MEXICAN LABOR NEWS AND ANALYSIS June 22, 1997 Special Issue: Fidel Velazquez Obituary



by Dan La Botz

Fidel Velazquez Sanchez, head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), who did more than any other single individual to keep Mexican workers in a position of subordination to the Mexican government, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the employers, died yesterday, June 21, at the age of 97.

"Fidel Velazquez was a traitor to the working class," said Mexican attorney Nestor de Buen. "He handed workers over to the government. He was never a friend of workers. He was nothing more than a servant of the government."

Velazquez's death will certainly lead to a struggle to succeed him within the CTM, and could open the way for a more democratic labor movement in Mexico. The Mexican labor movement has recently divided into three different currents: the CTM, the rival Foro group of unions, and their allies in the May First Inter-Union group. Velazquez's death will encourage the process of political redefinition and reorganization taking place in the labor movement.

The death of Velazquez, coming on the eve of the July 6 national elections will also hurt the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and help the principal opposition parties, the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic or Revolution (PRD). The PRD and its candidate for mayor of Mexico City, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, have the most to gain from Velazquez's death. "It is a historic coincidence that, with the apparent triumph of the PRD, Don Fidel is leaving us," said labor lawyer Arturo Alcalde.

Velazquez spent over 60 years as one of the principal leaders of Mexican unions and 50 years as head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). He drew the unions into a close relationship with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Mexican state. He was twice elected Senator for the PRI.

Velazquez defended the PRI and the state against every progressive social movement that arose in the last 60 years. Velazquez backed the PRI-state in crushing the industrial union movement of the 1940s, supported the PRI-government in using the Mexican Army to break the railroad workers strike in 1959. He backed the PRI-government's use of the army in the massacre of 300 students at Tlatelolco in 1968, and supported the smashing of the electrical workers union and the Democratic Tendency in 1975. It was Velazquez who first called for expelling Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and the Democratic Current from the PRI in 1987. Velazquez also opposed the Chiapas Rebellion of 1994 and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) which led it.

Throughout his career, Velazquez was an opponent of all rank and file initiatives from below, and squashed any signs of independence or autonomy on the part of the workers. Under Velazquez the CTM became famous for "protection contracts," negotiated to protect employers from more militant unions, for "ghost unions," known only to the state and the bosses and unknown to the workers, for the use of gangsters and thugs to beat and even assassinate democratic or independent movements. By the 1990s, Mexicans were the lowest paid industrial workers in the world, most earning between three and ten U.S. dollars per day.

Velazquez's square head, dark-rimmed glasses, and big cigar became over the decades a symbol of the conservative, corrupt, and violent labor bureaucracy, and of the most reactionary sectors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Velazquez came to be seen as the biggest and oldest of the "dinosaurs," who represented all that was worst about Mexican labor unions and politics.

Velazquez's successor as head of the CTM, Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine, 78 years old, continues the same pro-PRI, pro- government, and pro-employer policies of his predecessor. But Rodriguez Alcaine may find that the CTM organization begins to crumble beneath him, now that Fidel is gone.

Fidel--Embodiment of the CTM

Velazquez's life story is also the history of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the state-controlled labor bureaucracy.

Fidel Velazquez Sanchez was born either April 24 or May 12, 1900, in the town of San Pedro Azcapotzaltongo, State of Mexico (the name of the town was later changed to Nicolas Romero). Fidel was the son of the small town's mayor, Gregorio Velazquez and his wife Herlinda Sanchez.

The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, bringing social upheaval to the entire nation. To get away from the turmoil in the State of Mexico, Gregorio and Herlinda Velazquez decided to move with their family to Mexico City, then to Tlaxcala and finally to Puebla where Gregorio died in 1920.

Fidel, now the male head of the family, returned to the Mexico City area where he worked as a cowboy on a hacienda, as a mechanic for a lumber business, and then delivering milk.

The Milk Union and the CROM

Velazquez, perhaps inheriting his father's political interests, began to hang out in the union halls and to talk with union activists and leaders. At the time, in the early 1920s, the Mexican labor movement was just about equally divided between the state-sponsored Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) and the anarchist General Confederation of Mexican Workers (CGT).

Spanish anarchism and the revolutionary syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which were discussed with such passion among the members of the CGT held no interest for Velazquez. From the beginning, Velazquez was a practical and pragmatic person who wanted to establish a labor union, in the most narrow sense of the word.

In 1923 Velazquez organized the Union of Workers of the Milk Industry (UTIL) and affiliated it with the CROM led by Luis N. Morones. Morones was one of the most powerful men in Mexico, head of the CROM and the Labor Party (PL), Secretary of Commerce, Industry and Labor, a friend of presidents Alvaro Obregon and Plutarco Elias Calles. Morones, a former anarchist electrical worker, became a kind of union gangster, famous for his cars, his orgies and the diamond rings on his fingers. Velazquez oriented toward Morones, and toward the state.

