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Industry and Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley, Mexico

Author(s):Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora
Reviewer(s):López-Alonso, Moramay

Published by EH.Net (May 2014)

Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, Industry and Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley, Mexico. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. vi + 362 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-07272-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Moramay López-Alonso, Department of History, Rice University.

Historians of Mexico have written voluminously on the Mexican Revolution and the participation of workers in it, as they have also written on the economic take-off that Mexico experienced toward the end of the nineteenth century.  Focusing on discrete aspects of Mexico’s industrialization and political or social change, they have enlarged our understanding of the period 1880-1930, but piecemeal. In a clearly written and thoroughly researched monograph, Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato combines an economic and business history with a labor history of this crucial fifty-year period, depicting sharply the economic and social changes that occurred in the Orizaba Valley of Veracruz. While still a focused study of one region and industry in Mexico, Industry and Revolution transcends the limits of most regional and business histories to present a complete account of economic development and its social implications in an economically and politically strategic area of Mexico during a crucial period of its history.

The basic argument is that in the Orizaba Valley two revolutions occurred between 1880 and 1930: the first, an industrial revolution, at the end of the nineteenth century; the second, a social revolution, in the early twentieth century. By looking at the Orizaba Valley, a paradigmatic case for the emergence of the textile industry in Mexico, one understands how, “the worldwide Industrial Revolution settled and evolved in Mexico” (p. 4); the role that industrial workers played in the years of insurrection and civil war (1911-1920); and how the institutional structures resulting from the Mexican Revolution had long term consequences for economic modernization.  The author examines Orizaba through the lens of multiple sources: the archival records of two of the largest textile companies in Mexico, CIDOSA and CIVSA, including the minutes of the board of directors, reports on the operation of the firms, and payroll records; as well as accounts by workers, journals, and official documents of the period.

Each chapter of the book outlines an important element of the cumulative story. Chapters 1 and 2 present a business history that reviews the genesis of the textile industry, specifically in the Orizaba Valley, and the initial funding, organization and operation of the firms CIVSA and CIDOSA.

Chapters 3 to 8 delve into the labor history of the region. Chapters 3 and 4 describe the development of the valley’s company towns, how people migrated there, their demographic profile, and how the nature of their work changed over time.  We also get a sense of how workers organized and looked for ways to improve their pay and working conditions.  The reader can thus imagine, “Orizaba Valley Mill towns as vibrant, young, educated and nonconformist working communities” (p. 86). In these towns, people grew up along with the companies. Chapter 4 examines clearly the causes, consequences, and importance of the near-mythic 1906-07 strikes and lockout of Río Blanco. Its significance is better understood as a result of a process underway for years, ongoing, and further affected by international events such as the 1907 economic crisis that impacted both the U.S. and Mexico. We also learn how local governments in Veracruz were perhaps more sympathetic to workers’ demands than the national government already during the last years of the Porfiriato.

In chapters 5 and 6 the reader learns about workers’ involvement in the 1910 Revolution and its aftermath. One gains an understanding of how the outbreak of the Revolution affected a simmering labor movement in the Orizaba Valley. Here, we get a sense of who joined the revolution, when, how, and why. In Chapter 5, the author discusses how Article 123 of the 1917 Constitution, normally purported to be the turning point in labor relations and working conditions for industrial workers, was actually closer to a legal validation of gains that had already been obtained by workers after years of struggle dating to before 1910.  In chapter 6, we also learn how workers from the Orizaba Valley in the post-revolutionary regimes enjoyed a particularly favorable situation in contrast to those in other regions and other industries, which enabled them “to form a powerful organization able to become politically relevant” (p. 177).  For their employers were the largest, most modern, and most profitable industrial firms of the period, and hence could meet their demands; in addition, workers enjoyed the support of state government authorities.

Chapters 7 and 8 explain how the power of industrial workers in Orizaba to have their demands fulfilled translated into better pay, working conditions, and living standards.  In a meticulous analysis of the sources, Gómez-Galvarriato shows how workers were gradually able to reduce the workday to eight hours while maintaining their wages and how this translated into an improvement in their quality of life. Workers’ lives improved from the Porfiriato to 1930 with better education, housing, urban infrastructure, and the wherewithal to consume more goods. The author thus points out how the eight-hour workday resulted from a process and not a radical change dictated by the 1917 Constitution. But the portrait sketched suggests that industrial workers in this region were the aristocracy of the working classes in Mexico.

Chapter 9 brings the reader back to the business side of this history, necessary in order to understand the fate of the textile industry in the post-revolutionary era.  During the period of this study CIVSA was a prosperous firm; still, it had to overcome the hazards of foreign and national competition, civil and international wars and, last but not least, workers’ demands for higher wages and shorter workdays. Upon its establishment, the firm’s owners decided to adopt a technology that was more labor intensive instead of the state of the art machinery, because of the costs of parts and technical assistance at the time. As time went by, technologies improved even more, and the cost of maintenance declined. But to be competitive, it would have been necessary to replace the technology initially chosen. The new labor laws, collective labor contracts, and the strength of the well-organized unions, made it difficult to undertake these technological innovations; as a result, the textile industry became increasingly outdated and lost profitability over time. The objective of preserving the gains won by workers eventually led to the demise of the industry and with it the decline of the region’s company towns.

Industry and Revolution recounts this story without the schematic abstractions of some historiography, in which workers are presented as martyrs, and businesses and governments as villains who never blink. The author illustrates how workers, businessmen, and politicians, based on the information they had, made choices according to their interests, sometimes for the collective good and sometimes not, as human beings do.  One can read how good intentions can lead to bad outcomes, in this case how the well-intended objective of guaranteeing employment security for industrial workers and fair remuneration despite technological challenges contributed to the gradual annihilation of the textile industry. One additional lesson is that in connection with workers’ rights, the state and federal governments did not always agree. Previous scholarship has noted this, but this book considers in detail negotiations and frictions between the different levels of government.

In sum, Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato succeeds at bringing business and labor history together to provide a better comprehension of the nation’s history of the industrial revolution, the development of its modern business firms, and of its labor movements, while still focusing on one region and economic sector. And Industry and Revolution convincingly argues that the Mexican Revolution cannot be fully understood without exploring the impact of forces triggered by the industrial revolution. This outstanding work should appeal to historians in different fields as a major contribution to the economic history of Mexico.

Moramay López-Alonso is the author of Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2012).

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Subject(s):Business History
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII