- Redeeming the Revolution: The State and Organized Labor in Post-Tlatelolco Mexico by Joseph U. Lenti
Joseph U. Lenti
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017
xvi + 355 pp., $70.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper); $35.00 (e-book)
It is impossible to read Redeeming the Revolution at this moment without thinking about the crisis in Nicaragua and whether there is anything in the Mexican example that might apply in terms of how revolutions die—and how they try to resurrect or redeem themselves. The argument Joseph U. Lenti makes in this fascinating book is that even though it was students who rose up to challenge the official discourse of revolution in Mexico in 1968 in light of the government's poor performance in terms of social justice and democracy, it was the Mexican working class that benehted from the government headed by president Luis Echeverría Alvarez (r. 1970–76). The reason that happened was that Echeverría, one of the architects of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, realized that the regime needed to placate workers and eliminate or co-opt a rising independent unionism more than it needed to respond to the protests of young people. The latter, after all, were not a historically important social sector whose loyalty the ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), considered crucial for the "institutionalized revolution." Labor, as represented by the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM) since the 1930s, moreover, wholeheartedly agreed, seeing the students as spoiled children, "provocateurs and extremists" (93) who were destabilizing the government with their marches and their shouting. That kind of devotion from labor, however, expected rewards, and that is what Echeverría delivered as part of his plan to "redeem" the revolution under his presidency.
This book fills a gap in the historiography about the history of the relationship between labor and the state during the Echeverría years. The author shows that certain segments of the labor force (automotive, electric company, railroad, steel) had been increasingly active since the 1950s in their demands for union independence from the CTM and hence the state. The state had responded with repression, crushing union democratization efforts (particularly against oil, railroad, and electric company workers), in part because the ruling "revolutionary" elite could hardly afford to lose control over that sector. Thus, even before Echeverría became president, in May 1970, the sitting president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, responsible for the massacre at Tlatelolco, approved the New Federal Labor Law, which granted substantial rights to Mexican workers. With this law lauded by the CTM as proof of the revolutionary character of the government, labor went on to support Echeverría's candidacy and belittle student protest. Echeverría, therefore, returned the favor during his presidency, pushing an agenda of economic nationalism that promised to beneht workers. He delivered by buying a controlling interest in the Cananea Copper Mining Company, gaining majority control over the electric grid for the state, and nationalizing the last of the foreign oil interests with Jesús Reyes Heroles as head of Pemex and the PRI. Other ways in which Echeverría courted labor and tried to infuse a revolutionary spirit into state policy focused on social programs, such as the [End Page 187] creation of an agency to provide low-cost housing to working-class families, the establishment of supermarkets that sold foodstuffs at subsidized, affordable prices, and even the promotion of birth control and "responsible paternity" (137).
Ultimately, however, Echeverría fell short. The economic downturn that Mexico experienced under his leadership hurt working-class workers the most. Their wages shrunk as inflation skyrocketed. Their spirited response to Echeverría's pro-labor rhetoric brought strikes, active mobilizations, and further demands for independent organizations, but no true gains. The growth in the maquiladora sector along the US-Mexico border—which merits more scrutiny than Lenti was able to give it—was likewise a mirage in terms of improved conditions for workers. Women workers, in particular, did not see advances in their economic circumstances despite promises of equality and rhetorical nods to a paternalistic "complementarity...