Federation of the Federal District

In 1928 former President and presidential candidate Alvaro Obregon was assassinated by a Roman Catholic religious fanatic. Many Mexicans nevertheless blamed Morones for Obregon's murder, because Morones had been a bitter opponent of Obregon's bid for re-election. President Calles and his successors withdrew the state's support from Morones and the CROM, and the CROM began to crumble.

Fidel Velazquez and Jesus Yuren, head of the Union of Cleaning and Transport Workers, withdrew from the CROM, and on February 25, 1929 organized the Union Federation of Workers of the Federal District (FSTDF). The Federal District Federation would be Velazquez's power base for the rest of his career.

The Federation which Velazquez and Yuren led was made up of an odd assortment of organizations: vendors and merchants organizations, the company union of streetcar workers composed of strikebreakers, the union of homeopathic doctors, the grave diggers of the Spanish graveyard, bottling plant workers, and the milk industry and transportation workers of Velazquez and Yuren.

Some of these were genuine labor unions, others were organizations of the self-employed and professionals. What they had in common was that most were weak and subject to manipulation.

Five Little Wolves

Later Velazquez and Yuren took into the leadership of this union federation three other men, Fernando Amilpa, Alfonso Sanchez Madriaga and Luis Quintero. Morones, said that he was glad to be rid of the "worms," but an anarchist union leader said, "They are not worms, but wolves and will soon eat up the chickens in the hutch." Thereafter the five leaders of the Federal District Federation became known as "los cinco lobitos," or the five little wolves. The name proved an apt description.

Fidel Velazquez remained focused on the relationship between the state and the unions. When in 1931 the Mexican Congress debated a new Federal Labor Law, Velazquez formed part of the commission which edited the law. Velazquez also dedicated much of his time to representing workers in the Federal Labor Board. The Federal Labor Board held the power to register or deny registration to labor unions, and to decide if strikes "existed" or were "non-existent." At the tripartite Labor Board, Velazquez established friendly relations with the government representatives and with the employers.

Fidel Velazquez and the CTM

The stock market crash of 1929, the great depression of the 1930s, and the world crisis of capitalism affected Mexico profoundly. Beginning in the early 1930s there was a resurgence of labor militancy in Mexico, and various attempts to reorganize the labor movement. On June 28, 1933, a variety of labor unions came together to form the General Confederation of Workers and Peasants of Mexico (CGOCM), with Fidel Velazquez as one of its leaders. The federation became the most important in Mexico at the time, giving leadership to a number of important strikes in 1934.

General Lazaro Cardenas, former governor of Michoacan, had been elected president in 1934, the hand-picked choice of former president Calles who remained the power behind the throne since 1928. But Cardenas rebelled against the tutelage of Calles and his conservatism, and began to reach out to peasants' organizations and workers' unions. Calles then threatened to organize a coup to overthrow Cardenas. The labor unions rallied around Cardenas, forming on June 15, 1934, the National Committee of Proletarian Defense (CNDP). With the backing of the unions, Cardenas drove Calles from the country.

Out of this experience came the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) in February of 1936. The leaders of the new federation were its top officer, general secretary Vicente Lombardo Toledano, and Fidel Velazquez. The two men could not have been more different.

Lombardo Toledano

Lombardo Toledano, a brilliant university student and professor had been one of the famous "seven sages," Mexico's most famous intellectuals of the 1920s. But Lombardo left the academic world to become the house intellectual for the CROM of Luis Morones. While Morones made business deals and collected chorus girls and diamond rings, Lombardo wrote stirring discourses on the struggle to emancipate the workers, drafted labor legislation, and organized workers' education programs.

When in 1928 the CROM broke up, Lombardo carried away a piece of the organization which he called the Purified-CROM. During the years from 1928 to 1933, Lombardo became a Marxist, and in 1935 he visited the Soviet Union and--though never a member of the Mexican Communist Party--Lombardo came back a convinced Stalinist. After 1935, Vicente Lombardo Toledano became the most important representative of Stalin and the Soviet Union both in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Thus Lombardo Toledano joined Fidel Velazquez as the two principal founders of Mexico's new labor federation of the 1930s.

Popular Front and Unity at All Costs

At the founding convention, there was a fight over control of the position of organizational secretary of the new CTM. The Mexican Communist Party unions, which had played a key role in organizing the National Committee of Proletarian Defense, and which were active in the larger industrial unions, attempted to claim the position of organizational secretary. The Communists even walked out of the convention when it was denied them. But, under pressure to preserve the "popular front," the Communists returned and supported the election of Fidel Velazquez for the post of organizational secretary.

