On the attacks on the EZLN

Edgard Sanchez

At the beginning the year a series of attacks, some slanderous, were unleashed against the EZLN following its New Year statements, especially those by Commander Moises, concerning the projects of the new Mexican government, headed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

In a conversation on WhatsApp I answered the comments of a comrade who sought to defend the government of AMLO against the criticism of the EZLN. The wave of attacks against the EZLN continues and, although different from those of the person I refer to, I find it useful for the debate that is being generated to reproduce here what I said rapidly on social networks. The criticisms of those who are “more Catholic than the Pope” contrast with the statements by López Obrador himself in Tabasco, recognizing the right of the EZLN to have an opinion, but at the same time responding that the megaproject goes on and nothing will stop it. With its statements on its 25th anniversary, the EZLN is not “debunking electoral triumph.” The issue is no longer the election campaign, but the position you take in the face of the new Government’s policy.

In this case, as we in the PRT explained and discussed a couple of weeks ago at our cadre school, we oppose the typical social liberal policy of the “progressive” governments that support extractivism as a rule and thereby the dispossession and division of indigenous peoples. This is what the projects of the Maya train and the Transítsmico (a reworking of the Puebla Panamá plan backed by cabinet head Alfonso Romo, as well as other bourgeois sectors inside and outside the new government) represent.

These projects also coincide with the interests of Yankee imperialism and Trump’s government, to effectively draw the border with the US farther south, down to the isthmus, practically raising the Wall, or the curtain or filter as AMLO calls it, there, with the excuse of offering work, cheap labour, so that Mexicans and Central Americans don’t have to go to the US.

It is not the EZLN that seeks to divide the exploited by organizing resistance against the neoliberal megaprojects of the new government. These megaprojects involve dividing the communities and therefore the exploited. While in the Zócalo they give AMLO’s baton to indigenous groups of the PRI and the CNC in folkloric ceremonies, it is the new government that is seeking to divide and discredit the EZLN, the National Indigenous Congress and our candidate Marichuy. As in any other movement, there are political differences in the indigenous movement. There are indigenous groups who support the PRI, a product of the indigenous politics that derives from Cardenismo (a project for which AMLO worked in Tabasco in the INI (Instituto Nacional Indigenista), when he was active in the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) at the time of Echeverría (PRI President from 1970 to 1976) and there are also indigenous groups that have been defined on the left (from the PC and the PRT in Guerrero and Oaxaca) but also Zapatismo since 1994, with the CNI (Congreso Nacional Indígena). By appealing to the indigenous PRI in the Zócalo, AMLO does not “stain his anti-capitalist credentials”, as Ramón says in relation to the EZLN, but seeks to beat the anti-capitalists by showing that on the indigenous issue he also has the PRI. When the EZLN responds to the new government, it acts as a defender of the interests of its social base and indigenous peoples.

We have insisted therefore that the central axis of the socialist and anti-capitalist left must, as always, be political independence with respect to the new government. It is regrettable that former militants of the left acrimoniously join the disqualifying and immobilizing campaigns of Morena and the Lopezobradoristas. That the defeat of the PRIAN was inflicted by 30 million voters with the illusion of ending neoliberalism, should force us to act consequently pushing and supporting the mass struggles in that direction and not subordinating to the rhythms, commitments and interests of a progressive government with a social-liberal policy (which will develop some welfare policies, at the same time as the mega-neoliberal mega-projects).

As the event of the new government is explained in the framework of the deep crisis of the regime, it was accepted by the ruling classes as a way of salvation to avoid a violent and radical breakdown, and it is clear that we have entered a phase of sharpening of the class struggle and frequent Bonapartist turns by the new government. The above does not mean as the Lopezobradoristas suggest that the line should be to support the government. On the contrary today political independence with respect to the government is necessary to continue developing the struggles and eventually achieve triumphs not by the will of AMLO but by the thrust of these struggles. The struggle is what, even through Bonapartist turns, forces the government to recognize the correctness of our demands.

Trotsky, during his exile in Mexico, at the time of the founding of the Confederation of Mexican Workers, self-critically insisted that the experience of “War Communism” showed that the trade unions (and today we can extend this to the whole movement) must be independent of the government, of all governments, even of “a revolutionary government” (which anyway is not the case with the AMLO government). The left in Mexico, which since the 1970s has learned the strategic nature of the struggle for union democracy and independence, now contains some who reject the supposed dogmatism of the “old left”, forgetting the necessary independence with respect to the government, even believe that trade union democracy can be achieved with government support.

