A Santa Clara mill worker and his family
Although some cane growers welcomed privatization at first, given the problems they had experienced under the state-run regime, there was considerable discontent about the price growers received for their cane, which was still effectively controlled by the government. A cane growers' strike was called by the official CNC union, although its leadership was pressured by Salinas into agreeing to a settlement without any substantial gains being made. The union that organized private cane growers in the region of Santa Clara was in some disarray following a corruption scandal, and some private growers belonged to the CNC union, which principally represented ejidatarios. There was, however, considerable disaffection with both the local and national leadership of this organization too. As one of the videos shows, the members were critical of the personal financial advantages their leaders secured from their offices, and the growers of Santa Clara accused the union's chemist of collusion with the management to discount the price of their cane.
Discontent increased as the country was flooded by cheap imports, and local sugar remained unsold in the warehouses. Despite record harvests, cane growers found their incomes falling. The cane was grown on credits supplied by the mill, which were calculated according to a set tariff for particular stages of cultivation. The advantage of the system for the farmers was that, unlike many other peasant producers in the 1990s, they still had guaranteed access to credit and other benefits denied to most ejidatarios. Nevertheless, the implicit rates of interest were relatively high, and the mills could manipulate the credit system to their advantage, as well as delay payment for cane delivered.
The comisariado ejidal of Tingüindín (left) discusses the possibilities of growing crops other than cane with a SARH engineer (centre) and fellow ejidatario. Tingüindín has cane land in the Vaso de Laguna area and is part of the catchment area of the Santa Clara mill, but this zone is less satisfactory for cane than the Los Reyes Valley.
For the mill workers, the impact of privatization was immediately alarming. There were substantial redundancies on grounds of overmanning in the first year of privatization, and further rounds of lay-offs later on. The labour force was stratified into permanent and temporary workers, and recruitment was through family ties: existing workers expected their children to be given a job too. Privatization ended these old certainties and produced considerable anxiety.
The Santa Clara workers' union boss had been in office for a long time, and had many charges made against him. He was accused, for example, of diverting building materials from the houses the union built for its workers to build himself a stable, and most seriously, of conspiring with the management over the redundancy programme: workers with many years of service were listed for redundancy and compensation payments calculated accordingly, but it was in fact younger workers who were fired, and the union boss was able to pocket the proceeds. Growing worker discontent produced an attempt to unseat the leader, but he was able to survive an apparently conclusive ballot defeat because his opponents were associated with the PRD. The union was officially a PRI organization, whose members were forbidden by its statutes to support rival parties.
This illustrates the way the neoliberal Salinas government used the practices of the old corporatist political system as a means of managing the conflicts produced by the change of economic policy.
Video Clips: The Santa Clara Branch of the Cane Growers' Union of the National Peasant Confederation (CNC) - Click on Quicktime Logo to play
The videos record a union meeting called in 1990 to discuss the latest government proposals on the price which growers would receive for their cane (which were accompanied by some sweeteners relating to other aspects of the incomes and benefits that they received). The price had now dropped to a point at which many growers were calling for a strike (refusal to harvest the cane and deliver it to the mills). The first clip opens with Don Pepe, the local leader of the union, throwing the issue open to the meeting for discussion, assuring the members that it is their democratic choice whether to go ahead with the strike or not. His own view inclines towards accepting the government proposals, and he had been under considerable pressure from the Salinas government to fall into line. He had, however, offered a reasonably complete account of the pros and cons of the latest proposals in his opening statement. The first speaker from the floor is one of the poorer cane growers, and he explains why he cannot really afford to refuse to deliver his cane. He sows land that produces cane of more marginal quality, and if the harvest is delayed he may be left with uncut cane and be unable to repay the loans he has received from the mill. This had happened to him before, and he had been refused credit the next year when he was unable to pay what he owed. Unable to resow, he had been forced to sell his standing cane from the previous year, and received a very low price.
In the second clip, we hear one of the other officials of the union arguing strongly against the strike. He is also a mill worker, and therefore stands to lose out doubly if the strike goes ahead. He argues that a delayed harvest is always a complete mess, with people scrambling to get their cane harvested and setting fire to it without authorisation and out of sequence, to get the cutters in. The mill workers' union, under its leader Salvador Gomez, also has to contend with the problems of securing a pay increase and a growers' strike would imperil that objective as well as depriving the mill workers of desperately needed income. Since many of the workers are the children of growers, and some of the other growers are also mill workers, this argument is quite persuasive for some. But not for all, as the next, angry intervention, demonstrates. The meeting is beginning to reveal the cleavages which exist between the different growers as a result of the different ways in which families maintain themselves economically. Some households receive income from migrant members working outside the community, some growers are seen as privileged because they have good jobs in the mill, some have more land than others or own small businesses, and some are relatively poor, despite possessing an ejidal plot. The strike issue also becomes a means by which factional struggles for control of the union can be advanced. The final intervention in the clip is from the young leader of the Los Limones ejido. His calm and rational style contrasts totally with that of the first speaker, which is highly demogogic and somewhat bullying. He argues that individual members are free to make their own decisions. He is, in practice, making a bid to take over the leadership of the union at the next elections.
In the third video clip, the leadership of the union temporarily lose control of the meeting, as a speaker from the floor raises the issue of how much money Don Pepe and his colleagues make personally from their role in organising the zafra (harvest). The clip begins with Don Pepe assuring the meeting that he himself makes nothing ("nada"). His persecutor expresses a certain scepticism about this claim, so he proceeds to elaborate. The questioner then asks which members of the union committee are salaried employees paid for their work. Don Pepe lists the individuals who receive a salary, referring to them by their nicknames. This leads him into further difficulties, since the questioner then raises the subject of the union's chemist ("el químico"). The role of the chemist is to check the mill's assessment of the quality of the cane delivered and its sucrose content, to ensure that the grower receives a fair price according to the standard tariffs. There is always a suspicion on the part of growers whose can is discounted for quality defects that the chemist is being paid off by the mill management so that the mill can get the cane more cheaply. This was a commonplace accusation, and the whole attack on the leadership had an almost ritual quality, characteristic of all peasant organisations in Mexico. It did, however, reflect the fact that leaderships were frequently suborned, and corrupt practice by peasant office holders was widespread, though it reflected their role in a larger power structure in which corruption existed at all levels. The Santa Clara chemist was a particularly easy target, not simply because of his job, but also because of other aspects of his personal behaviour and character. As is generally the case, the welter of accusations did not lead to any significant result: the meeting was apparently satisfied by the cathartic experience of raising the issue, which also compensated for the majority of growers' implicit acceptance of their powerlessness to improve the returns to their labour through a strike which would probably prove ineffectual. Nevertheless, Don Pepe's group was, in fact, subsequently ousted.