Reisch, Boalt Hall School of Law
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.
de la Garza
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.
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.
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.
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.
de la Garza
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beatriz Manz (right) with CLAS visiting
de la Garza and Marcela Hernandez.