This interview forms part of a series of interviews with prominent Mexican labor leaders conducted by photojournalist, author, political activist and union organizer David Bacon. These interviews are a collaboration between IRLE, the Labor Center and the Center for Mexican Studies at UCLA. NACLA Report on the Americas, a quarterly magazine and leading source of research and analysis on Latin America and the Caribbean will also publish an abridged version of these interviews.
David Bacon | January 30, 2024
Humberto Montes de Oca is the Secretary for Internal Relations of the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME – the Mexican Union of Electrical Workers). He was originally a working-class art student who became active in the leftwing political movements of the period of Mexico’s Dirty War (1970s to early 1980s). He joined the SME as a political act to become part of the country’s radical working-class movement, and soon became one of its most important leaders.
In 2009 the Mexican administration of Felipe Calderon dissolved the Power and Light Company of Central Mexico, one of the country’s two national providers of electrical power. He then declared the union non-existent and terminated the jobs of its 44,000 members. While other administrations had regarded the SME, one of Mexico’s oldest, and most democratic and radical unions, as a political opponent, no government before had taken such an extreme step.
About half the union’s members decided to resist the attack and began an effort that continues today to recover their jobs and workplace rights, including the union contract. They kept the union’s structure and headquarters intact, and then set up an allied workers’ cooperative to generate work and help members survive. The other members took the government’s severance package and gave up their union and job rights.
In this interview with journalist David Bacon, Montes de Oca describes the current state of the union and its relationship with the progressive administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He talks about the way the union organizes and educates its members internally, and places the union in the current national and international context. The interview has been edited for clarity.
The Current State of Labor Reform
Today we are in a situation created by the 2019 freedom of association reform. To some degree that reform was forced on the government by the pressure of unions in Canada and the United States, as part of the negotiation of the new free trade agreement T-MEC (Tratado – Mexico Estados Unidos Canada). Pressure was put on Mexico to make changes in union representation because charrismo and the employer protection contracts were used to cheapen the labor of Mexicans. Workers in Canada and the United States were at a disadvantage. Capital investment comes to Mexico because of these more favorable conditions. It is a form of social dumping.
In Mexico, those unions argued, workers should have greater mobility, greater ability to defend their interests to increase their benefits and income. This reform was implemented using this logic. It requires all unions to show that they are legitimate representatives of workers, and to create legitimate collective labor contracts. These two elements are generating a new situation in our country. The corporate and employer protection unions opposed this reform because it goes against their interests. But they have also adjusted by inventing a strategy in which they go through the process, but everything actually remains the same.
The charros can legitimize themselves because they have control of the workers. They themselves organize the process and can manipulate them. Workers do not have information, they do not have training, and they do not have the initiative. It is convenient for politicians also that things remain the same since these charros can still produce votes.
It is true that North American and Canadian unions sought to integrate the labor chapter of the T-MEC with the labor reforms in Mexican legislation. But it is also true that in Mexican unionism there is a tradition of democratic struggle. In the seventies, eighties and nineties, tough battles were fought for union democracy in our country. Our very own survival as a union has been a fight for union democracy. Democratic unionism fought many battles for democratization, but it was not structured as a single force, that knocked on the door and said, “we want a reform.” Democratic lawyers were among the most important promoters of the reform, because many of them participated in the democratizing movements.
But the reform created bodies, like the Federal Labor Registration Center, which exercise very arbitrary power in a way that does not correspond to the spirit of the law. They tolerate noncompliance by some unions and demand the strict enforcement of procedures with others. Who decides? There is a danger that unions themselves will lose their autonomy and the labor movement its independence.
Yet there are groups of workers who are taking advantage of the situation to free themselves from charro unions. The example of the independent union victory at the General Motors plant in Silao is the clearest. We can see that it is possible for workers, using this legitimation process, to displace charro unions and achieve authentic collective bargaining.
So there are two kinds of outcomes. On the one hand, a sham process allows charro unions and protection unions to become legitimate through a fraudulent procedure. On the other hand, an authentic process makes it possible to displace the charros and create new democratic unions. This is happening in parallel. We celebrate the creation of the Casas Obreras (community centers that help workers organize) that provide information and training, and which disseminate knowledge of the law that can be used to trigger the democratization of unions. We support this and we must work to help it succeed.
Unfortunately, there is as yet no commitment to a widespread challenge by established independent unions to the old CTM structure (Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos – the federation allied to Mexico’s old ruling political party, the PRI). Democratic unions are fragmented. They do not have, with the exception of the new Central Obrera, any intention of promoting a widespread process of democratization. They exist in an enclosed world of their own, and have no plan to expand outside of it. This is a conservative policy — to conserve your resources within your own space, and not confront the charros.
These unions only think about “my problems,” “my demands,” “my conflict,” and don’t get involved with anything else. In other words, they have no intention of generating a movement beyond what they conceive as their own space. At the same time, the left no longer talks about unions. It is losing its link with the workers it had in the past. That weakens the possibilities for democratic change.
The new Central Obrera, however, does propose a national campaign for the democratization of unions. Conditions are good for this because many contracts were not legitimized, and disappeared. This creates a void, and we have to know how to fill it. For that, we need a workers’ movement that thinks of itself as a class, beyond individual sectors or branches. The National Democratic Convention of Workers is based on that idea.
We are not saying that everyone must simply join the new Central Obrera. We are saying the new Central, and organizations in other sectors who want a movement for union democratization in our country, should come together. We have common issues: freedom of association, union democracy, social security, pensions, retirements, salaries – the basis for generating a movement. In that movement there’s room for many efforts, including the Casas Obreras, the new emerging unions and federations of unions, and the old pillars of democratic unionism such as the SME. Perhaps in the medium and long term there will be a regrouping. Even if some are not moving in that direction now, perhaps later they will be convinced that this is needed, and they can help to build that process.