Ray Valentine interviews Patrick Cuninghame, a History and Sociology lecturer at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM) in Mexico City, about the strike wave in Mexico this year. The strikes started in Matamoros, among workers in maquiladoras (assembly plants), and later spread to seven universities, including UAM. This interview was first published on the Organizing Work blog.
PART I: The strike wave in Matamoros
It seems like the strike wave in Matamoros was a watershed for workers in all sorts of industries. Can you talk about what led up to that?
THE HISTORY OF LABOR STRUGGLE IN MEXICO
The first trade unions were very radical; they were anarcho-syndicalist — set up with the help of the wobblies, in fact over 100 years ago. During the final years of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, there was a series of very important strikes, in Cananea, Sinaloa, Aguas Blancas, Veracruz. Those strikes resulted in massacres of workers, but they helped set the scene for the Mexican Revolution, and the collapse of the Porfirian dictatorship.
So initially, the Mexican workers’ movement was very radical. It was closely related to the wobblies through the Flores Magón brothers, who were in exile in the United States at the time.
But in 1915, this radical trade union movement, which was organized around a place called the Casa del Obrero Mundial in Mexico City, instead of allying with the most radical sections, the agrarian peasant armies, in the Mexican Revolution — the Zapatista army in the south and the Villa army in the north — they sided with the liberal-bourgeois part of the revolution, led by Carranza. And since then it’s been downhill all the way you could say.
The worst years were in the 1950s, when you had the beginning of the charro (cowboy) trade unions, which were totally under the control of the PRI, the center-right authoritarian party which governed from 1929 until 2000.
In the late 1950s, there was an important movement by railway workers and electrical workers and other more autonomous workers, which threatened a general strike in Mexico, but it was heavily repressed by the army and the police. The leaders were imprisoned for ten years or more.
Then there was the doctors’ strike in 1964-65, and strikes by public workers in the welfare state sector during the 1960s, and then finally the students in 1968, which was the culmination of that process started in 1958 with the railway and electrical workers, and is the most well-known movement in recent Mexican history. An important part of it was massacred, imprisoned and forcibly disappeared on and after the 2nd of October, 1968. We just spent last year commemorating 50 years since that movement.
There were autonomous factory workers’ movements in the mid-1970s as a consequence of the ’68 uprising. A whole lot of independent trade unions were set up in the mid- to late 1970s, including our union the SITUAM. Then there was armed struggle by the 23rd of September Communist League, which started in 1973 and ended about ten years later. They consciously organized factory workers, a bit like the Red Brigades in Italy at that time. And they had some success. At that time there were a lot strikes going on that were not under the control of the CTM, the Mexican labor congress, which includes all the corporatist trade unions, the ones under the control of the PRI, like the “business unions” in the AFL-CIO. The CTM repressed those strikes. They used their own pistoleros – armed thugs. They didn’t even have to use the police or the army.
The strike wave of the 1970s continued on until the late 1980s when workers in the public sector were opposing factory closures and the privatization of state industries by the hyper-neoliberal [Carlos] Salinas government. There were also some strikes in the 1980s in the maquiladoras (assembly plant) sector in the border zone – Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Tijuana – mainly by women workers. There were some strikes in the 1990s, but less than in the 1980s, against the neoliberal reforms of Salinas leading up to NAFTA in 1994. A few factories have been taken back and cooperatives set up: the workers of the Mexican soda drinks company Pascual Boing in the 1980s, and workers of the Euzkadi and Uniroyal tire factories, with the help of solidarity from the workers and unions of the parent company in Germany in the 1990s. Both of these “recuperated” factory coops are still going strong although there are far fewer than in Argentina or Brazil. Since then there have been gradually fewer and fewer strikes. There was an important conflict between 2010 and 2015 by Honda workers, which was interesting, because now car production is the most important industrial sector in Mexico, and almost all of those workers are under the control of the CTM. So the Honda workers struck various times to have their own independent union, despite constant repression from the company, the CTM and the Mexican state.
THE POLITICAL CONTEXT: A SUPPOSEDLY WORKER-FRIENDLY GOVERNMENT
The other background is the election of López Obrador (“AMLO”) in July of last year in the general presidential election. He and his party, MORENA (the National Regeneration Movement) got 53% of the vote in what were the first free, fair, relatively clean elections — over 110 different candidates at different levels of the election, for congress, state congresses, and municipalities, were murdered during that election, so it was effectively a very violent election. But despite the attempts of the old right – the PRI, PAN and the PRD, the coalition “Pact for Mexico” that governed from 2012 to 2018 – to intimidate the opposition, they got 53% of the vote, and then López Obrador promised the “Fourth Transformation” (the other three were the Independence struggle against Spain between 1810 and 1821, the Reform civil war between Liberals and Conservatives in the 1860s, and the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920), and said that his government was going to be a “left” government on the side of the people. It’s been described as a welfarist, neo-populist government.
