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The Mexican Supreme Court and the Juntas de Conciliación y Arbitraje, 1917–1924: The Judicialisation of Labour Relations after the Revolution*

  • WILLIAM J. SUAREZ-POTTS (a1)

Abstract

This article reviews Mexican Supreme Court decisions concerning the legal status of juntas de conciliación y arbitraje (state labour boards of conciliation and arbitration) between 1917 and 1924. During this period the Court played an important role in legitimising these administrative boards, which have since become a constituent part of Mexico's state–labour regime. This examination of the Court's decisions shows how judge-made law contributed to the evolution of industrial relations in the country in the early 1920s. Furthermore, the article's discussion of the connection between the Court's evolving case law and its changing membership in this period indicates how its legal decisions were sensitive to political changes. This presents an early instance of the more recent trend toward the judicialisation of politics in Latin America.

Este artículo revisa las decisiones de la Corte Suprema mexicana relacionadas con el estatus legal de las juntas de conciliación y arbitraje laborales del Estado entre 1917 y 1924. Durante este periodo, la Corte jugó un papel importante en la legitimización de tales juntas administrativas, que se habían vuelto parte constituyente del régimen laboral estatal de México. Este examen de las decisiones de la Corte muestra cómo leyes hechas por jueces contribuyeron a la evolución de las relaciones industriales en el país a principios de los años 20. Asimismo, la discusión de la conexión entre la jurisprudencia de la Corte y su cambiante membresía en ese periodo indica que sus decisiones legales fueron sensibles a los cambios políticos. Lo anterior representa una temprana instancia de la tendencia más reciente alrededor de la judicialización de la política en Latinoamérica.

O artigo examina decisões do Supremo Tribunal de Justiça do México referentes ao estado legal de conselhos estatais de conciliação e arbitragem trabalhista entre 1917 e 1924. Ao longo deste período o tribunal desempenhou importante papel em legitimar os conselhos administrativos que desde então se tornaram parte constitutiva do regime mexicano trabalhista estatal. A análise das decisões do tribunal demonstra como leis escritas por juízes contribuíram para a evolução das relações industriais no país no início da década de 1920. A discussão sobre a conexão entre o direito jurisprudencial em evolução e o quadro de membros em transformação durante o período ainda indica a suscetibilidade das decisões legais às mudanças políticas. Representa uma das primeiras instâncias da tendência mais recente em direção à judicialização da política na América Latina.

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1 In Mexico, jurisprudencia normally refers to the courts' case law, that is, to their decisions, not to jurisprudence in the broadest sense. Technically, jurisprudencia denotes five consistent rulings (tesis) by the Supreme Court, which together establish a precedent that is binding on the Court itself and on the lower courts until the former makes an explicit ruling to the contrary. This narrow definition was ratified in Articles 147–9 of the Ley de amparo of 1919, which is reprinted in Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, Historia del amparo en México, 2nd edition, vol. 5 (Mexico City, 2000).

2 See, for example, ‘El Pte de la Corte sostiene que las Juntas de Conciliacion y Arbitraje son autoridades/Los que impugnan el carácter de autoridad de dichas Juntas, dice el Lic. Francisco Modesto Ramírez, observan una conducta contradictoria, a Mi Juicio’, El Universal, 5 Feb. 1924, p. 4; Barry Carr, El movimiento obrero y la política en Mexico, 1910–1929 (Mexico City, 1981); and Jaime Tamayo, En el interinato de Adolfo de la Huerta y el gobierno de Alvaro Obregón (1920–1924), vol. 7 of Pablo González Casanova (ed.), La clase obrera en la historia de México (Mexico City, 1987), p. 34 (citing Carr).

3 See, for example, Mario de la Cueva, El nuevo derecho mexicano del trabajo (Mexico City, 1991), vol. 2, pp. 530–3; Kevin J. Middlebrook, The Paradox of Revolution: Labor, the State and Authoritarianism in Mexico (Baltimore, 1995), p. 58 and n. 68; and Carr, El movimiento obrero, p. 155. The latter two cite Marjorie Ruth Clark, Organized Labor in Mexico (New York, 1973 [1934]), pp. 245–7. María del Carmen Collado Herrera, Empresarios y politicos, entre la restauración y la revolución, 1920–1924 (Mexico City, 1996), like Tamayo, cites Carr.

