Mexico’s union charros go regional

Workers in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Guilherme Cunha/

A leading British trade unionist has suggested that the US may be behind the creation of a new union confederation in Latin America in a re-run of Cold War tactics to promote “yellow unions” that serve governments and corporations not workers.

Adrian Weir of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, told a conference in London that the Alternativa Democrática Sindical de las Américas (ADS) has been soliciting funds from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is funded by the US congress.

Drivers of the new organisation include the Mexican “charro” (cowboy) confederations – the CTM (Central de Trabajadores de México) and CROC (Confederación Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos) – which serve the country’ ruling party, the PRI, are routinely accused of corruption, and have long been linked to violence against independent unionists.

In late November, for example, two miners employed at the Canadian-owned Media Luna mine in Guerrero were killed during a peaceful strike by armed thugs allegedly hired by the CTM, according to the IndustriALL global union. About 600 miners are in dispute at the mine for refusing to join the CTM, which they claim does not defend their rights and serves the company’s interests, opting instead to join the independent Los Mineros (SNTMMSRM) which is affiliated to IndustriALL.

Launched at an inaugural conference in April in Bogotá, Colombia, the ADS represents an explicit attempt to split the Confederación Sindical de las América (CSA), known in English as TUCA, which is the regional organization for the Americas of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The main motive for the move was ideological, with the breakaway unions hostile to the CSA’s constructive relations with left-of-centre governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina, all of which have acted to improve workers’ rights.

The 10 confederations that gathered to establish the ADS represent non-progressive unions that in some cases, like the CROC and CTM, reflect what is sometimes called “yellow unionism”.

Mexico has a long tradition of government control and cooptation of unions and their leaders because of its political history in which the PRI – which ran the country for most of the 20th century and returned to power in 2012 – dominated all social organisations.

The country is well known for the obstacles that are put in the way of independent unions that fight for better salaries and working conditions. Charro unions within the CTM sign “collective” contracts with companies to become the legal representative of workers without ever consulting them.

The result for Mexican workers has been disastrous: they are the worst paid workers of the 35 OECD countries and their wages have stagnated, with the real value of the minimum salary falling 60% in the past 30 years.

Predictably, established trade union confederations in Latin America have condemned the establishment of the ADS. In Colombia, for example, the CUT and CTC confederations – which both remain within the CSA – described the move as a “grave error”.

CUT president Luis Alejandro Pedraza told journalists when the ADS was created: “They say they are a confederation on the Left, but they condemn the government of Venezuela and criticise the alternative governments of Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador. They are confused and this is preventing them from defining their political sense of direction.”

Weir, the assistant chief of staff at the Unite union in the UK, told a seminar at the Latin America 2017 conference that the ADS has recently been in Washington soliciting funds from the NED, which has long financed organisations hostile to the Left across the world.

“I think the way that these things work is that you just don’t pitch up in Washington and ask for money – this has all been done behind the scenes in advance, and so I would suggest that this new organisation is being funded by the NED,” he said.

“I am suggesting that the US is behind this split in the trade union movement in Latin America and it is almost re-run of the old Cold War tactics of running the CIA’s own yellow unions in competition with real unions supported by workers.”

There are clear precedents for this. In 1951 the Inter-American Regional Organisation of Workers (ORIT), a pan-hemispheric labour confederation, was created with US government funding committed to preventing the spread of communism within Latin American unions.

Fidel Velázquez, who dominated Mexico’s CTM for 60 years until his death in 1997 and was sometimes called the “charro of charros”, was robustly defended by his organisation against allegations that he had ties with the US.

However, Velázquez was a staunch anti-communist who took the CTM into ORIT, and was the architect of decades of CTM and state violence against independent unionists.