Self-Management, Cooperatives and Workers' Control in Mexico: Scope and Limits

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
56 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Robert Patrick Cuninghame, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico City, Mexico
The focus of this paper is about recent experiences of economic and political forms of cooperatives and self-managed workers' control in Mexico. Through a series of case studies from the contemporary history of the Mexican labor movement the strengths and weaknesses of cooperatives and self-management, mainly economic but also political, in Mexico, starting with the analysis of two "recovered" companies – Euzkadi/TRADOC and Pascual Boing - as examples of successful economic self-management in terms of resistance to closures and loss of jobs, but with limitations as a political model for post-capitalist self-managed cooperatives. Other case studies analyzed are the former urban transport network in Mexico City, Ruta-100 (Route-100), partly controlled by its workers through its independent union SUTAUR-100 before its repression in 1995 and the Good Government Councils and coffee cooperatives of the Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas.

Self-management has been a controversial aspect of the international labor movement since the early nineteenth century, when Robert Owen and Charles Fourier first shaped the cooperative movements in Scotland and France. Soon Marx and Engels criticized the practice of cooperatives and worker self-management as part of "utopian socialism" which, they said, wanted to peacefully coexist with capitalism, only gradually breaking up with it instead of accepting the challenge and urgency of violent revolutionary change and the need, above all, for the political destruction of capitalism, as made clear in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. These criticisms continue and major cooperative movements, such as Co-op bank and supermarket chain in England or the Legacoop in Italy have long been recuperated and reinstated by capitalism, even now often with a leadership role in the shift to a more social and "progressive" version of the Postfordist-neoliberal productive paradigm, as in the case of the "Third Italy" since the late 70s, continued by the Italian Legacoop as part of the current neoliberal government led by Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party. The argument that self-management was little more than a form of self-exploitation of some workers by other workers, appeared to have won the day until the emergence of self-managed occupied social centers, related mainly to autonomous social movements in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 70s, 80s and 90s, which showed that it still had a clearly anti-capitalist connotation, at least under certain circumstances. In fact, many of these squatted social centers have been repressed, abandoned, or in a few cases, have become successful "alternative enterprises" such as the Leoncavallo occupied social center in Milan, Italy.

What has perhaps given greater credibility to the renewal of these practices have been recent developments in Latin America, particularly the rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, against both the implementation of NAFTA, and the neoliberal authoritarian PRI regime in Mexico. Since then, the Zapatistas have consolidated their political project, despite continuous repression and a low intensity counter-insurgency war, to the point where not only rural cooperatives are the one of the main pillars of its attempted post-capitalist economic model, but mostly they are self-managed in a directly democratic manner through the “Good Government Councils” of the “Caracoles” (seashells: the name for the five largest Zapatista administrative areas in Chiapas), created in 2003 after the government reneged on the San Andres Accords of 1996 on indigenous autonomy. However, this more complete example of self-management and workers’ control tends to confirm the view of those who criticize purely economic self-management as more useful for capitalism than for anti-capitalism.

After this comparison of self-management, workers’ control and cooperatives in Europe and Latin America, the paper continues with the presentation of above-mentioned four case studies on major struggles and current examples of workers' control in Mexico. I will focus on attempts by social movements in urban and rural working classes to protect their productive activity and income from its conversion from formal to informal and precarious jobs, as part of the current trend in the world towards job insecurity as part of the imposition of the neoliberal model of development in the peripheral countries since the 1980s and more recently aggravated by the prolonged global economic crisis since 2007.

Methodologically, the paper is based on the analysis of social movement documents and interviews with prominent activists.