And unintentionally, it sparked the strike movement in Matamoros. Because usually what happens is, in January, after Christmas, New Year and January 6, which is an important date here, the government applies a whole lot of price increases in all the main services, and the cost of living can go up by 10 percent or more. So to counterbalance that, López Obrador doubled the minimum wage in the north of Mexico, which has a different minimum wage than the center and the south because, being close to the US, the cost of living is higher. So the minimum wage was doubled from about 80 pesos to 160 pesos per day, in January. And employers tried to take advantage of that by cancelling their annual bonus to their workers in the maquiladora sector. Usually they give a very small pay raise plus an annual bonus as a way of getting over the January price hikes. Using the excuse of López Obrador´s doubling of the minimum wage, the employers, both Mexican and global, decided to cancel the annual bonus for this year. And really, that’s what sparked the strike wave in Matamoros, where a particular set of historical industrial relations exists. This led to the strikes happening there instead of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali or Tijuana. The fear by the bosses, the AMLO government, and collaborator unions that the strike wave would spread to those strategically important cities has not happened, because the factory owners strategically conceded to the Matamoros workers’ demands. Over 1 million workers endure low wages and sweatshop conditions at the 3,000 maquiladora factories that line the Mexican side of the border and account for 65 percent of Mexican exports to the US and Canada.
THE STRIKE WAVE IN MATAMOROS
So 70,000 workers from 45 factories went on strike in January, demanding an increased annual bonus of 32,000 pesos (1,600 USD) a return to the 40 hour work week and a 20% pay raise, leading to their slogan “20/32” which gave the strike movement its name. [The doubling of the minimum wage did not affect the maquiladoras assembly workers, who already made more than the new minimum. Instead, it contributed to “wage compression” – their wages were now worth relatively less. An alleged promise in their contracts to raise their wages above the minimum was not respected. — Ed] This 20% raise demand was exceptional in Mexico, because since 1982, when the Mexican economy crashed because of the debt crisis, the IMF and World Bank had demanded that the government limit public sector pay raises to 4% every year. And basically, the private sector followed that. No workers have got more than 4% a year since 1982, and usually it’s less, despite inflation being much higher than that.
And the interesting thing is, they not only went on strike against the owners of the maquiladoras, these assembly plants in Mexico, which are owned by global companies like Samsung or Delphi who produce spare parts for the automobile industry, but they went on strike against their hated CTM-controlled union, which takes 4% of their wages in union fees. And those unions have what’s called a “protection contract.” It’s basically a no-strike clause. They make an agreement with the employers that they will not go on strike and that they will always protect the interests of the company above all. That’s their corporatist outlook. The interests of the company are paramount to the interests of the workers. So the workers organized to go on strike against their own CTM corporatist unions. Which again is part of a growing trend since the Honda strikes of 2010-2015. By late March the strike had spread to many other factories and businesses including Coca Cola and Wal-Mart, forcing 89 maquiladoras to concede to the autonomous self-organized workers’ demands.
The response by some of the employers has been to threaten to leave Mexico, especially the international ones. And the response by the Mexican-owned ones was to shut the factories down. But these factories, these assembly plants, are too important for the global chain of production. They can’t really shut them down without affecting the rest of the production chain in the US and other parts of the world. And the workers were able to see through that [threat], and they insisted, winning an historic victory, although about 5,000 workers have lost their jobs.
THE GOVERNMENT’S ABOUT-FACE
By March, the government started to abandon its pseudo-left, neo-populist stance, and since then they have been regressing. Because strikes were starting to spread to other sectors – the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Matamoros also went on strike. And of course, the strikes started in the universities. By April, there were seven universities on strike in Mexico. This, again, is unprecedented for decades. The government, in [the face of] this growing strike wave, adopted a repressive strategy. They started to send police, army, and marines. Soldiers were sent to Matamoros to repress strikes, and several picketers have been attacked and arrested.
The thing is, it’s given the lie to the idea that this government is left-wing and on the side of the people, after AMLO promised never to repress the people again during the 2018 elections. Which is important, because López Obrador has this reputation of being an honest politician, but in reality he’s just been lying through his teeth. In fact, the Mexican press has been covering it up, because most of it is enamored with him. Basically the news organizations in Mexico don’t really report on what’s going on in Matamoros, so it’s still possible for the government to say, “We’re a left-wing government; we’re on the side of the people.” And at the same time they’re smashing strikes in Matamoros with maximum force, and shutting down factories, putting thousands of workers out of work. It seems the same media silence has happened in the US, including among most of the left.
