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This Day in Labor History: October 2, 1968

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On October 2, 1968, the Mexican military slaughtered students protesting in the Tlateloco Plaza at the edge of Mexico City. The Tlateloco Massacre demonstrated the complete corruption of the Mexican Revolution’s ideals.

The Mexican Revolution always had a complicated relationship with radicalism. Comprising leaders with a wide variety of ideologies, the only time it really embraced leftism was under the leadership of Lazaro Cardenas between 1934 and 1940, when it not only implemented many of the promises of the revolution, but also welcomed radical refugees from Europe, including Leon Trotsky. But after he left office, the Mexican government turned sharply to the right. Initially, it was a revolution that promoted workers’ rights. But very soon, it had simply bought off labor leaders into the heart of the state and gave workers few real rights. Independent unions that actually stood up for workers rights existed, but also were seen as threats to the state. The suppression of the 1959 railroad strike was a prime example of just how corrupted the Mexican government had become when it came to workers’ rights. Labor leaders, both organized labor in the cities and peasant movements in the countryside, were arrested or murdered.

By 1968, the president of Mexico was Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who had been Interior Minister under the previous president Adolfo López Mateos. And as Interior Minister, it was his job to put down the 1959 strike, as well as other strikes and peasant movements that were common in Mexico during this period. So he had no patience for any grassroots organizing that would threaten the power of the single-party state. Meanwhile, the student movements sweeping the globe by the late 1960s hit Mexico too. Students were angry and organizing around a lot of things. Some of them were global–anti-colonialism, the Vietnam War. But many of them were local, particularly government repression of social movements and police violence. A National Strike Council formed to coordinate demands from the various universities, dominated by those at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the largest and most prestigious school in the nation. The Council came up with demands to make on the state, which included freedom for political prisoners, the repeal of laws that limited gatherings, and the abolition of special police forces.

To say the least, the Ordaz administration, which included future Mexican president Luis Echeverria as his Interior Minister. Seeking to salvage the PRI as the legacy of the Revolution, both chose to crack down on movements, Diaz Ordaz and Echeverría claimed undermined the legitimacy of the state. With the state in effect controlling hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs through the captured unions brought into the revolutionary government, they had the ability to crack down. They sent 15 percent of the Mexican military to Guerrero to fight the guerilla movements challenging PRI power there, movements that would be unlikely to exist had the government in Mexico City seriously took their problems seriously in the decades before 1968.

On October 2, 1968, 10,000 students marched in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, though even this relatively small estimate may well be overstated. This was the culmination of student protests that reflected those around the world during that year. Mexican students had march since the beginning of August in a nonviolent way to demand greater democracy, independent unions, and a whole lot of other things that reflected the anti-democratic nature of the PRI at that time. That Mexico was hosting the Olympics in a few weeks made its government even more angry at the protestors than other nations. The protestors assured the government that it had no intention of interfering in the Olympics. The military moved in under Echeverria’s orders.

This is where workers come into this story. See, the big apartment buildings around the plaza (itself on the site of a pre-Spanish city with some very cool ruins) were built to house the union workers that were part of the state apparatus. With the PRI having integrated those unions into the state as functionaries, this meant they weren’t much different than company unions in providing workers real independence. What it also meant was that like company towns, the homes of these workers were predicated on remaining employed, which in this case required them to do whatever the PRI told them to do. Now these are the kind of modern apartment towers that began to be common in Asia as well around this time. They are a bit run-down today, but they are were state of the art in 1968. Workers were happy to live in them. It was a real step up. So when the police came by and told them to get out for the day without asking questions, that’s what they had to do. Snipers entered those apartment buildings instead and prepared to open fire from the windows.

Open fire they did. There were about 10,000 protestors in the plaza that day. They were completely nonviolent. The government, to the extent it would even admit what happened, said they were a bunch of communists, but if they were, they sure weren’t acting in a revolutionary manner against, well, the Mexican Revolution, which is how the PRI institutionally defined itself. There were speeches and demands for justice. That’s about it. Upwards of 300 people were massacred that day. With nowhere to run in the large square, thousands were mowed down, beaten, or captured and tortured. This was part of the larger Latin American move to kill and disappear dissidents against their corrupt governments.

There was no way the student movement in Mexico could survive this. Repression became the order of the day. When Echeverria became president, he spent the next year engaged in a fake populism that attempted to give workers and students a new stake in the state, but there was no real meaning behind it.

There is now a very good and powerful museum at Tlateloco. It’s all in Spanish, but even if you don’t speak much Spanish, so long as you know the basic story of what happened, it is quite worth your time. You don’t really need to understand all of the words to read the emotion and horror on people’s faces as they recall this massacre.

This is the 410th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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