Enrique de la Garza and Nestor de Buen
"Mexican Labor at a Crossroads"

September 29, 2000

Alejandra Torres

Enrique de la Garza and Nestor de Buen have been pivotal in the study of labor relations and labor law reform, respectively, in Mexico. De la Garza, professor of Sociology from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (Iztapalapa) and director of Trabajo magazine, is widely regarded as an expert scholar on labor relations and unions. He is the author of, most recently, Cambio en las Relaciones Laborales (1999) and Tratado Latinoamericano de Sociología del Trabajo (2000). In turn, Nestor de Buen teaches law at UNAM and runs a law firm dealing with labor law reform. De Buen was a key participant in the drafting of the NAFTA Labor Side Agreement, and is also a councilmember of the Human Rights Commission of Mexico City.

Enrique de la Garza (second from right) and others who attended the presentation.

The session began with opening presentations by the guest speakers on their respective areas of expertise and then opened to a general discussion. The discussion focused on three key issues that have risen in the wake of Fox's election and the climate of political change in today's Mexico. First, what options does Mexican labor have under the new Fox administration, and how might relationships between Mexican and United States labor unions change? Second, what are the perspectives for labor law reform in Mexico, including the key proposals currently being discussed and the most likely outcome of these proposals? And finally, regarding the current U.S. Mexico relationship, what might U.S. Congress and labor unions do to improve labor conditions in Mexico? Conversely, what might key social actors in Mexico do to advance labor issues in the United States?

De la Garza's presentation began by stating that the Mexican corporate model, which historically allowed rising wages and benefits for Mexican workers, is undergoing a crisis. From the 1980s, Mexico instituted neoliberal policies that led to the restructuring of production and labor. Wage policy, for example, became targeted at controlling inflation. In addition, social security benefits were reduced and privatizations were launched, leading to unemployment. In turn, the composition of the labor force became younger, less educated, more mobile and with a higher female participation. Market liberalization and government policies have thus led to a declining ability for employers to maintain minimum labor standards.

According to de la Garza, the Labor Question is a crisis of identity among employees, one of the survival of organized labor in the face of its lower bargaining power under the new contractual system. De la Garza thus envisions three likely outcomes under the incoming Fox administration. The first possibility is that the government upholds legal minimum labor standards and favors official unions, but refrains from more comprehensive reform and fails to include independent unions. Second, the government could support a policy more radically in favor of private sector management that ignores workers' concerns, although this option might arouse conflict with labor representatives. The third, and most likely, option, would be a conservation of the current relationship between labor unions and the government, favoring some independent unions in certain district of the country but maintaining its historically strong relationship with the official unions.

Despite what for de la Garza will most likely be an unchanging outlook, he did stress that the PRI's decline came about due to a crisis of leadership and of unions, as well as a crisis of representation. He also noted that the main leaders of unions are seeking to side with President Fox, and wondered whether they are truly restructuring in a more representative form, or merely defending their old power positions. In any case, de la Garza concluded, any hope for change lies in the unions and not in the new political leadership.

Nestor de Buen focused on the evolution of labor law in Mexico. He noted that Mexico's first labor law, approved in 1931, was copied from the Italian Carta di Lavoro, which was fascist in nature. Therefore, the government controlled unions, selected leaders, and repressed strikes and collective bargaining. The only change to this system was as recently as 1970. Effectively, the new labor law did little other than provide more vacation time to workers and provide a cash bonus to employees equivalent to 15 days paid salary, to be paid during Christmas. However, collective rules remained the same.

Currently, the state still controls unions, strikes and collective bargaining. The legal mechanism whereby the state controls collective bargaining is by making it mandatory for the union leader and the employer to sign collective contracts and register them with the government. However, in practice labor union leaders do not represent their workers' interests, but rather hold informal alliances with the government and in return obtain government positions and political influence. As a result, 92% of collective contracts are signed without the consent of the workers involved.

De Buen concluded by saying that it will be difficult to pass a new labor law, especially since no party has majority in the government. He also noted that recent proposals for labor law reform by both the PAN and the PRD were turned down in Congress. In addition, he believes that the emerging labor culture, which rests on an understanding between government, corporate unions and management, leads to the exploitation of workers and will do little to further comprehensive labor law reform.

After both presentations, there followed several interesting questions, focused mainly on the possibilities and challenges of labor law reform. During this discussion, de la Garza noted that Mr. Abazcal, a conservative, is rumored to be the future Minister of Labor in Mexico, and that this would not bode well for labor relations. While both speakers regarded that possibilities for reform are better now than under the hegemony of the PRI, neither was confident that significant reform could be achieved, in part due to the nonexistent unionization in the growing maquiladora/export sector of the economy. In addition, 80% of Mexican workers gain less than three times the minimum wage, and this is not being addressed due to ineffective labor representation. According to both speakers, any hopes for change lie in union alliances with the United States and increased union activism in Mexico.

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