I apologize for repeating the arguments that you have surely read in the recent resolutions of the PRT and that were explained and discussed in the cadre school in December, but it is necessary again confronted with the wave of attacks by Lopezobradoristas and their fellow travellers against those who, like the EZLN, dare to criticize the new government’s policy. Worse yet to disqualify the critics by presenting them as allies of the right. An old recourse of the Stalinists and the PRI. In the epoch of Echeverría they said that the dilemma was “Echeverría or fascism”. Surely the phrase is remembered by people like Ignacio Ovalle, private secretary of the LEA and now in the ranks of Morena, or Porfirio Muñoz Ledo who was then the President of the PRI. Reissuing the slogan as “AMLO or fascism” faced with the advance of the far right, as the case of Bolsonaro in Brazil shows, is a mistaken analysis sacrificing the necessary independence with respect to this type of progressive government.

The extreme right has advanced not simply by its own energy but by the limitations, errors or the failure of progressivism. The corrupt orchestrated the removal of Dilma Rousseff; accusing her of being corrupt. But where did the right-wing Temer come from? He was the vice-president with President Dilma. It was because the PT made a broad alliance to win elections, even with right-wing parties, such as Temer’s. The serpent’s egg for “betrayal” or revenge was already in the PT government. It was Temer who succeeded in dismissing Dilma and then imprisoning Lula. In Mexico there is no longer the figure of vice president. Now there is a Chief of Cabinet. Who? What interests does the Mexican Temer Alfonso Romo represent – including in Chiapas?

Bolsonaro’s triumph involved a far right and evangelical minority winning by denouncing corruption and the failure of the PT. Evangelicals were also in the minority and practically unknown on the political terrain in Mexico until the irresponsible policy of alliances of AMLO projected them, via the PES, to the forefront with many deputies and senators. The snake’s egg is there. That is why the “AMLO or fascism” binary is wrong. It is vital to maintain political independence with respect to the new government. Do not let the right wing capitalize on the errors, limitations or the politics of the new government, as the right did in Brazil. To remain silent in the face of errors or the neoliberal policy of progressivism is what helps the right. Criticism does not play the game of the right, silence, the subordination of the left to the new government clears the way for the right. In any case, the alternative expression of the anti-capitalist or socialist left will be necessary.

We welcome the criticism and ddenunciations by the EZLN. We share opposition to extractive and neoliberal megaprojects. And our opposition and arguments are not those of the right but of the anti-capitalist left and the interests of indigenous peoples and communities. So, we must continue in all struggles: offering a critique and opposition from the left, independent of the government and not leaving the field open to the demagoguery of the right. This is the position that we, the PRT, have.

This article was originally published on January 24, 2019 in the International Viewpoint.

A New Day for Mexican Workers

David Bacon

NAFTA had been in effect for just a few months when Ruben Ruiz got a job at the Itapsa factory in Mexico City in the summer of 1994. Itapsa made auto brakes for Echlin, a U.S. manufacturer later bought out by the huge Dana Aftermarket Group. In the factory, asbestos dust from brake parts coated machines and people alike. Ruiz had hardly begun his first shift when a machine malfunctioned, cutting four fingers from the hand of the man operating it.

In the main square (zocalo) these people came to cheer the inauguration of Andres Manuel López Obrador, part of a crowd estimated at over a million.

It seemed clear to Ruiz that things were very wrong, so he went to a meeting to talk about organizing a union. When Itapsa managers got wind of the effort, they began firing the organizers. Nevertheless, many of the workers joined STIMAHCS, an independent democratic union of metalworkers.

Itapsa workers filed a petition for an election, but then discovered that they already had a “union” – a unit of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). They’d never seen the union contract – in essence, a “protection contract,” which insulates the company from labour unrest.

The plant’s HR manager told Ruiz that Echlin management in the U.S. said any worker organizing an independent union should be immediately fired. “He told me my name was on a list of those people,” Ruiz recounted, “and I was discharged right there.”

Nevertheless, there was a vote, in September 1997, to decide which union workers wanted. But before the election, a state police agent drove a car filled with rifles into the plant. Two busloads of strangers arrived, armed with clubs and copper rods.

