Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Article 123 of the Constitution of 1917 set a legal basis for unionization and other workers’ rights that placed Mexico at the forefront of international labor activism.

Summary of Event

The difference between the violent repression of the 1906 miners’ strike in Cananea, Sonora, in northwestern Mexico and the ultimately triumphant strike of oil workers in and around the Caribbean port of Tampico in the late 1930’s is measured by more than time and distance. In the intervening three decades of revolutionary change, an obscure but determined group of political activists from across Mexico gathered in the small, provincial city of Querétaro to write a constitution that contained one of the world’s most advanced labor codes of its day. Article 123 of that constitution established the legal bases for unionization, strikes, and improved conditions for workers. Mexican labor unions’ growth in membership and influence in the period between the strike in Cananea and the one in Tampico was directly related to Article 123. Labor law;Mexico Mexico;Constitution of 1917 Article 123, Mexican Constitution of 1917 [kw]Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code (Jan. 31, 1917) [kw]Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code, Mexican (Jan. 31, 1917) [kw]Labor Code, Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced (Jan. 31, 1917) Labor law;Mexico Mexico;Constitution of 1917 Article 123, Mexican Constitution of 1917 [g]Latin America;Jan. 31, 1917: Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code[04190] [g]Mexico;Jan. 31, 1917: Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code[04190] [c]Business and labor;Jan. 31, 1917: Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code[04190] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 31, 1917: Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code[04190] Múgica, Francisco J. Rouaix, Pastor Carranza, Venustiano Díaz, Porfirio Morones, Luis N. Lombardo Toledano, Vicente

The labor violence at Cananea was typical of the unrest in the last years of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Late nineteenth century railroad construction and foreign investment had stimulated an economic boom that, in spite of prominent pockets of prosperity, had also brought with it onerous working conditions in mines and factories. A laborer in a mine, a textile mill, or a brewery generally worked ten or more hours a day, seven days a week. Pay was so low that workers had inadequate diets and lived in unsanitary housing. Foreign observers of the condition of these workers often dismissed the Mexican lower class as passive and practically helpless, a misconception soon discredited by the revolution.

Worker assertiveness began to emerge in 1906. The American-owned Cananea Consolidated Copper Company’s low wages for Mexican workers and inflated prices at its company stores sparked a confrontation with miners in Sonora. During five days of one-sided fighting, at least thirty workers and workers’ family members perished. The strike ended in failure, but labor unrest spread to other areas.

Francisco Madero led the overthrow of Díaz in 1911, but his short-lived government never went beyond a limited program of political reform centered on elections and greater voter participation. The urgent demands of workers and peasants for social and economic change became more strident as the feebleness of the Madero administration’s policies became apparent. Madero’s government was overthrown in 1913 by a recalcitrant military faction, and Madero was shot while allegedly attempting to escape. By then, workers were active in several revolutionary movements. In particular, a group called Casa del Obrero Mundial (house of the world worker) Casa del Obrero Mundial promoted anarchist solutions for workers’ problems.

By 1916, the regime of Venustiano Carranza had emerged from the chaos of the revolution with substantial support from anarchist labor unions, which supplied six “Red Battalions” of armed workers for the crucial fighting in 1915. Carranza saw that the adoption of a constitution would add legitimacy to his government and open a forum for the discussion of social and economic issues that had arisen in the revolution. His government organized the October, 1916, elections for a special congress to draw up a new constitution. After years of political disorder, only 20 to 30 percent of eligible voters participated in the elections, and apparently no labor union or workers’ party offered a labor candidate. Although the elected delegates were mostly from the middle class (more than half were college-educated professionals), the years of labor unrest gave them a decided awareness of the concerns of workers.

The radical leader Francisco J. Múgica had considerable influence in writing the constitution. The son of a provincial schoolteacher, Múgica saw the impact of poverty throughout Mexico during his decade of peripatetic revolutionary activity after 1906. One of the first to join in efforts to overthrow Díaz, Múgica was determined to mold the constitution into a legal device for sweeping social and economic reform, including betterment of the working class.

The primary author of Article 123 was a Carranza loyalist whose ideology was somewhat more moderate than the radicalism of Múgica. Pastor Rouaix, a forty-two-year-old engineer, was typical of the mixture of middle- and lower-class influences in the convention. The son of a mestizo construction worker, Rouaix was a quiet, conscientious student who surpassed his humble origins when he earned an engineering degree and became a successful surveyor. His rise in politics was rapid. Between 1913 and 1917, he was governor of Durango and headed Carranza’s Ministry of Development. Throughout his political career, he revealed a consistent sense of social conscience that derived from his youth, when he had seen exploitative merchants and landowners practicing their wiles on unwitting workers and peasants.

