Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was elected to the Mexican presidency in a landslide victory in 2018. Campaigning as a champion of the poor, AMLO denounced Mexico’s “monstrous inequality” and pledged to redress the nation’s pervasive poverty, redistribute wealth, and stamp out corruption among political elites. His victory, celebrated by progressive leaders throughout Latin America, was heralded as a “political earthquake,” handing “a sweeping mandate” to “the most left-wing government in [Mexico’s] history.” In his inaugural address, AMLO vowed social transformation and laid out what would serve as the guiding principle for his nascent administration: “por el bien de todos, primero los pobres” (“for the good of all, the poor first”).
Just over two years into his term, AMLO’s approval rating remains one of the highest among world leaders, but he has received severe denouncement from voices on the left. These criticisms are far from baseless. His administration has declined to tax the wealthy and introduced harsh austerity measures. He allied himself with Donald Trump and, at the behest of the disgraced former American President, cracked down on illegal immigration. He disregarded the horrors of the covid-19 pandemic, refusing to impose lockdowns (or even wear a mask), and his administration recognized and even praised the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — one of the hallmarks of the neoliberal regime that ravaged Mexican workers.
In brief, AMLO’s decades-long crusade against poverty and corruption has long rendered him one of Mexico’s most admired, derided, and controversial public figures, and his administration has been beleaguered by contradictory tendencies.
After the Mexican Revolution in 1910, which transformed Mexico’s feudal economic order into a capitalist system, Mexico was ruled for decades by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or the PRI, an authoritarian and endemically corrupt political party controlled by the country’s plutocrats. In the early 1980s, disastrous neoliberal reforms descended upon the Mexican economy; ruling elites handed the financial system over to foreign investors, deregulated markets, privatized state-owned sectors of the economy, gutted social services, and signed international trade agreements that subjected Mexican farmers and workers to vicious exploitation at the hands of transnational corporations.
Three decades of market fanaticism devastated what was already a highly oppressive society. Today, Mexico is one of the most unequal countries in the world. One percent of Mexicans own more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, and nearly half of the population is poor, including millions subsisting on less than $2 a day. Mexican workers endure the longest hours and some of the lowest wages among OECD countries. Organized criminal syndicates entirely control some regions of the country, murdering tens of thousands of people every year, including politicians and journalists, and dumping their remains into mass graves, while colossal political corruption scandals have become exhaustingly routine.
AMLO entered this scene as a fierce opponent of the neoliberal regime, blaming it for Mexico’s social degradation and vowing to remake Mexican society. “The neoliberal economic policy has been a disaster…because of the tremendous concentration of income in a few hands, the majority of the population has become impoverished,” he declared in blistering campaign speeches. Exhausted and angry after decades of rising poverty, violence, and corruption, Mexican voters, especially the young and the poor, turned out in unprecedented numbers to reject the reactionary ideology that had orchestrated the dismemberment of the Mexican economy and to embrace AMLO’s promise of national rejuvenation. The tsunami of popular disaffection swept AMLO into Los Pinos, while his newly formed political party, MORENA, won control of both legislative chambers.
In his first two years at the helm of the Mexican government, AMLO’s administration has taken far more ambitious steps than any of his predecessors to reduce the country’s staggering levels of inequality. In his first month, AMLO raised the national minimum wage by 15 percent, and he doubled it for workers on the northern border a month later. His administration restructured the national budget and introduced a slate of new social programs, including a healthcare institute, scholarships, disability benefits, and a national pension program. The aggregate income of Mexican workers increased by nearly six percent during his first year — more than double the entire term of his immediate predecessor — and the poorest 20 percent increased their income by nearly a quarter. Also of significance, in the spring of 2019, AMLO coordinated passage of a major labor law reform that has the potential to reshape the Mexican economy.
Before the labor law overhaul, Mexico was one of the few countries that did not guarantee its workers collective bargaining rights. After the Revolution, leaders of the emerging PRI were determined to control the restive labor movement, and they created a massive pro-government labor federation to rule over Mexico’s workers. The Confederation of Mexican Workers strictly limited which unions it recognized and, for decades, PRI elites appointed loyal officials to head employer-controlled unions, derisively dubbed “charros,” that colluded with factory owners and negotiated bogus “protection contracts” designed to suppress wages. American companies relocating to Mexico would routinely secure ghost contracts with obedient union leaders before they even hired a single worker, and up to 90 percent of the collective-bargaining agreements (CBAs) in Mexico were negotiated without the involvement or consent of the workers. Labor activists challenging this system have been subjected to intimidation, arrest, and even assassination.
The reform bill, signed into law on May 1, 2019, grants Mexican workers the right to elect union officials by secret ballot and to ratify negotiated CBAs. Among other provisions, the bill also requires that all existing CBAs be submitted to a legitimation vote and creates an independent federal agency to oversee union elections and a new system of specialized labor courts. Shortly after the reform’s passage, labor leader Valter Sanches celebrated it as “a huge opportunity to bring democracy to the union movement in Mexico.”
Labor activists have cautioned that overcoming the politically entrenched company unions will be an arduous process. In its interim report at the end of last year, the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board (IMLEB) announced that there had been “substantial progress” in implementing the labor law reforms but acknowledged that efforts have been hampered by inadequate resources, mismanagement at the state level, and the coronavirus pandemic. Less than one percent of the existing CBAs in Mexican workplaces have been legitimated, and most Mexican workers remain unable to elect their union leaders. One of the first major attempts to replace a traditional company union, at a Bridgestone tire factory in Monterrey, may serve as a dismal indication. The factory workers were threatened and harassed, the election was rescheduled, and, ultimately, the independent union was soundly defeated. IMLEB’s report concluded that “many of the changes promised to improve the lives of workers…remain to be implemented,” but reaffirmed that, despite the challenges, the Mexican government has “continued with its efforts to build the institutions required…and to begin to put new and expanded rights into the hands of Mexican workers.”