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Painting of FAT supporters with signs for socialjustice & free unions in colorful town
Detail of poster for artistic exchange & the FAT's 13th convention
Artist Beatriz Aurora

Mexican Labor News & Analysis

December , 2013, Vol. 18, No. 10


INVITATION FROM TNSA: Twenty Years of Nafta: the Labor Movement Mobilizes Against the Impact of Free Trade and Investment


In consideration of the importance and necessity of coming together to conduct an evaluation of what has occurred in our countries after 20 years of the entry into effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); an indispensable evaluation that will allow us to share and understand what we have experienced and the impacts on our economies in terms of employment, the living conditions of workers, the struggles faced by our unions, in short, in the world of work of our people.

With the additional purpose of evaluating the state of the super-secret negotiations by our governments concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an expanded mega-version of NAFTA that is being negotiated, and to explore the possibility of establishing a common plan of action for confronting the TPP.

Taking into account the above, please allow us to invite those whom your organization chooses to designate to participate in the International Labor Forum: After 20 years of NAFTA: The Labor Movement Mobilizes against the Impact of Free Trade and Investment, which will take place on the 29th of January of 2014 in Mexico City.

The Labor Forum will be followed on January 30th by a day where we will join with other sectors which is being organized by the trade networks in our countries and our events will conclude with a press conference and a large march on January 31.

Program: Twenty Years of Nafta: the Labor Movement Mobilizes Against the Impact of Free Trade and Investment

January 29, 2014 9:00 – 6:30
Mexico City

General Framework: To begin in the morning with an analysis of Nafta and its impact, move to a deeper assessment of the impact of NAFTA and neo-liberal policies within various sectors, and concluding the morning with short sectoral reports. In the afternoon, we will begin with a presentation about the TPP, move into small group discussions where we discuss strategies and alliances by country and report back, and ending the day with conclusions.

• Brief introduction (what organizations and countries are represented, welcome, and what we are hoping to accomplish).
• Introductory panel on NAFTA that sets the stage by providing an assessment of impact in terms of 1) labor (conditions of work, reform, side agreement; 2) economy (numbers, jobs impacted); and 3) challenges to democracy and increase in corporate power (chapter 11, transparency, etc.)
• Short break
• Sectoral exchanges: Sectors could include the following and can be adjusted after we receive confirmations regarding participants: Telecommunications; Energy; Education; Farmworkers; Manufacturing and mining, among others.
• Short report back to large group.
• Lunch
• Presentation about TPP: what it includes and where we stand.
• Fighting back: Allies and elements of our fightback struggle
• Short break
• Conclusions

For More Information:

Laura Ramírez (Canada):
Robin Alexander (US):
Pierre-Yves Serinet (Québec):
Jorge Robles (México):

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Please Support MLNA

Dear Union Sisters and Brothers, Activists and Friends:

The UE continues to build on our experience as a union committed to rank and file solidarity and action. Mexican Labor News and Analysis is still going strong in its 18th year.

Please give generously either on-line at or by sending your check to UEREF One Gateway Center, Suite 1400, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. You can make a one-time, tax-deductible gift. Or join our monthly sustainers’ program – from $5 per month to wherever your generosity takes you! We thank you in advance for your support and for all you do to advance labor rights.

In Solidarity,

Robin Alexander, Director of International Affairs

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Mexican Congress Passes Energy Reform Law: Oil, Gas, and Electric Open to Foreign Investment

By Dan La Botz

The Mexican Congress passed President Enrique Peña Nieto’s energy reform bill, which allows private and foreign investment in the energy sector, despite widespread public opposition and massive protests by opponents. Peña Nieto and his supporters argued that the energy reform would allow more effective development of the country’s petroleum resources, leading to economic growth and more jobs.

Opponents have argued that the new law turns over the oil industry to foreign capitalists. Ricardo Monreal of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) said, “This isn't the reform of the century, it’s the robbery of the millennium.”

The passage of the new energy law, which required amending the Mexican Constitution, represents a historic victory for the country’s conservatives over the left and over the nationalist legacy and institutions of the Mexican Revolution. The new law will allow foreign oil company involvement in Mexican oil production at every stage of the process, ending the country’s ownership and monopoly of the petroleum industry.

