The Fight for Mexican Labor

The recent teachers’ strike in Mexico is part of a struggle for unionism that isn't controlled by employers or the state.

CNTE teachers protesting in 2013. Eneas De Troya / Flickr

The battle between the dissident teachers of the National Coordination of Educational Workers (CNTE) and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto came to a standstill in late August. The teachers, who have been on strike for over three months, refused to show up for the first day of classes.

Since their strike began in June, the teachers have erected roadblocks and occupied local businesses, paralyzing economic activity in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and other states. To silence them after this international humiliation, Peña Nieto condemned them for compromising the Mexican public’s right to education and refused to negotiate until they went back to work, which they did in early September.

This recent standoff is part of a decades-long battle between CNTE and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which, except for a twelve-year break from 2000–2012, has ruled Mexico since 1929.

This strike was motivated by the 2013 education reform, which was passed without teachers’ participation or consent. But it contests more than educational policy; it bears directly on Mexico’s unjust labor and union system.

The state’s reaction to the teachers reflects the history of Mexico’s labor unions, which often function as a mode of state control rather than a vehicle for working-class advancement. Exemplified by the split between the state-supported National Educational Workers Union (SNTE) and CNTE, the difference between official and independent unions’ ability to defend workers demonstrates how Mexico’s system of labor organizing actually disciplines the labor forces.

State Control

On paper, Mexico has some of the highest unionization rates and some of the most consistent and organized unions. But the country’s low formal labor rates and system of corporatist unions create a system of empty worker representation.

Official unions — undemocratic and subordinated to the state — make up almost 90 percent of all unions in the country. Because the informal economy employs more than half of all workers, very few Mexican employees can access democratic, representative unions that exercise the right to strike and contest unjust labor practices.

These official unions have a corporatist relationship with the state, which integrates workers into the state apparatus by way of corporations. As arms of the state, they guarantee social control by severely limiting workers’ ability to contest corrupt industry practices or radically change the management structure of their organizations. By keeping wages down and avoiding conflict, the official unions ultimately reinforce the status quo.

The government maintains this system by tightly controlling which unions it recognizes. To become a formal union, an organization must first apply to the secretariat of labor and social welfare. Although the barriers to registration are quite low, the government can — and often does — arbitrarily delay registration or eliminate a union altogether. Workers who bypass authorization become subject to government sanctions and dismissal. This formalization process helps labor organizations subordinate workers.

As a result, business interests dominate formal unions. Bureaucratic hierarchies rule these corporatist groups, which often lack essential democratic procedures such as membership meetings and secret-ballot elections. Businesses instead appoint their own union leaders and blacklist those who do not belong to the PRI or who have indicated they will not work in the party’s interests.

Similarly, many workplaces also have closed-shop rules. Unlike in the United States, where these rules usually strengthen a union’s negotiating power, in Mexico it limits workers to one organizing option and requires them to stay in the union to keep their job.

Formal unions also often center party politics, rooting them to the tradition of Mexico’s one-party rule. The Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) — the largest and most notable confederation of unions, was founded in 1936 with support of president Lázaro Cárdenas. It has remained a stronghold of the Mexican union sector ever since. A 1991 document, the “Political Agreement Between the PRI and the Organization of the CTM,” made this relationship official: it requires workers to pay dues to both the union and the party.

Even when the state doesn’t control organizing activities, so-called invisible, white, or paper unions use protection contracts to prevent independent organizations from entering the workplace. These placeholder contracts govern thousands of workplaces and workers and were never approved or even recognized by the people they are supposedly protecting.

This combination of state-controlled and invisible unions eliminates confrontation in workplaces at all costs. By redefining the form and function of labor organization, Mexican unions control workers, not defend them.

The Authentic Labor Front

In contrast to the dismal official unions, independent labor organizations like the CNTE fight for workers both in and out of the workplace. Independent unions are pushing the boundaries of workplace contestation and creating the possibility for a new social order.

In contrast to the rigid control of the state-union enterprise, some groups choose to bypass formal recognition allowing more organizational freedom. From the state’s perspective, this decision confirms the union’s hostility to the government. Since formal-sector jobs remain highly sought after, workers avoid joining unions that will establish an adversarial relationship with either employers or the state. Thus, although independent organizing does happen, the precarious job market makes it unappealing.

The Authentic Labor Front (FAT), an independent confederation of unions founded in 1960, has always worked outside these formal boundaries. It transformed a number of local struggles into an expansive movement that challenges Mexico’s labor system on the international stage. Maintaining an agenda that works toward horizontal, autonomous, and democratic organizing while fighting precarity and unjust labor practices, it has inserted itself into some of this century’s largest battles.

It publicly condemned NAFTA and is leading the fight against Trans-Pacific Partnership. FAT highlights how capitalism, corporatism, and Mexico’s undemocratic unions work together to harm workers, and has put pressure on international bodies to attempt to hold the Mexican state accountable to workers.