During the voting, workers were escorted by CTM functionaries past the club and rifle-wielding strangers. Some workers were forcibly kept in a part of the factory to keep them from voting. At the polling station, employees were asked aloud which union they favored, in front of management and CTM representatives.

STIMAHCS tried to get the election canceled. But the government body administering it, the Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JCA), went ahead, even after thugs roughed up one of the independent union’s organizers. Predictably, STIMAHCS lost.

Business Unions in Mexico

For 20 years the Itapsa election has been a symbol of all that’s gone wrong with Mexico’s labour law, which provides protection on paper for workers seeking to organize but which has been routinely undermined by a succession of governments bent on using a low-wage workforce to attract foreign investment. Dana Corporation was just one beneficiary – Itapsa has been the norm, not the exception.

In 2015, thousands of farm workers struck U.S. growers in Baja California. Instead of recognizing their new independent union, however, growers signed protection contracts with the CTM, which were certified by the local JCA. Strikers were blacklisted. Later that year workers tried to register an independent union in four Juarez factories. Some 120 workers making ink cartridges for Lexmark were fired, as were another 170 at ADC Commscope, and many more at Foxconn and Eaton.

The labour board declined to reinstate the fired workers in Juarez and Baja – following the pattern it had set at Itapsa two decades earlier. Indeed, the JNCs have been key to the defeat of workers’ attempts to form democratic unions, invariably protecting employers and corporate-friendly unions.

No More Protection Contracts

The new Mexican government, headed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), says that’s all over. Deputy Secretary of Labour in the new administration, Alfredo Dominguez Marrufo, promises that, “after all these struggles, we can finally get rid of the protection contract system. We can make our unions democratic, choose our own leaders and negotiate our own contracts. This government will defend the freedom of workers to organize. That right has existed in theory, but we’ve had a structure making it impossible. This will change.”

That could have a big impact on political life in Mexico, where corporate union leaders have had an inside track to political power and corruption. It could change the dominating role U.S. corporations have played in the Mexican economy, and affect relations between workers in both countries. Most of all, it would raise a standard of living for workers that López Obrador has called “among the lowest on the planet.” In his speech to the Mexican Congress during his December 1 inauguration, the new president charged that 36 years of neoliberal economic reforms had lowered the purchasing power of Mexico’s minimum wage by 60 per cent. Today, on the border, that wage comes to a little above $4 per day.

According to University of California Professor Harley Shaiken, “The Mexican government created an investment climate that depends on a vast number of low wage-earners. This climate gets all the government’s attention, while the consumer climate – the ability of people to buy what they produce – is sacrificed.”

Protecting corporations from demands for higher wages has made Mexico a profitable place to do business. Big auto companies, the world’s major garment manufacturers, the global high tech electronic assemblers – all built huge plants to take advantage of Mexico’s neoliberal economic policies, starting more than two decades before the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

That wild-west climate for investors produced more than low wages, however. Between 1988 and 1992, 163 Juarez children were born with anencephaly – without brains – an extremely rare disorder. Health critics charged that the defects were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the factories or their toxic discharges. The Chilpancingo colonia below the mesa in Tijuana where the battery plant of Metales y Derivados was located experienced the same plague.

As the companies came south, the people came north. “During the neoliberal period [which he defines as the last 36 years, or six Mexican presidencies] we became the second country in the world with the highest migration,” López Obrador charged. “They live and work in the United States, 24 million Mexicans [Mexico’s population in 2017 was 129.2 million] … They are sending $30-billion a year to their families … the greatest social benefit we receive from abroad.”

In his six-year campaign for office, in which he spoke in practically every sizeable town in the country, López Obrador repeated what he later told the Congress – that only development “to combat poverty and marginalization as has never been done in history” would provide an alternative to migration.

“We will put aside the neoliberal hypocrisy,” he announced. “Those born poor will not be condemned to die poor … We want migration to be optional, not mandatory, [to make Mexicans] happy where they were born, where their family members, their customs and their cultures are.”

Criticizing Neoliberal Articles of Faith

In his speech, López Obrador criticized two other neoliberal articles of faith – that privatization of the state-owned section of the Mexican economy would lead to economic growth, and that pro-corporate changes in its labour law would create jobs and higher incomes.

Starting before NAFTA was passed, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari rammed through the Congress changes in the Constitution’s guarantees of land reform, to make private land ownership easier. Many of the communal lands (ejidos), created in previous decades, were dissolved and their lands sold to investors. Farmers became wage workers on land they’d previously owned. Subsequent land reforms led to granting foreign mining companies concessions on over a third of Mexico’s territory, allowing them to develop operations even in the face of local opposition.