The energy reform passed through Congress on a fast track with overwhelming votes in both the Senate and the House. The Mexican Senate voted in favor of the measure by a vote of 95 to 28 on Dec.11, while the lower house passed the bill by a vote of 353 to 134 on Dec. 12. Within just four days, the 17 of 31 states needed to approve the amendments to the Constitution had been found and, on Dec. 21, Peña Nieto signed the bill into law in the historic National Palace. “We Mexicans have decided to overcome myths and taboos and take a great step into the future by way of democratic institutions,” said Peña Nieto. “Mexico has pronounced itself in favor of change and transformation.”

Proponents and Opponents

Voting in favor of the law were the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its satellites the Ecological Green Party of Mexico (PVEM) and the New Alliance Party (PANAL) of the teachers union, as well as the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Opposing the energy reform were the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the Workers Party (PT). The measure was also opposed by the Movement of National Regeneration (MORENA), a political organization in the process of becoming a party, which has no representatives in the Congress.

Opposition to the bill was organized by historic leaders of the Mexican left such as Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the PRD and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leader of MORENA. López Obrador, however, suffered a heart attack on Dec. 3, effectively removing him from the culmination of the struggle in December. Joining the left parties in opposing the bill were the independent labor unions such as the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME) and the Coordinating Committee of the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE), a large opposition caucus.

The opposition held large marches and huge rallies throughout December and, as the date for the votes neared, opponents surrounded the Mexican Senate. At one point representative Antonio García Conejo stripped off his clothing except for his undershorts to symbolize the stripping of Mexico’s natural resources and its dignity.

The actual vote had the atmosphere of a brawl as legislators pushed, shoved, and hollered at each other. As PRI legislators shouted “Mexico! Mexico!” and the PRD legislators shouted “Traitors! Traitors!”, PRD congresswoman Karen Quiroga punched the nose of her female colleague Landy Berzunza Novelo of the PRI, sending the latter to the infirmary. Just before the vote in the lower house, PRD and PT representatives locked the doors to the congressional hall in an attempt to prevent a vote, but legislators simply moved to another room and voted there.

What Is Changed by the Law

The new law overturns one of the greatest achievements of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 and ended in 1940, the country’s takeover of the foreign oil industry. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 in its Article 27 gave the nation control of all land and water and of the subsoil, that is, of the minerals and petroleum. On the basis of that article, in March of 1938, President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated (with compensation) and nationalized the foreign oil companies in Mexico, principally the U.S. Standard Oil Company and the British Royal Dutch Shell, as well as several others.

The nationalized companies were unified as the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX) with representation on the board by the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM). PEMEX was the largest employer in Mexico throughout most of the twentieth century and represented one of the largest sources of the country’s GDP as well as providing most of the revenue for the Mexican government. PEMEX’s top officials came, until the PRI’s defeat in 2000, from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which also controlled the notoriously authoritarian and corrupt oil workers' union. The wealth produced by PEMEX provided the funds that built Mexico’s national highways, hospitals, and schools during the oil boom of the 1970s, but it also provided the slush funds that oiled the PRI’s political machine.

Private and foreign companies were for decades forbidden from involvement in exploration, drilling or refining, though over the years they became involved in peripheral aspects of the industry. Proponents of the law argued that by forbidding foreign involvement Mexico was failing to develop deep water off-shore oil reserves as well as potentially rich shale deposits. They claimed that only an influx of foreign capital and technology would be able to take advantage of the existing natural resources. Foreign oil companies, particularly the Americans who have been involved peripherally in the past, were anxious to see the energy reform pass, though the European oil companies have also expressed great interest.

What the New Law Permits

The new energy law will effectively grant concessions to foreign oil companies, though that term is not used because of its association with the earlier period of private domination of the industry in Mexico. While Mexico’s oil reserve will remain the property of the nation, companies will be given contracts or licenses to drill for oil; these will be for services or on a profit-sharing or production-sharing basis. That is, companies will share both risks and profits, receiving a percentage of the crude oil produced.

PEMEX now becomes a for-profit company that will have to compete with private domestic and foreign oil companies. The new law also removes the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union from the board of directors of PEMEX.

Under the new law the Mexican electricity sector is also open to private investment. All Mexican energy generation and distribution is now in the hands of the Federal Electrical Commission (CFE), a national company created over several decades by the absorption of smaller private and public electrical companies.

American companies most interested in exploring and drilling for oil in Mexico are Chevron, Exxon, and Shell. These are in fact the successors to Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, the very companies expropriated and nationalized in 1938. So history is reversed.