PART II: The strike at the UAM
So then the strike wave spread to the universities? How long had those strikes been brewing? You said it was not a normal thing for university workers to go on strike.
Not for so many. Usually it happens one after the other, and not more than three or four go on strike every year. For seven universities to go on strike at the same time is unusual.
I am a member of the SITUAM trade union, which is the independent trade union of UAM workers. UAM is the Autonomous Metropolitan University, which is the third largest university in Mexico. It’s in Mexico City. We have about 58,000 students and about 1,500 faculty, and 3,000 administrative staff. The union is independent, which is rare in Mexico. I was a delegate of the academics at my campus, Azcapotzalco, in the more industrial north of the city.
The last big strike in the UAM was in 2008, but it ended very badly, with basically the betrayal of the strikers by the leadership of the union, the SITUAM, and the demoralization of the workforce as a result. That strike had been against the introduction of neoliberal measures in the university.
What kinds of measures?
Attempts to privatize catering and library services. Stuff like that. The thing about the SITUAM is that it represents all university workers: manual workers, catering workers, administrators and professors. We’re all in the same union.
So was the effort to outsource some of those workers successful?
No, it was stopped. That’s one of the things we achieved. But I think we were asking for a 50% pay raise. It sounds maybe outlandish to ask for so much. But part of the background to the strike is that UAM workers have lost 80% of their purchasing power since the late 1980s, when neoliberalism really kicked in, with the Salinas presidency. Carlos Salinas, the architect of NAFTA, was elected in 1988, and that’s when all the neoliberal reforms really started in Mexico, including in the universities. So that’s why we make such huge demands, because our salaries really have gone down so much in value since then.
What were the demands this time?
The two demands that we went out on were: one, a salary increase of 40% for everybody, including the better off full-time faculty. And [two], stopping violations of the collective bargaining contract. We have a collective contract which is renegotiated between the university and the union every two years.
[As for the first demand,] We didn’t get it, because of this 4% cap on salary raises. Inflation is much higher than that, and the value of the peso is going down. So when you factor in everything, we are getting poorer and poorer, year on year.
[As for the second demand,] these neoliberal administrators have not been respecting the collective contract, and they have been hiring what we call “irregular workers” – people outside of the collective contract, who can’t go on strike. And so you get a lot of double jobs. There’s someone hired under the collective contract, and someone doing exactly the same job irregularly hired. So this means there’s less and less work for people under the collective contract. When somebody retires or stops working, instead of that person being replaced under the collective contract, they are replaced by an irregular worker. It’s kind of surreptitious outsourcing.
Since early December, the union said, “if you don’t meet our demands by the end of January, we’re going on strike.” And that’s what happened. Our demands were not met, and we had sectional meetings in all the different campuses, and at most of them, the delegates voted to strike. We had a strike committee, which was the main decision-making body during the strike, and it voted narrowly in favor of the strike. It was 127 votes in favor, 120 against. So it was very split. That’s when it began, on the 1st of February.
The strike ended up lasting a really long time. How long did it go on for?
93 days. It ended on the 5th of May.
What was the outcome?
Well, we got all our back pay, which was an important gain as we only got 50% back in 2008. That’s something that happens in Mexico: when you go on strike, in the public sector, and at universities in particular, you usually get all of your salary back. So even though we went on strike for three months, and obviously it’s tough not being paid during that time, especially for the administrative and manual workers, who get much less pay than the academics, we got everything back at the end of the strike, so we didn’t lose money.
But we didn’t win our demands. The university was very intransigent, which was unusual, because the other six universities on strike all won some kind of concession. Probably not very much – one or two percent more than they had been offered before – but in some cases they received a bonus payment as well. Plus their back wages.
We were offered, on salary, 3.35% for all workers, plus an additional 3% for administrative and manual workers, and part-time academics.
The UAM is very neoliberal, has a very neoliberal and corrupt administration. There are about 50 “distinguished professors” and 30 senior administrators known as the “golden bureaucracy,” (the dean, and then the various heads of the different campuses, and some other senior bureaucrats). They award themselves incredibly high salaries. Much higher than at other universities or in the rest of the public sector. They get over 200,000 pesos a month. That’s about $10,000 a month salary. I think that would be high in the [United] States, even. And that’s a third world, public university running on taxes.
They get double what the president gets, and there’s supposed to be a rule in Mexico that no public functionary can get more than what the president earns, and the president gets about 140,000 pesos a month – about $7,000.