Even though he was not a gifted orator, Rouaix was the guiding force behind the drafting of Article 123. He and a handful of colleagues wrote the original draft in a series of meetings during the first two weeks of January, 1917. Rouaix relied on the work of several staff members from the Ministry of Development who had assembled studies on labor conditions in Mexico and labor legislation in other nations. The group members’ concern about the plight of workers in Mexico led them to move far beyond existing labor law to give the national government the central role in the amelioration of these conditions.

With Múgica’s powerful presence behind the proposed Article 123, Rouaix and his colleagues enjoyed a surprisingly easy victory when their proposal reached the floor of the constitutional convention. The discussion of Article 123 took place during the evening of January 23. The previous successes of Múgica and the radicals apparently had established the tenor of the debate. By 10:15 p.m., the delegates, weary from earlier sessions and impressed by the left’s enthusiasm, voted their approval.

The final version was a ringing endorsement of the cause of the working people and, in particular, the organization of labor unions. Labor unions;Mexico As a part of the document known as the Constitution of 1917, Article 123 established a maximum eight-hour workday, abolished debt peonage, and recognized the strike as a legitimate tool in labor-management relations. Article 123 also created government standards to benefit the health and safety of workers and required the states to pass minimum wage laws and other regulations to benefit workers. These changes did not go into effect immediately, of course, because the new constitutional provisions required additional national and state legislation, the formation of government agencies to oversee enforcement, and time for workers to form unions to initiate their own actions. The reforms were more abstract than real, but the course of Mexican labor history had clearly taken a profoundly new direction.

Carranza signed the constitution into effect on January 31, 1917, some nine months before the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Mexico’s new labor code was based on the acceptance of private property and free enterprise, so it was not as extreme as the system-shattering program of the Bolsheviks. The comparison is misleading, because it takes the Mexican constitution out of its context. The Mexican environment was one in which large estates and corporations (often owned in part or wholly by U.S., British, or French investors) dominated the commercially active sectors of the economy. The Constitution of 1917, through its labor code (and other radical sections such as Article 27, restricting the rights of property ownership), threatened to disrupt established patterns of business operations in order to improve the lives of workers. In that sense, Article 123 was a radical part of a revolutionary document.

Significance

The Carranza government did not immediately enforce Article 123, but the presence of this new labor code was a large stimulus to the growth of labor unions. The anarchist unions quickly joined forces in the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM), headed by the ambitious Luis N. Morones. Morones established CROM in 1918, and in ten years claimed, with exaggeration, that it had nearly two million members.

Adept at politics as well as union organization, Morones was minister of industry in the cabinet of President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928) and used his executive authority to extend the application of Article 123 to the benefit of CROM. Working conditions and wages improved, but not for everyone. Unions outside CROM saw few improvements and usually lost influence and members to Morones. Wages rose significantly for some sectors of CROM as a result of a series of government-settled labor disputes that favored workers over management, but most Mexican workers were left out of these improvements. New migrants to the cities from rural areas found limited opportunities for employment, and the available nonunion jobs carried low salaries. Article 123 remained an unfulfilled promise for Mexican workers except for the fortunate groups within the ranks of CROM.

Morones suffered severe defeats in the political struggles of the late 1920’s, defeats that were exacerbated by his flamboyant corruption. CROM splintered into factions, one of which, the Confederation of Mexican Workers Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), emerged under the leadership of Vicente Lombardo Toledano in the 1930’s. Lombardo Toledano, a lean-figured, sharp-tongued, free-willed Marxist, collaborated with President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) to propel the CTM to a position of power in national politics. The reform of federal labor laws in 1931 had broadened the impact of Article 123 even further and furnished Lombardo Toledano and Cárdenas with an even stronger tool in their dealings with labor.

More important, more than two decades of labor activism finally had produced a movement that could not be denied. Lombardo Toledano, a close ally of Cárdenas, sponsored a variety of programs among workers, including sports and recreational events as well as mass meetings and educational conferences. Workers were not content with their higher prestige in the Great Depression decade, however, and demanded concrete improvements in wages and working conditions, initiating a wave of disruptive strikes in the mid-1930’s. Cárdenas and Lombardo Toledano supported them on these issues, and soon members of the CTM made impressive gains. For example, electrical and textile workers, streetcar operators, and miners struck for and received substantial wage increases. The ten-hour day and other oppressive working conditions of the Díaz years became the exception rather than the rule, at least in areas under the dominion of the CTM, which soon had well in excess of one million members. These material improvements in the lives of workers were more broadly based than the changes of the 1920’s, but nonunion laborers again received only spillover from these benefits.

