Break the Corporatist Shackles to Unleash the Power of the Proletariat!
The Mexican Steel Workers Strike
the Struggle Against Corporatism
Thousands march in solidarity with steel strikers in Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico, 12 March 2016.
The following article is translated from Revolución Permanente No. 7, April-May 2017, published by the Grupo Internacionalista, Mexican section of the League for the Fourth International.
A year ago, at noon on 4 March 2016, the more than 3,600 members of Section 271 of the National Union of Miners, Metal Workers, Steel Mill Workers and Allied Trades of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSSRM, or Mine and Mill union) at the ArcelorMittal steelworks in Lázaro Cárdenas in the state of Michoacán began a strike that was not authorized by the government labor board. The main reason for the strike was the workers’ effort to reverse the announced layoffs of some 300 steel workers from the coke plant that the management had already begun to implement. (Currently, the threat of layoffs of more than 2,500 additional workers at the steel slab plant still hangs over the heads of workers in this port city.)
The strike broke out when the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JFCA) “pulled a fast one,” as the leaders of the SNTMMSSRM put it, declaring that the strike notification1 was “indamissable” and “sending it to the files” an hour before the walkout was to start. This step by the labor board, which the Mine and Mill leaders didn’t expect, laid the basis for the Secretary of Labor and Welfare’s subsequent pronouncing the strike “nonexistent,” i.e., declaring it illegal. Everyone was well aware that this could lead to a violent attack to drive the workers out of the factory, as happened ten years earlier, in April 2006, when two workers were killed by police.
The truth is that this is a strike that the SNTMMSSRM leadership didn’t want at all, and did everything to avoid. The strike notification dated from June of 2015. As La Jornada (5 March 2016) pointed out, “in July of that year, the workers were on the verge of walking out, but they gave in to the appeals of the management and of the national union” to hold off, due to warnings about a crisis in the steel market. As a SNTMMSSRM press release states (6 March 2016), “in just over eight months the strike has been postponed 16 times [!] along with the strike notification, by agreement between management and the union, with the approval of the JFCA, for conciliation negotiations in order to avoid a strike.”
At the beginning of March 2016, the union once again sought to postpone the strike, but ArcelorMitall – the world’s biggest steel producer – refused to negotiate. The JFCA ratified management’s refusal of a 17th postponement, citing a doctrine that a union cannot postpone its strike notification without the consent of the management. And thus, as the head of the federal Labor Department complained, “Faced with these circumstances, certain workers decided to occupy this workplace” (El Universal, 10 March 2016). Trapped between the sword of the capitalist state and the wall of workers’ anger, the Mine and Mill union had no choice but to give its stamp of approval to the strike. At the same time, it begged president Enrique Peña Nieto to “return to the conciliatory road of dialogue between the parties as a solution.”
On Saturday, March 12 the strikers called a massive demonstration in Lázaro Cárdenas. The Grupo Internacionalista send a team of comrades from Guadalajara and Mexico City to be present in the march and distribute revolutionary literature among the striking workers. Thousands of steel workers in red shirts marched at a quick pace from the Monument to the Miner to the main gate of the steelworks (formerly known as Sicartsa). There they held a rally in which representatives of different trades, including municipal workers and members of Section 18 of the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE). A spokesperson of the GI spoke emphasizing the importance of extending the strike to other sectors, particularly the teachers, in order to prepare a nationwide strike against the murderous government.
That same day, the eighth day of the strike, as a result of negotiations held in the Department of Labor in Mexico City, “presided over at all times by the President and General Secretary of the National Union of Miners, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia,” who participated via teleconference from his exile in Canada, an agreement was reached to end the strike. In addition to paying for time lost while on strike, management agreed to relocate 125 coke plant workers elsewhere in the mill, while the SNTMMSSRM accepted the layoff by “voluntary retirement” (with ridiculously low compensation) of 80 other workers. The remaining 100 out of 300 coke plant workers on the original layoff notice were simply dismissed, not being members of the union.
Immediately after the strike ended, the Secretary of Labor, Alfonso Navarrete, described the agreement between the union and ArcelorMittal as “very good.” Moreover, he pointed out that with the Mine and Mill union’s promise of cooperation with management, ArcelorMittal had agreed to invest millions of pesos in renovation of the factory. Empty promises! Six months after signing the agreement with management, only 37 of the 125 workers who were supposed to keep their jobs had been relocated (La Voz de Michoacán, 23 September 2016).
