This intensive study of labor and the Mexican state presents new insights about the forces that control the labor movement. Kevin Middlebrook explores various aspects of that authority, including government administrative powers and the subsidies that turned organized labor into an instrument of social control. He explains how the rapid economic growth that took place between 1940 and 1980 depended on that authority, and how the crises since the early 1980s have forced the regime to curtail benefits that heretofore encouraged political order.
In the aftermath of 1917, the emergent regime successfully consolidated a coalition of groups that included an officially endorsed but weak organized labor movement. The resulting Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana exercised political influence through its leader, Luis Morones, far exceeding the power that might have been expected from its small membership. The inclusion of officially sanctioned labor leaders in the highest councils of the government and later in the official party is still bearing fruit for the governing elite, and complements the coercive monopoly enjoyed by the state.
Middlebrook recognizes the 1931 promulgation of the Ley del Trabajo as the point when the state confirmed its hegemony over labor. During the period 1947-51, charrismo developed to an art form; but every discourse has a counterdiscourse, and the railroad strike of 1958-59 overwhelmed the pliant union leaders and required violent state intervention to restore order. The author goes much farther than a mere political analysis, however. He links the development of the many industries controlled or encouraged by the state to the formation of unions under the same aegis. The interaction of state-supported employment, technological advances, and socioeconomic change brought working-class political activities into a structure that stifled labor’s potential to develop an independent voice. Mexican authoritarianism resulted from that process, the compromising of labor leaders tied too closely to the regime and the abandonment of labor organizing by the leftist political parties, which became more purely political entities.
The state-dominated employment and economic structure also provided the basis for the decline of unionism during the first wave of privatization in the 1980s, when Miguel de la Madrid’s administration drastically reduced the number of paraestatal enterprises. Middlebrook is not surprised, given the compliant leadership of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México, that U.S. maquila owners prefer the CTM to the troublesome independent unions.
Any work of this complexity and size will have weaknesses. Only two merit mention. First, the historical background rests on an obsolete structuralist argument that the Revolution originated in the far north and Morelos, rather than dealing with the more generalized, unstructured violence that prevailed. Ironically, the structuralist perspective undermines Middlebrook’s contention that labor needed control. Second, the author reduces, but occasionally succumbs to, the acrobabble that has rendered previous labor studies unreadable. The solution to this problem is the placement of acronyms in the footnotes and suitable English words in the text.
Finally, considering the fierce ideological justifications offered by revolutionary regimes, the authoritarian control of organized labor in Mexico is no paradox but a logical outcome. This book is required reading for modern Mexicanists.