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  • Workers and Welfare: Comparative Institutional Change in Twentieth-Century Mexico by Michelle L. Dion
  • Thomas Rath
Workers and Welfare: Comparative Institutional Change in Twentieth-Century Mexico. By Michelle L. Dion. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. Pp. xv, 310. Notes. References. Index. $27.95 paper.

This book analyzes the development of welfare policy in Mexico from the 1920s to the present. Until the 1970s, traditional social insurance dominated, as workers, businesses, and the state contributed to workplace pensions, healthcare, and compensation. Social insurance arrived for government workers in the 1920s, but did not reach the private sector until 1943. Afterward, insurance benefits gradually expanded in scale and geographical reach, although the division between private and public sectors persisted.

After 1982, the government retrenched social insurance, privatized pensions, and outsourced health care, while noncontributory antipoverty programs of social assistance expanded. The central argument—simple but convincing—is that domestic politics and social conflict best explain these changes: workers demanded social insurance, business opposed it, the government mediated between them, and their strategies were shaped by prior experience of welfare institutions. The book also connects the Mexican case to the theoretical literature on welfare, and concludes with some useful regional comparisons. For all of twentieth-century Mexico’s peculiarities—for example, a massive social revolution and the 71-year rule of the Revolutionary Party—the political dynamics shaping welfare were not so vastly different from other places. [End Page 586]

Dion opens a useful window on Mexican politics. While conservative in many respects, Manuel Ávila Camacho carried through plans for private sector social insurance that had earlier been stymied by business opposition. Throughout what is usually seen as the heyday of regime control in the 1950s and 1960s, Dion shows, urban and rural workers did not simply contest or negotiate welfare policy but initiated it. Institutions themselves shaped political conflict. In the 1950s, doctors opposed incorporation into a federal health care system, but later became its staunch defenders. After the debt crisis, politics changed: social insurance institutions faced bankruptcy, while courts, dissident parties, World Bank experts, and public relations advisors entered into the drama. However, the balance of class forces remained decisive. Neoliberal reform weakened organized labor and strengthened the hand of business, although unions in nontradable sectors (health and government) were better able to resist retrenchment and privatization than others. Growing poverty and informality created new constituencies that Mexico’s parties courted with social assistance. While the government sometimes sought advice from foreigners—the International Labor Organization before 1982, the World Bank afterward—implementation depended on domestic forces.

The analysis is wide-ranging, but much stronger on the origins of policy than its implementation, coverage, and reception in the workplace and home. Some of the theoretical contributions claimed are a bit underwhelming, and include the insight that “periods of stability may involve significant institutional change” (p. 40). Historians may also find the treatment of gender cursory. Dion argues that feminism rarely affected welfare, but does not address changes in women’s involvement in labor organizing, or recent historical research. It is odd, for example, that Jocelyn Olcott’s work on women’s organizing is not cited. Indeed, while the theoretical framework is elaborated exhaustively, the historical method remains opaque. Alongside a great many secondary sources, the author at various points draws usefully on interviews, congressional debates, official publications, and labor petitions, but it is unclear how Dion sifted through 90 years’ worth of primary documentation. One wonders what factors the selection might have missed (women, the labor rank-and-file, independent unions).

Although the book sometimes suffers from a leaden and repetitive style, the writing is clear and (with the exception of the statistical analysis in chapter 7) free of jargon. This is by far the most comprehensive account of Mexico’s welfare state, and provides researchers with an essential historical perspective on contemporary debates. It will also be useful for historians of Mexican politics and state-building, who will appreciate its original emphasis on working-class and business pressures, and the connections across periods usually studied separately. [End Page 587]

Thomas Rath
University College London
London, U.K.


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pp. 586-587
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