Collaboration and Confrontation: State-Labor relations in Mexico, 1910-1938


Photo credit ondacultural

By Duncan Riley


“National policy is no longer today, as it was only a few years ago, the policy of one man, but the policy of a program, and this program is contained in the following purposes: to liquidate feudalism, to win complete independence for Mexico, and to organize the principal sectors of the people and give them the control of the country. This is democracy as it was born of the Revolution and has been defined in the last five years; and it is creating a new social order in Mexico. It is not a mere democracy of formulas and laws, but a vital democracy, whose purpose is to improve the condition of the people in every aspect of life” – Vicente Toledano, 1940




In the history of organized labor, Mexico’s labor movement is unique. In many powerful countries, like the United States, Russia, and Germany, organized labor often met fierce resistance from the governments of these countries, and thus developed largely without state backing. In Mexico, however, the circumstances of the Mexican Revolution made it advantageous for the leaders of Mexico’s labor movement to ally with the new revolutionary elites. This alliance had great ramifications on the future development of Mexico’s labor movement, as it allowed labor leaders and unions to gain rights and political influence that labor movements in many countries had not been able to attain. Simultaneously, the agreement gave the Mexican government a great deal of influence and power over labor leaders and the unions they led, curtailing their independence. This dynamic, of labor leaders using alliances with political leaders to gain political influence, and political leaders using the same alliances to exercise control over labor leaders, set the stage for the collaboration and confrontation that would define relations between Mexican labor and state over the first decades after the Mexican revolution.

The Mexican labor movement had its roots in the horrible economic conditions of the Porfiriato. The influx of people into urban areas, a result of industrialization, created horrible living conditions. Further, working days were long, and on the job conditions were poor, while frequent recessions and economic instability meant many workers were often put out of work (Hart, 1974). While these conditions certainly gave workers the will to organize, the Diaz regime repressed any attempts to form unions, defining strikes and organization as criminal activities. However, with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, workers finally had the opportunity to organize, especially after the foundation of the Casa de Obrero Mundia, the house of the workers of the world, in 1910 (Toledano, 1940). The Casa program, which espoused a radical anarcho-syndicalist ideology[1], was the first group to attempt large scale organization of Mexican workers, attempting to create “societies of resistance” against the capitalist class and prepare the workers for a general strike (Hart, 1974). Indeed, Vicente Toledano, a leading figure in the later Mexican Labor Movement, called the Casa program “…a kind of seminary that sent forth the first propagandists of the class conflict” (Toledano, 1940).

However, this stage of relative freedom from government interference in the Mexican labor movement quickly faded after Victoriano Huerta was overthrown. The leaders of the Casa decided to renounce anarcho-syndicalism and ally with the Carrancista faction, in return for the promise that the Venustiano Carranza government would institute reforms that would benefit workers. In fulfillment of the bargain, the Casa used their organizations to create “Red Battalions” of urban workers to fight in the civil war that followed the overthrow of Huerta. The Casa organization, which had up until that point espoused an anti-capitalist, anti-government ideology, was suddenly fighting for the bourgeois Mexican government against its class brothers in the Villista and Zapatista movements (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). The Mexican government, in turn, would fulfill its promises to the Casa in the constitution of 1917. Article 123 of the constitution guaranteed workers the right to freely organize, a minimum wage, overtime pay, maternity leave, a six-day work week, and an eight-hour work day (Constitution of the United Mexican States, 1917). Vicente Toledano described these guarantees: “…Mexican Labor obtained at a single stroke… the legal benefits for which labor had been struggling desperately in many more advanced countries” (Ashby, 1967). It should be noted, however, that as Toledano would later become one of the primary movers behind collaboration with the state, it was in his interest to extol the benefits while minimizing the negatives. Indeed, while workers and their leaders had gained many rights and privileges, the choice of the Casa to ally itself with the Carrancistas was, in the view of one historian, Meyer, “a fatal step which would place the Mexican labor movement under the tutelage of the government…” (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976).