Massive Layoffs to Be Expected

Senator Rabindranath Salazar of the PRD, as well as other opposition legislators, predict that both PEMEX and the CFE will lay off tens of thousands of workers. Salazar believes the layoff of PEMEX workers alone will come to some 100,000. PEMEX workers have long had stable employment paying some of the highest wages in Mexico, but those days may now be over.

Similar things have happened in the recent past. When Mexico privatized the railroads in the 1990s over 100,000 railroad workers lost their jobs.

Salazar told the Mexico City daily La Jornada that the energy reform law says that workers’ rights will be protected, but that apparently refers to the right to severance pay.

Political Implications

The passage of the energy reform represents a stunning achievement for Enrique Peña Nieto who has finally managed carry out a reform advocated for years by leaders in both the PRI and the PAN. The president’s success in carrying out the labor and education reforms earlier this year and now the energy reform show him to be the country’s most successful president since Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), breaking through all opposition to pass neoliberal reforms that eluded his predecessors.

Interestingly, the transformation of the oil industry also represents a blow to what was historically one of the principal bases of the PRI. PEMEX was the flagship of the country’s nationalized industries and the oil workers of the STPRM, the vanguard of the working class of an earlier era. The PRI’s power had been based in large measure from the 1930s to 2000 on its control of the nationalized industries and on the unions that represented workers in those industries.

The energy reform would have been political suicide a few decades ago, but the PRI has become a modern party whose power is based upon its use of the mass media more than on its labor, peasant, and community organizations, not to say that those are totally irrelevant. The energy reform thus not only transforms the economy but also ends a period of political history by demolishing the institutions on which it was based.

Continuing Opposition

The opposition has promised to continue the fight. Jesús Zambrano of the PRD announced that his party would leave the Pact for Mexico, the alliance between all three major parties formed at the time Peña Nieto became president, punishing the PRI and PAN for their treachery. It is doubtful that this will matter much to them now.

The opposition has also called for a national plebiscite, though it is not clear that the Constitution permits such referenda.

Finally, opponents say that they will bring legal cases to challenge the law in the courts. There seems little likelihood that the energy reform will be overturned either by a plebiscite or by litigation. When the oil industry acts, there are few forces today capable of stopping it. Beaten down during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s independent unions were in no position to stop the Peña Nieto steamroller and could not conceivably force it back.

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NAFTA Led to Greater Corporate Control – Labor Conference

By Veronica Wilson

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), twenty-four labor leaders and experts from Mexico, Canada and the U.S. met on Dec. 2 and 3, 2013 at the UCLA Labor Center to review lessons of past campaigns and renew commitments to defend workers’ rights in the context of free trade. The two-day meeting “Trinational Perspectives on the Future of Labor: The State of Labor 20 Years after NAFTA” featured active members of trinational networks, including the Tri-National Solidarity Alliance, the Tri-National Coalition to Defend Public Education, the Tri-National Telecommunications Alliance, and the Tri-National Energy Workers Network.

Rather than revisiting the fact that NAFTA has had a significant negative impact on workers in all three countries, discussions focused on NAFTA as a point of reference. Independent journalist and labor expert, David Bacon summed it up by saying, “NAFTA is short hand for loss of control by working people, and increasing corporate control. But NAFTA isn’t the problem, it’s the context.” Apart from the unintended outcome of increasing international solidarity in the last twenty years, the general consensus was free trade policies that promote deregulation, privatization and liberalization have weakened organizations designed to maintain basic democratic rights such as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Stark examples of losing leverage were reflected in updates from Humberto Montes de Oca of Mexico’s electrical workers union (SME) on the continued struggle to regain legal recognition as a union after the Mexican government dissolved the Power and Light Company of Mexico, and the subsequent firing of 44,000 SME members. Enrique Fabela of Mexico’s telephone workers union (STRM) explained telecommunications workers' deepening disadvantage in the face of factors such as rapid technological changes in the process of re-privatization of the industry in Mexico. John Dugan of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) described challenges to organize workers as companies battle in a process of monopolization in the US.

Leaders at the conference suggested strategies in this context of privatization, deregulation and liberalization that build on existing cross-border solidarity and address policies in the pipeline. Robin Alexander of the UE recognized that solidarity flows north as well as south, and this multi-directional support will be essential to draw lessons from NAFTA and oppose new agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Sage Aaron of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) underscored strategies to organize workers and consumers and Carl Wood of the Utility Workers Union of America agreed, pointing out that making knowledge of the history of the New Deal, for example, which promoted an alliance between labor and consumers, can be a powerful tool.