The most dramatic evidence of the increased power of organized labor under Article 123 came in the 1938 confrontation between Mexico’s oil workers’ union (allied with the CTM) and U.S. and British petroleum companies. Oil industry;labor strikes In an assertion of spontaneous union activism, Mexican oil workers around Tampico used strikes to demand improved wages and working conditions in the oil fields. The oil companies refused to grant these demands and defied not only the unions but also Mexican law and, by implication, Article 123.

President Cárdenas responded decisively. On March 18, 1938, he signed a decree that nationalized the oil properties of the defiant companies, thereby placing the Mexican government in charge of the bulk of the petroleum industry. Nationalization;Mexican oil industry The working-class population of Mexico City engaged in a massive demonstration of support for the nationalization. On March 22, an estimated crowd of 200,000 people, led by the CTM and the oil workers’ union, celebrated what many present hailed as Mexico’s economic declaration of independence. Article 123 and union activism contributed to this assertion of nationalism, which had repercussions throughout Latin America and other Third World regions for years to come. During the Cárdenas presidency, Mexican workers made significant gains both in material terms and in terms of their sense of involvement in national life.

Article 123 triggered two decades of labor unionization and union activism in Mexico, but by the 1940’s, the initial impetus for reform declined. The CTM was a large and powerful organization, but as it became enmeshed in politics, the thrust of worker initiatives collapsed under the weight of union and government bureaucracy. CTM leaders continued to have decisive influence in national life, but they often seemed more concerned about elite politics than about the needs of ordinary workers. The history of Article 123 remained, however, a symbol and an example of the legitimation of unionization and the empowerment of the working class. Labor law;Mexico Mexico;Constitution of 1917 Article 123, Mexican Constitution of 1917

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Rodney D. Outcasts in Their Own Land: Mexican Industrial Workers, 1906-1911. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976. A careful study of working conditions in mines and factories and the consequent labor unrest that contributed to the coming of the revolution and the writing of Article 123.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashby, Joe C. Organized Labor and the Mexican Revolution Under Lázaro Cárdenas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967. A detailed study of labor activism in the 1930’s, including the oil workers’ strike and the expropriation of the property of U.S. and British oil companies. Reveals the ramifications of Article 123 under Cárdenas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, John Mason. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. An analysis of the rise and decline of anarchist groups in the Mexican labor movement. Mexican anarchists insisted that the future lay with a vision of a decentralized industrial society, but their movement was lost in the political machinations and military repression of the mid-1910’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution. 10th anniversary ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Interpretive history covering the period from the Díaz era to 1924 provides extensive discussion of the causes of labor unrest (chapter 2), the struggle and defeat of an autonomous labor movement (chapter 9), and the triumph of the central government over worker and peasant movements (chapter 10). Includes essays that compare the Mexican revolution with revolutions in Iran, China, and Russia (chapters 7 and 11).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Alan. The Mexican Revolution. 2 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Massive survey and analysis focuses on events from 1910 to 1920 but offers commentary on the political, economic, and social issues of the revolution that extends over a much broader chronological framework. Provides a thorough examination of the revolutionary setting in which the Constitution of 1917 was written and the ups and downs of the Mexican labor movement throughout the decade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Michael C., William L. Sherman, and Susan M. Deeds. The Course of Mexican History. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Readable introductory text combines clear style with a command of the full sweep of Mexican history from the Maya to the modern age. Provides an overview of the events surrounding the emergence of the Constitution of 1917 and the labor movement within the context of the revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niemeyer, Eberhardt Victor. Revolution at Querétaro: The Mexican Constitutional Convention of 1916-1917. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974. One of the most extensive studies available in English of the politics, ideologies, and personalities that produced the Constitution of 1917. Chapter 4 covers the origins and content of Article 123. Includes useful biographical sketches of the main authors of the constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richmond, Douglas W. Venustiano Carranza’s Nationalist Struggle, 1893-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. A full account of the rise and demise of Carranza. Argues that Carranza, who accepted Article 123 but did little for its immediate implementation, was not a radical but a nationalist whose main goal was the restriction of U.S. economic power in Mexico.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruiz, Ramón Eduardo. Labor and the Ambivalent Revolutionaries: Mexico, 1911-1923. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Succinct discussion of the relationship of revolutionary leaders such as Madero and Carranza with organized labor. Generalizes that leaders offered labor the promise of meaningful reform through Article 123 but had actually accomplished very little as of 1923.

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