So 80 people out of about 5,000 workers take one third of the whole budget of the university, just for their salaries. And not only that, the university pays all their taxes, and they get things like cars, drivers, free cell phones – a whole lot of perks on top. Which is ridiculous. It’s like they were the heads of some multinational bank or something like that. They’re taking an incredible amount of money out of the university. And [meanwhile], some buildings were damaged in the September 2017 earthquake we had in Mexico City, which was quite big – the biggest since 1985 – and they still haven’t been repaired, almost two years later, because these guys are taking such enormous salaries.
So obviously that creates huge resentment among the workforce, especially administrative workers, who are earning on average 6,000 pesos a month, which is about $300. It’s like a microcosm of what’s going on in Mexico: a tiny elite – as you say in the United States, “the one percent,” although here it’s more like the 0.01% — a tiny elite is concentrating all the wealth. That’s happening in the UAM, and it’s happening in all of Mexico. And one of the reasons why people went on strike this year, was they thought they had a friendly, left-wing president who was going to support them. All those hopes turned out to be entirely naive.
One of the things that caused the strike was that López Obrador said there was now going to be austerity in the public sector. I know the word “austerity” can mean the attack on the poor by neoliberal governments, but the idea that López Obrador was using in the populist phase at the beginning of his presidency was that we’ve got to bring down these mega-wages that these senior administrators have in the public sector — we’ve got to apply austerity to them so we can increase wages for ordinary workers. And one of the things we pointed out to the press and to López Obrador — we were demanding a meeting with him — was that the university administration have absolutely absurd wages and they refuse to lower them, and if they did there would be plenty of money. Maybe not [for a raise of] 40%, but 15 or 20% would be feasible.
You can say one symbolic victory we did win was that two weeks after the strike ended, the dean lowered his own salary to be slightly lower than that of the president. Of course, he’s still getting well over 200,000 pesos all told so it’s another piece of dissimulation by the university.
Do you have a sense of what kind of help from the government people hoped or expected to see?
Our university is autonomous – most of the public universities are — which means they’re self-governing, and technically, the government shouldn’t intervene in the internal affairs of the universities. The president can’t really tell the heads of the autonomous universities what to do. But it’s a very ambiguous situation, because they get public funding from taxes and so finally they are answerable to the government.
At the beginning of the strike, López Obrador was still seen as a populist, slightly left president. We asked for a private meeting with him to try to influence the leadership of the university to give some kind of concession. He refused to intervene. He said, “No, the universities are autonomous, I can’t intervene, I won’t intervene,” and he refused to meet with the union. He refused to even discuss the matter. Journalists asked him questions in these very long press conferences he gives every morning and he talks about everything under the sun, but one thing he refused to talk about was the strikes at the universities and in Matamoros.
But when the state considers it necessary, it intervenes. Like in 1968, when there was a massive student movement, the army was sent to UNAM, which is the main university in Mexico, and the army occupied University City, which is a huge area dedicated to the university. And then more recently, in 1999-2000, there was another very important students´ movement at UNAM. The whole university was occupied and shut down for ten months, from April 1999 to February 2000, against attempts to raise college fees. Basically, according to the constitution, public universities should be free, at least at the undergraduate level. Some post-graduate courses charge their students, but shouldn’t. Students pay a nominal fee, but very low, maybe ten cents a year. UNAM proposed to put it up to about a dollar a year. That figure is very low, it’s still nominal, but most students at UNAM come from working-class backgrounds. A lot of them are very poor. And they recognized this as the beginning of the neoliberalization of the university, to increase fees year on year, until they would be paying thousands of pesos every semester. It was privatization by stealth. They stopped it, right dead in its tracks, with a strike and occupation. But it ended in February 2000 when the government sent the police onto the campus to arrest the remaining strikers. So when they want to intervene, they intervene.
The union leadership tried to meet with López Obrador, and he rejected any attempt at having a meeting. So again, this idea that López Obrador was somehow a friend of workers or trade unionists has been totally done away with.
Why did the strike end when it did and who decided?
The decision was made by the delegates from the 5 campuses, about 200 delegates, on Saturday, May 4th. The majority of the delegates at the strike committee voted in favor of going back to work, although a large number abstained. The university did make some concessions in the final round of negotiations the day before. Above all they conceded 100% back pay, having [offered] 50% and then 75%. They did also on principle finally recognize that administrative and manual workers are very low paid compared to everyone else, especially academics and senior administration. And they agreed to set up a commission between the union and the senior administration to increase their wages over a period of time, but they did the same thing in 2008 and nothing happened after 11 years.
There is an extreme wage gap: the typical full-time academic earns 25,000 pesos a month, which is about $1,250, and the typical admin worker earns about $300 a month. Although the union is mixed, the vast majority of the members are admin workers. Most academics are not members of SITUAM, only a minority are, and most academics opposed the strike, as they did in 2008, and oppose strikes in general.
