Robert F. Alegre. Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory. The Mexican Experience Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. xviii + 275 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8032-4484-9.
Reviewed by Jesus Perez (University of Oklahoma)
Published on H-War (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory, Robert F. Alegre analyzes the rightward turn taken by Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), after President Lázaro Cárdenas’s time in office. Although Alegre’s main contribution to the historiography of Mexican labor lies between 1948 and 1959, he provides a broad background of the amazing successes and defeats of the Union of Railroad Workers of the Mexican Republic (STFRM). Alegre starts his work by tracing workers’ rights back to the Mexican Revolution and the Constitution of 1917. He progresses through the strikes of the late 1920s, the Popular Front period of World War II, and the shift rightward taken by President Manuel Ávila Camacho, and concludes with the repression of railroad workers by President Adolfo López Mateos.
Alegre’s contribution to the historiography can be divided into three major areas. First, he contradicts the argument of previous historians who have stated that the demise of the STFRM was a foregone conclusion. Second, Alegre uses not only archival sources but also interviews to analyze workers. Third, he brings female spouses of workers into the historiography by explaining their contributions to the movement.
Mexico’s Constitution of 1917 was genuinely a progressive document because it abolished child labor and guaranteed workers the right to unionize and to strike. Unfortunately, the PRI would, in the 1950s and 1960s, rule in favor of capitalists and against workers and students. Before reaching this point, a number of pro-worker measures were instituted by President Cárdenas, a truly progressive leader. Cárdenas, for example, nationalized the railroad and petrol industries in 1937 and 1938 respectively. In the aftermath of nationalizing the railroad, Cárdenas “handed its administration over to the STFRM, creating the Workers’ Administration, deepening the ties between the PRI and the railroad rank and file” (p. 37).
Although labor unions, such as the STFRM, benefited from progressive measures initiated during the Cárdenas administration, STFRM and others faced difficult situations in the aftermath of his presidency. A major problem for labor-state relations was the Second World War and the Popular Front ideology sought by the Soviet-directed Third International. Radical political parties, such as the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), were silenced into compliancy, to a large degree in order to support the Soviet struggle against Fascism. The Popular Front ideology adversely affected labor unions throughout Latin America as described by Jody Pavilock in Mining for the Nation: The Politics of Chile’s Coal Communities from the Popular Front to the Cold War (2011). Alegre, like Pavilock, acknowledges the fact that Communist and Communist-inspired activists within political parties and labor unions, such as the STFRM, continued to struggle for fair wages and better working conditions but did so within the boundaries assigned by a bourgeois political structure.
The STFRM was not very successful in working within the system because of the PRI’s rightward shift during the Camacho administration. The Workers’ Administration established by Cárdenas sought greater benefits for the working class; however, Camacho was unwilling to increase shipping rates on businesses. Instead, he “transferred management of the industry from the Workers’ Administration to the National Railways of Mexico (FNM)” (p. 40).
Alegre’s major contributions to historical knowledge start from this point forward. Luis Gómez Z and Valentín Campa, STFRM’s major leaders in the early to mid-1940s, were active defenders of workers’ rights; as a result, they were a thorn in the side of both FNM management and PRI leadership who wanted a compliant labor force. A worker-controlled labor union would meet its end in 1948 with the election of Jesus Díaz de León as STFRM leader. Although Díaz de León was elected, he faced opposition because his actions were seen as unfavorable by the rank and file. STFRM’s oversight committee soon afterward removed him from his position, but he took power by force and was backed by conservative PRI president Miguel Alemán, in an event known as the Charrazo. Alegre describes this event as “the assertion of state power over labor in the service of the ruling party as well as business interests” (p. 63).
