The Politics of Labour Legislation Reform in Mexico

By Patroni, Viviana | Capital & Class, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Labour Legislation Reform in Mexico

Patroni, Viviana, Capital & Class

The interest in the flexibilization of labour and the resulting challenge to the legal basis of the corporatism of the 'official' labour movement has revealed iwo critical problems facing neoliberalism in Mexico: the impossibility of developing a corporatist relation between state and labour along with any broad politics of labour inclusion when the state is no longer the guarantor of basic workers' rights, but must continue to control labour's demands; the failure of neoliberalism to generate a viable alternative social consensus based on present patterns of accumulation. This has contributed to the limits facing a range of traditional left positions in the country.

1997 WAS NOT AN EASY YEAR for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico. In June, the death of Fidel Velazquez Sanchez, the long-serving leader of the official labour movement and a close associate of the PRI, created new uncertainties about the future relationship between the state and labour in this country.l Speculation about the political aftermath of Velazquez's death focused not only on the prospects for this relationship so central to the political fortunes of the ruling party but also, and as a logical extension, on the very survival of the PRI itself.2 This bleak prognosis appeared to be validated by the outcome of the mid-term elections the following month, when the governing party suffered a major defeat, losing the majority in the national congress for the first time in its history. The results of the elections cannot be traced directly to the death of the union leader, but both events represented powerful images that captured the imagination of Mexicans. However, while politically the PRI faces a less than optimal situation, caution must be exercised in heralding its demise. Developments in the area of state-labour relations can provide a key vantage point to weigh the political options still open to the PRI to rebuild popular support. It is perhaps useful at this crucial juncture in Mexico's political history to trace the significance of labour legislation in the trajectory of the relationship between the PRI and organized labour.

More than a decade of restructuring in Mexico has not led to a period of stable and vigorous economic growth. With the failure of the new policies to deliver the anticipated solutions, rigidities in labour relations have joined the growing group of culprits held responsible for the economic plight of the country. In fact, since the late 1980s, Mexico has witnessed an upsurge in demands for changes in the legal framework regulating labour within the workplace. Symptomatic of this situation have been the increasing demands of the private sector to modify the Federal Labour Law (Ley Federal del Trabajo), a view that has been on several occasions openly echoed by the government. The problem, however, is that labour legislation in Mexico is more than just a legal instrument. Since early in the post-revolutionary period, some of its provisions and the power of the state to interpret others became fundamental in structuring labour organizations that worked effectively as transmission belts for state policy.

The state's capacity to shape labour unions, their internal workings, and the direction of their actions became, in turn, one of the central factors explaining Mexico's distinctiveness within Latin America, particularly its political stability and the non-inflationary economic growth that lasted into the late 1960s. In exchange for labour's political cooperation, the state offered limited access to policy-making and, for those employed in the formal economy, some cumulative economic rewards. The particular relationship that developed between the state and the working class has been traditionally defined as corporatist.3 To a large extent corporatism was sustained by the state's ability to manage economic resources for redistribution. For this reason, restructuring and its impact on fiscal social spending and deteriorating standards of living has been viewed as undermining the existing pattern of state-society relations. …

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