Prices on basic goods were decontrolled, and government subsidies on food were cut back or ended altogether. In 1998, the government dissolved CONASUPO, a system of state-run stores selling basic foodstuffs like tortillas and milk at subsidized low prices. At the same time, price supports for small corn growers were also ended. As NAFTA allowed U.S. corporations to flood the Mexican market with cheap subsidized imported corn, millions of farmers were displaced, no longer able to sell their corn at a price that paid for growing it.

“Mexico is the origin of corn, that blessed plant,” López Obrador noted bitterly, “and now we are the nation that imports the most corn in the world.” He announced that a CONASUPO-like subsidized food production and distribution system would be reestablished.

Privatization marked a 180 degree change in the direction of Mexican economic policy. After its 1910-20 Revolution, nationalists believed that to be truly independent Mexico had to ensure its resources were controlled by Mexicans and used for their benefit. The route to this control was nationalization, to stop the transfer of wealth out of the country and to set up an internal market, in which what was produced in Mexico would be sold there as well.

Mexico therefore guaranteed rights to workers that U.S. unions and workers could only dream of. Severance pay was mandatory and workers had a right to profit-sharing. During legal strikes, companies had to shut their doors until the dispute was resolved. On paper, the government acknowledged the right of all people to education and housing.

In return, however, Mexican unions gave up autonomy and control of their own affairs. The government registered unions, and oversaw their internal processes and choice of leaders. It never tolerated independent action by workers and unions outside its political structure. When the government changed its basic economic policy, using low wages to attract foreign investment, and producing for the U.S. market instead of for Mexico, the government could and did punish resistance severely.

Under Presidents Salinas de Gortari and Zedillo (1988-2000) privatization reforms became a whirlwind. Among the companies and industries affected were the Aeromexico airline, the telephone company, the petrochemical industry dependent on the state-run oil company, the Sicartsa steel mill, the railroad network, many Mexican mines, and the operation of the country’s ports.

The leader of the union at Aeromexico was imprisoned after he refused to accept the company’s privatization and the layoff of thousands of workers. The head of one of the largest sections of the union for employees of the social security system, IMSS, also spent months in jail in 1995 for denouncing government plans to privatize the enormous federal pension and healthcare agency.

In 1991 the Mexican army took over the port of Veracruz, disbanded the longshore union, and installed three private contractors to load and unload ships. Hourly wages of Veracruz longshoremen fell from about $7.00 to $1.00, even as productivity rose from 18 to over 40 shipping containers handled per hour.

When the Sicartsa steel mill was privatized in 1992, wages were cut in half, and 1500 of the mill’s 5000 workers were laid off. They were then rehired as temporary labour under 28-day contracts.

The Mexican government sold the Cananea and Nacozari copper mines, among the world’s largest, to German Larrea’s Grupo Mexico at a fraction of their book value. In 1997 Larrea bought the 4052-mile Pacific North railroad, in partnership with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific. Workers throughout northern Mexico mounted a series of rolling wildcat strikes over cuts in its workforce of 13,000 by more than half. They lost.

Thirteen Mexican financiers became billionaires during the Salinas administration, and Larrea was one of them. Grupo Mexico forced Cananea’s miners’ union to go on strike in 2009, a conflict that is still unresolved. After 65 miners were entombed by an explosion in Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in 2006, the union’s president Napoleón Gómez Urrutia was forced into exile in Canada. He’d accused Larrea of “industrial homicide” for giving up rescue efforts after only three days. This October, Gómez Urrutia was elected Senator in Sonora on the Morena ticket (López Obrador’s party-in-formation), and finally returned from Canada to take office.

The harshest privatization came in 2009, when President Felipe Calderon dissolved the state-owned Power and Light Company of central Mexico. In firing all its 44,000 workers, Calderon hoped to destroy one of Mexico’s oldest and most democratic unions, the Mexican Electrical Workers (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas – SME). The company’s operations were folded into the Federal Electricity Commission. Private electrical generation was already permitted by Salinas and Zedillo, and López Obrador’s immediate predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, had set up plans for private power sale to consumers. Meanwhile, the Federal Electricity Commission itself was slated for elimination. Peña Nieto pushed a Constitutional reform through Congress to reverse the guarantee of national ownership of both the oil and electrical industries.