A year after the strike ended, management continues to harass the workers. The promised investments have not materialized and threats of massive layoffs continue to hang in the air. With the pretext that China, Brazil and Russia are practicing “unfair competition” by “dumping” steel products, management has repeatedly posed the need to “cut costs.” That is, the elimination of labor rights, massive subcontracting and firing of “troublemakers.” With the constant threat of “technical shutdowns” (i.e., lockouts by the bosses), the general manager of the multinational steel company, Victor Cairo, threatens to starve into submission the plant workers and the tens of thousands who depend on them.
Out of the 8,000 workers at the enormous steel plant, less than 3,500 are now unionized. Overall, wages and working conditions at ArcelorMittal have gone to hell since the privatization of the Lázaro Cárdenas-Las Truchas steelworks in 1991. To put a decisive end to the infernal cycle of layoffs and repression, the bosses must be defeated. The social power of the steel workers, who are a key sector of the Mexican industrial proletariat, and their willingness to struggle, are clear to everyone. The Lázaro Cárdenas steel plant is a fortress of the working class. However, rather than hard class struggle, the national leadership of Mine and Mill union seeks the opposite: class collaboration with the bosses.
Aging ArcelorMittal steel plant in Lázaro Cárdenas.
Thus when in August 2015 negotiations were going on over the planned layoff of 300 workers due to closing of the coke plant, the response of the union leaders, with the participation of Gómez Urrutia, was to provide management with a list of 120 union workers who could be fired, supposedly for being “considered ‘troublemakers’ and low-productivity.” But when the layoffs began in mid-September, the workers blockaded the plant gates. Management retreated and reversed the layoffs. A member of the national executive committee of SNTMMSSRM explained: “the union offered a list of workers who could be fired and the company did not choose the most delinquent workers” (ReportAcero, 17 September 2015).
In the framework of “conciliation” with the government and the bosses, the Mine and Mill union made huge concessions. Months after the strike, Local 271 leader Ricardo Torres Obregón said that the union “has accepted all requests that the company has made for higher productivity.” He added: “Our labor body has allowed the reduction in staffing of mine workers in ArcelorMittal, all for the good of the company. We even accepted the closing of the coke plant.” Torres Obregón concluded: “Members have done their part and more, and have redoubled their efforts to make the steel industry productive” (Michoacán Public Radio and Television, 10 November 2016). Thus the SNTMMSSRM agreed that the workers would work harder, under worse conditions, “all for the good of the company.”
This is the outlook of “corporatist unionism,” which was born during the 70-year rule of the PRI-government, subordinating and integrating the unions to the machinery of the capitalist state.2 Even after the end of the PRI’s uninterrupted rule at the federal level in the year 2000, corporatism remained, given the bourgeoisie’s need to prevent the formation of genuine workers unions independent of state control. The SNTMMSSRM was historically a classical corporatist body. For many decades, under its leader-for-life Napoleón Gómez Sada, and later under his son and heir Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, it administered layoffs, wage cuts and the brutal expulsion of dissidents. It continued this way until, in 2006, “Napito” crossed his masters in the government and management, to such an extent that he had to flee into exile abroad. But despite official harassment, he has done everything possible to return to the fold.
Although today the SNTMMSSRM is a semi-corporatist union, as we have noted “Gómez Urrutia has invariably insisted to the miners that they stay within the narrow limits proscribed by federal labor law and the corporatist mechanisms embodied in the Arbitration Boards.” This has produced fissures with traditionally militant sections, like the miners of Cananea (Section 65) and the steel workers of Lázaro Cárdenas (Section 271). Against the sabotage and resistance of the national leadership of the SNTMMSRM to these strikes, the GI has always supported the struggles of those combative sectors. Thus in the Cananea strike that began in 2007, we called to “Bring Grupo Mexico to its Knees With a National Miners Strike!” (see “Mexican Miners Strike for Safety, Against Anti-Worker Attacks,” The Internationalist supplement, January 2008).
