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3 workers with Martinez in front of the vegetable display
Mexican FAT co-president Benedicto Martinez with UE members from Hunger Mountain food coop in Vermont

Linking with foreign workers:
a brief history


A hundred years ago the U.S. labor movement had a vision of international solidarity. The Industrial Workers of the World – usually referred to as the Wobblies or IWW –  believed that we were engaged in a common struggle without boundaries. For example, between 1900 and 1920 the IWW recruited Mexicans working in mines, on the railroads, in construction, and in agricultural in the United States into their organizations, some of whom organized IWW locals upon their return to Mexico. IWW members from the US also traveled south, organizing IWW locals in the Mexican mines where they worked, among sailors, stevedores in the port of Veracruz, and later among Mexican oil field and refinery workers.

Even Samuel Gompers, the much more conservative head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) wrote "There is an ideal that has been the scope of liberty-loving men and women of all ages and the labor movements of all countries – internationalism. . ."

WFTU with two hands, 1 dark & 1 light, holding up 2 hemispheres

A few decades later, in the Fall of 1945, this dream was realized with the founding of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) - a truly international organization of trade unions, which included the CIO from the United States together with unions from the Soviet Union, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

So what happened? What happened first was the cold war. And internationally the labor movement split on ideological lines between the capitalist (ICFTU), communist (WFTU) and a smaller christian federation (the World Confederation of Labor). These all had regional bodies, as well as sectoral bodies, called international trade secretariats or ITS's.

Cover of book called Stalin's Slavery
The ICFTU published this book in 1951

The AFL-CIO was a major player within the ICFTU and during this period, in return for government funding, it began doing the dirtiest work of the State Department. In Latin America, the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), staffed in part by the CIA, subverted the real labor movements in Latin America, in some cases establishing opposing unions in order to support dictators such as Somoza in Nicaragua, Duvalier in Haiti and Pinochet in Chile, and to oppose progressive leaders such as Arbenz in Guatemala and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Within this framework, the AFL-CIO's partner in Mexico was the CTM, which had serious implications for relationships between unions in our countries years later during the debate over NAFTA. Since the CTM was tied to the ruling party in Mexico, it was a strong supporter of NAFTA, causing many workers within the AFL-CIO's affiliated unions to seriously question its international alliances and policies.

Two Steelworkers officials marching with Mexican mineworkers wearing red t-shirts
The Steelworkers have recently supported Mexican unions - here USW leaders march with mineworkers union in Mexico.

The election of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson in 1995 to the leadership of the AFL-CIO resulted in some very significant reforms. For the first time in decades, the AFL-CIO began to replace the cold warriors and spies who conducted their international affairs with younger people who had a different approach to international solidarity.

History of the UE's relationship with the FAT federation in Mexico

A brief history of Mexico


Marie Lausch


""The similarities were so strong that we could immediately strike up a conversation. We had many experiences, troubles and victories in common.

"We could immediately connect because it was like growing up in the same house: you know what they are talking about because it has happened to you."

Marie Lausch
President of UE Local 222 & member of UE Executive Board

Stepping Stones
  to International Solidarity

1. Where in the world to begin?

2. Are there sister shops?

4. How to connect?

5. How to build a relationship?

6. Where can this lead?


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