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Workers' Rights Have Long Been A Tenet Of U.S. Democracy. Thank Mexico For That

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Pandemic assistance programs and eviction moratoriums have started to end. And for those who are working, there is the ongoing fight for wages that keep up with rising inflation or paid sick leave or protections for gig workers and benefits for millions of undocumented laborers. Those battles aren't new. The United States is ranked worst among major economies in workers' rights. As part of our series of conversations about our democracy called We Hold These Truths, we're going to be taking a look at history that often gets ignored in the United States when discussing the current state of our union. And that is the history of our regional neighbors. Today, the story of how the Mexican Revolution made workers' rights a central tenet. We're joined now by Alexander Avina. He's an associate professor of Latin American studies, and he specializes in Mexican history at Arizona State University. Welcome.

ALEXANDER AVINA: Thank you so much, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, we're going to do a bit of a history lesson here. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 within communities of peasants across Mexico. They were living in poverty. There were land ownership laws, harsh labor conditions. Can you give us an overview of their fight for change, which is the story of the revolution?

AVINA: Yes, of course. When we're talking about the Mexican Revolution, we should start off by saying that it was a peasant-led social revolution that primarily fought for two main things - land and liberty. They were fighting against a Cinco de Mayo war hero, Porfirio Diaz, who had turned into a dictator and ruled Mexico for decades in an era that witnessed the implementation of an economic system that only benefited a few at the top, those close to Porfirio Diaz, who quote, unquote "modernized" Mexico but at the expense of peasant communities who - you know, most were landless. They had lost their lands amongst expanding haciendas, or large landed estates, the building of railways and mines, et cetera.

So you have this rapidly expanding socioeconomic inequality between the people at the top and the vast majority of people in Mexico who lived in the countryside as campesinos, or as peasants. So when the revolution breaks out in late 1910, early 1911, the people who took up arms throughout the country - they did so thinking that they would receive the return of plundered lands or receive new lands from a potentially post-revolutionary government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the revolution stretched on for decades, and there was tremendous loss, with at least 1.7 million Mexicans dying. But a pivotal moment came seven years into the revolution, 1917, when Mexico ratified a new constitution right that envisioned sort of a democracy for the working class. What new protections did it offer workers?

AVINA: Yeah, so the peasants and the workers were not going to put down their arms unless their demands were met, and these demands were enshrined in the 1917 Constitution in the form of agrarian reform, or the redistribution of lands, and an assortment of workers' rights that included the right to organize unions, protection for laboring women and children, the eight-hour workday, a living wage, the sharing of profits for workers, equal wages for equal rights.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the new constitution also granted sort of broader social and political rights - right? - which sort of laid the basis for national anti-poverty campaigns. So there were sweeping changes. Can you tell us a little bit about those campaigns and the impact they had in Mexican society?

AVINA: This constitution started with the premise that political democracy was a rather performative gesture unless people's basic needs were met. People's ability to live a life of dignity was a precursor to any sort of political democracy. So, you know, it took some years for some of these radical constitutional precepts to be implemented, and most of them came into being in the 1930s under the populist leadership of Lazaro Cardenas. And that's where you had the massive redistribution of land to peasant communities throughout the country - millions and millions of hectares. And you had a government that was actively siding with labor unions, leading to this famous incident in 1938, in which Mexico nationalized its oil holdings and expropriated them from British and American oil companies. There's also an expanded push to give education and educational opportunities for the sons and daughters of impoverished campesinos living in the countryside.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of these anti-poverty projects endured for decades, and there were fundamental changes to laws to make the economy less oppressive to workers. But we can fast-forward today, and, of course, we know that there are gaping, widespread disparities in Mexico between the haves and the have-nots. Why is that the case? What went wrong?

AVINA: Quickly, what I will say is that the post-revolutionary government, after about 1940, does start to take a more conservative, right-wing turn. Some of these rights that were hard-fought by peasants and workers during the revolution itself were not permanent. They were contingent. And what you see after 1940 is a single authoritarian political party stay in power, shaving off some of these rights. Now, workers and peasants resisted throughout. But, you know, it's a tense relationship between those at the bottom and those at the top. You know, once we get into the 1980s and you have this massive Mexican default on their foreign debt in the early '80s, that really marks a new period of Mexican history, which has only widened this - the level of socioeconomic inequality that we see today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What remains, though, of that period?

AVINA: Memories, traditions of rebellion. We still see the indigenous Zapatistas in the state of Chiapas today, generationally reproducing themselves as embodiments of the Mexican Revolution. They took up arms in 1994, and they're still there today, upholding the legacy of the great revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. So there's - the ideas, the heritage, the traditions are still there, and the Mexican Constitution is still there. There's been obvious reforms, particularly to privatize Mexican oil, but the document itself is still there. And there's still a potential for radicalism in that document, potentially when people from below are pushing for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what lessons do you think the U.S. should take from Mexico's historical example? Because right now, the U.S. is at an inflection point, right? It's a year and a half into the pandemic. Congress is starting to weigh a $3.5 trillion spending package that is unprecedented. It would sort of expand access to universal pre-K, higher education, health insurance, paid family leave, on and on. You know, Democrats say this will help workers and ease some of the inequality that is affecting this country. So what can we learn from Mexico's example?

AVINA: I think one lesson we can learn from this example is that without social rights, without economic rights, without the protections and the rights given to workers, political democracy suffers. We have the ability to vote every two and every four years, but someone who is unable to live a life of dignity and have their basic needs met, even though they're working 40-hour workweeks - I mean, there's something wrong there. So I think another one is that these hard-fought rights are not permanent. They require constant vigilance. They require constant struggle. In the words of Frederick Douglass, without struggle, there is no progress. And this is what we've seen recently, right? Biden's program is directly connected to the popular mobilizations that we witnessed last summer. It's pressure from below that forces elites to make concessions or, even something more radical, to address some of the structural factors that are causing inequalities in our country today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Alexander Avina. He is an associate professor of Latin American studies at Arizona State University. Thank you very much.

AVINA: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS COJOLITES SONG, "SEMBRANDO FLORES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.