Workers Vanguard No. 1025

31 May 2013


IG Chokes on Defense of Mexican Teachers Union

For the last few months, teachers throughout Mexico have been mobilizing against the newly enacted education “reform” law that attacks union control over hiring and imposes continual evaluations of teachers, thereby threatening to do away with permanent positions. This legislation was a centerpiece of the “Pact for Mexico,” an agreement between President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the right-wing clericalist National Action Party (PAN) and the populist-nationalist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Late last month, protesters in Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero, stormed the offices of the PRI, PAN and PRD, outraged by the state congress’s adoption of a bill that reproduces the terms of the federal anti-union education “reform.” Four protest leaders have since been arrested on an array of charges, including “terrorism.” The entire labor movement must demand: Drop all charges against the Guerrero protesters!

The government had already sent a clear message that it was prepared to quell any opposition to the “reform” when in late February it arrested Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, longtime leader of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America. A trusted ally of the Mexican rulers who was installed as SNTE head in 1989 by PRI president Carlos Salinas, Gordillo was charged with money laundering and links to “organized crime.” Gordillo is in fact a professional thug, widely hated for her lavish corruption and murderous violence against dissident union members. But this is certainly not why she is being prosecuted by the state that she has loyally served for decades.

Gordillo’s arrest is a direct attack on the teachers union and the entire Mexican labor movement, part of the bourgeoisie’s agenda to dismantle the unions and ram through privatizations to make Mexican capitalism more “competitive.” This is what is behind both the destruction of the SME electrical workers union in 2009 and the on-and-off push to dismantle the oil workers union at state-owned PEMEX. Calls to jail the oil workers’ leader have been issued by a leader of the Movement for National Regeneration (Morena), which is led by former PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The issue is clear-cut for revolutionary Marxists, who oppose on principle any intrusion of the capitalist state into the trade unions, the basic defense organizations of the working class. As our comrades of the Grupo Espartaquista de México stated in a leaflet titled “Hands Off Mexican Teachers Union!” (see WV No. 1019, 8 March): “State intervention into the unions has nothing to do with ‘democratizing’ them; the bourgeoisie’s goal is to place them ever more firmly under its control. Defending the union movement must include the demand for the immediate release of Gordillo and all arrested union officials.” The workers must clean their own house by ousting the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats and replacing them with a new leadership based on a program of class struggle and the independence of the unions from the bourgeois state.

The elementary need to defend the SNTE against capitalist attack is anathema to the bulk of the Mexican left, which typically derides unions affiliated to the PRI in favor of those in the camp of its “progressive” bourgeois rival, the PRD. Forming one of the puddles in this swamp is the Internationalist Group (IG), an outfit led by defectors from the International Communist League. In “Labor Cop Gordillo Busted to Crush Teachers’ Resistance” (Internationalist, March 2013), the IG makes the obvious point that “Gordillo was the perfect target in order to promote Peña Nieto’s privatization agenda.” But while the IG demands “Hands off the teachers,” it refuses to defend their union, writing off the SNTE as purely “a state institution, a labor police agency whose purpose is to prop up the regime and regiment the workers.” You can’t have it both ways: either you defend the union under attack, despite its brutal, pro-capitalist leadership, or you add grist to the union-busters’ mill.

Which Side Are They On?

The IG’s rationale for refusing to defend the SNTE is that such corporatist unions are simply organs of the state and not part of the labor movement, a notion that obliterates any distinction between the bureaucrats at the top of the unions and the workers at the base. Corporatism has long been a hallmark of the capitalist system in Mexico, as in many other semicolonial countries. For decades, the major unions, primarily grouped within the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), have been integrated as component parts of the long-ruling PRI and its predecessor, the Party of the Mexican Revolution, along with associations of peasants and other “sectors.” The government decided which unions were legal, installing and removing union bureaucrats at will. In return, these charros (cowboys) policed the unions for the state, purging and often killing dissident workers while benefiting generously from corruption.

But corporatism has been in agony for some time, with the state less interested in co-opting unions than in destroying them and whatever benefits and protections they provide, including housing and rules making it harder to fire workers. And what happens when such “police agencies,” as the IG calls the pro-PRI unions, wage some struggle in response? Since the debt crisis of the 1980s, the bourgeoisie’s offensive against labor has led to a diminishing role of the charro unions within the PRI and placed them in conflict with the state. This was true under both the PRI and more recently the PAN, which took the presidency in 2000 before losing it back to the PRI last December. One example occurred in 2006, when the PAN government ousted Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, national leader of the SNTMMSRM miners and steel workers union, in order to press a “corruption” investigation, touching off a series of powerful strikes (see “Miners, Steel Workers Strikes Shake Mexico,” WV No. 872, 9 June 2006). And PRI-affiliated unions often engage in economic strikes.

