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Oil Union in Mexico : Finally Meets Its Match

<i> Luis Rubio is the director of IBAFIN, an independent research group in Mexico City</i>

Salinas means business. This is the main conclusion to draw from the detention of La Quina and the whole clique of leaders of Mexico’s oil workers’ union that for years manipulated and terrorized not only Mexico’s petroleum industry but also, increasingly, society at large.

Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, nicknamed La Quina, was, despite a modest job title, the man behind the throne, the “spiritual leader” of a union so large and powerful that it became a political stronghold to be reckoned with. Over the last decade the union leadership exploited every opportunity that it had to threaten, explicitly and directly, the president--whether Carlos Salinas de Gortari or his predecessors. In a recent exchange the union boss told Salinas that it would be easier for him to quit the presidency than for the union leaders to give up their jobs.

The Al Capone of Mexico was much more influential than his American counterpart, for La Quina had become not only a political power stronghold; he controlled a vast quasi-military force as well. Over the years the union leadership built an empire on the basis of a permanent blackmail against the state-owned oil company, Pemex, and the government. The implicit threat was the union’s ability to blow up huge petrochemical complexes or similar installations.

Five years ago a liquid-gas complex exploded in the outskirts of Mexico City, killing 4,000 people. Nobody knows who was to blame (officially it was called an accident), but it is known that during those days the government had been planning an action against the union that was similar to the one that took place on Jan. 10. In the pursuit of its goals the union is expedient, powerful and merciless.

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By immobilizing La Quina and all his tentacles, political and economic, Salinas has, first, proved that outlaws cannot be tolerated. Most important, the new president has significantly broadened his own room to maneuver, making it ever more likely that his reform program will be implemented. It is conceivable that one of the largest stumbling blocks to reform, the union movement at large, will become supportive of the overall reform effort. And, of course, Salinas has gained significant support from the Mexican public.

But the detention of the oil union’s leaders, as important and significant as it is, will not be enough. La Quina did not grow in a vacuum; for years, particularly when world oil prices increased dramatically during the 1970s, the government’s goal was to increase production regardless of cost. Along the way, the union secured its share of the growing pie through contracts with Pemex and outright corruption. It was to preserve the leaders’ ill-gotten assets, as well as their power, that they even created an army of their own.

Once the leadership has been purged,the next job will have to be to restructure Pemex into smaller entities so that a phenomenon like La Quina will not grow again. Since Pemex is the largest productive firm in the country, many of the problems of corruption are concentrated there; however, similar problems exist in other firms and entities--private and government. A restructuring that starts with Pemex could involve powerful casualties and a major political battle.

The message implicit in Salinas’ recent action is that he is going to tackle the country’s problems head on. Clearly, vested interests in all sectors will resist the course of reform that Salinas has firmly put the country on, for they will suffer directly from it. By moving against the largest power stronghold of all, however, Salinas has shown that he is not going to shy away from the big problems. Salinas has also proved that he is attempting to build long-term credibility rather than an ephemeral, short-term popularity.

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