The senior administration concentrate enormous wealth in their hands and they like to leave everyone else in the dark, although there are a lot of institutions within the university supposedly set up to guarantee transparent decision making. Like we have something called the academic council that’s supposed to be the main decision-making body for the whole university, but its elected members can still be quite corrupt and are perfectly happy to let the senior administration accumulate wealth at the expense of the rest of university in the hope that soon they too will be senior administrators. So their promises are empty, and it’s unlikely that they will institute serious pay raises in the foreseeable future.
Really what led to the end of the strike was the fact that there had been a lot of opposition to the strike within the union — as I said, when we had the strike vote, it was very split. Out of 247 delegates, the difference was 7; it was a very small majority. Some of the people who voted against the strike said, “okay, the majority voted for the strike, now we’re going to do it.” But some of the them didn’t, especially academics, senior academics who want positions within the administration. They did everything to undermine the strike within the union.
Also the leadership of the union was suspect. The secretary general of the union was considered to be a friend of the dean, so there was some kind of collaboration between him and the university administration throughout the strike. During the meetings of the bargaining committee, nobody trusted him and in every round of negotiations, about 100 strikers would go in during the meetings and chant slogans, basically insulting members of the university negotiation committee, who were seen as greedy, intransigent, arrogant and generally villainous. It was a very heated atmosphere during these sessions. We did not trust the union leadership not to make a secret deal under the table.
So you had the leadership of the union, quite a large number of academics, and then you had organized factions in the unions with their narrow trade unionist mentality, against the strike right from the very start, and who wanted to lift the strike without any concessions as soon as possible. They were saying that the union was too weak, too divided and its very existence was at stake, and if we don’t go back to work the union is going to disappear as a structure. It was a constant blackmail against the rank-and-file of SITUAM who demanded to go out on strike and supported the strike throughout.
Then there is a separate, parallel union, the SPUAM, which was set up after the 2008 strike, which is only for academics. These are very right-wing people, and that union is what in Mexico is called a “white union,” a bosses’ union, and it gets its funding from the senior administration of the university. It’s what you would call a “yellow” union.
Members of this yellow union would show up at strike committee meetings in the later stages of the strike and they started displacing the delegates with the help of the union leadership. The strike committee was supposed to be elected for the whole strike, but the leadership connived, and they [SPUAM] would say, “well this guy hasn’t shown up for the last 3 meetings so let’s replace him with a member of [SPUAM],” so the number of delegates to the strike committee that were against the strike was gradually increasing.
At one negotiating round in April, the chief negotiator for the university got around to the question of what percentage of our back wages we would be paid at the end [of the strike]. He said 50%, which caused a lot of ill-feeling and anger among strikers, because in all the universities that went on strike, they got all their wages plus a bonus, and some of them won concessions. So on top of all this intransigence and refusal to negotiate in practically all the negotiation rounds, they say “we’re only going to give you half your wages back,” which was seen as a really punitive blow against the strikers. Meanwhile they’re trying to stigmatize us as lazy people who don’t want to work. They had their trolls, you know, on Facebook making vitriolic attacks against the strikers. And some reactionary students also joined in this general campaign of stigmatization against the strikers. So getting 100% of our wages back was an important point as the strike went on and on. At the end I think our aim was to get to the politically and symbolically important date of May 1st, which we did.
As we were the largest group of strikers that day, we led the independent workers’ march. On the 1st of May, there are two marches. The CTM has its march early in the day before it gets really hot — May is like the hottest month of the year in Mexico City. So they bus in their members and give them their free t-shirt and cap and a packed lunch and they go on the march and they go home. Midday, you have the march of the independent unions, and the SITUAM workers had never been on strike on the 1st of May, so that was pretty remarkable, that we had gotten to that point. The longest strike up to that point was in 2008, and that had lasted 64 days; this strike was like another 30 days longer. So we led this march and we had the full solidarity of the independent workers’ movement in Mexico. That was an achievement as well, but of course we’re talking about symbolic things.
One of the demands we were making was that there should have been a general strike, like a one-day general strike, certainly among university workers, and of all the independent unions, the electrical workers, the telephone workers, the miners’ union — that they should all go on strike for one day in support of our strike. Some promises were made but it never materialized. One reason we didn’t win anything despite being on strike for so long is that there’s no national union, and if universities go on strike one at a time, it’s much harder to win concessions. Above all, the union leadership blocked any attempt to build for a general strike with the other universities on strike, with the other independent unions, [and especially with] the dissident teachers of the CNTE (National Coordination of Educational Workers) opposed to López Obrador’s fake reform, let alone with the Matamoros movement.
If there was a lot of opposition to the strike from the beginning, how did that affect your ability to disrupt everyday life in the university? Did classes continue by professors who didn’t want to participate? Did campus services continue to run?