Jorge Robles, FAT’s public relations and research coordinator, describes how the dissident federation made Mexico’s unjust labor laws a matter of global concern. He explains that at first, “We didn’t understand why unions were working on behalf of the employers and not workers, we thought it was an issue of individual corruption.”

But after he and his fellow organizers dug deep into the history and function of labor unions in Mexico, they discovered that their failure to work on behalf of employees isn’t a glitch — it’s a feature. When official unions oppose worker interests, it means they are doing what they were designed to do: reinforce the state’s objectives.

Robles explains:

We discovered, and this was unknown in Mexico, that Mexican ambassadors in Mussolini’s Italy were the ones who wrote labor codes in Mexico, modeling off of Mussolini’s laws. So then I started to study corporatist systems. We realized that the root of these issues was not individual corruption, but rather an operative structure that the state used to control the working class.

FAT, he explained, “was able to extrapolate the specificities of a local struggle to the national arena and then attract international attention to these systemic injustices.”

For example, a gas station — under protection by an invisible union — refused workers tips unless they paid a baseline fee of fifty pesos each day. FAT highlighted what they began to call protection contracts like this one, which have become a company’s main weapon against the formation of independent unions. Giving a name and an identity to these agreements allowed the group to condemn the whole structure.

After organizing with FAT, the gas-station workers ended the protection contract and stopped the fees. “Now they [the gas station workers] have a salary, benefits, they get tips and don’t have to pay to work,” Robles continued.

However, this pay structure — in which workers pay their employer for the opportunity to earn tips — is commonplace. Most restaurant workers, baggers, and others in service industry pay for their positions.

In response to this unionization drive, storeowners joined forces to protest FAT Mexico’s involvement. Despite the union’s successes, Robles explained that the work was complicated for many reasons: “They both have legal means of control (through protection contracts) and they can fire workers.” Again, this damages workers: faulty formal union systems and employer antagonism intensifies precarity and prevents workers from engaging in workplace battles with independent unions.

Global Action

The independent unions’ challenges to Mexican labor practices extend beyond the state: they also confront the international regime of neoliberalism.

During the drafting stages of NAFTA, Canadian and American unions consulted with official Mexican unions. Unsurprisingly, the state-controlled organizations responded positively to the agreement. Meanwhile, FAT was building alliances to contest the plan and became a key leader in the formation of the Mexican Network of Action Against Free Trade, a coalition of organizations opposed to NAFTA.

Although FAT lost this battle, NAFTA launched the federation into the international arena and strengthened its platform when it confronted the International Labor Organization with Mexico’s unjust union system.

This pressure led directly to action. In a groundbreaking moment, the ILO heard FAT Mexico’s demands. In 2012, the organization condemned Mexico’s labor system as a whole — the first time an entire system had been taken to court, rather than individual cases.

The ILO required that additional reforms be appended to the 2012 Labor Law to bring Mexico into compliance with the ILO’s freedom of association and organization convention. One major reform prevents trade unions from registering unless they have the democratic majority of workers within their representative body.

Since then, FAT has successfully made “labor dumping” a key issue in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, calling attention to the way foreign investors benefit from Mexico’s unjust labor market.

CNTE is also looking beyond their local struggle. This summer’s strike opposed not only the 2013 educational reforms, but also the structure of Mexican formal unions as a whole. Teachers do not have the right to collective work contracts. Instead they work under “General Conditions of Labor,” which applies the same working conditions to all teachers.

Robles says that “they [the teachers] have succeeded in being heard” through their actions. However, under current laws, attempts to negotiate conditions are illegal. He clarifies, “The education reform is a labor reform, not an education reform. It only speaks to working conditions.”

A Revolutionary Future

Despite the fact that the vast majority of Mexican labor unions have capitulated to the state and capital, we must not erase the important work of organizations like the CNTE and FAT. Both have successfully expanded local struggles into national and even international fights.

An increase in unionization globally will be in the workers’ best interests. According to a NACLA report, the decline in unionization rates has been a decisive factor in the decline in real wages over the last few decades.

In the United States, a major sector of the Left shares a pessimistic view of unions. Decades of weakened labor in the face of neoliberal policies has made social movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter seem more capable of achieving change. Unions often appear as bureaucratic anachronisms that limit progressive and inclusive politics. In Mexico, it’s tempting to think the same, but Jorge Robles and others say organized labor has a crucial potential for affecting social change.

Revolutionary unions believe that the union is the best vehicle to build a new society because it is in production that new social relationships are made . . . It is in production where the social and material wealth that allows us to live today is made. There are those that believe that unions should die, [but] I believe that it is in production that we can transform the world.

Though Mexican unions are degraded today, workers can transform them into sites for radical change.