With the Mexican Revolution coming to its finish, the government began to focus on national reconstruction. The new revolutionary ideology that dominated the Mexican government took a paternalistic stance towards workers, recognizing the existence of a class struggle between worker and boss, and advocating that the government should intervene to protect the less powerful working class from capitalist exploitation. However, the purpose of state intervention was not simply to better the conditions of workers, but also to ensure the preservation of the capitalist mode of production and the authority of the government (Hamilton, 1975). This ideological commitment to both the preservation of the economic and political system alongside the betterment of workers is similar to the bargain made between the Casa and the Carrancistas during the Mexican Revolution – the government would support organized labor and workers, as long as labor leaders and their unions supported the government.

This philosophical development informed the process of incorporating workers and labor leaders into the new revolutionary order. In 1918, Carranza called a conference of labor organizations to ensure that the Carrancistas remained in control of the labor movement. The result of the conference was the formation of the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM). The CROM, with close ties to the state, limited itself to nonviolent economic struggle against bosses, avoiding challenging the government. It also opposed unions that tried to act independently (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). The CROM was effectively a government-controlled union, and it supported institutional candidates like Álvaro Obregón and limited its subdivision’s ability to strike and act against the government. In return, the CROM obtained government positions and influence (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976; Middlebrook, 1995). The granting of political positions to the CROM further solidified labor leaders’ stake in defending the new order. Furthermore, besides simply desiring to exercise control over the labor movement, the revolutionary elites saw organized labor as a source of mass support, and felt that the CROM was a civilian organization that could counterbalance the power of the army in the revolutionary coalition (Middlebrook, 1995). Labor was effectively recognized as its own corporate group within Mexican society, and the Mexican government supported the development of the CROM both so it could exercise influence over this new corporate group, and use it to balance out the influence of other corporate groups.

Of course, the government did not merely dictate the development of Mexican organized labor; rather, it was an interactive process. State intervention often empowered labor, and thus in some cases was actively sought out. Furthermore, the CROM could gain positions in key administrative bodies, such as minimum wage and arbitration boards, allowing the CROM to actively create and enforce labor law, and to intervene in favor of workers during labor disputes (Middlebrook, 1995).  Furthermore, labor leaders were also able to obtain extremely important government positions which they could use for their own and their organization’s gain. For example, Middlebrook writes that “Luis N. Morenes, the CROM’s secretary-general, served as minister of industry, commerce, and labor between 1924 and 1928, a position he exploited to increase the CROM’s membership and expand its influence in national labor affairs” (1995). Compounding this, CROM leaders controlled governorships in four states and the Federal District, and often pledged to support local political elites in gubernatorial campaigns in exchange for favorable treatment of the CROM if they obtained office (Middlebrook, 1995). By effectively becoming the national union and acceding to political constraints on their actions, the CROM became an extremely powerful political force in its own right.

While the CROM was the most powerful of Mexico’s unions, there were certainly other unions that opposed it and its close relationship with the Mexican government. The Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT), founded in 1921, was a radical anarcho-syndicalist union that advocated class struggle, direct action, and the emancipation of laborers (Andrews, 1990). The CGT’s political radicalism naturally made it an enemy of the Mexican government. The CROM, ever the government’s loyal union, began to compete with the CGT, launching organizing drives directly in conflict with it. The CROM also used its political influence to ensure its dominance, convincing the Plutarco Eliás Calles administration to recognize the principle that if multiple unions were present in a work place, the contract negotiated by the largest union would apply to all employees (Middlebrook, 1995).  This regulation naturally ensured that other unions, like the CGT, would have difficulties competing with the CROM, as they would not be able to represent their members if they did not have at least a plurality. The CROM’s favored position in the government’s eye made it very hard for other, more independent unions, too develop.

As the 1920’s ended, the relationship between the CROM and the government began to fray, giving other organizations the opportunity to form. Despite this, the CROM, and the methods and practices it had developed, would cast a shadow over the future of the Mexican labor movement. The CROM opposed Obregón’s reelection bid[2], resulting in Obregón pledging that if he was elected he would remove labor leaders from positions of power. After Obregón was assassinated, suspicion fell on the CROM and its leader Morones, and CROM leaders were forced to resign from public office. The CROM fell even further out of favor when they refused to cooperate with Calles in the formation of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR). The election of the avowedly anti-CROM Portes Gil as president in 1928 was the final blow to the CROM’s influence (Middlebrook, 1995). The CROM had broken its compact with the revolutionary elite that it would support the government, and as a result lost its political power. It was amidst this context of decline that Vicente Toledano, after an argument with Morones, broke from the CROM and founded the Confederacion General de Obreros y Campesinos Mexicanos (CGOCM). Its members referred to it as the “purified CROM[3]” (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). The fact that the members of the CGOCM viewed their new organization as simply a purer iteration of the CROM is emblematic of the CROM’s influence on the future Mexican labor movement. Though the CROM had gained a reputation as corrupt and undemocratic because of its collaboration with the government, it had also shown how allying with the ruling party could give labor leaders the power and resources they needed to effect change. Furthermore, the CROM’s demise had shown what could happen if labor leaders tried to fight the government and the PNR (Middlebrook, 1995). In effect, the CGOCM was created in an attempt to preserve some of the beneficial aspects of the CROM, such as collaborating with the government for the benefit of workers. However, the CGOCM would be more pure than the CROM, as it would maintain independence and hopefully avoid becoming a corrupt stooge of the PNR, dependent on it for support.

