The railroad strike of 1927: labor and law after the Mexican Revolution

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Mexico's rail workers’ struggle of 1926–27 encompassed one of the largest strikes following the 1910–20 revolution, yet contemporary official government statistics omitted any mention of it. The labor struggle involved an independent, militant confederation of transport workers and, opposed to it, the largest rail company in the country (heavily indebted to foreign creditors), the state, and its principal labor ally. While the strike was broken, the confederation leading it obtained an impressive judgment from the nation's supreme court against the authoritarian federal executive power, which, moreover, vindicated the right to strike affirmed in the 1917 Constitution. But the judicial and administrative decisions reached in connection with the strike subsequently served to structure and limit labor's right to strike. This article analyzes the railroad strike of 1927, the judicial and administrative response to it, and its legal significance, which together have contributed to the formation of the nation's post-revolutionary system of regulating industrial conflict. In early October 1927 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the Minister of the Secretariat of Industry, Commerce and Labor (SICT), one of the more powerful government officials at the time, violated the constitutional rights of members of the Confederation of Transports and Communications (Confederación de Transportes y Comunicaciones) when he declared illicit the Confederation's general strike against the nation's largest railway company, National Railways of Mexico. This was a remarkable judgment. The relatively weak judicial branch of the federal government did not normally defy the quasi-authoritarian presidency of General Calles, certainly not by recognizing claims of a radical labor organization that the minister of the SICT lambasted as antipatriotic and communist infiltrated. Mexico throughout the 1920s still suffered from violent political strife and government at the regional and national (i.e. federal) level by military commanders whose power had originated in the revolutionary civil war of the preceding decade. Contemporaries sometimes described the federal judiciary as timid in the face of these actual wielders of power, if not as dependent on the federal executive branch.1 If after 1923–24 the Supreme Court began to recognize some labor interests, it hardly became a body sympathetic to the more far-reaching claims of unions. Indeed, by 1929, when it reviewed the sequel case to its 1927 judgment for the confederation, the Court held against it. Yet its 1927 decision would stand, and, coupled with its related 1929 opinion, would influence the structure that labor law and industrial relations would assume in Mexico in subsequent decades, including, in particular, the regulation of workers’ concerted action, as this article explains in its account of the 1926–27 railway strike and analysis of the judicial and administrative opinions of the labor conflict.