4 Opinions of the Supreme Court have been regularly published under its auspices in the Semanario Judicial de la Federación since the late nineteenth century. All published decisions cited herein refer to this reporter, and are cited as Semanario Judicial and to the relevant series, the ‘quinta época’. In addition, the Court has regularly held public conferences in which significant decisions are read and discussed. Pronouncements from those conferences quoted herein were transcribed and printed in the Versiones Taquigráficas, bound volumes that were held in the Supreme Court's archival office in Mexico City at the time of my research in the summer of 2002.

5 The eleven judges of the Supreme Court in the early 1920s were frequently referred to as magistrados; the more common, contemporary term for a judge of the high court is ministro. To distinguish Supreme Court judges from lower court federal judges this article normally uses the term ‘justice’.

6 Rachel Sieder, Line Schjolden and Alan Angell (eds.), The Judicialization of Politics in Latin America (New York, 2005); Matthew M. Taylor, Judging Policy: Courts and Policy Reform in Democratic Brazil (Stanford, 2008); and Taylor, , ‘Beyond Judicial Reform: Courts as Political Actors in Latin America’, Latin American Research Review, vol. 41, no. 2 (June 2006), pp. 269–80.

7 Sieder et al., The Judicialization of Politics, p. 3.

9 Ibid., p. 8, and Guillermo O'Donnell, ‘Afterword’, in The Judicialization of Politics, p. 293.

10 Sieder et al. note earlier judicial activism: see The Judicialization of Politics, p. 10. Taylor begins his review article with the statement, ‘Legal institutions have always factored into Latin America's political fortunes. Law is an essential ingredient in determining who gets what, when, and how.’ ‘Beyond Judicial Reform: Courts as Political Actors in Latin America’, p. 269.

11 Sieder et al. (eds.), The Judicialization of Politics, pp. 12–16.

12 Article 123, Secretaría de Gobernación, Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Edición Oficial (Mexico City, 1917).

13 Transitory Article 11, Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

14 Article 123, clause XX states: ‘Differences or disputes between capital and labour shall be subject to the decisions of a Board of Conciliation and Arbitration, to consist of an equal number of representatives of workers and employers and one from the government.’ Clause XXI of the same article states: ‘If the employer shall refuse to submit his differences to arbitration, the labour contract shall be considered as terminated, and the employer shall be obliged to indemnify the worker by the payment to him of three months’ wages and shall incur any liability resulting from the dispute. If the workers reject the award, the contract shall be considered as terminated.' E. V. Niemeyer, Jr., Revolution at Queretaro: The Mexican Constitutional Convention of 1916–1917 (Austin, 1974), from which the translation of the two clauses is quoted.

15 Pastor Rouaix, Génesis de los artículos 27 y 123 de la Constitución Política de 1917 (2nd edition, Mexico City, 1959); cf. Middlebrook, Paradox of Revolution, pp. 56–7. Regarding the animus against lawyers and the judiciary, see Santiago Oñate, ‘Administración de justicia y composición de conflictos laborales’, in El derecho laboral, ed. Graciela Bensusán, vol. 4 of El obrero mexicano, ed. by Pablo González Casanova (Mexico City, 1985), pp. 83–4.

16 Articles 94 and 96, and Transitory Article 5, Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

17 Richard D. Baker, Judicial Review in Mexico: A Study of the Amparo Suit (Austin, 1971), pp. xii–xiii; Ignacio Burgoa, El juicio de amparo (38th edition, Mexico City, 2001).

18 See for example the case of Cervercería Moctezuma, S.A., 14 April 1923, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 12, p. 752, which concerned the retroactive application of a Veracruz statute requiring profit sharing.

19 ‘Legal culture’ has been defined as ‘the cluster of attitudes, ideas, expectations, and values that people hold with regard to their legal system, legal institutions and legal rules’. Laurence Freidman and Rogelio Pérez, Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe (Stanford, 2003), p. 2, quoted in Sieder et al., The Judicialization of Politics, pp. 12–13.

20 Presidentialism (presidencialismo) here means a predominant executive power subordinating the legislative and judicial branches of government. See Vicente Lombardo Toledano, La libertad sindical (1926), reprinted in Obras completas (Puebla, 1992), pp. 41–2, regarding the importance of the executive branch as the determining power under Carranza and Obregón.

21 Francisco J. Paoli and Enrique Montalvo, El socialismo olvidado de Yucatán (Mexico City, 1977).

22 Carr, El movimiento obrero.

23 María Amparo Casar and Ignacio Marván (eds.), Gobernar sin mayoría, México 1867–1997 (Mexico City, 2002).

24 Ignacio Marván Laborde describes the stalemate during Carranza's administration in ‘Ejecutivo fuerte y division de poderes: el primer ensayo de esa utopia de la Revolución Mexicana’, in Gobernar sin mayoría, p. 141.