Larry Kuehn of the British Columbia Teachers Federation recommended putting NAFTA on trial as a way to build alliances and Marìa de la Luz Arriaga, professor of Education at Mexico’s National Autonomous University advised joining forces with other affected public sector organizations to defend pensions, healthcare and other services. Benedicto Martìnez, co-president of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), advocated for a commitment to creating a greater political consciousness and educating members about the effects of deregulation and privatization.

In a final note, Peter Olney of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) pointed to the value of the conference to maintain and in some instances deepen solidarity alliances.

Hosted by the Institute for Transnational Social Change, a hub for cross-border exchange based at the UCLA Labor Center, in partnership with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, a progressive non-profit institution for civic education affiliated with Germany’s “Die Linke” (Left Party), conference outcomes included a trinational solidarity declaration in support of current campaigns to defend basic labor rights, commitments to solidarity actions in 2014, and a :-)forthcoming rforth from David Bacon.

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Independent Unions Propose Formation of New Labor Federation

A group of independent labor unions, caucuses, and other workers’ organizations plan to form a new labor central on February 22 -23 according to organizers. “We will create an independent, democratic, working class federation,” a source told Mexican Labor News and Analysis.

The Mexican Electrical Workers (SME), the National Coordinating Committee of the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE), and other groups will hold a founding convention this March in Mexico City. The new federation predicts that at its founding it will represent some 600,000 Mexican workers.

The National Union of Workers (UNT), an existing federation of independent unions—including the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM), the Independent Union of Workers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (SITUAM), and the Authentic Labor Front—declined to participate, according to a source. The UNT asserts that it is the independent union federation.

The Mexican Miners and Metalworkers Union (SNTMMRM) which was at one point involved in the process appears to have dropped out.

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"Well, I'll Jump" – Metro Rate Increases Lead to New Movement

The Mexico City Metro, a subway and elevated system built in the 1970s and 80s that carries five million people per day, has raised its fare from 3 to 5 pesos, leading to a new protest movement called “Well, I’ll jump.” Young riders are simply jumping the turn-styles to avoid paying the 60 percent fare increase. Others older, heavier, or less fit duck under. The sudden appearance of the new movement reveals just how many Mexicans live at a subsistence level.

While the fare increase, intended to finance improvements to the system, only amounts to a rise from 25 to 40 cents (one peso equals $US.077 or about 8 cents) that represents a significant cost for low wage earners. The minimum wage in Mexico will increase on January 1 by 22 pesos to about $5 per day. Many Mexican wage earners make between one and two minimum wages or $5 to $10 per day.

The “Well, I’ll jump” movement headed up by young activists applied “tourniquets” to several subway stations on Dec. 20, organized a march on Dec. 21 and plans to carry out a referendum among Mexico City residents.

Many Metro users are blaming Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for the fare increase. Mancera says that a poll conducted before implanting the fare hike found that about 55 percent of those consulted approved of the increase if it would improve service and quality.

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Teacher Dissidents Continue Protests, Plan Convention to Chart Future

The National Coordinating Committee of the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE) continued its occupation of a plaza in Mexico City—the exact location has changed several times in the last month—as local unions and teacher activists in several cities also continued protests in various states and cities. In December, a skeleton crew occupied the Monument of the Revolution at the Plaza of the Republic reinforced for a while by teachers from the State of Veracruz. While strikes and protests against the Education Reform Law have ended in many locations they continue intermittently in others, particularly in the State of Oaxaca.

The dissident teachers will hold an Extraordinary National Convention of la CNTE in Mexico City on February 14-16 to define their strategy, to find more ways to mobilize teachers, and to develop a five-year plan. Founded in the mid-1970s, la CNTE has continued to fight for decades against both the leadership of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) and the Mexican Secretary of Education (la SEP). La CNTE has, throughout the last four décadas, provenientes? capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of teachers in strikes and protests and has gradually succeeded in winning control of local unions in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán, and Mexico City. It has many adherents and supporters in other states as well.

In addition to the national convention, the union will also hold regional meeting in the Southeast and the North.