The IG refused to defend the SNTMMSRM leadership or the union itself against the state, undoubtedly given the union’s charro leadership and history of affiliation with the PRI. Prefiguring its line that Gordillo’s arrest was a “settling of scores among the rulers,” the IG claimed that Gómez Urrutia’s ouster was a “settling of accounts within the regime” (even though the PRI was not then in power). While vaguely calling to “reject this frontal assault by the government,” the IG’s El Internacionalista/Edición México No. 2 omitted any call for victory to the strikes or for dropping the charges against the union leader. The question posed at the time, as the old U.S. labor anthem puts it, was which side are you on? A simple test, and one that the IG fails time and again.

The Method to Their Madness

Obfuscating its union-busting line on the SNTE, the IG resorts to some political magical realism, which, while lacking the least literary merit, does manage to create a maze of confusion. Its article on Gordillo makes the point that her arrest was “intended to crush any resistance from the side of the teachers” only to later describe the SNTE as “a labor police force that blocks the mobilization of the teachers.” So why would the government weaken such a force by prosecuting Gordillo? With all the logic of Alice’s looking-glass world, the IG proclaims that “the state that employed the murderer Gordillo…has no right to judge its agent” while demanding that the same state hand over its agent “so teachers can try her for murder”!

The IG’s demand “Peña Nieto, hands off the teachers!” is just subterfuge, counterposing defense of people who teach to defense of their union. Another mystery unfolds, as the IG claims that the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), the pro-PRD opposition within the SNTE, “effectively acts as an independent union” even though it “has not broken with the SNTE.” Indeed, the CNTE fights explicitly to democratize the SNTE from within. One of the more militant formations in the Mexican labor movement, the CNTE is leading the current protests against the education “reform.” But how can it do so as a component of what the IG dismisses as a “labor police agency”?

To show some “independence” of its own, the IG chastises the CNTE leadership for “cooperating with, and even egging on, the attorney general’s ‘investigation’” of Gordillo. The CNTE bureaucracy’s cooperation with the state against the SNTE leader was indeed a crime against the working class. But it’s sheer hypocrisy for the IG to condemn such collusion when it cannot bring itself to defend Gordillo and the union she headed against the state.

None of the IG’s verbal gyrations are really supposed to make any sense. Rather, they are meant as a cover for run-of-the-mill opportunism. Tossing out all class criteria, the IG judges what constitutes an authentic union by how democratic its leadership appears to be and, in Mexico at least, by which bourgeois party it supports. Compared to the CTM bureaucrats, who typically rule with an iron fist, the pro-PRD union tops are more democratic. But the non-charro union leaders serve the same role as lieutenants of capital within the working class, despite whatever flimsy claims they might offer to be independent of the bourgeois parties. As our comrades in the GEM wrote in an article that dealt in depth with the fight against corporatism in the Mexican labor movement:

“The ‘independent’ union tops tie the workers to the Mexican bourgeoisie through other means, through nationalist ideology and illusions in ‘democratic’ reform of the capitalist state. Revolutionaries seek to intervene in the unions to replace the bureaucratic and nationalist leaderships with a leadership opposed to all bourgeois parties.”

—“Mexico: NAFTA’s Man Targets Labor,” WV No. 748, 15 December 2000

Elevating democracy above the class line has long been the formula used by opportunist “socialists,” and not just in Mexico, to justify inviting the capitalist courts and governmental agencies to intervene to “clean up” the unions. In the early 1970s, while virtually every other left organization was cheering on the U.S. Labor Department’s candidate, Arnold Miller, to take over the United Mine Workers (UMW) from Tony Boyle, a murderous thug, we were unique in opposing both sides. Miller went on to be reviled by UMW members for his subservience to the coal companies during a bitter 1977-78 strike. One can also look at the case of Jimmy Hoffa, historic leader of the Teamsters. While Hoffa was no slouch at using violence against internal critics, Marxists opposed the Justice Department’s years-long vendetta against him, which was meant to cripple a union that had the power to shut down the nation’s commerce.

The key principles guiding Marxists in the fight to forge a class-struggle leadership in the unions, an essential part of the effort to build a revolutionary workers party, were spelled out by Marxist leader Leon Trotsky in his 1940 essay, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay.” Trotsky wrote, “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state.... The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state.”

This is another test the IG has miserably failed. With enormous chutzpah, its article on Gordillo pontificates about the need for a union leadership that insists “on total political independence from the bourgeois state.” This from an outfit whose supporters in the Brazilian city of Volta Redonda dragged the municipal workers union through the bourgeois courts in 1996-97 as they tried to hold on to the leadership of that cop-infested union. Having run an ex-cop for president, the IG’s supporters turned over the union’s bank statements, account books, statutes and minutes to the courts (see “IG’s Brazil Cover-Up: Dirty Hands, Cynical Lies,” WV No. 671, 11 July 1997).

