Sweeney in Mexico A New Direction in AFL-CIO Foreign Policy

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's visit to Mexico in January represented a landmark in U.S.-Mexican labor union relations and established a new direction in AFL-CIO foreign policy. While Sweeney met with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, the real news was his meetings with independent labor federations such as the new National Union of Workers and the Authentic Labor Front.

Until now the AFL-CIO has maintained relations only with Mexican union federations, like the conservative and corrupt Confederation of Mexican Workers, that are loyal to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But on this trip, Sweeney clearly broke with that old policy by meeting with leaders of the new National Union of Workers, a group of unions that recently broke with the PRI in search of political autonomy, union democracy, and an alternative economic policy.

The change in AFL-CIO policy largely grew out of the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s. While the AFL-CIO opposed NAFTA, the Confederation of Mexican Workers—controlled by the PRI government—supported the trade agreement. Since then the two federations have moved farther apart.

The retirement of AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and the election of Sweeney, followed by the death of Fidel Velazquez, long-time leader of the Confederation of Mexican Workers, also helped to break the old ties between the top union bureaucrats. The founding last year of the new, more independent National Union of Workers gave the AFL-CIO a new partner for discussions and possibly actions.


The Mexican government views a new Mexican-U.S. labor alliance with alarm, fearing that stronger unions in Mexico would drive out foreign investment. Mexican Secretary of Labor Javier Bonilla Garcia asked the National Union of Workers not to make any agreements with the AFL-CIO that might violate national sovereignty. His request was a suggestion that for Mexican unions to meet with their U.S. counterparts would be tantamount to treason.

Despite the implicit threat, National Union of Workers leaders not only met with the AFL-CIO, but reached agreements to fight for a revision of NAFTA which they said "only represents the interests of the banks and the great transnational corporations."

Speaking at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Sweeney told labor officials, professors, and students that the AFL-CIO would work not only with the government's "official" unions, but also with independent unions and non-governmental organizations. "We want to work with our brothers and sisters in all parts of the Mexican labor movement and with freedom lovers throughout Mexican society," said Sweeney.



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Directly addressing a struggle that has been in the forefront of fights for workers' rights in Mexico, Sweeney said, "We want to stand with you to organize workers in the maquiladoras, beginning with the guarantee of an authentic union for the Han Young workers in Tijuana." Han Young workers voted several times for representation by the Independent Metal Workers Union, an affiliate of the Authentic Labor Front, but it took a widespread pressure campaign to force government and company officials to recognize their choice.


Sweeney also met with Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine, head of the government-allied Confederation of Mexican Workers, but their talks could not be called fruitful. A week after that meeting, Rodriguez Alcaine warned Mexican unions against working too closely with the U.S. labor movement, declaring that "Mexicans should...resolve their own problems."

Sweeney's visit to Mexico and the change in AFL-CIO policy open up the possibility of new international solidarity between U.S. and Mexican unions. The problem will be to avoid the pitfalls of the past. Throughout most of this century, from the 1920s to the 1990s, the AFL and later the AFL-CIO presumed that U.S. labor unions should impose their business union model on Mexican workers.

In the cold war period following World War II, the U.S. and Mexican governments oversaw anti-Communist purges in unions of both countries. After the AFL and CIO merged in the 1950s, the new hyphenated federation worked closely with the U.S. State Department to form an anti-Communist alliance with the government-dominated Confederation of Mexican Workers.

The developments of the 1980s and 1990s finally broke the anti-Communist bonds that had united AFL-CIO and the Confederation of Mexican Workers. The growth of the multinational corporations, the mobility of capital, NAFTA, and the neo-liberal economic agenda created an economic and social storm that simply blew the old bureaucratic partnership away.

So we now have new opportunities, but also new pitfalls. Today the danger is that Sweeney and the AFL-CIO might export to Mexico their vision of "workplace democracy," which really means a "partnership" between corporations and unions to achieve higher productivity and greater competitiveness. Such partnerships always exist at the expense of the workers. Genuine international solidarity means attempting to suppress competition between workers in the plant, between unions within one country, and between unions across international borders.

Sweeney's shift in policy gives U.S. unions and workers an opportunity to forge a new relationship with their Mexican counterparts. We should take advantage of the new policy at the top to establish a new set of relationships at the grass roots. The support shown for the struggles of the Han Young workers, and for workers at the Mexican Echlin plant where 52 were fired for organizing an independent union, shows how unions, workers, social movements, and non-governmental organizations can forge a new international labor solidarity.

Dan La Botz is the author of Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today.