MEXICO CITY – Labor activists said Monday that the re-election of Mexico's two most powerful union bosses throws into doubt whether the country can really democratize its autocratic, corrupt union groups, as the government has proposed.
The heads of the Oil Workers Union, Carlos Romero Deschamps, and of Mexico's largest teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, were elected to new six-year terms over the weekend. Both have held the tops spots in their unions since the early 1990s.
The unopposed "elections" of Romero Deschamps and Gordillo were carried out in the old union style that has come in for so much criticism in recent months as President Felipe Calderon tries to pass a labor reform through congress.
"It really came as no surprise, this was to be expected," said Benedicto Martinez, a leader of the upstart Authentic Labor Front, one of the few union groups that elects its leadership board by secret balloting among all members.
Comparing the current situation to the days of Fidel Velazquez, a cigar-chomping boss who ruled the country's largest union for 47 years until his death in 1997, Martinez noted: "It's the same today, but instead of having a single chief, there are several."
Romero Deschamps has earned criticism for his apparent wealth — his daughter posted photos of her trips to Europe aboard private jets and yachts — and his callous comments following a pipeline blast that killed 30 workers at a facility in northern Mexico, when he said "we don't have to exaggerate an event that doesn't merit it."
Gordillo once raffled off Hummer luxury cars to some of her union delegates, and this year gave them laptops, according to local media. She is known for wearing designer clothes and carrying expensive purses.
Such excesses raise hackles in a country where workers earn as little as 60 pesos ($5) per day but still pay dues to pro-company "paper" unions they never see. About one-fifth of salaried workers in Mexico are unionized.
The way they hold onto their posts is at the heart of the controversy: Romero Deschamps was "elected" unopposed in a closed-door meeting by a unanimous voice-vote of delegates representing the union's 140,000 members.
Gordillo, while she used ballot boxes in her election, wasn't directly elected by the 1.4 million members of the teacher's union. She was re-elected unopposed by regional delegates, changing only her title, from president of the union to head of the group's "Supreme Council."
It all causes some Mexicans to shake their heads in disbelief.
"It really is a mystery how these leaders can maintain themselves in control for so long," said labor lawyer Carlos de Buen, who has helped advise some dissident groups who sought to challenge entrenched leaderships that, with little accountability, can buy off or intimidate opponents.
"For some reason, they (the dissidents) never seem to have grown enough to challenge somebody like Deschamps," De Buen said.
Martinez, the independent union leader, said union democracy would only be achieved by limiting leaders' discretionary use of funds, while ensuring they are elected secret ballots among all members.
Those are among the reforms that Calderon proposed to congress last month, but the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — whose candidate won the July 1 elections to replace Calderon — stripped out the union democracy provisions in the lower house. The Senate struggled Monday to restore the provisions, but the PRI remained firmly opposed, claiming it would violate union autonomy.
But the problem extends into even what are considered the progressive unions that have few ties to the PRI. The leader of the Telephone Workers Union, Francisco Hernandez Juarez, is considered independent and left-leaning, but has held the top leadership spot in his union since 1976, longer than Gordillo or Deschamps.
"We don't want to be tarred with the same brush" as the old-guard unions, said telephone workers' spokesman Eduardo Torres. "We are going to have to do some work there to change that image we have."
Asked if that might mean getting a new leader after 36 years in power, Torres acknowledged "it might eventually have to come to that."