Building Union Democracy Across the US-Mexico Border

The relationship between American and Mexican trade unions has been characterized both by US labor officials carrying water for US imperialism in Mexico and by militant, democratic cross-border unionism.

The independent National Union of Automotive Workers (SINTTIA) now represents General Motors workers in Silao, Mexico. (Mauricio Palos / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Mexican labor movement is in motion. After being stifled for decades by an undemocratic labor relations system — where genuine collective bargaining was denied by corrupt union officials in league with employers and the state — Mexican workers are finally able to freely vote for unions of their own choosing thanks to a major labor law reform implemented in 2019.

Last month, in a historic victory for rank-and-file democracy, over four thousand workers at a General Motors (GM) plant in the city of Silao put the new labor law in action by voting overwhelmingly to replace their old, employer-friendly union with an independent one that has pledged to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. The ousted union was an affiliate of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), the county’s “official” labor federation that is effectively an appendage of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the political party that dominated Mexican society for most of the twentieth century.

The CTM’s early history followed a similar trajectory as that of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the United States. Both trade union federations were founded during the Great Depression, both achieved historic gains for the working class in the late 1930s by welcoming leftist organizers and allying with progressive presidents, both attempted to curb shop floor militancy during World War II through no-strike pledges (to the frustration of many rank-and-file workers), and both drifted to the right at the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s.

At the same moment CIO leaders embraced US imperialism in the belief that economic expansion and military spending would benefit American industrial workers, CTM leaders attached themselves to the Mexican government’s economic growth agenda, which depended on the flow of investment capital from the United States. As the CIO was expelling its militant, Communist-led affiliates for refusing to go along with the Cold War, the CTM was ousting left-wing economic nationalists and clamping down on an unruly rank and file by installing dictatorial, government-approved “charros” (the term used for Mexican cowboys, usually in elaborate dress) into union leadership positions.

So named because of one particular CTM bureaucrat’s penchant for wearing the traditional charro outfit, the charros have had a stranglehold over much of the Mexican labor movement ever since. Behind closed doors and in collusion with the state, they broker “protection contracts” with employers — secretive union agreements that lock in the bare minimum wages and benefits allowed under Mexican law, whether the rank and file like it or not.

Importantly, US labor officialdom played a key role in shaping Mexico’s undemocratic labor regime during the Cold War. Working in partnership with the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and later the merged AFL-CIO, undermined militant, independent, left-wing unionism in Mexico and throughout Latin America (and the rest of the world) between the 1940s and 1990s, as I chronicle in my forthcoming book on the subject. The CTM and its charro officials were among the closest foreign allies of the AFL-CIO’s anti-communist internationalists.

The AFL-CIO’s most prominent Cold War instrument in the Western Hemisphere was the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), a US government-funded nonprofit that trained hundreds of thousands of Latin American workers to be anti-communist, pro-US business unionists between 1962 and 1997. AIFLD was implicated in assisting right-wing coups, US military interventions, and oppressive regimes in countries like Guyana, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and El Salvador.

The AFL-CIO’s worldwide anti-communist crusade during the Cold War would ultimately prove to be an act of self-sabotage, as it bolstered conservative, pro-capitalist trade union centers in the Global South like the CTM at the expense of more independent and militant labor movements — partly paving the way for US multinationals to move production offshore and drive down global labor standards in the “race to the bottom,” as the radical organizers who would have led the fights against such moves were purged from the unions.

As the GM workers in Silao celebrate their new union and other Mexican workers look to follow their example, two important new books have fortuitously just been published, each examining the recent history of Mexico’s labor movement from a US perspective: Rob McKenzie’s El Golpe: US Labor, the CIA, and the Coup at Ford in Mexico and Robin Alexander’s International Solidarity in Action. Both authors are recently retired US union activists. McKenzie was a United Auto Workers (UAW) member and officer, while Alexander was director of international affairs for the independent United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). Revealing the good, bad, and ugly sides of US-Mexican labor relations since the end of the Cold War, their new books complement one another nicely.

