It was an odd but politically meaningful meeting at the National Palace on Wednesday, May 1 (International Labor Day), when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) offered an official lunch to the country’s most important union leaders. Odd because many of the leaders belong to a kind of club that is nicknamed in political circles the “charros” (Mexican rodeo horse riders). The union leaders’ style of doing business is known as “charrismo,” a term quite popular among organized workers.

The main objective of this article is to let our dear readership know the origins of these terms (charros and charrismo) and how they became common usage to refer to labor union leaders. But first, let me offer a brief review of the luncheon:

At least some 200 union leaders were invited to attend the meal. Some of the leading members did attend, such as Carlos Aceves del Olmo, head of the Mexico Workers Confederation (CTM) and president of the Labor Congress, and Francisco Hernández Juárez, president of the Mexican Phone Workers Union. Both were keynote speakers at the event and both are touted – since they come from the good old days of yore – as authentic “charros.”

But the biggest no-show at the gathering was Mexico’s most important charro union leader, the head of the Mexican Oil Workers Union, which serves the state-run oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Carlos Romero Deschamps, who was frontally attacked by AMLO before winning the presidency and after, even as recently as last week , when many Oil Workers Union members were accused of working in tandem with crime organizations devoted to fuel theft – known in Mexican slang as “huachicol” — from Pemex ducts. Romero Deschamps – guilty or innocent – has also been smeared as a “huachicolero” (illegal oil trader). A Pemex salaried worker, he is allegedly immensely rich.

To make a long story short, AMLO admonished all the union leaders to abide by his government’s new Labor Law, which was approved by Congress on Monday, April 29. The law demands honest elections in all unions, as well as the right of individual workers to choose what union they want to belong to, and the right to decide whether they want representation or not.

AMLO told them:

“This meeting is not to just to tell you to democratize yourselves, but also to let you know that the government will not give orders nor engage in any interference in the internal affairs of unions, and it will not have favored nor favorite leaders.”

AMLO added that all leadership and striking conflicts would be dealt with internally, with the watchdog Labor Secretariat mediating if needed, but not interfering.

“The wars for leadership are over,” AMLO said. ” You have to look after the interests and rights of workers and do less politicking.”

That was the gist of the luncheon. Now let’s move on to the word “charrismo” and how it came to be in olden days when presidents were in full control of what was known as “corporate unionism,” a labor tactic that kept the now-nearly defunct Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the presidency for 70 years.

In his book “100 Years of Unionism in Mexico,” Clodomiro Farías narrates the story of a 1950-1951 strike in the coalmining foundry town of Nueva Rosita, in the state of Coahuila, near the Texas U.S. border. During the strike, which became famous back then as the Hunger Caravan, some 3,500 workers hired by the Guggenheim-owned American Smelting and Refining Company walked the trek from Nueva Rosita to Mexico City to seek help from then-President Miguel Alemán.

President Alemán (1946-1952) turned his back on the Hunger Caravan marchers, as he had done in the case of all labor movements, as best illustrated in the case of the 1948 Railroad Workers Union, whose leader, Valentín Campa, was jailed for four years, but not before getting violently ousted as union leader.

Farías writes in his book:

“The government, to finish off the threat of the rising railroad and oil workers’ unions, used public force to impose collaborationist leaders, traitors to their working class. The plan was to destroy the democracy and independence of the three great industrial unions, and that began with the assault on the Railroad Workers Union.

“On Oct.14, 1948, at 11 a.m., Jesús Díaz de León, aka “El Charro,” accompanied by 100 riot policemen disguised as civilians, took by surprise and assault the Railroad Workers building, also helped by presidential guards who had previously installed a sound system so that “El Charro” could carry out a meeting and take over the facility. Immediately afterwards, four other Railroad Workers Union facilities in Mexico City were taken over by federal soldiers at the service of “the law regime” of Miguel Alemán.

“After this happened, many absurd charges were levied against Valentín Campa, who was jailed on trumped charges of a 206,000-peso fraud and the ordering of sabotage against the railways. The origins of charrismo was best told by Campa himself in an interview with journalist Eduardo Montes:

“’On Feb. 1, 1948, a new executive committee at the Railroad Workers Union was sworn in with Jesús Díaz de León as secretory general.

‘Díaz de León was a locomotive engineer and quite fond of charrería (Mexican style rodeos), for which he was nicknamed El Charro. He was a showoff who sometimes worked engineering locomotives dressed as a charro. This dude put himself at the orders of President Miguel Alemán to serve as the government’s instrument in the control of railroad workers unionism. As we all knew him as El Charro, the attacks against his treason were virulent and generalized, not merely among railroad workers but also in other sectors of the unionism movement. This brought about the coining of the word charrismo, considered as a synonym of a treacherous union leader. That’s the origin of the term.’”

Even though the practice of “charrismo” faded away, particularly after the PRI was democratically ousted out of power in the year 2000, it is hoped that with the new Labor Law, this practice of establishing government control over unions is buried forever.

Or as AMLO has often said:

“This new law is intended to bury charrismo forever.”

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