Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class and Memory

This book is a unique contribution to Cold War discourse in that it is not about landless peasants or factory workers in sweatshops but about those who kept the transportation networks powering the economy functioning. Alegre paints a vivid picture of how these railway radicals struck back at stingy bosses, corrupt unions and a disinterested government via the landmark strikes of 1958-1959.

The seeds of radicalism date from the 1910 revolution, when land reforms provided the peasantry with property for the first time. Strong unions and a government sceptical of private enterprise also cemented the railway workers zeal for radicalism. However, as anti-labour attitudes became stronger after the Second World War, a group of anti-communist unionists called the “October 14 Group” wrested control of the union and changed its ideological opposition to wage freezes and other accommodations favoured by bosses.

Alegre contends that the new leader, Diaz de Leon, was not an obvious sellout from the start as previous works had assumed. His interviews with surviving workers reveal that Leon enjoyed genuine support from the rank and file and that opposition or support towards his takeover was not uniform and reflected disagreements about union politics even among radicals.

Chapter 2 provides a backgrounder on the railway “patriarchy”, where women were barred from railway jobs and men saw their jobs as the embodiment of masculinity. More significantly, this sentiment also developed into a belief that the workers were the custodians of the hard won labour rights dating from the revolution that secured this lifestyle.  Amidst discontent at new limits to striking and bosses ever eager for more concessions, the workers turned to the skilled activist Demetrio Vallejo, whose indigenous ancestry and relative obscurity in national unionism caught the authorities and union off-guard.

Chapters Three to Five detail how Vallejo led the workers on three successful strikes between 1958 and 1959. In particular, Alegre characterises this clash of wills as a mismatch of expectations of what democracy ought to be. The workers expected the right to elect their leadership freely and lobby for wage increases and benefits via lawful strikes. The government and its allies preferred a bureaucratic version where workers channelled their concerns to approved bodies for negotiations. More critically, under Vallejo’s leadership, the union spread beyond the railway to lobby for other labour causes to encourage broader social awareness and support for their struggle.

The movement eventually unravelled as increasing social divisions and fears of a communist takeover ruptured public support. When workers at private railways striked for similar concessions that the state railway offered, it fractured the STFRM as Vallejo was reluctant to add his support. When workers striked anyway, the government moved swiftly to suppress it, detaining the leaders and forcing the rest back to work under heavy penalties. Alegre also chronicles how female relatives, especially Lilia Benitez (Vallejo’s niece) of detained strikers stepped in to advocate for the cause, not merely as a stop gap but as a public assertion of a parallel hierarchy among women in railway families.

Alegre’s book is especially easy to read and he uses a wide variety of sources from both Mexican and US archives to interrogate pre-existing geopolitical and ideological assumptions of the movement. He is also rigorous in his analysis of oral history interviews and acknowledges their subjectivity in his work. Perhaps one area for improvement would be to expand the book into a history of railway unionism in Mexico throughout the Cold War years instead of just centering it around the four strikes.

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