No, no, that didn’t happen. In fact, under Mexican labor law, for a strike to be recognized, the workers have to occupy their workplace, and they put up red and black banners, which are like the only leftover from the old anarcho-syndicalist era of a hundred years ago. So we put up the red and black flags in the five campuses and the three childcare centers for UAM workers, and then we had guards, we had to have a rota of people. The whole campus gets shut down, all the doors locked, and the main entrances are blocked. Only one entrance is left sort of semi-open, and there is a 24/7 guard of about 20 to 50 people who are there on a shift basis all the time. In fact, the union leadership could have allowed us to be safely inside the university throughout the strike, but as a further deterrent to continuing the strike they allowed us to be put outside in the street in front of the university and to have to set up tent cities on the pavement.
So strikers were there almost every day for 93 days. I’ll admit I wasn’t one of those people. I went quite often, but I didn’t go every day. Everyone who’s unionized should take part in a shift, and when you go, you sign your name, and the manual and administrative workers that participate get some pay from the union for doing at least 60 hours of guard duty. It can be quite dangerous, especially at night. Some of the campuses are in quite poor areas and there’s a very high crime rate here in Mexico City, and there was the constant danger of muggings and assaults on people going there or coming back, especially at night and when the numbers got lower, towards the end.
But no, no classes took place inside the university, no services of any kind. Of course you get the scabs, scab lecturers who organized classes in their homes, which don’t have any curricular value. They’re forcing their students to scab on the strike by going to these unofficial classes. Generally speaking, there wasn’t a scab movement, the opposition to the strike was inside the union, including from people who are supposed to be quite left wing or radical, who behaved pretty badly during the strike.
Can you say more about what undermined the strike?
Well one thing was, the leadership didn’t have the support of the strikers. People were suspicious about the secretary general, Jorge Dorantes. So they weren’t trusted, they weren’t respected, they weren’t liked, and they were working with people who were against the strike, even the yellow union, and possibly, but I can’t prove it, even with the [university’s] chief negotiator and the senior administration.
And really, the important thing about the strike was that it was a rank-and-file strike, and this, it had in common with the Matamoros strike: it was a strike of the base against the union leadership. They did their worst to undermine the strike in the UAM and repress it in Matamoros.
In the negotiating rounds, once or twice a week, the university would make some kind of offer, especially on the violations of the contract, that seemed new, but when you picked through the details there was no real offer at all. So we had to look at what they were offering in the sectional meetings that took place at each campus and among the people on the guard list, among the 50 to 100 people who would go every day to make sure the campus was still protected. Those people would meet together and review the offer and what had happened at the negotiating round and whether to accept what the university was offering, and the vote was always not to accept because the university wasn’t offering anything. The first demand was the salary and the university negotiators said, “no, no, no, there’s nothing to discuss, the university doesn’t have any money so there’s nothing we can do, so let’s go on to point two, the violations of the collective contract.” And the trade union said, “no that’s not true, you do have money, you have so much money you have the university pay your taxes for you, give you free cars, free drivers, free mobiles and massive mega-wages, how can you say there’s no money for a pay raise?”
In these sectional meetings of the campuses, these offerings of the university were rejected because they really weren’t offering anything. So the delegates would go back to the strike committee and kind of dialogue to death. The people who were against the strike were always against the strike, and then there were votes at the end and the vote would always be to continue to the strike because the offer wasn’t an offer at all.
It was that way until it wasn’t any more.
Yes, of course there was exhaustion going on. You’ve got very poor people. Ok, they get a lot of solidarity from their families and their communities and from the union itself. In fact, one academic met with the Canadian Labor Congress and they promised to give financial support to our strike, and they did give some support and certainly gave political support. But it arrived too late to make a difference.
Basically at the end, getting to the First of May was the goal — you know in Mexico, May Day is a public holiday, it’s symbolically important — and that we get all our back wages. And in the end, they did agree to 100% back, and there was a sense of exhaustion and a realization that they weren’t going to give in. The university administration were not going to improve their offer.
Why do you think they were so intransigent?
For one thing, they knew that the union was divided. They were basically waiting for the strike to collapse.
And they knew that the government was not going to intervene on the side of the union, and that became increasingly clear.
As I was saying, most of the university workers are sympathizers of MORENA, this new center-left party that López Obrador created in 2015, and even if they weren’t they probably voted for him last July, and there was this kind of euphoria at the beginning of the strike. There was this sense that we have this window of opportunity, we’ve got this president who supports our cause, and we’re going to win! But no, it never happened. I think it’s similar to Barack Obama, lots of people probably thought Obama was going to introduce massive changes. I think it’s been an important lesson.