Later in 1937 the Communist Party and its industrial unionists again walked out of the CTM convention, determined to create a rival federation, but the U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder insisted upon "unity at all costs," and the Communists returned. Thus the Communists came to share responsibility for Velazquez's long tenure in the CTM leadership.

Lombardo became general secretary of the CTM, while Fidel Velazquez became organizational secretary. Velazquez took responsibility for the day-to-day decisions of the organization, interesting himself in all the state and local organizations, building up a power base of patronage. Lombardo called for "the abolition of capitalism," while Fidel dealt with the capitalists. Lombardo put forth the new CTM slogan, "For a Society Without Classes," and Velazquez accepted the slogan, while dealing with the classes as he found them.

Fidel Takes Over

Mexico has a tradition of "no re-election," so Lombardo Toledano stepped down as general secretary at the end of his term, and on February 28, 1941 Fidel Velazquez became the new CTM chief. While Velazquez now led the CTM, Lombardo stayed at his side as the federation's socialist theoretician.

During World War II, Mexico supported the Allies, and Fidel Velazquez and Lombardo Toledano urged that unions join with business and the state in order to win the war against Fascism (and for Lombardo in order to defend the Soviet Socialist homeland). Mexican businessmen, however, wanted nothing to do with the unions. So without the bosses's help the unions formed the National Labor Council in June 1942, pledging peaceful settlement of contracts.

Three years later, in April 1945, Lombardo Toledano wrote a Labor-Industry Pact that called for a patriotic alliance between business and labor. Thus the war strengthened the tendencies toward collaboration between the state, business and the labor bureaucracy.

Two other developments strengthened the state-union connection, as well. First in 1942 the Mexican Congress created the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS), the government's public health and retirement system, with a tripartite board. The IMSS tripartite board became the model for other collaborative arrangements such as those of the National Minimum Wage Commission and workers housing and food programs.

Second, in January of 1946, the CTM joined in forming the new Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), becoming one of its constituent parts. Under the joint leadership of Fidel Velazquez and Lombardo Toledano the CTM became part of the Mexican state- party.

Fidel Velazquez and the Cold War

The Cold War provided the perfect environment for the full flowing of Fidel's talents. Fidel Velazquez seemed to have learned his work from U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, or perhaps might have taught the Wisconsin Senator a few things.

The Cold War struggles in the CTM were precipitated by Lombardo Toledano. In 1940, Lombardo Toledano had offered the CTM's support to the conservative successor to Cardenas, Manuel Avila Camacho. Again in June of 1945 Lombardo Toledano had made the speech in which the CTM offered its support to the ruling party's conservative presidential candidate Miguel Aleman. But by January of 1947, Lombardo had decided that the PRI had become conservative and that he would leave and form his own People's Party (PP, which in 1960 became the Socialist People's Party PPS). Lombardo asked the CTM to endorse his new party, but the executive committee rejected the proposition by 34 votes to 3.

That signaled the beginning of Fidel's Cold War campaign against the Communists. Lombardo Toledano and his three executive committee supporters were expelled from the CTM, as were scores of other union leaders who supported them. The CTM subsequently drove out Lombardistas, Communists, and other leftists. Mexicans now said that CTM (pronounced say-tay-ay-may) meant "se teme" (say-tay-may), to be feared.

Fidel Velazquez also withdrew the CTM from Lombardo's Confederation of Latin American Workers (CTAL) and the pro-Soviet World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), and, after some differences with the U.S. State Department and the AFL-CIO, moved the CTM into the anti-Communist Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (ORIT) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

The Charros

Between 1948 and 1952, the CTM leadership, working with the Mexican government, also helped to eliminate independent union leaders in industrial unions such as miners, petroleum workers and railroad workers. The independent union leaders were violently removed, often by police, soldiers, or gangster, and replaced with leaders known as "Charros," meaning "dudes" or "cowboys." The word "Charros," meaning a corrupt union leader, came from Jesus Diaz de Leon, who liked to dress up in Mexican charro attire. Diaz de Leon was the first charro imposed on the railroad workers union.

Fidel spent the 1950s attacking Communists, industrial unionists, and independent union leaders. By the mid-1950s the unions had been pretty successfully purged. The CTM thereafter dominated the union movement.

A State Union, Bought and Paid For

The CTM was never the only Mexican labor movement, there were always unions and federations which attempted to create a more independent, democratic and militant movement. But the CTM had the advantages of state-sponsorship.

The Federal Labor Boards, in which Fidel has labored so long in his youth, supported the CTM against rival unions. Independent unions could not get registered, could not get the right to representation, and their strikes were declared "non-existent," that is illegal.

