Labour in Mexico: Oppression and the Struggle for Justice

September 1 st 1997

After the Spanish conquest in 1521, the Indian noblewomen married Spanish captains, and the Indian elite were left in a relatively good social position in the new order imposed by the conquistadores. Unfortunately, the great majority of the Indians were forced to work for the Spaniards, under very harsh conditions, in agrarian or mining production units called encomiendas, which were estates granted by the Spanish king as a prize to the Spanish soldiers who had participated in the conquest.

The idea of the Spanish king was not that the Indians should be treated as slaves in the encomiendas, but the soldiers were thirsty for riches and quite positive that they were entitled to that after so much risk and suffering in the war. The gold taken from the Aztecs was not sufficient to let them live a life of ease. As a result, the Indians they were supposed to treat as rightful subjects of the Spanish king were treated like beasts.

The situation of the Indians improved a bit in the 17th century when Spanish friars noted that they were not suited to the hard conditions of labour in the fields and suggested the importing of black African slaves. The quick diminution of the Indian population and a plague convinced the Spaniards that something had to be done to improve the conditions of the poor Indian workers on their haciendas. Much of the whole of Mexico's history up to now—including the recent uprising in Chiapas—can be seen as the struggle of the poor Indians and peasants to get rid of the oppression introduced by the conquistadores.

As a Spanish colony, Mexico was not allowed to develop its own manufacturing sector in order to protect the industry in Spain. Not that Spain had a tremendous devotion to industrial production. Charles V decided in the 16th century to repress the bourgeois manufacturers in order to maintain the privileges of the Spanish nobility—a bunch of loafers who loved riches and power but hated working.

As a result, while the Industrial Revolution was well on its way in England and Holland, Spain (not to mention its colonies) was backward and dreaming of the glory of Montezuma's treasure. As a matter of fact, the amount of gold and silver Spain extracted from Mexico was fabulous. The Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon which sank off the Florida coast in the 16th century, carried a cargo of silver bars that would have been worth $700 million U.S. in 1985. The number of galleons carrying precious minerals from Mexico to Spain was huge; much of this wealth was used to combat the Calvinist Netherlanders, who fought the Spanish since the time of William of Orange until independence in the middle of the 17th century.

Struggle for industrialization

After the Independence War (1810-1821), Mexico was a ruined country with no industrial structure whatsoever. The first industries began to appear during the 1830s, when the first railroad was built. Immediately, the precursors of the trade unions began to show up, in the form of cooperative associations (like guilds) for the improvement of the workers.

Due to the inheritances by rich landlords, who wanted to cleanse their conscience at the time of their death, the Roman Catholic church was the owner of huge amounts of land by the time President Benito Juarez promulgated the so-called law of "dead hands" in 1857, which put the land owned by the church (usually not productive) for sale. Who do you think were able to acquire such large tracts of land and become powerful landlords? Right. Not the poor Indians and peasants, but the inheritors of the conquistadores, who reestablished the economienda structure, but now with larger land areas.

The great haciendas were the result of that historical process. Their time of greatest splendor was during the regime of Porfirio Diaz (1880-1910), who—having Indian blood in his veins—was a great master of repression against the workers or the peones of the haciendas. Diaz put the same heavy yoke upon the industrial workers while promoting foreign investment and fast industrialization of the country. Many railroads were built during his administration.

The "brightest" moment of the Diaz regime was the brutal repression of the Rio Blanco (Veracruz) textile workers and the Cananea (Sonora) miners. But the situation of the peones on the haciendas was even worse than that of the miners or the industrial workers. Diaz's instructions to his soldiers against any expression of the workers' dissidence were clear: "Kill them right on the spot."

Yet, at the same time, and unlike his predecessor in the presidency, Diaz was rather lenient to the Roman Catholic church, allowing the formation of a very vigorous social movement inspired by Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, and the RC German social movement. As a result, in 1911 a very important RC political party was founded, the Partido Catolico Nacional, and there was a tremendous thrust in the working centres toward the organization of trade unions inspired by the RC social doctrine.

Revolution and repression

The celebration by Porfirio Diaz of the first 100 years of Mexico's declaration of independence in 1910 was fabulous and never equaled in Mexico's history. The glory and splendour of the Diaz regime was evident to the masters of North America and Europe who attended the celebrations. All of them were quite sure that Mexico was on its way to becoming an industrialized, developed nation.

Naturally, this was due to the "wise" direction of Diaz, who was confident that he would be reelected again, after 30 years of dictatorship. Frustratingly enough for him, however, the presidential election turned out not to be a fake, as Diaz had intended, but was won by Francisco Madero, a man who defended democracy in Mexico. As a matter of course, Diaz did not recognize Madero's victory, and this caused the eruption of a revolution on November 20, 1910. Diaz left the country for France and Madero took over the presidency with the support, among others, of the RC social movement, which eventually came to have 100 seats in the Congress.