25 Georgette José Valenzuela, ‘1920–1924: ¡…Y venían de una Revolución! De la oposición civil a la oposición militar’, in Gobernar sin mayoría, p. 173 n. 37.

26 ‘Es urgente la reglamentación del Artículo 123 de la Carta Magna’, El Demócrata, 22 Jan. 1923, p. 2, quoting Plutarco Elías Calles, then Secretary of the Interior (Gobernación).

27 For general labour histories of the period, see Pablo González Casanova, En el primer gobierno constitucional (1917–1920), vol. 6 of La clase obrera en la historia de México (Mexico City, 1980); Tamayo, En el interinato; and Carr, El movimiento obrero.

28 Carr, El movimiento obrero, specifically pp. 132–4 and Appendix C.

29 At the time the Ministerio Público, basically a federal public attorney office, briefed the federal judiciary on the public interest position in litigation before the federal judiciary. The political situation of Veracruz between 1921 and 1923 described in this paragraph is based largely on Collado Herrera, pp. 250–304.

30 González Casanova, En el primer gobierno constitucional (1917–1920), p. 29.

31 Oñate, ‘Administración de justicia y composición de conflictos laborales’.

32 Domingo, Pilar, ‘Judicial Independence: The Politics of the Supreme Court in Mexico’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 32, no. 3 (2000), pp. 705–35. Domingo (p. 710) cites J. F. Cárdenas Gracia, Una Constitución para la democracia: propuestas para un Nuevo Orden Constitucional (Mexico City, 1996), p. 173, for the proposition that the federal judiciary was relatively independent of the executive power between 1917 and 1928.

33 Jeffrey Bortz, Revolution within the Revolution: Cotton Textile Workers and the Mexican Labor Regime, 1919–1923 (Stanford, 2008), argues for the revolutionary implications of the militant textile workers' movement in such states as Veracruz and Puebla.

34 Lombardo Toledano, La libertad sindical, pp. 42–52; and Salvador Alvarado, La Reconstrucción de México (Mexico City, 1989 [1919]), vol. 2, pp. 341–2.

35 Diario de los Debates de la Cámara de los Diputados del Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Periodo Extraordinario XXVII Legislatura, vol. 1, núm. 38, 23 May 1917, http://cronica.diputados.gob.mx (accessed 13 Aug. 2008) gives the vote for Supreme Court candidates on this date.

36 ‘Las elecciones de magistrados a la Suprema Corte’, and ‘Elecciones de magistrados a la Suprema Corte’, Excélsior, 12 and 13 May 1917, respectively; see also 18 and 24 May 1917.

37 ‘Funcionamiento del Poder Judicial’, Excélsior, 7 May 1917. In another article Excélsior reported that the two congressional blocs had eliminated ‘el criterio político, por lo que sólo se tendrá en cuenta la honorabilidad, la capacidad jurídica, la probidad y otras muchas cualidades morales y profesionales para nombrar los candidatos’. Excélsior, 13 May 1917.

38 Excélsior, 12 May 1917.

39 Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, Ministros 1917–2004: Semblanzas (Mexico City, 2005), 2 vols.

40 Charles Hale, The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico (Princeton, 1989). On the justices' positions as constitutional delegates, see Ministros 1917–2004 and Lucio Cabrera, El poder judicial federal mexicana y el constituyente de 1917 (Mexico City, 1968), pp. 64–74.

41 ‘En Congreso General fue hecha la elección de magistrados a la Suprema Corte’, Excélsior, 22 May 1919.

42 Marván Laborde, ‘Ejecutivo fuerte y division de poderes: el primer ensayo de esa utopia de la Revolución Mexicana’, in Gobernar sin mayoría, pp. 153–6.

43 Lucio Carbrera Acevedo, La Suprema Corte de Justicia durante el gobierno del presidente Obregón (1920–1924) (Mexico City, 1996), p. 23, citing Excélsior, 28 Oct. 1919, and Carlos Macías Richard, Vida y temperamento. Plutarco Elías Calles, 1877–1920 (1995), p. 292.

44 ‘La eleccion de magistrados a la Sup. Corte’, Excélsior, 13 May 1919: ‘varios miembros distinguidos del Foro capitalino, se habían dirigido a la Legislatura de Hidalgo sugiriéndole la conveniencia de que ese abogado fuera el único candidato del Congreso hidalguense, pues que los méritos que tiene y que ha alcanzado a fuerza, da laboriosidad, capacidad y honradez, lo hacen figurar como uno de los jurisconsultos más avocados para integrar la Suprema Corte de Justicia’.

