NOVEMBER 15, 1985 - VOLUME 6 - NUMBER 16
Politics and Unions - Mexican Style
Many view Mexican labor as being dominated by the corporate state apparatus. The rate of capital accumulation is accelerated by restraining wages and discouraging strikes. It is maintained that this is accomplished by repressing rank and file insurgency among workers. This leads to governance without significant criticism. Two theories concerning the labor force support this view. The first posits the formation of a labor aristocracy-a small, elite group of privileged workers employed in large, modern, multinational corporations, earning good wages and having secure employment. These workers have a vested interest in the status quo and would therefore tend to be politically conservative. In the second, workers are said to develop a class consciousness when a group of them can visualize a concrete alternative.
Ian Roxborough challenges this widely accepted picture of labor in Mexico in his book, Unions and Politics in Mexico: The Case of the Automobile Industry. He examines the automobile industry because it encompasses unions formed in affiliation with the official party or official union structure, and independent unions that formed as a result of an insurgent movement. Roxborough contends that the automobile industry is representative of the total Mexican labor picture. Insurgent movements currently exist in the mining and metalworking unions, the teachers unions, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the automobile industry is a modern industry, representative of industrial establishments that may be set up in Mexico in the coming decades.
The author discounts the theory of the labor aristocracy. While the automobile industry employees do, perhaps, enjoy many privileges, there is little evidence they hold any power vis-a-vis the rest of the work force when it comes to industrial bargaining. Nor do they have a developed class consciousness. They do not argue for special political demands, but rather engage in predominantly "economistic" struggles.
The book sets out to compare the independent versus official unions in the automobile industry. The author changes the comparison from the traditional distinction of official versus non-official unions in order to incorporate two government unions that have broken from the usual pattern of passivity associated with government-backed unions. The comparison is changed to militant unions (those characterized by strikes) versus conservative unions (those that are strike free).
The author details the history of each of the nine unions and draws various comparisons. In the day-to-day functioning of the unions the rank and file insurgency appears to be characteristic of the labor force. Depending on the strength of the official unions, the revolts are either successfully squelched or result in a breaking away to form a militant union. These militant unions are characterized by the presence of internal union democracy, a faster rate of wage growth, a larger number of full-time union officers paid for by the company and a greater degree of control over workloads and assembly line speed.
All the data points to a new view of the Mexican labor force: Militancy and rank and file insurgents are not isolated and peripheral features of Mexican unionism, but rather an integral part of the dynamic of the system, and one which continually poses difficulties for the stability of the Mexican political system. In the concluding chapter, Roxborough discusses Mexico's contemporary political policies, which rely heavily on the cooperation of labor. This sets the stage for a potential crisis if labor is unable to deliver the support that the government will require.
Much of the evidence cited in Unions and Politics in Mexico: The Case of the Automobile Industry is incomplete and some of the conclusions are a bit sketchy. The author, however, does an admirable' job of providing important insights into the politics of labor in present-day Mexico.
Patricia Maloney is a freelance writer based in New York City.