Far from increasing productivity and investment, however, “the damage caused to the national energy sector during neoliberalism is so serious,” López Obrador charged, “that we are not only the oil country that imports the most gasoline in the world, but we are now buying crude oil to supply the only six refineries that barely survive.”

Humberto Montes de Oca, foreign secretary of the SME union, says, “The country is bankrupt. Before we can redistribute wealth we have to recover it. We know the banks will act against reversing the energy reform along with the others. We will all have to participate in order to defend any changes this new government tries to make.” The SME has established a cooperative and has regained control of seven power generation stations, along with other property that formerly belonged to the old company.

“The hallmark of neoliberalism is corruption,” López Obrador charged. “Privatization has been synonymous with corruption in Mexico … The robbery of the goods of the people and the riches of the nation has been a modus operandi … In the last three decades the highest authorities have dedicated themselves to giving concessions to the territory and transferring companies and public goods, even functions of the state, to national and foreign individuals … The government will no longer facilitate looting, and will no longer be a committee in the service of a rapacious minority.”

Striking teachers march through downtown Mexico City to protest the pro-corporate education reform, which President Lopez Obrador has promised to repeal.

To date, only one economic reform enacted by López Obrador’s predecessors has been repealed outright: the education reform that mandated standardized testing for students and testing and firing of teachers themselves. Mexico’s teachers have a long history of resistance and radical politics. More than 100 teachers in the state of Oaxaca alone were killed during their struggle over control of their union, and in defense of the indigenous communities in which they lived. Years of massive teacher strikes against the government’s education reform eventually led to a massacre in Nochixtlan in June 2016, in which nine people were gunned down by federal and state police.

The disappearance and murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa training school in September 2014 was also an indirect product of the corporate education reform program. Their school had a reputation for turning out radical teachers, as do many rural training schools like it, and their students came from some of the poorest families in the countryside.

Claudio X. González Guajardo, cofounder of the Televisa Foundation and the Mexicanos Primeros corporate education reform lobby, called such public schools “a swarm of politics and shouting.” He demanded the government replace them with private institutions. Following López Obrador’s speech to the Congress, Gonzalez tweeted, Trump-style, “AMLO – Against the free market, against the energy reform, a retrograde, statist, interventionist, stagnant vision. The markets will react negatively. It will go very badly with us, very badly. A shame.”

In his address, López Obrador had promised, “The so-called education reform will be canceled, the right to free education will be established in Article 3 of the Constitution at all levels of schooling, and the government will never again offend teachers. The disappearance of Ayotzinapa’s youth will be thoroughly investigated; the truth will be known and those responsible will be punished.” In meetings with the democratic teachers caucus he also promised free elections in their union, the largest in Latin America. Eliminating the authoritarian group that has held power in the union for decades could shift the balance between the left and right in Mexico’s institutional politics.

Reforming Mexico’s Labour Laws

Despite the move against education reform, most Mexican unions do not expect the new government to reverse the privatizations that have already taken place, at least not for the first three years of López Obrador’s six-year term. Instead, they have concentrated on winning a basic reform of Mexico’s labour law, which has changed radically during the past two decades.

In May 2000, the World Bank made a series of recommendations to the Mexican administration, “An Integral Agenda of Development for the New Era.” The bank recommended rewriting Mexico’s Constitution and Federal Labour Law by eliminating its requirements that companies give workers permanent status after 90 days, limit part time work and abide by the 40-hour week, pay severance when they lay workers off and negotiate over the closure of factories. The bank called for ending the law’s ban on strikebreaking, and its guarantees of job training, healthcare and housing.

The recommendations were so extreme that even some employers condemned them. President Vicente Fox (2000 to 2006) embraced the proposal, but it failed to pass the Congress. After further attempts, however, President Felipe Calderon (2006 to 2012) did get a similar reform adopted in 2012. It allows companies to outsource, or subcontract, jobs, which was previously banned. It allows part time and temporary work and pay by the hour rather than the day. Workers now can be terminated without cause for their first six months on the job.

Arturo Alcalde, one of Mexico’s most respected labour lawyer and past president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, called the reforms “an open invitation to employers, and a road to a paradise of firings.” As he predicted, subcontracting proliferated with disastrous results. In just one instance, Grupo Mexico replaced strikers at the Cananea mine by contracting out their jobs. Inexperienced replacements died in mine accidents, and allowed a huge spill of toxic mine tailings into the Sonora River, contaminating communities and sickening residents.