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Violence Continues in Mexico Despite Increased Police Presence

Violence continues in Mexico, especially in the border states, despite an increase in police presence. The number of Mexican Army troops dedicated to fighting the drug war has increased from 50 to 76,500, while some 20,000 Federal Police are also involved, yet the murder rate remains almost the same and kidnapping and extortion are reported to have increased.

The Mexican federal government has promised to create a new National Gendarmerie, but that has now been delayed until June 2014. The government is also in the process of certifying every police officer in the country, but the period for accomplishing that has now been put off until October 2014.

Human rights activists report that forced “disappearances” continue at almost the same level they were taking place during President Calderón’s administration (2006-2012).

There continue to be reports of the Mexican military torturing suspects. Amnesty International recently reported on a woman who had been kidnapped after dropping her kids off at school because she was suspected of being a drug smuggler. Amnesty says she is only one of thousands.

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LABOR SHORTS: STRACC Strike Leads to Victory

As reported in the November issue of MLNA, last month gasoline attendants at two Mexico City gas stations initiated a strike against the owner, Operadora Gasoil S.A. de C.V. The union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Casas Comerciales, Oficinas y Expendios, Similares y Conexos del Distrito Federal (STRACC), issued the strike notice when the owner recognized a charro union at the second station in violation of a contractual clause requiring recognition of STRACC at any new stations, and discharged seven workers.

Faced with a strike, the company agreed to respect STRACC's contract and to reinstate the fired workers.

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How I Learned about NAFTA – a Personal Essay

By Dan La Botz

During the early 1990s I became involved in the national debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), then in the final stages of negotiation between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Twenty years later, it’s clear that NAFTA, the creation of a North American common market of sorts, was a watershed event, but I have to admit I had not really been paying much attention to it until I got a phone call in November 1990. On the basis of a book I had written on Mexican unions, The Crisis of Mexican Labor (1988), Pharis Harvey of the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund (ILRERF) contacted me to ask me if I wanted to go to Mexico on a job for him. I hung up thinking it was a crank call, but he called back and asked if I would be willing to go to Mexico to undertake a study of the state of workers’ rights there in order to help inform the Congressional debate.

I was warned that this would have to be a low budget operation, that it would have to begin immediately, and that the investigation and report would have to be produced quickly. Enticed by the idea of returning to Mexico where I had worked as a reporter a few years before, I took a quarter-long break from the Ph.D. program I was enrolled in at the History Department at the University of Cincinnati and, with the blessings of my pregnant wife Sherry, headed for Mexico where I conducted research from December of 1990 through February of 1991.

In the 1990s, Mexican President Carlos Salinas, Canadian Premier Brian Mulroney, and U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were arguing that NAFTA would be a boon to all three nations. International investment would bring improvements to all three countries, commerce would expand, business would boom, and while some workers might be affected by increasing competition, there would be new and better-paying jobs in industries exporting their products abroad. Conservative, independent presidential candidate Ross Perrot, however, said he heard a “giant sucking sound,” the sound of American jobs being sucked away to Mexico.

American workers, Clinton told the U.S. labor movement, should not be afraid of competition with lower-paid Mexican workers, because even as American workers found new and better paying jobs, Mexican workers’ fortunes would also be improving. Mexican workers would find new jobs at higher wages in their home country making them less competitive while immigration to the U.S. would decline. On signing the agreement Clinton predicted “more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace.” The labor and environmental side agreement, Clinton said, also made the agreement “a force for social progress as well as economic growth.” Well, I was going to look into one aspect of all of this. I was going to find out what chance Mexican workers would have to exert their rights once NAFTA went into effect.

When I arrived in Mexico, I contacted my friend Ricardo Pascoe, who was then a Congressman of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), and asked for his advice. He said I should meet two of his friends and took me over to their house and introduced me. They were Arturo Alcalde, one of the country’s preeminent labor lawyers and a leader of the National Association of Democratic Attorneys (ANAD), and his wife Bertha Lujan, a leader of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), an independent labor federation. Arturo, handing me several typed pages, suggested that I get in touch with the list of ANAD attorneys at their offices in various states and cities in Mexico. He also went to his office and brought me an arm-load of books on Mexican labor law, telling me to return them when I was done. Bertha gave me contacts in the FAT and said she would let people know I was coming. With that, I was on my way.