The steel workers strike at Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán makes amply clear the potential to unleash a real class battle against the incessant attacks on the workers. It also shows that the industrial proletariat must break out of the straitjacket represented by the corporatist apparatus of labor control, and forge revolutionary leaderships in struggle against all wings of the bourgeoisie, including those who falsely pose as friends of the workers, like the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) of Andrés Manuel López Obrador). As we have stressed, to take advantage of this potential it is essential to form workers committees, independent of the capitalist state and of the bosses’ parties. Moreover, it is essential that this effort be an integral part of the formation of a revolutionary workers party, capable of turning the necessary defensive struggles into a full-scale proletarian counteroffensive, on the road to international socialist revolution.
Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!
Corporatism consists in the organic integration of all types of organizations, in particular those claiming to represent workers, into the bourgeois state apparatus. This was the mechanism of social control that sustained the regime of the PRI-government during its seven decades of rule. It corresponded to a one-party system with a heavily state-owned capitalist economy. At its height, from the 1950s to the ’70s, there was a revolving-door for apparatchiks passing from the corporatist “unions” to management of state-owned enterprises and to the governing party, from city councils and mayors to federal deputies, senators, governors and the upper levels of the bureaucratic and military/police hierarchy. But in an increasingly privatized economy beginning in the late 1980s, the abundant wellspring of money that lubricated this machinery began to dry up.
Despite the political “alternation” inaugurated in 2000 when Vicente Fox Quesada of the clerical-conservative National Action Party (PAN) entered Los Pinos (Mexico’s White House), the weak Mexican bourgeoisie could not do without the mechanisms of corporatism. Trapped between a powerful industrial proletariat and the demands of the rapacious U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie, of which it is a junior partner, the Mexican ruling class requires reliable instruments to impose its dictates. Thus, Fox and his PAN successor Felipe Calderón made use of the “union” leaders – once PRI loyalists, but always “institutional” – to carry out their counter-reforms in education and energy, and to supply scab labor when they moved to destroy independent unions, like the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), or to break strikes as they did in Cananea.
The Mexican working class has suffered an almost unbroken chain of defeats in its struggles in recent decades. In almost every case, the fundamental reason has been the lack of preparation to prevail in a confrontation with the state. It is essential to have a clear understanding of the class character of the corporatist labor federations and labor bodies in order to win. Time and again, union oppositions have raised the banner of an impossible “democratization” of these labor police in the service of capital only to see their struggles crushed by the leaderships, structures and laws imposed by the capitalist state. Whether they were expelled and imprisoned, like the railroad workers in the 1950s and the electrical workers in the ’70s, or tried to infiltrate the state apparatus, like the Maoists in the SNTMMSSRM in Monclova and Lázaro Cárdenas, their policy ended up in defeat for the worker rank and file.
The various pseudo-socialist organizations in Mexico demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of corporatism, if they recognize this phenomenon at all. They do not fight for the independence of the unions from the state, but instead, at most, for “autonomy” – allowing for capitalist government interference in the affairs of the labor movement. Pseudo-Trotskyist organizations like the MTS (Socialist Workers Movement) and Stalinists like the PCM(m-l) call for the election of more democratic slates, or “less charro”3 ones. The case of the ex-Maoists of Liberación Sindical in Lázaro Cárdenas is very illustrative in this respect. Calling for the removal of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia as secretary-general of the SNTMMSSRM, they ended up as allies of Elías Morales, the pawn that the Fox government used to carry out a charrazoagainst the charro Napito. This is what every brand of reformist “people’s politics” ultimately leads to.
One particular species of the flora and fauna of the pseudo-left is the Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM, the Mexican section of the misnamed International Communist League, or Spartacist tendency), which in recent years has made “CTM socialism” its trademark.4 Abandoning the revolutionary program of Trotskyism in the mid-1990s, the GEM revised its former Marxist program that warned of the bourgeois character of the corporatist labor bodies integrated into the capitalist state apparatus. Now it treats them as unions like any other. When the reformist outfits do this, it is in order to sidle up to “democratic” union tendencies that trail after bourgeois populists like Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his MORENA party. In the case of the latter-day Spartacists of the GEM, this reflects not having the least interest in struggling within the working class for a revolutionary leadership.5
In an article on the strike in Lázaro Cárdenas, under the headline “Mexican Steel Workers Win Strike” (Workers Vanguard No. 1090, 20 May 2016), the GEM presents the struggle as “a refreshing show of power [of] Local 271 of the Mexican mining and steel workers union”. The article in question presents not a word of criticism of the leadership of the SNTMMSSRM, nor does it raise to the workers of this important proletarian sector the need to struggle to smash the shackles of corporatism. The GEM also fails to present any perspective for extending the struggle beyond the limits of economic demands. As for the outcome, despite the admirable militancy of the rank and file during the strike, this was far from “refreshing,” nor did the workers “win” the strike. It was instead a standoff: as was put to us on a subsequent trip to Lázaro Cárdenas last December, “they strung the workers along.”
