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Michael Snodgrass, Deference and Defiance in Monterrey: Workers, Paternalism, and Revolution in Mexico, 1890-1950.

Michael Snodgrass, Deference and Defiance in Monterrey: Workers, Paternalism, and Revolution in Mexico, 1890-1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press 2003)

MICHAEL SNODGRASS's book treads on a widely covered, highly controversial, and still hotly debated area in the history of Mexico's pattern of industrial relations. That the author deftly addresses old and revisionist versions of an important aspect of contemporary Mexican history, and does this with a warm and humane touch, is indicative of a rigorous methodology, keen inquisitive mind, and classic history writing. The book is indeed a worthy contribution to the analysis and further understanding of the unraveling forces that struggled to take control of the spoils of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917).

While focusing on capital-labour relations in the city of Monterrey, in the northern State of Nuevo Leon, the author dissects in detail the attempts on the part of the capitalist forces to retain control over the labour force, through a carrot and stick approach, all the while willing to meet head-on the challenges posed by an emergent and independent proletariat, influenced to no small degree by the socialistic principles enshrined in the 1917 constitution. This primary contradiction is thoroughly examined, especially during the critical period between 1920 and 1940 when the old and the new Mexico continued to oppose each other. This is done in order to illuminate the contradictory role of the Plutarco Elas Calles administration (1928-1934) via-a-vis the Lazaro Cardenas government (1934-1940). While Calles tried to undo some of the important, although symbolic, gains of the revolution, the Cardenas government, on the other hand, brought about the realization of several of the promises associated with the first social revolution of the 20th century, including a stronger enforcement of Articles 27 and 123 of the constitution. The former gave land to some peasants, while the latter, the longest article in the constitution, praised the role of workers in the building of a new Mexico, and recognized and guaranteed the social, economic, cultural, and political rights to which Mexican workers are entitled (at least, nominally).

While these ideological battles were fought in the corridors of the presidential palace and parliament in Mexico City, in the battlefield the war between capitalists and workers took on a completely different meaning. Owners of steel, smelter, glassworks, and beer factories in the city of Monterrey resorted to every means at their disposal to counter the growing ascendancy of an industrial proletariat influenced not only by revolutionary sloganeering but also by a growing class consciousness, resulting mainly from Communist activists' proselytizing. When they could be afforded, the governor, the media, the courts, the labour boards, and docile workers and their families were used to deny the more militant workers the right to form truly class-based trade unions. The distinct paternalistic discourse that owners of industry and workers have the same interests was used and abused incessantly by the proprietary class and their organic intellectuals. Coupled with regional idiosyncracy and common sense contempt for the rest of the country, many workers bought into the alleged "unique qualities" of the people of Monterrey. Those who saw through the phony aspects of paternalism and struggled to get their right to form independent unions, to negotiate in good faith, and to improve the lives of the rank-and-file were met not with paternalism but outright repression, as police forces, fascist organizations, and the ruling party's charros harassed, beat, and killed some of them, while facilitating the firing of many others.

Snodgrass's painstaking use of primary sources, including newspapers, archives, and diplomatic correspondence, allows him to provide a comprehensive picture of how the owners of the Cuahtemoc brewery successfully won the hearts and minds of their workers. Such a feat can, certainly, be seen as the harbinger of the corporatist model to be later institutionalized by successive Mexican governments to the present day. In effect, beginning with Cardenas, labour autonomy throughout the country would gradually be lost as most unions, federations, and confederations became an appendage of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). From 1940 onwards, it was not only private capitalists who fought militant unionists toe-and-nail, but the official Mexican Confederation of Labour did its best to erase any semblance of class consciousness among workers. It did so by joining industrialists in blaming international Communism and their supporters in Mexico; more important though, its resort to corruption to co-opt militant leaders paralleled the paternalistic approaches of the private bosses who bought workers' acquiescence with material benefits. In either case, workers believed that their material improvement was due to the goodness of their company and union bosses, rather than to the fact that those material benefits were recognized by law. Of course, as Snodgrass reminds those knowledgeable of Mexican affairs, it is not the lack of law that explains the poor state of industrial relations in that country but the concerted efforts on the part of the government and the private sector to not enforce the numerous pieces of legislation already in place.

One of the shortcomings of the book is its lack of a clear theoretical framework. Important concepts, such as class consciousness, class in itself, class for itself, corporatism, and co-optation are either not acknowledged or are not defined with the precision that is required. Rather, the author presumes that the reader is familiar with them. This presumption may not apply to those not intimate with the Mexican political economy of the post-revolutionary period. As well, most primary sources seem to have been taken at face value, which is odd given the al most total lack of objectivity to be found in newspapers, diplomatic correspondence, and records from labour tribunals, a situation that the author only insinuates at times.

In sum, Deference and Defiance in Monterrey: Workers, Paternalism, and Revolution in Mexico, 1890-1950 is a refreshing contribution to the study of labour relations at an important period of Mexican history. It will be extremely useful not only to all those already engaged in the analysis of Mexican history, but also to students and young scholars thinking of doing work in paradoxical Mexico.

Nibaldo H. Galleguillos

McMaster University
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Author:Galleguillos, Nibaldo H.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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