According to Benedicto Martinez, co-president of the Authentic Labour Front, the union federation to which STIMAHCS belongs, “The motivation of the government, assisted by corporate unions, was to encourage the layoff of longtime employees, who could be replaced by subcontracted workers. There are companies now where all the workers are subcontracted, who have no employees of their own at all. The conditions are very low, just slightly above the legal minimum, and sometimes below.”

Last year, under pressure from the European Union, which sought a free-trade agreement with Mexico, the Peña Nieto administration had to agree to reform some of the pro-corporate labour practices. The government was forced to ratify Convention 98 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), guaranteeing freedom of association (something the United States has not done). Peña Nieto then got the Mexican Congress to pass a Constitutional reform, embodying these changes. Corporate unions like the CTM, clearly feeling threatened by the reform, introduced their own legislation in 2017 to nullify its effect. They couldn’t get it passed, however, as it became evident that López Obrador would be elected the next president.

In Martinez’ eyes, the Constitutional reform is “the most advanced proposal that you could imagine. It includes union democracy, and the disappearance of the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards, which have always been complicit with the bosses and the corporate unions. In some states a union contract is treated like a state secret, that no one is allowed to see.”

Martinez believes the reform was the fruit of many years of groups like his fighting the government. “It was like talking to a wall,” he recalls. “We were accused of being traitors to the country, because we organized international pressure with unions all over the world, denouncing the practices here in Mexico.”

Domingues Marrufo, López Obrador’s Deputy Labour Secretary, agrees. “If it were not for that support from the [U.S. and Canadian] United Steelworkers and other unions, it would have been impossible to achieve the Constitutional reform.”

But changing the Constitution does not change the particular laws that govern labour activity. Implementing legislation must be passed to define rights and procedures, and set up the structure for enforcing the reform. After López Obrador won the election in July, but before he took office in December, Mexican unions and labour lawyers set up a discussion group, the Citizens Labour Observatory, and debated how far the new changes should go.

Some wanted to undo Calderon’s 2012 reform completely, by reversing, for instance, the reform laws that now allow subcontracting and temporary employment. In the end, though, the consensus among the democratic unions was to limit the proposal to the implementing legislation that gives workers the right to vote for the union and union leaders of their choice, and to approve their contracts. It was clear this was López Obrador’s favored choice. As Mexico City Mayor in 2000 he had appointed another dean of Mexican labour lawyers, Jesus Campos Linas, as head of the city’s labour board. Campos Linas then made public an estimated 70-80,000 protection contracts whose contents had never been released to the workers they covered.

Two days before Christmas, deputies from López Obrador’s Morena Party-in-formation introduced their labour reform bill into the Chamber of Deputies. It will abolish the JCAs and substitute an independent system of labour tribunals. Unions will be independent of the government and business, and leaders must be elected by a majority of the workers. Union contracts will be public, and must be ratified by the majority of the workers in a free and secret vote.

Sweeping though it will be, the new labour law is just a beginning. On taking office, López Obrador appointed Maria Luisa Alcalde the new Labour Secretary. She is a former legislator, daughter of labour lawyer Arturo Alcalde , and at 31 the youngest person in AMLO’s cabinet. “She is very clear that the democratization of the unions will create a new situation and our society will have a much better chance to raise living standards,” Dominguez says. But, he warned, “We aren’t accustomed to organizing ourselves. We’re used to waiting for some powerful person to come from above to help us.”

And while waiting for unions and workers to use the new law, the government is still faced with many legacy strikes and fights inherited from 36 years of neoliberal administrations. The telecommunications reform, for instance, mandated the breakup of TelMex, the old telephone monopoly sold to billionaire Carlos Slim. In February it is set to be divided in two, a move the telephone workers union bitterly opposes. They are threatening to strike if it isn’t stopped.

In the mid-1990s the telefonistas, together with the Authentic Labour Front (FAT) and two other unions, formed the National Union of Workers, an independent labour federation. They supported López Obrador very strongly. “Our corporate elite had to respond to the fact that the vast majority of Mexicans voted for him, and were unable to use their electoral fraud strategy to deny him victory, as they had in the past,” says Victor Enrique Fabela, vice-president of the union.