Taking buses and riding the train—there was still passenger service then in Mexico—I traveled to a number of cities and towns throughout Mexico, visiting the labor attorneys’ offices. I remember that when I arrived in Chihuahua it was snowing, an eventuality for which I was unprepared, having come north from warm Central Mexico. Every door I knocked on opened to an attorney willing to help, leading me to the waiting room where workers of all descriptions were happy to tell me the myriad ways in which their rights had been violated. They had been fired for attempting to organize a union, for trying to make their unions more democratic, for fighting for a better contract, for speaking out on the job. Some had not only been fired, they had also been threatened and beaten. The FAT leaders I met with, like Manuel Urrutia, explained the structure of various industries and the nature of their unions, from mining to fishing. One of the names on my list was a Catholic worker priest, Father Pantoja, who served a working class parish in the steel town of Monclova. He introduced me to steelworkers there who were dealing with the crisis of plant shutdowns.

Though farmers and peasants had been among the hardest hit by Carlos Salinas’s neoliberal transformation of Mexico, I felt that given the time available and my areas of expertise it would be impossible for me to look into the conditions of rural workers. Still, their situation was at the forefront of the NAFTA discussions in Mexico and the United States. In order to join NAFTA, Mexico had passed Constitutional amendments and laws that changed the nature of the ejido, the state land held in perpetuity by indigenous and rural communities.

Historically the land while held collectively, was worked individually. Members of the ejidos could not sell or lease the land because it belonged to the community, not to the individual who farmed it. Farmers had long found it difficult to make a living on the land because of the lack of state support for loans, marketing, irrigation and fertilizers. The amendments and laws passed by Salinas permitted farmers to sell their land and they began doing so at once. Later, after NAFTA took effect, tens of thousands of farmers sold their land or simply abandoned it and went to find work in the industrial cities of Mexico or in the United States.

Traveling around Mexico I found in many small cities and pueblos newly poured concrete slabs with at each end a basketball backboard. The basketball courts had been built by President Salinas’s PRONASOL community social welfare program. The backboard hoops had no baskets, the original nets having soon deteriorated. The courts stood empty. The families that lived in the pueblos couldn’t afford to buy basketballs, so one didn’t hear the characteristic bang-and-ping of the ball bouncing on the court. In any case, Mexicans, depending on what state you were in played soccer or baseball; no one played basketball. The vacant courts, monuments to bureaucratic planning, stood as symbols of the emptiness of the Salinas era which had not only stripped Mexico of many of its small farmers and rural communities but also, in the process, of much its traditional culture.

When I returned to Mexico City, now staying in Ricardo’s house, I continued to interview union leaders and dissident activists as well as rank-and-file workers from major unions, small independent unions, and opposition caucuses. I interviewed Fidel Velásquez, the powerful leader of the official unions, and met with Ford workers from the Cuautitlán plant who had seen one of their fellow workers murdered in the plant during the suppression of a rank-and-file movement. Two women activists I met, Elaine Burns and Mary McGinn introduced me to leaders and activists at the intersection of feminism and independent unionism. PRT members whom I knew introduced me to workers active in caucuses in the telephone and electrical workers unions.

Arturo and Bertha told me about a service called Prodata that clipped all the Mexican newspapers. The staff provided me with a chronological collection of clips from the major papers on the country’s principal labor unions and conflicts. (You have to remember this was before the era of the internet.) The ten or so bound volumes that Prodata produced for me provided me with the basic narrative of the series of atrocities committed against both official and independent unions during the presidency of Carlos Salinas.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s Salinas had sent the police with bazookas to blow the doors off the oil workers’ union and to arrest their leaders on trumped up charges. He also sent the army to occupy the town of Cananea, birthplace of Mexican unionism, to prevent the union and the miners from protesting when the mine was declared bankrupt and sold to new owners. The government crushed several independent union struggles. Everywhere workers raised their heads, they were bludgeoned into submission, and yet they continued to fight for their rights.

I returned to Cincinnati just in time for the birth of our son Reed on Feb. 16. I then spent a few weeks writing my preliminary report documenting the lack of workers’ rights in Mexico. The preliminary report was circulated to the U.S. Congress in an attempt to provide some education on the deplorable situation of Mexican workers. During the next few months I banged out the complete report, kindly edited by Matt Witt of the American Labor Education Center, which was published jointly by ILRERF and South End Press of Boston in 1992 as Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today.

At the request of Pharis Harvey, former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall wrote the introduction to the book. Marshall argued that U.S. trade policy should be used to pressure other countries to protect workers’ rights. I saw my book in part as an exercise in international labor solidarity, explaining to Americans how Mexican workers suffered under a political system that denied them their basic workers’ rights.