Presenting the strike in Lázaro Cárdenas as a victory, the GEM prettifies the leadership of Gómez Urrutia, parroting the affirmations of the bureaucracy (and the government). They don’t mention the >16postponements of the strike by the national leadership of Mine and Mill union, or its failed efforts to avoid the strike that were rejected by the bosses and the state labor board. They don’t mention that this leadership gave ArcelorMittal a list of 120 workers who could be fired. They don’t indicate that, with the agreement to end the strike, the SNTMMSSRM accepted the closure of the coke plant. And they pass over in silence the fact that 100 of the 300 workers threatened with layoff lost their jobs, “all for the good of the company.”
Along with embellishing the outcome of the strike, the GEM’s article revives its defense of the infamous “exclusion clause.” Far from being a stipulation that all workers in an establishment must be unionized (a “closed shop”), this clause has been used by the bosses and the corporatist leaders almost exclusively to purge dissidents. This was the case in Local 271 in Lázaro Cárdenas when various local leaders were fired at the instigation of the “union” boss Gómez Sada. What’s more, in Lázaro Cárdenas as in the oil workers “union” and many other sectors, the heads of the corporatist labor bodies (who use the exclusion clause to rid themselves of inconvenient “reds”) support the use of “casual” non-union labor and are even paid to supply them. The Grupo Internacionalista fights to impose the closed shop and the union hiring hall, and at the same time we oppose all government regulation of union activities, including this clause of the corporatist Federal Labor Law (see our article “ICL Supports Anti-Union Exclusion Clause in Mexico,” The Internationalist No. 11, Summer 2001).
In discussions with militants of the Grupo Internacionalista, here and in the U.S., members of the GEM and SLers have pointed to the steel strike as a supposed refutation of our critique of corporatism. In reality it is another proof of how the lack of a sharp break with state control over the mine and mill workers union continues to undermine the proletarian class struggle.
That even a fully corporatist “union” may on rare occasions go on strike would not contradict its bourgeois character. There are fractures within the bourgeoisie that are reflected in the labor field. What stands out in the history of struggle in the SNTMMSSRM is that the strikes, and especially the big ones, almost always represent an effort by militant sectors to break out of the state-tutelage straitjacket imposed by the Mine and Mill tops. This is what happened in Nueva Rosita, Monclova and Cananea, and the same dynamic has been at work in Lázaro Cárdenas ever since the steel plant opened. For revolutionaries and class-conscious workers, these strikes are not an occasion to capitulate to the charro bureaucracy, as the GEM and the rest of the left does, but an opening in which to intervene so that the working class can free itself from the death grip that is strangling it.
Consider the question from a broader perspective. Other countries have also had a regime of corporatist “unionism.” The streetcar strike in Barcelona in 1951 is illustrative. Faced with poverty and widespread resentment with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, tensions boiled over between the top Francoist leaders in Madrid and their local counterparts in the “Organización Sindical” (OS – Labor Organization) in Catalonia. With the announcement of a hike in streetcar fares, a boycott movement began. Many members of the rank and file of the state party participated, and the mass arrests that followed produced a rebellion in the corporatist OS. The boycott became a work stoppage. The Communists intervened clandestinely in the strike, which gave them for the first time the opportunity to contact the most militant workers. This later resulted in the formation of the Workers Union Opposition, out of which the Workers Commissions6 were born. The fact that this corporatist organization struck did not change one bit the fundamental bourgeois character of the Francoist “unions,” or eliminate the need to replace them with genuine workers unions.
Another example: the rise of the “new unionism” (novo sindicalismo) in Brazil in the final days of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. The history of the metal workers strikes in the ABC industrial region in the early ’80s is well-known. But these began with the strikes of May 1978, which broke out in the verticalist “unions” run by pelegos (finks) who were agents of the military. It was rooted in ferment in the Brazilian Democracy Movement (MDB), the phantom bourgeois “opposition” permitted by the military junta. The MDB (among whose members was a metal workers leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) gave its approval to the strikes. It would have been correct to intervene in these strikes, but fighting against corporatism.
