Textile workers in the town of Rio Blanco in Mexico’s Veracruz state went on a two-day strike in one of the most important moment of labor upheaval that laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution, which started three years later.
By the early 20th century, there was significant labor discontent in Mexico. The dictator Porifirio Diaz had determined to modernize Mexico and effectively gave control over huge parts of the nation to capitalists, whether foreign or domestic. In the north, this meant that American mining and ranching and railroad corporations had day-to-day control over land and labor, infuriating local workers. Farther south, while there was most certainly foreign investment as well, it was more domestic capitalists that angered workers. What’s really important to understand here is that this was the Gilded Age, which didn’t only apply to the U.S. Modernization meant no rights for workers at all and their concerns simply were not seen as important or legitimate by those in power.
In 1906, there was a significant rail strike in Mexico, which helped to spread discontent to other workers. Some of those were textile workers in states such as Veracruz, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca. Moreover, in December 1906, workers in Puebla went on strike in protest of new regulations that sought to control all aspects of workers’ lives, including their private lives. In the city of Orizaba, state of Veracruz, a French-owned factory named Rio Blanco ran was one of the largest in Mexico. This foreign ownership made it especially vulnerable to worker anger. The Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) began organizing workers there, but also in other foreign-owned worksites, especially the copper mines of Cananea in the north. Workers at Rio Blanco engaged in solidarity actions with the Puebla workers, including sending them money and food.
Working conditions at Rio Blanco were very bad, as they were throughout Mexico and most of the industrialized world. Workers labored around 14 hours a day and sometimes even more if the owners were trying to get out an order. Food was not as plentiful as it should have been. Workers had to shop at the company store and were gouged by it. They only earned about 35 cents a day, which meant food was even more scarce. Wages were even lower for women and children.
Moreover, the story of the factory at Rio Blanco says a lot about the anger that would lead to the Revolution. It opened in 1889 when Compañía Industrial de Orizaba, Sociedad Anónima, which was French owned despite the name, decided to expand into the mountainous area west of Veracruz. It got the Diaz administration to grant it all the water in the area to run the factory. But of course there were already people there. These were the Tenango, one of the many indigenous groups of Mexico. What the Diaz administration did was throw them off their land by making it impossible for them to live without water. That then turned them into a proletariat who had to take whatever they could, which meant these terribly low wages in the factory on their land.
Tensions between workers and the employer at Rio Blanco grew throughout 1906. On Christmas Eve of that year, Rio Blanco locked out the workers for their solidarity efforts with Puebla. The Diaz administration personally intervened and worked out a settlement. This only temporarily stopped the problem. Moreover, some of the workers who had not joined the action were blacklisted too, which also meant they couldn’t access the company store they relied on for food. So this led to greater anger. Moreover, the company store, identified by the workers as with the French, refused to give credit during the lockout, which only infuriated workers more.
On January 7, about 2,000 workers marched on the factory and they meant business. They launched attacks on company buildings. When they got to the company store, someone inside opened fire. That led them to burn the company store. The local police (rurales) mostly stayed out of it, largely because most of them were sympathetic to the workers. The strike quickly spread and became a larger rebellion against the wealthy of the Porfiriato. The workers attacked the homes of the wealthy and laid them to waste. They opened the prisons and released everyone inside. They went to other nearby factory towns to burn some more company stores. Soldiers started to arrive later in the day and eighteen workers were killed in the first counterattack.
The next day, Diaz sent the military to Veracruz. The rurales might not have wanted to get involved, but Diaz had no such compunction. The military immediately put the strike down. They started started to open fire. Somewhere between fifty and seventy people died total, although other estimates have gone to as high as 800. It’s probably somewhere in the middle of these numbers, maybe 200 or so. At least six leaders were executed, without trials. Or they were identified as leaders anyway, I wouldn’t go too far in trusting the veracity of this “guilt.” On the ground, nothing changed. Conditions remained terrible. The military stuck around to police the workers.
The Cananea workers went on strike later in the year and that was an even bigger rebellion against Diaz. For many Mexicans, the brutal reaction of the Diaz administration in both of these strikes was a sign that they needed to get rid of the aging dictator. This would lead to the 1910 Revolution and the upheavals in the country that would extend for the next fifteen years.
This is the 466th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.