While other unions suffered financial problems, the CTM had none. The CTM almost never had enough dues income from its member unions to survive, but it had constant government financial subsidies on which it became dependent.

The PRI incorporated the CTM (and some other official unions) as its "sector obrero," or workers' sector. The PRI put forth CTM leaders as candidates for senator, congressman, governor or mayor. At least one of the senatorial seats of the Federal District was reserved for top CTM leaders. Fidel Velazquez served twice as Senator for the PRI.

Over the years Don Fidel acquired houses and property in various parts of Mexico, and nearly every year he traveled to Europe. But Velazquez was not, like his predecessor Luis N. Morones of the CROM, given to conspicuous consumption and ostentatious displays of his wealth. Fidel loved power more than he cared about wealth.

Fidel and the CTM: Enemy of Progressive Movements

When Demetrio Vallejo, a Communist, succeeded in becoming leader of the Railroad Workers Union (STFRM), and in February of 1959 initiated a general strike, naturally Velazquez took the side of the Mexican government against the workers. The Mexican Army smashed the strike, killing some railroad workers, arresting hundreds, and the state company fired thousands. Fidel approved.

In 1968 a radical student movement appeared supporting the Cuban Revolution, and calling for democracy in Mexico. 1968 was the year of the Olympics in Mexico, and the Mexican government fearing to be embarrassed by the student movement sent the Army to Tlatelolco or the Plaza of the Three Cultures where the troops murdered an estimated 300 students. Velazquez attacked the student demonstrators as radical agitators inspired by foreign doctrines, and supported the government's bloody suppression of the movement.

Ironically by 1968 Lombardo Toledano and Fidel Velazquez were once again on the same side. Both detested the student radicals, and both the CTM and the PPS had become supporters of the PRI.

In 1975 when the Mexican government moved into crush the electrical workers union (SUTERM) led by Rafael Galvan, and the Democratic Tendency of workers and peasants which it had inspired, Velazquez could once again be found on the side of the state against the workers.

When Cuauhtemoc Cardenas organized the Democratic Current in the PRI in 1987, it was Fidel Velazquez who first demanded that Cuauhtemoc be expelled. When Cardenas ran for president in 1988 as the candidate of the National Democratic Front, Fidel Velazquez attacked him as a violent radical and insinuated he was a Communist.

Naturally in January of 1994 when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) led the poverty-stricken peasants of Chiapas in an armed rebellion, Velazquez was one of the first to attack the rebels and support the state.

Fidel, Defender of the Technocrats

In the early 1980s the new technocratic presidents--Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon--came to power in the PRI with a program calling for selling off the state-owned industries, a bastion of power of the union bureaucrats of the CTM. But, Fidel Velazquez, while he would have preferred more populist presidents, did not oppose the new technocratic program. Indeed, Fidel supported the technocrats and even stuck by Salinas through the trials and tribulations which accompanied the uncovering of the murders, drug deals, and frauds of his administration. Fidel Velazquez began and ended not a workers' leader, but a man of the state.

Fidel's Legacy

Few American labor leaders had the impact of Don Fidel Velazquez. One thinks perhaps of Juan Lechin, head of the Bolivan Workers Center (COB) who led the federation from the 1940s into the 1990s. Or of George Meany who headed the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) of the United States. But Fidel started earlier and lasted longer than both of them.

What then is the legacy of Don Fidel? Mexican workers typically earn between $3.00 and $10.00 U.S. dollars per day, the lowest paid industrial workers in the world. Mexican workers face high unemployment, and while there are no exact figures, many experts estimate the combined under- and unemployment rate at 25 percent.

More important than the economic situation in which he has left the workers, Fidel Velazquez repeatedly frustrated the Mexican workers' attempts to create unions independent of the state and the employers. Velazquez made it difficult and at times nearly impossible for workers to pass on democratic traditions, or traditions of militancy and struggle. Perhaps worst of all Fidel Velazquez's political manipulation of the unions tended to make workers cynical about the possibility of genuine unionism.

So, Fidel Velazquez dies, and it would take a Dante to imagine the circle of hell to which he now goes. But perhaps Fidel has done his first good deed for the Mexican workers, for as he dies he lifts off their backs the terrible weight they have born all of these years, the enormous weight of the man of the state.

Perhaps Mexico's workers will take advantage of Fidel's long-delayed demise to begin to construct another independent, democratic, militant unionism which speaks to all of Mexico's millions of working people, peasants, poor and unemployed.

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[In writing this obituary, I have consulted Miguel Angel Granados Chapa's EL SIGLO DE FIDEL VELAZQUEZ (Mexico: Pangea, 1996).]