Norden in His Labyrinth

The notion that corporatist unions are purely and simply appendages of the bourgeois state has nothing to do with revolutionary Marxism. In his 1940 essay, which was uncompleted due to his assassination by a Stalinist agent, Trotsky answered such moralistic nonsense with particular reference to Mexico, where the CTM was part of the ruling party under left bourgeois-nationalist Lázaro Cárdenas. At the same time, he warned that unions’ ties to the Cárdenas bourgeois government were dangerous for the proletariat, despite the “progressive” image the regime had acquired for such acts as nationalizing oil, providing “socialist” education and distributing land. Trotsky wrote:

“In Mexico the trade unions have been transformed by law into semistate institutions and have, in the nature of things, assumed a semitotalitarian character. The statization of the trade unions was, according to the conception of the legislators, introduced in the interests of the workers, in order to assure them an influence upon governmental and economic life. But insofar as foreign imperialist capitalism dominates the national state and insofar as it is able, with the assistance of internal reactionary forces, to overthrow the unstable democracy and replace it with outright fascist dictatorship, to that extent the legislation relating to the trade unions can easily become a weapon in the hands of imperialist dictatorship.”

Even within the parameters of semi-bonapartist bourgeois rule, the unions’ ties to the state increasingly became a means by which the bureaucracy policed the workers on behalf of the capitalist rulers. According to an October 2006 IG screed (“GEM: Caboose of the Mexican Popular Front”), this process culminated in the transformation of the CTM from a bona fide union into a state agency: “Evolving from semi-state institutions under Cárdenas, during the course of World War II and through the post-war ‘red purges’...the CTM unions became thoroughly integrated into the capitalist state. By the 1950s, quantity had turned into quality.” For the IG the class character of a labor organization is determined by the political face of its leadership.

This flies in the face of Trotsky’s analysis. Pointing to the increasing ties of the unions to the bourgeois state in both the imperialist and the colonial and semicolonial countries, Trotsky wrote: “From the foregoing it seems, at first sight, easy to draw the conclusion that the trade unions cease to be trade unions in the imperialist epoch.... Such a position, however, would be false to the core. We cannot select the arena and the conditions for our activity to suit our own likes and dislikes.” Trotsky could have been writing the IG’s epitaph when he warned: “Every organization, every party, every faction that permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to trade unions, that is, in essence turns its back upon the working class merely because of displeasure with its organization, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said that it deserves to perish.”

Among other things, the IG’s position that the unions were no longer workers organizations by the 1950s prettifies the situation under Cárdenas, when the CTM was purposely brought into the government party. And if the world war and subsequent Cold War were definitive in changing the class character of the CTM in Mexico, what does that make of the unions in the U.S., where the labor bureaucracy imposed a no-strike pledge during the war and went on to drive reds out of the labor movement and collaborate with the CIA in smashing left-led unions in Europe and Latin America? Not a few leftists and petty-bourgeois radicals have written off the unions due to the treachery of their misleaders. The conclusion that Marxists draw is the necessity to fight for a new leadership to transform the unions into weapons of class struggle.

All this was something that IG leader Jan Norden used to know, when he was editor of Workers Vanguard. When Joaquín Hernández Galicia (“La Quina”), the notoriously brutal and corrupt head of the SRTPRM oil workers union at PEMEX, was arrested in 1989, WV attacked the “classless methodology” of radical-liberal intellectuals who “ask how one can possibly defend this labor kingpin.” Referring to the Soviet Union, which had not yet succumbed to capitalist counterrevolution, we wrote in “Mexico Rulers Declare War on Labor” (WV No. 470, 3 February 1989):

“The Trotskyists, who understand the class character of the USSR as a workers state despite its bureaucratic degeneration under Stalinist rule, and thus defend it against imperialism, likewise defend the unions against the bosses despite the sellout bureaucracy which sits atop these repositories of workers power.... Those who don’t defend the Soviet Union also can’t defend the oil workers union in Mexico.”

Similarly, we did not write off the SNTE as a bosses’ organization when the CNTE led a massive teachers strike three months later, but called to sweep away the bureaucratic misleaders through a “class-struggle fight for the independence of labor from the bourgeois state” (“Labor Showdown in Mexico,” WV No. 476, 28 April 1989). The IG is left to explain what has changed since then.

In another case of twisted logic, the IG has insisted that the Venezuelan unions in the CTV corporatist union federation—tied from its inception to the Democratic Action party that ruled that country for decades—were “workers organizations” in spite of “their sellout leaderships.” It is noteworthy that the CTV played a central role as an agent of Yankee imperialism in the U.S.-orchestrated coup attempt against the Hugo Chávez regime in 2002.

To save our readers from more of their tortured reasoning, we will cut to the chase. In 1996, Norden & Co. departed the Trotskyist ICL, allowing them full rein to indulge their opportunist appetites. In Mexico today, the IG accommodates the rulers’ attacks on PRI-affiliated unions in order to appeal to nationalist-populist forces in and around the PRD. For revolutionary Marxists, swimming against the nationalist stream is part of the task of building a Leninist workers party, independent of and opposed to all the bourgeois parties—PRI, PAN, PRD and Morena. As Trotsky wrote in concluding his 1940 essay: “The independence of the trade unions in the class sense, in their relations to the bourgeois state, can, in the present conditions, be assured only by a completely revolutionary leadership, that is, the leadership of the Fourth International.”