Toledano himself described the formation of the CGOCM as “the revival of the proletariat” (1940). Of course, Toledano, as the founder of the CGOCM, was somewhat biased in this assertion. However, there was some truth to Toledano’s claim, as the CGOCM would advocate intra-union democracy and independence from the state, opting to put the empowerment of its members ahead of alliance with the PNR (Middlebrook, 1995). Furthermore, CGOCM would grow to encompass most of the unions that had formerly been part of the CROM, and some unions that had remained independent of it (Toledano, 1940). However, the CGOCM did not have nearly the same level of political influence as the CROM, especially after its opposition to the labor policies of President Abelardo Rodriguez caused the President to begin a wave of persecutions against the union (Middlebrook, 1995; Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). Though the CGOCM did oppose some government policies, its goals were always reformist in nature. The CGOCM sought to strengthen labor protections, increase land redistribution, and reform the PRN – not overthrow the system entirely (Toledano, 1940). Thus, with the election of the reformist President Lázaro Cárdenas, the CGOCM’s leaders began to give up some of their union’s independence to forge an alliance with the new president which it could then use to further its political and economic goals (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). The CGOCM gave a much-needed breath of independence to the Mexican labor movement, giving it time to develop policy goals and incorporate their rank and file members more fully into the union structure, without the direction of the state. However, the most important contribution the CGOCM made to the larger labor movement was that through its efforts to coordinate union activities and expand membership the CGOCM took a large step towards a general unification of the Mexican labor movement (Middlebrook, 1995).

Ultimately, however, the complete unification of the labor movement would require government support. President Cárdenas realized that if he was to achieve his reformist goals, he would require the mass support of workers, and organized labor would have to become a partner of the state. However, the labor movement was at this point split between the remnants of the CROM and the CGOCM, and could not form the united base of support that Cárdenas desired (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). Facing challenges from the callista factions of the PNR, and in desperate need of strong support from labor, in 1936 Cárdenas delivered his “Fourteen Points” address, declaring that it was “…in the national interest to provide the support necessary to create a single organization of industrial workers that would end the inter-union strife that [was] equally pernicious to the interests of workers, employers, and the government” (Middlebrook, 1995). Thus, it was with government backing, that in early 1936, a “national unification congress” was called, which resulted in the formation of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), headed by Toledano. This new mass organization incorporated the CGOCM and several other major federations, along with major national industrial unions representing petroleum, railway, and other workers (Middlebrook, 1995). Though the CROM and some other unions remained independent, they were all superseded by the new CTM, which had effectively unified the Mexican labor movement (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). To bolster his support in the working classes, Cárdenas had successfully sponsored the unification of the entire Mexican labor movement into the CTM.

In the CTM’s founding document, it is declared that “The working class of Mexico must never forget that the final aim of its struggles is the abolition of the capitalist regime. Nevertheless, since Mexico is subject to imperialist domination, before arriving at that final aim it is first necessary to achieve the political and economic freedom of the country” (Ashby, 1967). These statements reveal the ideological contradiction that lay at the heart of the CTM. The organization, and its leader Toledano, was avowedly Marxist, and believed in the destruction of the capitalist mode of production, a revolutionary goal that would seemingly put it at odds with the reformist Cárdenas. However, both the CTM and Cárdenas shared a desire to see Mexico gain economic independence, and it would be on this basis that collaboration could occur. Indeed, the CTM officially renounced all collaboration with the state, believing that it would lead to their union being subjugated by the state. However, the CTM explicitly advocated working with any social group that shared its goals – thus the CTM could not work with Cárdenas, the President, but it could collaborate with cárdenismo, the social movement he represented (Ashby, 1967). This quote is encapsulated in Toledano’s remark at the unification congress that the CTM would “…assure aid to the government of Cárdenas in all its revolutionary actions and in all its endeavors to favor the exploited masses of Mexico” (Ashby, 1967). Cárdenas himself was certain that the CTM supported him, and was confident it would not challenge him or the government, despite its revolutionary principles (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976).  Thusly, the CTM had allied itself with the cárdenismo movement and Cárdenas in the hope of achieving Mexican economic independence and securing better lives for the working class.