But he doesn’t believe that López Obrador will simply do what unions ask, pointing out that the new president invited Carlos Slim to hear his inaugural speech to the Congress, an invitation not extended to the union’s general secretary, Francisco Hernandez Juarez. Further, long term operating concessions have been renewed for Televisa and TeleAzteca, two media giants with a record of rightwing politics. “We have to be critical,” he cautioned, “while understanding that we have to support the direction AMLO is moving.”

The strike in Cananea has yet to be settled, and in Nacozari, two of the world’s largest copper mines, the miners’ union was forced out by previous JCA decisions favoring the CTM and Grupo Mexico. The communities on the Rio Sonora are still suffering the health effects of the toxic spill, three years later. And on November 29 at the giant PKC wire harness plant in Ciudad Acuña, just two days before López Obrador was sworn in, CTM thugs marched into the facility, shouting “Mineros Afuera!” [Miners’ Union Out!] as workers were about to vote on the miners’ union as their representative. They overturned ballot boxes, the election was canceled, and the miners say its representatives were beaten.

“We all want a change,” charged Moises Acuña, the miners’ political secretary. “We have a chance to move forward now, and we have to use it.” Meanwhile, a new federation of independent unions in the auto industry has also been formed, and plans to fight with the CTM over the right to negotiate contracts with the industry’s giants.

In dealing with the workers’ upsurge and the emergence of new unions, however, López Obrador’s government faces a complex situation. The JCAs will disappear and the new tribunals will be formed. But there are no judges yet, and they won’t be in place for the first three years. The tribunals have to be funded, and judges and personnel trained in administering a completely new law.

“But during that time, in order to represent workers and negotiate, a union still has to be certified by the authorities,” Martinez says. “There must be some way to ensure that the workers have approved this union, and this approval must take place before any negotiation begins. Plus, who are the inspectors now responsible for investigating the outsourcing, to make sure it’s legal? We need an army of them, and there’s no money to hire them.”

Despite the institutional challenges, Dominguez believes that the time has arrived when Mexican workers may be able to reshape their nation. “Today many workers live in poverty, on one or two dollars a day. This is the fundamental problem. But we’re not just fighting for an economic goal, not just for decent wages, but for the revitalization of the democratic life of workers, of our unions and the organizations we belong to.” •

This article was originally published in the Socialist Project’s The Bullet on January 14, 2019.

David Bacon is a California-based writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labour, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. He blogs at The Reality Check and tweets at @photos4justice.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador Promises the “Rebirth of Mexico”

Dan La Botz

December 13, 2018

“His call for an end to neoliberalism and to corruption are accompanied by invitations to Mexican and foreign capitalists to invest and make a profit.”

REUTERS/Henry Romero

Andrés Manuel López Obrador took the presidential oath on December 1 and then gave an hour and a half oration to the legislators as well as another lengthy speech to the people of Mexico City gathered in the zócalo, in which he reiterated his campaign promises to end corruption, to bring about economic prosperity, and to lead Mexico into a new historic fourth period of Mexican history, a period of “rebirth.” The speech made clear that AMLO, as he is called by his initials in the press, is a reformer, but not a radical and certainly not a revolutionary as his opponents have claimed. His call for an end to neoliberalism and to corruption are accompanied by invitations to Mexican and foreign capitalists to invest and make a profit.

AMLO’s challenges are many. He must deal with the country’s powerful economic oligarchy that working with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party, have for a hundred years dominated the country. He must confront the powerful, multi-billion dollar drug cartels that have penetrated and permeated the government and police and even infected the military and whose armies of gun thugs and assassins contributed to the deaths and disappearances of over 300,000 people since 2006. He must find a modus vivendi with the Colossus of the North and deal with its maniacal rightwing and racist president. And finally, he must now find a way to meet the needs and even more important satisfy the new aspirations of the Mexican people—who may be more radical than he is—without jeopardizing his reformist program. He will for the next six years have to both wrestle with the oligarchy and both mobilize and reign in the plebeians if he is to be successful in his own terms.

The Challenge of Trump and the Economy

With a certain irony, AMLO thanked out-going president Enrique Peña Nieto for not interfering in the elections and stealing them as had happened to AMLO twice before and to others many times over the more than seven decades of the rule of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party’s rule. With Peña Nieto sitting beside him, AMLO blamed the country’s problem on the combination of the thirty-six years of the neoliberal economic model and the unbounded government corruption during that same period.