45 Excélsior, 22 May 1919.

46 ‘Pronostico de Excélsior acerca de los cc. que integrarán la Suprema Corte’, Excélsior, 11 May 1919.

47 ‘La Elección de magistrados a la Suprema Corte de Justicia’, and ‘Quienes son los C.C. que forman la Suprema Corte de Justicia’, Excélsior, 13 and 23 May 1919, respectively.

48 Ministros 1917–1924, p. 275.

49 Excélsior, 23 May 1919.

50 See Valenzuela, ‘1920–1924: ¡…Y venían de una Revolución’, pp. 158–9.

51 See generally El Demócrata, 11, 14, 24, 25, 26 and 27 July 1923.

52 See Emilio Portes Gil's statement in Congress, in Diario de los Debates, Periodo Extraordinario, XXX Legislatura, vol. 2, núm. 45, Sesión Permanente, 31 May 1923, http://cronica.diputados.gob.mx (accessed 13 Aug. 2008); and ‘Tampoco ayer fue electa la Suprema Corte’, Excélsior, 5 June 1923, p. 1.

53 ‘Por fin, van a ser hoy discutidos los candidatos a magistrados’, El Universal, 18 May 1923.

54 ‘Las mayorías parlamentarias designaron sus seis candidatos a la magistratura de la Corte’, El Demócrata, 25 July 1923, p. 1.

55 Lombardo Toledano, La libertad sindical.

56 Felipe Remolina Roqueñi, Evolución de las instituciones y del derecho del trabajo en México (Mexico City, 1976), p. 43.

57 Gilbert M. Joseph, Revolution from Without (Durham NC, 1988).

58 Ibid., p. 214.

59 J. Crasseman Sucesores, S. en C., 2 November 1917, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 1, p. 773.

60 Guillermo Cabrera, 8 March 1918, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 2, p. 772.

61 Francisco Fuentes Vargas, 13 March 1918, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 2, p. 807.

62 J. Crasseman refers only to the Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje; Cabrera refers to the Tribunal de Arbitraje, too, which, from the content of the opinion, must have been the review board, though still clearly an administrative body, not a law tribunal or court.

63 See Cabrera, p. 776.

64 Lane Rincón Mines Incorporated, 23 Aug. 1918, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 3, p. 552.

65 Published opinions of amparo suits in this period frequently mention whether or not the Ministerio Público has recommended the concession or denial of the petition.

66 Lane Rincón, pp. 556–7.

67 See Remolina Roqueñi, Evolución de las instituciones, p. 44.

68 Lane Rincón, p. 558.

69 Ibid., pp. 558–60.

70 Ibid., pp. 561–2.

71 Clark, Organized Labor, p. 245.

72 Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje de Veracruz, 23 Jan. 1919, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 4, p. 279.

73 Florencio O. Martínez, 3 Feb. 1919, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 4, p. 337.

74 Ibid. at 341–2. On the Ley Juárez as a legal measure against the special jurisdiction of Church courts, see generally Jan Bazant, ‘From Independence to the Liberal Republic, 1821–1867’, in Leslie Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 4 (Cambridge, 1984).

75 Martínez, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 4, p. 343.

76 Victoria y Anexas, S.A., 15 Feb. 1919, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 4, p. 412.

77 Ibid., p. 417.

78 See the excerpt of Libro de pleno de junio de 1919 reprinted in Lucio Cabrera Acevedo, La Suprema Corte de Justicia, la Revolución y el Constituyente de 1917 (1914–1917) (Mexico City, 1994), p. 347.

79 La Blanca y Anexas, S.A., 11 June 1921, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 8, p. 1015.

80 Ibid., p. 1020.

81 Las Dos Estrellas, S.A., 29 June 1922, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 11, p. 794.

82 Suprema Corte de Justicia, Versiones Taquigráficas, 29 June 1922 session.

83 Las Dos Estrellas, p. 798.

84 Versiones Taquigráficas, 29 June 1922 session.

85 Las Dos Estrellas, p. 798.

87 Ibid., p. 799.

88 Ibid., pp. 801–2.

89 The Texas Company of Mexico, 8 Feb. 1923, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 12, p. 286.

90 Ibid., pp. 288–90.

91 Alfonso C. Sansores, 8 Feb. 1923, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 12, p. 291.

92 Ibid., 292–3.

93 Carlos Díaz Ordaz, 24 Jan. 1924, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 14, p. 365.

94 One labour scholar referred to it as the first case in which the Court overturned its earlier case law. See Clark, Organized Labor, p. 248 n. 21. Contemporaries also reported the shift in the Court's position. See ‘La Suprema Corte hizo justicia a los obreros’, El Universal, 29 Jan. 1924.