The American ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, ignored requests from the diplomatic body in Mexico to protect at least the life of the newly-elected president. Madero was murdered in a coup d'etat led by Victoriano Huerta. This produced a civil war in the whole country in which different factions, led by figures such as Emiliano Zapata, Francisco Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and later Alvaro Obregon, disputed the control of the country. Even though they were mortal enemies, and eventually Obregon killed Carranza, these two men began to control the country by 1917, when Carranza was able to organize a congress to promulgate a new constitution.

By this time, the RC trade union movement was very strong and had succeeded in establishing unions everywhere. One of the leading figures of the labour movement was a priest, Yerena, who was in charge of organizing the trade unions among factory workers.

But Carranza, being committed to a humanist-liberal ideology, was not willing to share power with the RC church or even to let the Catholics have any political influence whatsoever. He accused the movement of supporting the murder of Madero by Huerta (a preposterous accusation, as distinguished historian Jean Meyer has shown), as a pretext to persecute the RC political and labour movements.

Alvaro Obregon was barely less tough on the Catholics. But the Gold Medal in intolerance and fanaticism must be awarded to Obregon's successor, Plutarco Elias Calles. He promoted a branch of trade unionism that has been the shame of Mexico during this century: the charro trade unionism (charro is the stereotypical Mexican cowboy with the big hat), thus called due to its founder, Charro (Luis) Morones, who crushed every trade union not belonging to his own, the Central Revolucionaria de Obreros de Mexico (CROM).

Obviously, the only real opposition was the RC movement, which was accordingly persecuted. This persecution was part of a large-scale strategy of president Calles to obtain hegemonic control of political power in Mexico.

In a clear violation of the RC church's sphere sovereignty, Calles enforced a law (promulgated by Carranza in the 1917 Constitution) limiting the number of priests in the states to a preposterously low number. For instance, in Chihuahua state (having a surface four times as large as that of Vancouver Island) the local Congress established that there could be only one priest! At the same time, Morones was chasing Catholics in the streets and factories, and putting bombs under the images most revered by Mexican Catholics, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

To protest all these attacks, the RC church called for a restriction on the public services provided by the church, which in turn led to a general government prohibition against the RC church. This situation produced another war, the Cristera War, in which 250,000 were killed between 1926 and 1929. It became a popular cause to defend the RC faith against an intolerant state.

Father Yerena was about to face an execution squad in Guadalajara when a lady by the name of Ana Gomez de la Sienra (my grandmother) helped him to escape prison and sure death disguised in one of her dresses. (Yerena spent the rest of the war in my grandmother's home in Guanajuato; my father and his siblings used to refer to him as "uncle Yanez.")

The war resulted in defeat for the Catholics. The Catholic party and the unions were prohibited and the National Revolutionary Party (now PRI) was founded by Calles. The Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico (CTM) was founded during the Lazaro Cardenas regime in 1936, and all trade unions fell under the control of the official Revolutionary Party until the 1970s, when the Jesuits were able to organize an alternative movement, the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT).

Some independent, communist-oriented organizations (such as the Sindicato de Trabaj adores de la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) were able to consolidate, but were prey (as expected) to the same charro practices common in the official organizations. The long-standing economic crisis prevailing since the 1980s has made the unions rather depressed and ineffectual associations, given the tough official policy of not giving any substantial wage increase since then. Wages have depreciated more than 60 per cent in the meantime.

What now?

The economic crisis exposed the lack of imagination of the great labour organizations. Fidel Velazquez, leader of the CTM since its inception in 1936, just died last June, leaving a web of vices and corruption that has the workers completely demoralized and immobilized. The last attempt to have serious representative unions in industries such as Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen ended in repression, firings, and even the murder of workers. The idea of having democratic unions in Mexico will be out of the question while the PRI (or other partisan political organizations) maintain control of the unions.

Whether the partisan organizations lose their grip on the working class depends on the democratization of life in Mexico at large. The unions have always been seen in Mexico as a source of political power, not as organizations to defend the rights of the workers. The tendency to maintain the great centralized organizations is as strong as ever. Mexico has no tradition of freeing the workers to organize as they want. This is the sorry inheritance of Charro Morones and Fidel Velazquez, now taken ove—among others—by a vulgar figure named Leonardo "Blondie" Rodriguez Alcaine.

Whether the fundamental changes in the Mexican political scene will produce a more open trade unionism is still to be seen. But, certainly, the "leaders" of the unions are up to maintaining an iron grip on the Mexican workers in the purest style of the 1930 charros.

Author's Note: I want to thank Ms. Rosalina Jimenez for her research into the history of the Mexican labour movement from which I have benefited in preparing this article. I would also like to thank Arturo Grunstein for his comments on the history of the Mexican Revolution.

 

Dr. Adolfo Garcia de la Sienra is research professor at the Institute of Philosophy/Faculty of Economics of Universidad Veracruzana, in the Xalapa campus, Mexico.

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