- Deference and Defiance in Monterrey: Workers, Paternalism, and Revolution in Mexico, 1890–1950
In this excellent monograph, Michael Snodgrass follows the course of labor history in what became the industrial powerhouse of the Mexican nation, Monterrey, from the years leading up to Mexico's Revolution (1910-1920), through that turbulent period, and then beyond into the major years of political institutionalization. That city, located in the North close to the U.S. border, was spared [End Page 1213] much of the violence of the Revolution, and even the labor movement itself was relatively peaceful compared to the rest of the country. However, Snodgrass shows clearly that the Revolution precipitated significant social change and that labor militancy was a part of the picture, despite the paternalism and sometimes retaliation on the part of Monterrey industrialists.
This study is a good example of the post-revisionist historiography of the Mexican Revolution, which views the outcome of that movement as neither an entirely positive transformation of the social order nor as a period of state formation in which the popular movement was betrayed by a coercive central government. Rather, Snodgrass asserts that "both company paternalism and revolutionary unionism were historical outcomes forged in the struggles between industrialists, the working class, and the revolutionary government." (Page 283). While thoroughly conversant with the theoretical and conceptual issues involved, Snodgrass lets the empirical evidence drive his complicated story. The three-way negotiations (some of them strongly and violently contested) that would ultimately shape working-class circumstances were not dominated by any one of the actors here indicated. The government was not securely aligned on either side, but, on balance, was more often supportive of workers in their struggles for better conditions, salaries, and dignity than not. In fact, even local, state, and national governments were by no means always closely aligned. Circumstances and personalities changed; surrounding national, binational, and global conditions had their own effects; and ideologies, while not as important as more pragmatic evaluations by actors on all sides, developed and to some extent influenced the course of these negotiations.
One of the great values of this fine book is that Snodgrass shows the way in which conditions and actors intersected and interacted over time. He shows why employer paternalism worked well in the immediate post-revolutionary period when the government, industrialists, and workers were all eager for national reconstruction, increasing industrial output, and a more stable polity and economy. As the 1920s began, however, workers in the metallurgical industries (dominated by the U.S. firm ASARCO) and the steel mill, which had thrived from the demand driven by World War I, fell on hard times, leading to layoffs on the one hand and hyperinflation on the other. In 1920, the workers in these plants struck together, leading to significant wage hikes, medical benefits, and worker-organized shop-floor grievance committees. Nevertheless, as a result of changing conditions in the labor market and the strategies of the two sets of industrialists, these two groups would not make common cause again until the 1930s. At this point, the revolutionary government itself, by no means firmly established—there would be further factional fighting before the future political course of Mexico would be set—was repressive of the continuing insurgency. Yet by 1922, with President Alvaro Obregón now in office, the Department of Labor sent in officials to investigate a strike in the steel mill which led to extensive government intervention on behalf of the union.
In the ensuing years, the struggle between the company-dominated and the autonomous unions continued, yet, as Snodgrass makes clear, workers always understood their own interests. In the Cuahtémoc Brewery, reasonable wages, good working conditions, hiring policies in which preference was given to family members of current workers, and benefits such as scholarships and pensions [End Page 1214] led to strong worker—loyalty and support for the company union. In the more dangerous steel industry, the drive for autonomous unions developed early and continued throughout the years in question...