95 ‘Las Juntas de Conciliación son desde ayer autoridades’, El Universal, 25 Jan. 1924, p. 1.

96 Clark, Organized Labor, p. 193.

97 Díaz Ordaz, pp. 371–3.

98 ‘La Corona’, Cía. Mexicana Holandesa, S.A., 1 Feb. 1924, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 14, p. 492.

99 Ibid., p. 498.

100 Ibid. The most significant aspect of the ruling related to the Court's holding that the boards had imperio: their determinations would be binding analogously to those of courts. This point is further noted below, in the description of the public conference that accompanied the issuance of the opinion.

101 Asunto Compañia Mexicana Holandesa ‘La Corona’, S.A., in Versiones Taquigráficas, 1 Feb. 1924 session.

102 Ibid. (Castro speaking).

103 Ibid. (Castro speaking). Cf. La Corona, p. 497, and the opinion's report of the Veracruz junta's argument using the fact of sanctions as evidence of the mandatory nature of board awards.

104 Ibid.

105 Ibid.

106 Ibid. (Garza Pérez speaking); see also Vicencio's statement, in ibid.

107 ‘Los fallos de la Corte sobre las Juntas de Conciliacion’, El Universal, 4 Feb. 1924, p. 1.

108 Mario de la Cueva, Derecho mexicano del trabajo, vol. 2 (Mexico City, 1949), pp. 943–50, on which this and the next paragraph are based.

109 Bassols would become a leading progressive, public intellectual in subsequent years.

110 De la Cueva, Derecho mexicano del trabajo, pp. 944–5.

111 Asunto Compañía de Tranvias Luz y Fuerza de Puebla Contra Actos de la Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje de Veracruz y Presidente Municipal de Orizaba, in Versiones Taquigráficas, 21 Aug. 1924.

112 Cía. de Tranvías, Luz y Fuerza de Puebla, S.A., 21 Aug. 1924, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 15, p. 508; and El Universal, 22 Aug. 1924, p.1, c. 2.

113 Ibid., pp. 515–16: ‘de otro modo las funciones de las juntas … serían incompletas, si se tiene en cuenta que los obreros tendrían, en cada caso, que ocurrir a los tribunales del orden común, para que se resolviese cualquier diferencia que tuvieran con el patrono, relacionada con el contrato de trabajo’.

114 Ibid.: ‘por tal concepto, éstas vienen a constituir verdaderos tribunales encargados de resolver todas aquellas cuestiones que tienen relación con el contrato de trabajo, en todos sus aspectos, bien sea colectivamente o en la forma individual’.

115 Asunto Cía. de Tranvías, Luz y Fuerza de Puebla, in Versiones Taquigráficas, 21 Aug. 1924 (Urbina speaking).

116 Ibid.

117 Ibid.

118 Ibid.

119 Ibid. (Padilla speaking).

120 Cf. Narciso Bassols, ‘¿Qué son, por fin, las Juntas de Conciliación y Arbitraje?’, in Revista General de Derecho y Jurisprudencia, vol. 1 (1930), p. 185.

121 Excélsior, 1, 2 and 3 Feb. 1924. But see ‘La autoridad de las Juntas de Conciliación’, El Universal, 26 Jan. 1924, cited in Collado Herrera, Empresarios y políticos, p. 323.

122 See the citations in note 3, supra, and related text.

123 See ‘Voto de simpatía por la H. Cámara de Diputados a la H. Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, por las sentencias pronunciadas por esta en los casos de amparo pedidos por conflictos de trabajo’, 7 Oct. 1924, reprinted in Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 14, p. 859.

124 Cf. Middlebrook, Paradox of Revolution, p. 58. Interestingly, the Ministerio Público recommended ruling against Veracruz's board in La Corona; see Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 14, p. 497.

125 María Gambú, Viuda de Maurer, 31 Aug. 1923, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 13, p. 342.

126 Cervecería Moctezuma, S.A., 14 April 1923; and Cía. Agrícola Francesa y coagraviados, 28 April 1923, Semanario Judicial, 5a época, vol. 12, p. 856.

127 Bassols, ‘¿Qué son, por fin, las Juntas de Conciliación y Arbitraje?’ and Domingo, ‘Judicial Independence’.

* The author would like to thank the editors and anonymous referees of the Journal of Latin American Studies for their constructive criticism of earlier drafts of this article. Parts of the article draw on a paper he presented at the Center for US–Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego, in April 2005.

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