate of fear within society in general. Some now believe the state itself is failing in its exercise of legitimate power. As the national government sought to ‘militarise’ the drug war, and to draw on funds from the US in doing so (the so-called ‘Plan Mexico’), many in the Mexican labour movement foresaw a grave threat to labour organising. State power continues to function only too well in this arena. However, while drug wars have led to extreme violence, this has not yet impinged on the labor movement. Workers in some northern or border cities have been killed in the crossfire, but the drug lords have not become involved with employers or unions. It seems that employers have seen the dangers of involving drug cartels in their business: they would soon find themselves hostage to men as rich and powerful as themselves; men who are better armed and perhaps even more ruthless.
From the point of view of the labour movement, a major concern is the on-going economic, psychological and (at times) physical violence meted out to union activists who step beyond the boundaries of official union structures and seek genuine representation. The events at the Mexmode factory in Puebla, where SITEMEX union leaders were confronted by a paramilitary group (attached to the PRI), and threatened by local government officials, is only one example of this. However, Mexico is not Colombia. Employers and the government do not typically assassinate union leaders or organizers, at least not since the 1970s. Nevertheless, employer or “official union” thugs do sometimes beat workers, especially during union representation elections. And when there are big strikes, they must face repression from the government, with workers sometimes killed in the clashes (as happened a couple of years ago at the strike by the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers union at Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán). These firings, threats, and occasional beatings not only violate human rights, they also intimidate other workers and their unions.
Mexico’s economy is now so thoroughly integrated with that of its northern neighbour that the fallout from the US credit crunch has already transferred southwards. Falling exports, less FDI, fewer remittances sent from abroad, and rising prices are creating a situation where employment and monies for personal consumption and social expenditure are all under severe pressure. So far, the response of Calderón’s neo-liberal PAN government has been too timid (remaining tied to its overarching strategies of privatisation of petroleum and electrical power), and seems unlikely to meet the scale of economic and social challenges.
On the ground, FAT organising will surely be affected by these trends, although the organisation has faced such challenges before (e.g. during the 1980s) and has developed creative strategic responses.
In the realm of national politics, the FAT continues to play a prominent role in the myriad of oppositional movements, coalitions and campaigns against the neo-liberal strategy of Calderón’s government and wider global developments. Much of this activity is channelled through its participation and leadership in the independent labour federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT). In 2008, national protests were staged against petroleum and energy privatisation, and the impact of NAFTA on Mexican agriculture. These took place under the banner of ‘The Movement for Food and Energy Sovereignty, for the Rights of Workers, and for Democratic Freedoms’.
The UNT itself is now a decade old but, as la Botz notes, its promise of a ‘new unionism’ for Mexico has been limited by prevailing economic circumstances. It has staged many protests on the national stage and, although it is one of the major poles of attraction against neo-liberalism and official unionism, there is a more complex and fragmented configuration of forces which frustrates this work, both politically and within the union movement. The Mexican economy remains dominated by the phenomenon of ‘protection contracts’: pacts signed between employers and the ‘ghost unions’ who notionally represent them (often without the workers being aware of their existence).
Secret ballots in workplace elections are another long-standing goal of independent unions in Mexico. At present when workers do try to gain genuine representation, their efforts are systematically blocked by the presence of ‘ghost unions’. These claim prior representation rights, and the subsequent workplace elections must be carried out in public, in an atmosphere of extreme intimidation and corruption. Over the past year, the FAT and other organizations have undertaken major political campaigns against protection contracts, in favour of secret ballots for union elections. Studies undertaken in support of the FAT campaign suggest that less than 5% of union contracts registered with the state labour department involve active union organisations.
In an historic decision the Mexican Supreme Court granted workers the right to secret ballot elections in September 2008, a move hailed by the FAT and others as crucial step on the road to workplace democracy. However, as La Botz points out, employers are now adapting their anti-union tactics to recover lost ground. Moreover, the Calderón administration is once again threatening to introduce an extremely regressive labor law reform proposal, arguing that it is needed in light of the recession.
At the level of workplace union organising, the FAT has had mixed success in 2008. The spectacular victory of its September 19th affiliate at the Vaqueros Navarra plant in late 2007 (winning rights of representation for the workforce despite the lack of a secret ballot) was cruelly reversed when the employer refused to reopen the site after the Christmas break, a deliberate act of union busting. More promising was the victory of central market workers in Mexico City, who successfully defended their jobs when the government commission operating the market terminated its contract with their immediate employer, and substituted a new subcontractor and hired replacements in defiance of Mexican labour law.
Elsewhere the FAT was involved in struggles to reinstate sacked municipal workers in Chihuahua, to gain representation rights for workers at the Tornel rubber plant (previously controlled by the major official union body CTM), and to defend the rights of state employees in Nayarit. Not only did the FAT take on these challenges, but in most of the cases cited, they were able to mobilise cross-border solidarity.
International solidarity has indeed been an important strategic component focus for the FAT, in association with the UE and other allies. The struggles in Nayarit and Chihuahua, and in Mexico City, have all involved allies mobilising support to send email protests or utilize other methods to pressure the relevant employers and authorities. The campaign at Vaqueros Navarra was also heavily reliant on such international action. Two other strands of FAT cross-border activity were also evident this year. Reciprocal action in support of UE organising struggles was deployed for their ongoing efforts to secure collective bargaining rights for state workers in North Carolina. Here the FAT undertook legal protests and organised the participation of other Mexican unions in this campaign. And at the end of 2008, the UE workers occupying the Republic plant in Chicago were encouraged by FAT letters of support.
Beyond this, existing links between public sector workers, now an increasing focus of UE and FAT organising, were deepened through exchange visits and another annual ‘Public Sector Convergence’ meeting, drawing in allies from Québec, Canada and Japan. The meeting was followed by an international delegation to North Carolina to provide support for the campaign to win collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.
To conclude, in circumstances not of their own choosing, these independent trade unionists are genuinely making history. The road is long; independent unionism is a minority phenomenon in Mexico, but the structures of official unionism are unravelling and independent trade unionism is gaining strength. And, with major divisions within the most prominent left party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), no unified voice yet exists to lead the democratic, pro- worker forces that are assembled (in shifting coalitions) onto the national stage.
(1) This article draws from the monthly Mexican Labor News and Analysis (MLNA) online journal, posted on the UE’s website here. I would like to thank its editor Dan la Botz and Robin Alexander, International Director of the UE, for their help in putting together this article.