To my surprise the Cincinnati AFL-CIO labor council invited me to speak to a labor meeting about NAFTA. I spoke in the Laborers’ union hall to the assembled union officials and workers and told them about conditions in Mexico, but I found that many of those in the audience, and at other labor events I attended in that period, looked down on Mexican workers as racial inferiors and unfair competitors. Union officials and workers were so concerned about the threat to their own wages, benefits, and conditions posed by NAFTA, that they had little interest in the conditions of Mexican workers, and it had not yet dawned on them that it might take unions on both sides of the border to stand together against their governments and the corporations which had foisted the trade agreement upon them.

While Mask of Democracy was published almost 22 years ago, I believe that it is still useful to those interested in the recent history of the Mexican labor movement. Ironically on this twentieth anniversary of NAFTA, Mexican workers still cannot exercise their basic rights, and the recently passed Labor Reform weakens some of their rights even more. Marshall’s hope that U.S. trade policy might be used to strength workers’ rights abroad never came to pass and, on the contrary, U.S. trade policy has resulted in the weakening of workers’ rights everywhere, including here at home in the United States.

On January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA was to go into effect, a small guerrilla group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) led an uprising of mostly Mayan peoples, seizing two towns and the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN and his followers called for the overthrow of the nefarious Salinas government and for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, while some of the rebels said they were fighting for socialism.

The EZLN hoped through their propaganda of the deed to ignite a revolution in Mexico, but their hopes faded as they were attacked and surrounded by the Mexican Army. Tens of thousands throughout Mexico went to their town and city plazas and called upon President Zedillo to stop the army’s attack, expressing sympathy with the Indians' experience of racist oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation, but the citizenry also called on the Zapatistas to lay down their arms. The Mexican Revolution in its violent phase from 1910 had taken one million lives and led a million Mexicans to emigrate from their homeland to the United States and few of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were willing to repeat that experience.

Perhaps in part because of Mask of Democracy as well as some pamphlets I had quickly written about the Chiapas rebellion, the Zapatistas invited me to their convention in the jungle in August of 1994. This was shortly before the 1994 election that pitted Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) against Ernesto Zedillo of the PRI. So, after the EZLN convention I stayed on to learn more about the PRD, observe the election, have a firsthand encounter with the civil society movement, and interview activists in the women’s movement, as well as to take a look at the struggles of the maquiladora workers on the northern border. That experience led to another book, Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform also published by South End Press in 1995.

By 1994 I had become immersed in thinking and writing about Mexico. That year I sought and received a Fulbright as well as another fellowship that allowed me to spend 1994-1997 living in Mexico and doing research on my dissertation about the slackers, American war resisters who became involved in the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Communist Party of Mexico, and the creation of feminist organizations during the era of the Mexican Revolution and World War I. My two years in Mexico from 1995 to 1997, while Sherry worked at the Environmental Center of the Pan-American Health Organization in Toluca, allowed me to learn more about the FAT and about RMALC, the Mexican Network Against Free Trade.

I attended RMALC meetings, giving me an opportunity to see how Mexican labor unionists, environmentalists, feminists, and others were assessing the impact of NAFTA on their society. I also participated in a Labor Notes conference on cross-border organizing held in Ciudad Juárez and it was there that I met Robin Alexander of the United Electrical Workers (UE) which had a strategic organizing agreement with the FAT. Robin invited me to produce a kind of newsletter about the Mexican labor movement written in English for labor unionists and others who wanted to engage in solidarity with Mexican workers. Thus began Mexican Labor News and Analysis which she and I have been producing now for 18 years.

Life in Mexico from 1994 to 1997 was difficult. The promises of NAFTA were not fulfilled. Ernesto Zedillo's term had begun with the collapse of the Mexican peso and a national recession that saw high unemployment and a surge in poverty. Crime increased dramatically, not the extreme violence of the drug cartels of the 2000s, but serious crime: break-ins, armed robberies, automobile hi-jacking. I remember a gathering at the home of one of my wife’s colleagues, a well-to-do family, where a about fifteen of us sat around talking about the issue of crime. Everyone present had had experienced some incident and several had been robbed at gunpoint. Working class people experienced crime in their neighborhoods. When I went to the FAT office for the RMALC meetings in a working class barrio, I was warned to be careful and sometimes walked to the Metro or to my car by a couple of union members.