Even though sources tell some of the same stories, there are two primary examples of this account. Alegre first utilizes the story of Jorge Ramírez whom he interviewed for his research. Ramírez claims that rank-and-file STFRM members were not to blame because they had been fooled by Díaz de León. According to Ramírez, it was Díaz de León who led the STFRM into being compliant and not supporting workers’ demands. Secondly, Alegre uses an archival interview by José María López Escamilla, who does not place all blame on Díaz de León. Escamilla blames trenistas (conductors). According to Escamilla, trenistas were solely looking out for their own best interests, instead of those of the union as a whole. Alegre portrays trenistas as among the most independent workers, therefore, among the most masculine and respected. Bearing this in mind, rank-and-file members, such as Escamilla, blame them, because they failed to lead the demand for workers’ rights.
Alegre argues that scholars have overstated this event and the ruling party’s “control” over labor. Even though union leaders were in alliance with PRI leaders and business interests, workers were not and could not be controlled. STFRM leadership positions between 1948 and 1958 were held by charros, STFRM leaders who represented the PRI and businesses, not workers. Independent and radicalized leaders, including Demetrio Vallejo, within the STFRM coalesced throughout the 1950s.
Under Vallejo’s leadership, rank-and-file workers won important concessions from the FNM and PRI leadership. At this point, Alegre provides his second major contribution to historical knowledge. He argues that under Vallejo’s leadership workers regained control of their union. After reasserting independent control of the STFRM, Vallejo, under Campa’s guidance, sought increases in wages and better working conditions for workers. They sought these gains by increasing shipping rates for capitalists; STFRM independent leaders had been seeking this for decades, and under Vallejo’s leadership they achieved it.
Vallejo, Campa, and other leaders and Communist activists used the Constitution of 1917 as their main source of inspiration. They argued that the PRI needed to live up to the promises made during the revolution. To the satisfaction of railroad workers employed by state-owned enterprises, PRI leaders agreed to their demands. Alegre argues that success for the STFRM was viable at this point and defeat not a foregone conclusion. Defeat of the STFRM and incarceration of its leaders took place after they demanded the same benefits for workers in privately owned enterprises as government employees received.
Alegre argues that privately owned enterprises did not need to comply with workers’ demands since these businesses had not promised rights to workers as the government had. PRI leaders backed capitalists in their desire to rid themselves of an independent labor union. Although in a sense Alegre is correct in his assessment, it is plausible that PRI leaders could have backed the union instead of privately owned enterprises. Technically governments should have the power to regulate private industries for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Cárdenas’s nationalization of petrol and railroads was a good precedent for subsequent Mexican leaders. It is only when they choose not to regulate industry or support labor unions that capitalists gain unlimited power. Capitalists and corporations are not superior to the government, which represents all the people that comprise a nation.
One of the main themes that arises throughout the book is the “war of position.” The war of position, as presented by Alegre, is the idea of winning public support for the union’s respective positions. To win support, the union “present[ed] the case in periodicals and on streets” (p. 142). Even though STFRM leaders, after reasserting independent control, won support from other workers, it was not enough to deter PRI officials who accused union leaders of being Communists and foreigners.
The idea of Communist and non-Communist activists as foreign is a theme also acknowledged by Pavilock in Mining for the Nation and by Paulo Drinot in The Allure of Labor: Workers, Race, and the Making of the Peruvian State (2011). Mexico, Peru, and Chile all have native capitalists who were in alliance with reactionary government officials who claimed that all strikes and labor disturbances were organized by foreigners. Foreignness, therefore, was used as a tool by capitalists to discredit Communists and Communist-inspired activists who solely sought healthcare, better wages, and better working conditions.
Alegre’s first-rate archival research provides new insights into the STFRM and its ultimate failure in 1959. He proves his argument using relevant sources from the Archivo General de La Nación and archives in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. As he clearly illustrates, it was not a foregone conclusion that the STFRM was going to fail. The scenario Alegre portrays is one in which Vallejo and Campa, among others, would have not gone against private industries. A second scenario could have been the socialization of industry for the benefit of the nation, instead of having them privately owned for the benefit of a microscopic segment of the population.
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Jesus Perez. Review of Alegre, Robert F., Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory.
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