Part III: The university in a broader social context
I’d like to talk about how the university is funded and how that impacted what happened. Is the university in trouble, economically speaking?
Yeah, it is in trouble. The funding has been frozen for several years now, and again under López Obrador. The university rejects over 80% of students who have completed high school. Now, they should really have the right to go to a free, secular, public university. But what happens now is that the state universities impose this filter exam, and through that exam they reject 80% of applicants.
So you have a huge number, hundreds of thousands, of “rejects” of the system whose only chance to go to university is to go to a private university. And most of the private universities are crap, like a Trump University. They’re just run for money and rip off their students and the level of education is just really low.
There’s a lot of pressure for the state universities to expand and increase their capacity to have more campuses, more faculty, more administrators, so they can enroll more students. But they don’t. Their funding is more or less frozen.
López Obrador says he’s going to create 100 new universities, but these universities will not be autonomous, they will be quite small, and basically part of his clientelist political culture. You can go to these universities but you won’t be taught anything critical of the government – they won’t be autonomous in administration or education, so the level of education is going to be quite low. What he should be doing is increasing the level of funding to the state universities and building new state universities that will be autonomous.
Can you say more about where UAM fits in in the Mexican education system?
It was set up in 1974 by [Luis] Echevarría [Álvarez], who was the intellectual mastermind of the 1968 massacre — he had organized it under the previous president Diaz Ordaz. So obviously he had a certain reputation when he came to power in 1970 as the new president. So one way of recuperating his image and the image of the PRI with the student movement — which in the 1970s was [still] quite strong — was by setting up a load of new universities, both in Mexico City and in the other 31 states. Most of the state universities were founded then, in the mid-70s. The people who were initially the professors and administrators had been active in the 1968 movement, which wasn’t just students: in the end it was a students’, workers’ and popular sectors’ movement.
The UAM was set up as a kind of counter-insurrectionary institution. The university regulations stipulated that each campus could not have more than 15,000 students, to prevent the emergence of student movements as in 1968. So now the university is basically empty in the afternoons and evenings and at the weekends, instead of expanding its provision to meet the much greater demand of today.
The part of the university I originally started working in is in Xochimilco, in southwestern Mexico City, where there are a lot of canals and lakes nearby. The whole of Mexico City used to be one big lake at the time of the Spanish conquest, and that’s the only part of the city that’s still like it was 500 years ago, and it’s got a big indigenous population. So when the university was founded, it was supposed to work with those communities, mainly indigenous, mainly farmers — you’ve got a lot of urban agriculture in that part of the city. UAM-Xochimilco now has a reputation for rural studies, rural anthropology, rural sociology. It has a very strong connection with those communities, and the guiding mission was to work with rural communities. Most of the professors were Marxists or anarchists, and there wasn’t that big of a wage gap between administrators and lecturers, and that was what allowed the workers to create their own mixed independent union against the wishes of the university authorities and of the PRI authoritarian regime. And that continued until the 80s. SITUAM has often gone on strike: this last strike was the 17th strike that there has been since 1975, so it’s quite a radical union. In fact, the 11 years since 2008 was the longest period that there hadn’t been a strike.
What does the student body at UAM look like?
There are 58,000 students with a kind of mixed background, mainly working class with some middle- and upper-middle-class students. Almost all the true upper class students go to the few good private universities, which are very exclusive, very expensive. That said, the “yo soy 132” movement, which was like the last big student movement in Mexico, in 2012, started in one of these private universities before spreading to the state sector.
In any case, I remember when I first visited UAM in 1995, right after I had arrived in Mexico myself, the whole of the Xochimilco campus, which was the largest at the time, was taken up with supporting the Zapatista project, or so it seemed. Everyone seemed to be going on a caravan to Chiapas to support the EZLN with food, clothes, money, any kind of material support, or just their presence to stop the attacks on the EZLN base communities by the army and the paramilitaries. It seemed very radical, very mobilized, or that was my first impression.
There were also important student strikes in the late 1990s against private exams, one of the attempts at neoliberalization. There were these private companies that would apply these filter exams to applicants who wanted to go to university — they tried to farm it out to private companies, but the students stopped this with a series of strikes in the late 1990s.
About 10 years ago there was a marked shift to the right by the deans, who have been very [much] associated with the neoliberalization of education in Mexico — they are part of this organization (ANUIES – National Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education) that campaigned for the privatization of state universities and of higher education. And obviously the PRI and PAN governments, they are hard-right capitalist parties and they pushed that agenda very far. It remains to be seen what will happen with López Obrador, despite his claims that neoliberalism is now dead in Mexico.
So the leadership of UAM has been very right-wing, very neoliberal for at least 10 years, and that obviously has an effect over time. There’s this filter mechanism: quite often they exclude activist students. If a student has a reputation as an activist in high school, they’ll have a very hard time getting into higher education. Students are getting more and more right wing, more and more depoliticized, more middle class. Another thing that’s going on is that, due to the crisis in the Mexican economy, which got really bad after the global financial crisis of 2008, under other circumstances these students would have gone to a private university, but their parents can no longer afford to send them. So they’re now prepared to go to a state university.
One big difference between this strike and the 2008 strike was that then, there was a lot of student involvement, there was a large group of student activists supporting us. When there was a public meeting or a march , there would be a lot of students. This time there was much less student participation, and more student opposition, more trolling happening on Facebook. It’s quite disappointing, though there was some student support, and most students, even if they didn’t support the strike, they didn’t actively oppose it. The attempts by senior administration and by the yellow union to have marches to demand that we end the strike, go back to work, go back to class, didn’t succeed — there were only about 80 people on them. I think the students certainly weren’t for the strike, but they weren’t really actively against it. It was quite disappointing, especially compared to 2008.
Going back, can you say a little bit more about what you mean by neoliberalization of the university. Concretely, what policies are you talking about?
The pay differentials between administrative staff and faculty were much less through the 1970s and 1980s. And then in 1988, with president Carlos Salinas, you had the beginning of real neoliberalism, leading up to the 1994 NAFTA agreement.
One of the things Salinas did was introduce performance-related pay for faculty. Every year you have to report on all your courses, all your publications and your papers given at conferences, and admin and so on — any kind of academic activity. And you put it into the system, and they give you points for different activities. And of course the system is very open to abuse, it’s not very transparent and they discriminate against people they don’t like. So the ones who do get this performance-related pay, their pay can really go up a lot, 5 times, sometimes up to 10 times from their base salary. This led to huge differentiations, both among faculty, even among the full-time ones, and from the administrative staff. And basically from that point on, the faculty stopped having union meetings, the meetings that take place are basically all admin workers with very few academics. And it’s basically everyone for themselves, just competitive individualism among faculty, although we do have institutional research groups, but collaboration could be a lot higher. The right-wing academics were complaining during the strike that they weren’t receiving their bonus payments during the strike, and they even started some lawsuits for their performance-related pay. And they’re all just obsessed with their personal academic projects. It has led to the total atomization of faculty.
Most of the universities also started producing more adjuncts, precarious workers, like in the [United] States, but at UAM that hasn’t really happened, thanks to our union. They had more problems introducing precarious staff, though they have introduced it and they are doing it more. One of the causes of the strike was that they cut the hours of part-time and temporary staff. Now all temporary contracts are for part-time hours. So people suddenly lost half their income and that was a contributing factor to the strike. But for now, precarious and part-time workers are a minority. In other universities, it looks more like the US.
There have been attempts to introduce college fees, especially for post-graduate degrees, though that has been resisted. As I said, in 1999 there was a huge movement at UNAM by politically radical students against any attempt to increase student fees. And even though they got repressed in the end, UNAM now still hardly charges anything, it costs like ten cents a semester. There’s more and more contracting with private firms. UAM was originally set up to conduct research related to the needs of working class and indigenous and poor communities, but under neoliberalism that has been reduced. More and more universities have contracts with private companies to get funding for research projects. They’re kept very secretive, but they do exist, including contracts with US arms companies. In UAM there are some contracts to do arms-related research, so some private companies of the very worst kind.
As I said, the agenda of the deans and the senior administration, which is made up of faculty, is totally neoliberal, and has been for the last 30 years, and they do want to privatize higher education. The only thing stopping them are student strikes over free education and, to a lesser extent, by the faculty and administrative staff who go on strike. One of our main stated aims was to defend public education. Our fight went on so long that we said to these neoliberals, it’s not going to be that easy.
Can you talk about how you and your colleagues were influenced by what happened in Matamoros?
The Matamoros strike wave was very important for us and for other universities. It created a kind of snowball effect: it encouraged us to go on strike and then other universities were encouraged by us. And at the beginning, there were close relations between us and the self-organized movement in Matamoros. It was definitely one of the contributing factors. When we went on strike we were aware of what was happening in Matamoros, and that they were winning quite big wage demands, 20% wage increases, at least some of them. That was one of the things that helped us get to a majority in favor of the strike, despite the debilitating defeat suffered in 2008. We got new hope, we really thought we had a new chance to win.
We thought these guys are really getting organized and fighting back hard and the government seemed to be sitting back and letting it happen. And that encouraged us as well, some of us thought, “maybe it really is the so-called Fourth Transformation, after independence, the liberal reforms under Juarez, and the Mexican Revolution.” It’s not looking too good now, but there was kind of a euphoric feeling back in January.