The Chiapas Rebellion that had occurred in 1994 continued to have a tremendous impact on the Mexican people and on others around the world throughout the decade of the 1990s. Sometimes described as the first electronic or internet rebellion because its organizers had used the internet to inform people around the world about their movement and its goals, it attracted wide support from people in the United States and in Europe. The EZLN transformed itself within a year or two of the uprising from a typical guerrilla organization striving to seize state power into an indigenous organization that called upon its members to “lead by obeying” and seemed to offer a new model of revolution

John Holloway in his book Zapatista: Reinventing Revolution in Mexico (1998) offered something very like an anarchist interpretation of the Chiapas Rebellion and the EZLN. He pointed out that the Zapatistas did not talk about taking state power, but about creating a new kind of democratically run society. The Zapatista leaders I met at meetings of the Zapatista Front in Mexico City and in Tijuana in the 1990s, however, were controlling and sectarian. The EZLN wanted to create a new labor movement, but because they didn’t believe in union structure or elections, they wouldn’t let their followers participate in labor unions. That doomed their experiment to failure. Some believed the Zapatistas had become anarchists, but I had the impression that at their core they remained the classical leftist guerrilla group they had been back in the 1980s.

Holloway’s interpretation, however, had a powerful impact. It was seized upon by activists of the new Global Justice Movement that had appeared in the late 1990s and exploded in the Battle of Seattle in 1999 where steelworkers, teamsters and longshoremen joined environmentalists in shutting down the city through civil disobedience in an attempt to stop the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. Activists who had successfully stopped the Multilateral Agreement on Investment—a kind of global NAFTA—feared that the WTO would be taking further steps to support the global neoliberalism and the corporations. Many strongly opposed the admission of China to the WTO.

I was working at Global Exchange at the time which was deeply involved in organizing the Seattle protests. I and my crew, however, worked on organizing the Globalifóbicos: Cry of the Excluded Ones, a bi-national conference of a few hundred activists from Mexico and the United States held in Tijuana in October of 2000 to discuss strategies for resisting the globalization movement. The term globalifóbicos or “global-phobics” had been coined by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo as a way of ridiculing and dismissing the critics of corporate neoliberal globalization. We adopted the term as a badge of honor, while we also embraced the “cry of the excluded ones,” the slogan of the Theology of Liberation movement which criticized global capitalism for its exclusion of the poor.

The Battle of Seattle and the Global Justice Movement seemed to auger entry into a new era of mass struggles such as we had seen around the world in the 1960s and early 1970s. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on the Twin Towers in New York and the U.S. Pentagon resulted in a sudden change in government policies and in the national mood. A new Secretary of Homeland Security was created and an entire new police force established overnight to examine airline travelers and to watch railroad yards, bridges and water supplies. At the same time, a wave of super-patriotism spread over the nation as the country went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, while left movements just as suddenly seemed to disappear, victims of the new nationalist fervor. It would take a decade before we once again recovered with the initiation of the Occupy Wall Street movement of September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park.

Today, twenty years later, the forces of global capitalism have grown stronger while the strength of organized labor has weakened. Yet social movements continue to arise from Spain’s indignados, to those who fought for democracy in the Arab Spring, to the Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the United States. History teaches us that no economic, social, or political system lasts forever, that rebellions from below continue to bubble up like unstoppable geysers, and that the recurring crises create revolutionaries who learn from their defeats—and one day win. No advance is permanent, but neither is any setback. NAFTA is twenty—the struggle continues.

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Arturo Silva Doray


"The relationship that we've had with international organizations
-- thanks to ties with UE   --  is hugely important.

"After each international meeting, we feel more and more encouraged by the knowledge that we're backed by outside organizations as strong as the UE."

-- Arturo Silva Doray
General secretary of municipal workers union in Juarez, Mexico
& of Federation of Municipal Workers for Chihuahua, Mexico



For more Information

For information about submission of articles and all queries contact editor Dan La Botz at the following e-mail address: or call (513) 861-8722. The mailing address is: Dan La Botz, Mexican Labor News and Analysis, 3503 Middleton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45220.

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Most MLNA articles may be reprinted by other electronic or print media. If the article includes a byline, republication requires the author's approval. For permission, please contact the author directly. If there is no byline, republication is authorized if the reproduction includes the following paragraph:

"This article was published by Mexican Labor News and Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE)."


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