- Redeeming the Revolution: The State and Organized Labor in Post-Tlatelolco Mexico by Joseph U. Lenti
In late August 1968, students in Mexico City organized a 400,000-person march through the city’s busiest thoroughfares. They occupied the Zócalo and raised the red-and-black flag—the international symbol of proletarian militancy and solidarity officially adopted by Mexican labor unions in the 1930s. Days later, after state forces attacked and dislodged the students, a scene took place that microcosmically illustrates an issue that is central to Redeeming the Revolution: Federal District workers lowered the “seditious” and “communist” flag while heckled as “acarreados” and “sheep” by a small group of remaining protestors (29). Positing the subsequent massacre of [End Page 168] students in Tlatelolco on October 2 as crucial in shaping state-organized labor relations after 1968, Lenti argues that unions allied with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri) crucially helped the ruling party both to survive a severe political crisis and to refurbish its revolutionary credentials. Focusing on the 1970s—in particular, the sexenio of President Luis Echeverría (1970–1976) and his populist efforts to “redeem” the radical legacies of the Mexican Revolution—this history traces how pri political officials sought to preemptively win organized workers’ loyalty and support. In turn, such officials expected “wild, ‘spontaneous’ shows of mass politics percolating from below” within a reciprocal framework that Lenti describes as “collaborationism” s(21).
In a sense, the pri bought off workers like those charged with lowering their “own” red-and-black flag with new labor-friendly legislation (like the 1970 Federal Labor Law), expanded social services, radical classbased rhetoric (as espoused by Echeverría and other political leaders), wage increases, and political positions for corrupt union bosses. Using newspapers—including the workers’ press—declassified intelligence records, labor suits, and collective contract disputes, Lenti reveals a complex process of political bargaining between organized labor and state, which recalcitrant bosses watched warily in the background. Accessibly written chapters about the actual application of the 1970 law and the challenges posed by independent electrical workers show how workers continually tested the willingness of pri leaders to turn radical rhetoric into reality. The fascinating chapter about “hegemonic” and “counterhegemonic” female unionism—the latter manifested in the 1972 textile strike at the Rivetex factory in Morelos—deserves more attention than Lenti gives to it.
This is not necessarily a new story. In his definitive study about the Mexican labor movement, Middlebrook outlined the benefits gained by organized labor from its alliance with the postrevolutionary state.1 As far back as the early 1960s, Revueltas severely criticized the nonexistence of unions’ autonomy (political and ideological) from the pri— as did numerous independent union movements during the 1970s, some of which are covered in this study.2 Walker’s insistence on the primacy of the urban middle classes in receiving state material and political support also qualifies the importance of organized labor in the political calculus of the pri post-1968.3 What Lenti does present in original fashion is an insistence on the political ramifications of radical language, mass politics, and “ritualized public spectacle” that reveals the pri’s allegiance to organized workers as more style than substance, facing resistance from bosses, business leaders, and foreign investors by the end of Echeverría’s presidency (23). Yet, Lenti’s broader thesis, which problematically hinges on the significance of a single event—the Tlatelolco massacre—remains unconvincing. [End Page 169] Why would the pri so earnestly seek the loyalty of a group not directly targeted in the state violence of 1968? Contextualizing organized labor during the 1970s within a longer history of union insurgency (back to 1958/9 in particular) would have strengthened the case—in conjunction with Lenti’s use of political-science theories of “preemptive reform” (276)—that the Mexican Revolution was “rescued after 1968 by demonstrating to organized workers how much it had done for them and how much more it could deliver” (3). Such critiques...