International Solidarity in Action: Lessons from a Revolutionary Mexican-American Labor Alliance

Several decades ago, I took on a huge challenge. The United Electrical Workers (UE), one of the most progressive unions in the United States, invited me to accept the newly created position of Director of International Affairs. It was an opportunity to develop a new approach to international work, rooted in an EU grassroots perspective and centered on organisation.

With increasing job losses in Mexico and the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s, EU management had become convinced that the union needed to find a union organization with which to work in Mexico and had entered into an alliance with the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT).

My new book, International solidarity in action, tells the story of this partnership from my perspective, while incorporating stories and reflections from many workers who have contributed in various ways. The range of work undertaken by our Strategic Organizing Alliance included organizing campaigns and the filing of the first complaints under the NAFTA Labor Side Agreement, as well as a later complaint which paved the way labor law reform in Mexico.

We have also supported worker and cultural exchanges, educational events, fundraisers and publicity work. And we forged alliances with a wide variety of unions and other organizations working to create a better world. It was exciting, rewarding and challenging work that grew organically and exponentially.

Women leaders of FAT are joined by international guests to celebrate FAT’s 50th anniversary, October 2010. Author Robin Alexander is second from right. Photo: EU.

The EU and the FAT had a remarkably similar perspective and commitment to building democratic unions led by rank and file workers. The principles that have guided our relationship – integrity, mutual respect, communication and solidarity – are evident throughout our work. Both are also relatively small organizations with limited resources. Yet the strength of the relationship between the EU and the FAT was an important factor in the long struggle waged by Mexican trade unions and their international allies to remove barriers to organizing, a struggle that led to the resounding victory represented by the progressive reform of Mexican labor law that was enacted in 2019 and came into force last year.

The strong EU-FAT relationship has also contributed to the formation and functioning of the Trinational Solidarity Alliance and has had a profound impact on the domestic work of each union and on the membership and cultures of our two organisations.

If the book is a historical account, it addresses issues of international solidarity that are ever more important today. For example, while there is almost universal condemnation of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and support for the Ukrainian people, what that solidarity should consist of, or to whom and how it should be offered, are much more complex. and controversial.

Much closer to the United States and the subject of the book, in recent months two groups of industrial workers in Mexico have won major electoral victories at General Motors and Tridonex plants, defeating the “charro” type of unions. historically known for their corruption in favor of new democratic alternatives.

In both cases, international solidarity and complaints filed under the much improved side agreement that succeeded NAFTA were important factors. Unfortunately, most of the American press as well as some trade unionists seem to ignore the central role of the workers themselves and of the Mexican organizations which have played a vital role in the reform of their own labor laws and in the organizing work which has enabled these victories. possible.