Regardless of these ideological nuances, since the cárdenismo movement was so inextricably related to the Mexican state, the CTM often did collaborate with the Mexican government. The government gave monetary donations to the CTM, protected its activities, and persecuted its political enemies. Further, many CTM leaders gained seats in the legislature, and CTM support was a decisive factor in many gubernatorial and local elections (Ashby, 1967). This collaboration between the CTM and the state, and the incorporation of CTM leaders into the Mexican government, is reminiscent of the CROM’s operating model. However, unlike the CROM, the CTM did not merely use its political influence to obtain new rights for organized labor. With the support of Cárdenas, the CTM and its members could participate in the operation and management of several industries (Toledano, 1940). Indeed, Vicente Toledano states that syndicates of the CTM managed “… the national railways, they [had] a share in the management of the nationalized petroleum industry, they manage[d[ street railways, busses, and other municipal services…” among many other industries (1940). The CTM, like the CROM, obtained a great deal of political influence, however it used that influence not only to gain political power, but also to allow its leaders to have a role in directing the economy of Mexico.

The CTM also played a vital role in Cárdenas’s struggle for economic independence for Mexico from foreign capital. The initial strike that would eventually lead to the expropriation of foreign oil companies was led by a petroleum worker’s union within the CTM (Ashby, 1967). As Cárdenas was preparing to nationalize the industry, the CTM called a general congress in Mexico City, at which Toledano declared “Comrades, it seems inevitable that the moment will come when the petroleum companies will have to be replaced by representatives of the State and the Mexican workers in order to maintain petroleum production. We are ready and willing to assume the… responsibility that befits a nation of free men” (Ashby, 1967). This nationalist call to arms offered Cárdenas the resounding support he needed to carry through with nationalization. After the expropriation was completed, Cárdenas needed to consolidate national popular support to counterbalance the foreign powers he had just angered. To do this, Cárdenas, with the support of the CTM, reorganized the PNR into the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM). This move consolidated Mexican workers into a corporate group represented by the CTM, and the CTM leaders were fully incorporated into the ruling structure of the party (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976). The CTM, through its support of Mexican economic independence, had become, like the CROM before it, a national union.

In conclusion, the Mexican labor movement is exceptional in the history of organized labor, as it has featured extensive collaboration with the Mexican state alongside confrontation. The deal made between the Casa and Carranza later developed into the CROM’s deep and inextricable relationship with the new revolutionary Mexican state. However, the loss of government support and the increasing corruption of the CROM led to the foundation of the CGOCM, which, at least initially, had a more confrontational relationship with the Mexican government. However, with the beginning of cárdenismo, the CTM was founded, and the labor movement was effectively unified behind Cárdenas’s reform program. Finally, with the foundation of the PRM, the CTM became the representative of the working classes to the PRM, and its leaders were fully incorporated into Mexico’s elite. This unique path of development and state-labor relations exemplifies how collaboration with the state can offer organized labor a great deal of power, but also how it can sap the ability to act independently, and sometimes lead to contradictions to the very principles of solidarity and justice that labor stands for.

[1] Anarcho-syndicalism is an ideology that generally advocates the overthrow of capitalism and the state through general strike, and an economy organized around syndicates, or union confederations, which control industry.

[2] The CROM’s opposition of Obregón’s reelection was due to its leader Morones own political aspirations, and the general feeling in Mexico stemming from the Porfiriato that reelections were undemocratic (Middlebrook, 1995).

[3] Pure in this context meant that the CGOCM would be more attentive to the needs and desires of its members and less attentive to those of the state (Delarbe and Yanez, 1976).

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