The success of the 1978 strikes heralded the fall of the dictatorship’s corporatist bodies and the rise of independent unions. In some cases existing labor bodies broke ties to the state, while in others a new union was formed to replace the corporatist guild, such as in the case of the SEPE-RJ, the teachers union of the state of Rio de Janeiro. How the break with corporatist “unionism” is carried out is a tactical question. But not fighting in 1978 to break with capitalist state control by the labor agencies of the dictatorship would have been a betrayal heavy with grave historical consequences.
In February 2008, the Grupo Internacionalista called for a national mine strike in defense of Cananea miners.
Today, the Grupo Internacionalista fights inside the independent unions, as well as (under very difficult conditions) in the corporatist labor bodies. The corporatist system in Mexico has worn out, and one reflection of this decay is the appearance of dissident sectors and locals that have partially broken with the practices of state-controlled “unionism.” In Lázaro Cárdenas and elsewhere, the GI has intervened to solidarize with these outbreaks of worker militancy at the same time as we stress the need to break the shackles of corporatism. As we wrote on the last big Cananea miners strike:
“While insisting that the SNTMM has not definitively broken away from the corporatist system, we of the Grupo Internacionalista have consistently supported the struggles of the miners of Cananea. Since the strike broke out in 2007 we have called to ‘Bring Grupo México to its knees with a great nationwide miners strike!,’ as the headline of our special supplement to El Internacionalista (December 2007) declared. That same month, the GI played an important role in sending a delegation from the Union of Workers at the Autonomous University of Mexico (SITUAM), which brought with it a symbolic donation of 5,000 pesos (about US$390) worth of supplies and an enormous banner proclaiming ‘fraternal greetings’ to the ‘righteous strike of the Cananea miners’.”
–“Mexico: Cananea Miners Call for a National Strike,” The Internationalist No. 31, Summer 2010
In order to build the necessary revolutionary workers party in Mexico it is key to understand the need for merciless struggle for the destruction of the charro shackles. We call for the formation of workers committees inside the corporatist “unions” free from all control by the capitalist state and from all ties to bourgeois parties and politicians. To accomplish this, it is not enough to struggle simply for union democracy. As Trotsky emphasized:
“The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”
–L.D. Trotsky, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940)
The lessons of the strike of March 2016 in Lázaro Cárdenas are highly relevant today, not only for the steel workers and miners but for the teachers of the CNTE under attack, particularly those of Local 18, who have historic links with steel workers Local 271, and for the oil workers, facing the privatization of the state oil company Pemex which is already in progress. The experience of the state-owned mines with the SNTMMSSRM under Gómez Sada and Gómez Urrutia, whose subjugation to the state owner paralyzed all struggle against the privatizers, underlines the absolute necessity of breaking with corporatism. For us in the Grupo Internacionalista, the Mexican section of the League for the Fourth International, our aim is to forge, in the heat of the struggle, through polemical intervention on the program of permanent revolution, the nucleus of the Leninist party of the proletarian vanguard. ■
- 1. Under Mexico’s corporatist labor laws (see “Corporatism in Mexico’s Mining and Steel Sector” in this issue), labor organizations are required to have legal title to the contract and give official notification of a strike six to ten days in advance, and then it must be declared “procedente” (admissible) by the JFCA in order for a strike to be legal.
- 2. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), including its prior incarnations (PNR, PRM), governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000, effectively as a one-party state in which the government and the ruling party were essentially identical.
- 3.State-controlled “unions.” In 1948 the government sent hundreds of police and army troops to take over the historically militant railroad workers union, expelling and jailing the previous Communist Party leadership, and installing a puppet president, Jesús de León, known as El Charro (the Cowboy). This takeover became known as a charrazo.
- 4.The CTM (Mexican Labor Federation) is the main corporatist labor grouping in Mexico.
- 5.See “SL on Corporatism in Mexico: Games Centrists Play,” The Internationalist No. 35 (Summer 2013)
- 6.Comisiones Obreras, abbreviated as CCOO, now along with the UGT one of the two main union federations in Spain.