Enrique de la Garza
"New Directions for Union Organizing in Mexico"

September 28, 2001

Jennifer Reisch, Boalt Hall School of Law

In the year 2000, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Mexico's ruling party since the 1930s, lost the presidential election. Last October, Enrique de la Garza led a discussion at CLAS about the changes in union organizing and working conditions that would be possible in the wake of this shift in power. This fall, Professor De la Garza returned to CLAS as a Visiting Scholar. In a recent talk, he explored the question of whether and how this difference in leadership is shifting the balance of power at the grassroots level of union organizing and effecting any substantive changes in national labor policy.

Enrique de la Garza

De la Garza stressed the importance of placing recent developments in the context of Mexican economic policies and trends in the labor market over the last two decades. Since the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in the early 1980s, the economy has experienced radical ups and downs in its growth cycles. This year, after five years of gradual recovery from the economic crisis of 1995, the signs of major recession are showing themselves again.

Professor De la Garza noted that government policies favoring a neo-liberal approach to investment and economic growth have had a significant impact on the relationship between unions and the government. Union membership has remained relatively constant at approximately 5.1 million workers, but unions overall now represent only 18.9% of the total workforce. More than 4 out of 5 labor contracts are controlled by the Confederación de Trabajadores en México (CTM), a corporatist union that has dominated organized labor since the 1960s. Independent unions of left and right-wing persuasions represent merely 17% of the organized workforce. At the same time that union membership has been declining, real wages dropped 21% between 1994, the year NAFTA came into effect, and 1999. Despite the slight increases seen in 2000 and (so far) in 2001, real wages still haven't been brought back to their pre-1994 levels.

Besides the slight rise in real wages, the other important economic trend of last year was the decoupling of productivity gains from employment growth in the manufacturing sector. This is an especially important development to note because it reflects what many independent unions and workers have known for years about President Fox's party, the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), whose members have held leadership positions throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region since before the presidential election of 2000: their labor policies are nearly indistinguishable from those of the PRI. In other words, they have shown a tendency to support management against unions, and have condoned, if not encouraged, artificial depression of wages in the maquiladoras.

Last year also witnessed some important victories for independent unions. The independent Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT) led two successful campaigns that received international attention and signaled a shift in the application of executive power to labor disputes. The UNT represented flight attendants at Aeromexico and factory workers at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla. Not only was the success of an independent union such as UNT significant, but so was the presidential response: unlike its PRI predecessors, the Fox administration did not use the "requiza" (the equivalent of a legal injunction) to intervene in or stop these strikes. The recent acceptance of a second union representing public municipal railway workers by the Mexico City government also indicates a rise in the prestige of and support for Mexico's independent union movement.

Enrique de la Garza

Another important sign of the increase in the UNT's political clout is the inclusion of two UNT leaders on Mexico's National Labor Board (Mesa Central de Decision). De la Garza pointed out that this change has both positive and negative sides to it. On the one hand, this is the first time an independent union has been invited to participate in official negotiations. On the other hand, while the UNT's presence on the Mesa represents progress in democratic decision-making, the labor principles to which that body assented earlier this year represent a significant departure from traditional understanding of labor relations and do not necessarily indicate that future changes to Mexico's labor law will be any more progressive than they otherwise would be.

The story behind the new labor principles begins with the head of Mexico's Department of Labor, Carlos Abascal. The grandson of the man who founded a radical, anti-Communist Catholic group in the 1930s that opposed the Mexican government and allied itself with Franco in Spain, Abascal succeeded in persuading the entire Mesa to adopt a set of principles that combine elements of the doctrine of Total Quality and the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. The inclusion of Catholic doctrine is especially odd, de la Garza said, because the Catholic Church historically has not exercised direct influence on labor relations or labor negotiations.

The principles also reflect a shift in the basic understanding of globalization, work organization, and work culture. The new principles imagine workers and managers existing in a relationship framed entirely in terms of their common identities as individual human beings, rather than being constructed by historical and economic processes. Labor rights are thus understood as an extension of man's natural rights, rather than as the [contested] product of longstanding struggles or the necessary net protecting workers from devastating exploitation. Class struggle as a concept is seen as antagonistic to the human essence, and workers and managers must rely upon each other as equals in the effort to create a new work culture for the global economy. Embedded in this happy picture of cooperation, however, is a slice of economic realism: the doctrine states that since profits are essential to the survival of private enterprise, the basic rights of laborers must be balanced with management's need for "flexibility." Thus, rather than look to the market to dictate these rules, the law must seek to establish "equilibrium" between human rights on the one hand and corporate "flexibility" on the other.

De la Garza commented that by placing labor rights and "flexibility" on the same scale and refusing to recognize the inequality of interests at play in labor-management struggles, these new labor principles depart quite radically from those of the Mexican Revolution. Most importantly, these principles articulate a definition of rights themselves as being founded upon the abstract "essence" of mankind rather than on a restitutive, historical conception of social and labor rights that take into consideration workers' collectively weaker position in the bargaining relationship.

All the members of the Mesa Central signed these labor principles without much debate or discussion in the national press. The question is, why? De la Garza offered several possible explanations for the unanimous and unprecedented adoption of this humanistic doctrine. Managers and owners might have agreed to these principles because they offer a new ethical basis and moral (rather than economic) justification for their demands for increased "flexibility." Corporatist union leaders may have signed on in order to preserve their own power. For the UNT, humanistic discourse perhaps seems less radical or threatening than the dogma of neoliberalism. Unions, de la Garza concluded, may have accepted this platform only because they share an "instrumentalist" belief in the solidaristic principles that it invokes.

For De la Garza, the biggest open question remains whether, and in what form, will a new labor law be adopted now? Several factors must be taken into account as we ponder the response. First, the consensus-driven structure of the Mesa Central's negotiation process coupled with the need for President Fox's final approval of its proposals makes radical change unlikely. Second, the corporatist union still sides with management on many important issues. Finally, while the UNT's presence on the Mesa lends the body greater political legitimacy, the struggle to gain a voice for strong independent unions will continue to be an uphill battle.

Prof. Beatriz Manz (right) with CLAS visiting scholars Enrique de la Garza and Marcela Hernandez.

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