AMLO recognized Ivanka Trump who was present, sent as her father-president’s emissary, and he thanked President Donald Trump for his message of friendship. Turning directly to the new U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA, which replaces the former North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA) ) and which was foisted on him by Trump and Peña Nieto—AMLO stated that he wanted to go beyond to USMCA and see new investment agreement between all three countries that would help to develop Central America as well as Mexico and in that way deal with the migration issue that in the form of the migrant caravans has dominated the news recently.

Ivanks Trump, by the way, committed the faux pas of referring to AMLO’s wife Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller as the “first lady,” a title she has rejected, saying that the title suggested the superiority of one woman over others.

López Obrador in these speeches promised once again, as he had so often in his campaign, that the investments of Mexican and foreign stockholders would not only be safe in Mexico, but would make decent profits under his honest administration. He promised that with the rule of law, clear rules, and economic growth there would be economic confidence.

AMLO told the legislators and the people that he was being given a country in bankruptcy, and he asked them to be patient with him and to have confidence in him. He complained particularly about the economic situation of the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX), but promised with the help of the workers and the technical employees of PEMEX and of the Federal Electrical Commission to rescue those two great national corporations of the Mexican people. He declared that there would be no increases in gas or electric prices beyond the rate of inflation and, ignoring the issue of carbon fuels and global warning, promised to build a new refinery to make possible the lowering of gasoline prices.

An End to Corruption and Impunity

Taking on the question of corruption, AMLO told the assembled lawmakers that anyone who “trafficked on the poverty of the people” by buying votes or engaging in electoral corruption would go to prison without bail. And he declared an end to the use of private planes and helicopters by high government functionaries and said he would be selling off the presidential plane immediately. To confront the country’s tremendous violence, a result largely of the drug cartels, and recognizing the uselessness of the existing police forces to deal with them, he called for the creation of a new National Guard.

He argued that while the Mexican military was not without its problems, it had not formed corrupt groups within it such as in other parts of the Mexican government. And unlike in other countries, the military did not form part of the oligarchy, he said. He promised that during his administration the president would never use the military to oppress the Mexican people nor cover up such repression—a strong implicit condemnation not only of the Peña Nieto administration but of the entire history of modern Mexican governments, from the assassinations of the immediate post-revolutionary period of the 1920s, through the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre, to the kidnapping and murder of the Ayotzinapa student teachers in 2014.

There were three demonstrations during the speech in the national legislature. When at one point in his speech, AMLO said he would not persecute those in the old government, a demonstration brokeout among his own supporters who stood waving white handkerchiefs and began counting from 1 to 43 for the victims of the Ayotzinapa murders and kidnappings. AMLO has created a truth commission to investigate the disappearances of the 43 students. At another point, when foreign dignataries were being mentioned and the name of Nicolás Maduro was called, the rightwing legislators began chanting “dictator,” though in fact Maduro’s plane was late and he was not in the hall. Finally, the rightwingers also raised signes calling for a reduction in the “IVA,” the value added tax. 

As he was bringing his inaugural speech to a conclusion, López Obrador told the story of a boy on a bicycle who had come up to him shortly before and said, you cannot fail us, and the new president told the legislators, I have a responsibility not to fail you. He talked of his confidence in the people of Mexico and in their culture—in their cultures—a hardworking people, as demonstrated by the emigrants to the United States who sent $30 billion a year home to their families. AMLO expressed his optimism and his faith that with the Mexican people’s support he would succeed in bringing about Mexico’s rebirth.

Finally, López Obrador promised that he would never seek reelection—something forbidden by the Mexican Constitution—and that in two and half years he would submit to the Mexican people a referendum asking them if they wanted him to continue in office.

The new president will face challenges from the old political parties. The National Action Party, historically the religious and pro-business party, is already carrying out a leafleting campaign with a flyer that compares AMLO to Stalin, Hitler, Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez and Kim Jong-un and promises to defend freedom. And at the same time, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, for seventy years the ruling party, has called for a united front of the people to resist AMLO’s proposed reforms and what they say will be the militarization of the country. Both parties compare AMLO to Maduro and point to the disaster of the dictatorship and disintegrating economy there. AMLO will have his hands full.

After the last twelve years of violence and the hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared, one has to hope that AMLO will be able to end the violence and the corruption and that the people of Mexico will take advantage of a new safer and more democratic life to push forward their own demands for their needs and desires, going beyond the reforms that the new president envisions.