Building a fighting working-class movement requires organizing across national borders, and forging genuine international labor solidarity depends on democratic, independent trade unions; El Golpe and International Solidarity in Action offer insight into how labor activists can build both.

The “Coup” at Ford Cuautitlán

In El Golpe, McKenzie tells the tragic story of how a nascent union democracy movement at a Ford assembly plant in Cuautitlán, a town just outside Mexico City, was violently crushed in 1990 — a pivotal time when the Cold War geopolitical order was giving way to neoliberal globalization. In the 1980s, Mexico’s economy was wracked by foreign debt, rising prices, and falling wages. Combined with the PRI’s botched response to a devastating 1985 earthquake and fraudulent victory in the 1988 general election, at the end of the decade, much of the Mexican working class took to the streets to protest the status quo.

Since Ford first built its Cuautitlán plant in the 1960s, the workers there had labored under a CTM protection contract. But riding the wave of popular outrage in the late eighties, they organized a rank-and-file reform movement, particularly to challenge a 1987 agreement between company and union officials to implement a more exploitative “lean production” model at the plant. Despite multiple attempts by Ford and the CTM to intimidate the union dissidents in Cuautitlán, their movement only grew, resulting in a series of wildcat work stoppages and slowdowns.

Things came to a head in January 1990. The Ford Cuautitlán workers were in the midst of a public campaign protesting the company’s failure to pay a promised year-end bonus the month before, a betrayal that appeared to have been approved by CTM leaders. In the early morning hours of January 8, around three hundred hoodlums armed with clubs and guns — and mysteriously outfitted in Ford uniforms — were bused to the Cuautitlán assembly plant during a shift change, allowed in by company security guards.

A confrontation broke out when the workers arrived to start their shift. The thugs opened fire, and nine workers were shot. One of them died from his wounds a few days later.

In the weeks and months following the attack, which McKenzie calls a “coup,” the rank-and-file movement was continuously outmaneuvered by the combined strength of Ford, the CTM, and the PRI. Ultimately, six hundred dissident workers were fired, the democratic union movement at the plant petered out, and “lean production” became the factory’s new reality.

While explaining that the CTM and Ford were directly responsible for carrying out the January 1990 “coup” in Cuautitlán, McKenzie also speculates that AIFLD and the CIA were involved. Despite his dogged research — which included issuing a plethora of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and interviews with retired US labor officials — McKenzie did not find a “smoking gun” undeniably proving either AIFLD or the CIA’s participation in the events in Cuautitlán. But he did discover a troubling amount of circumstantial evidence.

Through declassified CIA reports and State Department cables, McKenzie demonstrates that the US foreign policy establishment was paying close attention to the labor unrest at Ford Cuautitlán, viewing it as a potential threat to the emerging free trade regime that would later be cemented by the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Further, by digging through the AFL-CIO and UAW’s archives, McKenzie reveals the tight-knit relationship between top US and Mexican labor leaders around the time of the Cuautitlán violence.

For example, in the year leading up to the “coup,” several top CTM auto union officials — including the charro responsible for Ford workers — were hosted by the AFL-CIO in Washington and San Diego, traversing the country together by private jet. Meanwhile, AIFLD, whose Mexico country office was located inside the CTM’s national headquarters, was funneling US government money from the National Endowment for Democracy to the CTM for vaguely defined “educational” projects.

Providing important context, El Golpe includes a concise history of the AFL’s welldocumented relationship with the CIA in the 1940s and 1950s, and catalogues AIFLD’s numerous, Cold War–motivated interventions in Latin America between the 1960s and 1980s. Especially valuable is a chapter by McKenzie’s coauthor, historian Patrick Dunne, detailing AIFLD’s role in supporting the right-wing, middle-class trade guilds in Chile that wrought economic havoc in that country in the early 1970s to destabilize socialist president Salvador Allende’s government. (Dunne wrote a history dissertation on the AFL-CIO and the coup against Allende.)

