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This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1959

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On March 28, 1959, railroad worker union leaders in Mexico that threatened to shut down the nation were arrested. The government crack down, its firing thousands of workers and arrest of many more demonstrates how the PRI government in Mexico would reject militancy in the labor movement and how this once revolutionary government had now entered its own Cold War phase.

Mexican railroad workers were significantly underpaid by the late 1950s and the nation had entered a period of inflation. The Mexican rail workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores Ferrocarrileros de la República Mexicana (STFRM) created a price study committee to determine proper wages for its members. They demanded an increase of 350 pesos ($28) a month. When the government rejected this, offering an increase of 200 pesos ($16) a month, the path was laid for an increasingly bitter series of labor actions that resulted in one of the most important events in Mexican labor history. This union had been an independent union in the 1940s but by the 1950s was heavily co-opted by the PRI, the institutionalized revolutionary government of Mexico that theoretically made unions central to the state but in reality had made them adjuncts of state policy that did not represent workers. Moreover, railroad workers were a hugely important part of the Mexican labor movement and Mexican workers had played a leading role in starting the Mexican Revolution. As late as the 1950s, trains were a major mode of transportation in Mexico. Even today, public transportation is enormously important there, especially in rural Mexico, although today this is predominantly bus travel.

The first of the strikes began on June 26, 1958 in Oaxaca. Led by Demeterio Vallejo, a long-time union leader and one-time communist who had been active in the Mexican labor movement since the late 1920s, the workers began their actions with short strikes, usually only about 2 hours. Vallejo’s actions were not just about the wages. They were also about retaking control of the union from the officials handpicked by the government since 1948 and who had worked with the PRI to keep freight rates low by freezing wages. Vallejo’s newly invigorated workers escalated the length of their walkouts over the next few days, reaching 8 hours, before finally calling for a full-fledged strike. 60,000 workers participated in the first 2-hour strike. By the June 28 8-hour strike, Vallejo’s rail workers were joined by petroleum workers, teachers, and students. At this point president Adolpho Ruiz Cortines stepped in and offered a 215 peso raise. That was accepted and it seemed like this strike would end quickly. However, on July 12, the Railroad Workers Union elected Vallejo general secretary of the National Railroad Council, in no small part because he was angry about the Ruiz Cortines agreement that gave them such a small raise. He rode that rank and file anger to a victory. The companies refused to accept this and neither did the government, who wanted a less radical union leader in a system where the ruling PRI had incorporated unions into its government structure. Once again, the union went on strike and forced the government to cave.

They then sought to build on these two victories to demand much more. They wanted their pay raise based on the principle of a 6-day pay week instead of a 7-day pay week, thus raising their overall pay by 16% instead of 14% and wanted it applied retroactively to Ruiz Cortines’ intervention. They also wanted a housing allowance of 10% or a government housing plan for railroad workers. Finally, they wanted a limitation on loans from U.S. companies that was taking up too much of the railroad’s finances and thus getting in the way of pay raises for workers. By this time as well, a new president had taken office in Mexico. Adolfo López Mateos was seen as a possible return to a more populist and left-leaning Mexico by many disappointed with the conservative, corrupt statism of the PRI since Cardenas. Alas, they were to be bitterly disillusioned by the new administration.

Contract negotiations stalled and the 1-year contract agreed to in 1958 expired. Vallejo and his union became national pariahs in the media, but they pressed ahead with their strike, which started on February 25, 1959. This strike lasted less than a day, as the company agreed to the 16% raise, free medical care for workers’ families, and a government housing program. But the contract was not equal for all rail workers as some lines were left out. This led Vallejo to once again call a strike that would commence on March 25. The union chose that date specifically because it was Holy Week. With Easter on March 29, this maximized their leverage because people could not travel to see their families on this critical Mexican holiday. But this was too much for the López Mateos government. It declared the strike illegal. The military took over the rail stations. Army telegraphers scabbed on the striking rail telegraphers. The police busted the doors of workers, pulled their guns on them, and forced the to work at gunpoint. The military arrested Vallejo and thousands of workers. This actually filled the available prisons and many of the workers were sent to military camps. Throughout all of this, the workers grounded their demands in the language of the 1917 Constitution that is the fundamental document of the Mexican Revolution. But for the government, even this reeked of radicalism in a Cold War world where PRI leaders now feared leftist organizing as opposed to welcoming it, as it had done a mere 20 years earlier.

Vallejo was found guilty of sedition and given a 16-year prison sentence. The government replaced Vallejo and his followers with hand-chosen union leaders who would cooperate. The new contract remained and the lives of average workers improved, but union militancy in Mexico would be crushed by the PRI, which valued control and power over the unions brought into the government over its supposed revolutionary ideology. The state was the revolution and the revolution was the state. Vallejo remained in jail for 11 years and became a major cause for students in the 1968 movement. That fateful year saw the greatest suppression of labor and civil rights in modern Mexican history, most notoriously with the Tlateloco Massacre just outside of Mexico City, where the government murdered protesting students. This combined with guerillas fighting for dignity in the rural state of Guerrero set off Mexico’s Dirty War, a spasm of state violence that it has never really recovered from. The ultimate betrayal of Mexican democracy culminated in 1968 but it started in 1959.

I borrowed from Robert Alegre, Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory, in the writing of this post.

This is the 213th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Thom

    A small correction: Tlatelolco is in Mexico City, not “just outside,” though the precolonial Tlatelolco was a separate city from Tenochtitlán. The site, at the Plaza de Tres Culturas, has extensive precolonial ruins you can walk through, a colonial-era church, and a museum about the 1968 massacre (unfortunately the latter, like most museums in Mexico City, is closed on Mondays, the day I was there).

    • I thought it was just over the border in Estado Mexico and not the Mexico City proper. I’m not sure of the current boundaries of the city though. In any case, yeah, the museum is excellent.

      • lahtiji

        It’s within the boundaries of Mexico City for certain.

        I always enjoy This Day articles, and appreciate the wider North American view.

        • Thom

          Agreed. (You could even include Canada, if necessary.)

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