Though a depressing story, the curiosity and tenacity that drove McKenzie to investigate US complicity in what happened at Ford Cuautitlán all those years ago is itself rooted in international worker solidarity. A UAW member at Twin Cities Ford Assembly Plant in St Paul, McKenzie first became aware of the “coup” soon after it happened in 1990, and his local hosted some of the union dissidents from Cuautitlán the following year. Later, while serving as president of his UAW local, he heard whispers that AIFLD and the CIA had been involved.

Deeply troubled, McKenzie resolved to get to the bottom of the matter rather than bury his head in the sand. The result is a book that US unionists interested in labor internationalism will want to read.

The UE-FAT Strategic Organizing Alliance

In International Solidarity in Action, Robin Alexander essentially picks up where McKenzie leaves off by analyzing US-Mexican labor relations post-NAFTA. Telling a decidedly more upbeat story, she details the extraordinary cross-border relationship between the UE and Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), forged in the 1990s and continuously strengthened in the early twenty-first century.

Founded in 1960, the FAT is a federation of unions, worker co-ops, and community organizations that remains free from state and employer control — thus serving as an important alternative to the CTM. Leaders of the FAT and UE first met in 1992 as part of discussions over labor’s response to NAFTA, which was then under negotiation. Both representing progressive organizations that prize political independence and democracy, leaders of both unions immediately hit it off.

When NAFTA went into effect in 1994, General Electric opened a new plant just south of the border in Ciudad Juárez, which the FAT sought to unionize. Since the company was traditionally one of the UE’s strongholds, UE members from GE factories in the US traveled to Juárez to learn from and encourage their Mexican counterparts in the organizing campaign.

Facing a number of bureaucratic obstacles put in place by the PRI government, as well as a psychological, US-style union-busting campaign of captive audience meetings that FAT organizers were unaccustomed to (they were more used to facing outright violence from thugs), the union drive in Juárez lost. Yet out of this defeat, the UE and FAT forged the Strategic Organizing Alliance, an ambitious vehicle for long-term international labor solidarity.

To solidify this alliance, the UE founded a Research and Education Fund to solicit donations from foundations and individuals in the United States to assist FAT projects in Mexico — a counterexample to the AFL-CIO’s AIFLD model of relying on funds from the US government.

Further, the FAT and UE worked together to use NAFTA’s Labor Side Agreement to file complaints against US multinationals like GE and Echlin for firing and intimidating Mexican workers trying to unionize. Although they knew the Labor Side Agreement was toothless, the UE and FAT strategically used its complaint process to draw public attention to the need for dramatic labor law reforms in Mexico to allow for genuine freedom of association.

As Alexander shows, the solidarity was reciprocal. In late 1994, for example, a FAT activist traveled to Milwaukee and participated in house visits and one-on-one conversations with foundry workers — many of whom were of Mexican origin — as part of a successful UE union drive. In 2006, as the UE was organizing public sector workers in North Carolina, the FAT gave the campaign a boost by filing a complaint through NAFTA’s Labor Side Agreement over the fact that North Carolina afforded no collective bargaining rights to public employees.

Importantly, the UE-FAT alliance extended to the rank-and-file level, with members of both organizations participating in worker-to-worker exchanges and delegations, building interpersonal relationships, walking picket lines together, and bonding over shared frustrations like employers on both sides of the border who hold pizza parties in lieu of giving raises. These also included cultural exchanges, most notably in 1997–98 when artists from both countries painted colorful murals at the FAT headquarters in Mexico City and UE Hall in Chicago.

“Hands in Solidarity” mural on the outside of the United Electrical Workers trade union building in Chicago, Illinois. (Terence Faircloth / Flickr)

In describing the various activities, successes, and setbacks of the UE-FAT alliance over the course of twenty-five years, Alexander argues that cross-border activism played a crucial role in chipping away at Mexico’s corrupt labor regime and building broad public support for change, blazing a trail ultimately leading to the historic labor reform bill signed into law by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2019 — which has now borne fruit at GM’s Silao plant.

By chronicling her heroic international solidarity work with the UE, Alexander has done a great service to the US labor movement, essentially writing a guidebook for how unions and union members from different nations can forge genuine, long-lasting alliances to challenge the power of transitional capital.