Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores

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Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores

Western Hemisphere 1951


In the years after World War II, labor organizations in the United States began to take a renewed interest in Latin America. In particular, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) hoped to establish a hemispheric labor body that it could control so as to counter the role of the left-leaning Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina (CTAL). To this end, in 1947 the AFL hired Serafino Romualdi as its "labor ambassador" to Latin America, a post that he held until 1965. After touring Latin America in 1946-1947 to gain support for a regional labor confederation, Romualdi helped to establish the Confederación Inter-Americana de Trabajadores (CIT) in 1948. In 1951 this organization became the Organización Regional Inter-Americana de Trabajadores (ORIT).

In general, ORIT ideology was similar to that of the AFL. In the context of the cold war, one of ORIT's main goals was to fight against communism and to promote democratic trade unionism. The leaders of ORIT looked to U.S. labor relations as a model and sought to reform the role of labor within the capitalist system. Rather than encourage class conflict, ORIT leaders hoped to strengthen the position of labor as an interest group. Although ORIT claimed to be a nonpolitical organization, it clearly followed the lead of the U.S. government. ORIT had close ties to the U.S. State Department and supported U.S. policies and actions in Latin America and opposed any leftist activity such as the Cuban Revolution.


  • 1932: Charles A. Lindbergh's baby son is kidnapped and killed, a crime for which Bruno Hauptmann will be charged in 1934, convicted in 1935, and executed in 1936.
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1942: Signing of the Declaration of the United Nations in Washington, D.C.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allied powers. Later in the summer, the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, joins Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam to discuss the reconstruction of Germany. (Churchill is replaced in mid-conference by Clement Attlee as Labour wins control of the British Parliament.)
  • 1947: Establishment of the Marshall Plan to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1949: Soviets conduct their first successful atomic test. This heightens growing cold war tensions, not least because the sudden acquisition of nuclear capabilities suggests that American spies are passing secrets.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
  • 1952: George Jorgenson travels to Copenhagen and returns as Christine Jorgenson. (This is not the first sex-change operation; however, it is the first to attract widespread attention.)
  • 1955: Signing of the Warsaw Pact by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.
  • 1957: Soviets launch Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This spawns a space race between the two superpowers.
  • 1962: As the Soviets begin a missile buildup in Cuba, for a few tense days in October it appears that World War III is imminent. President Kennedy calls for a Cuban blockade, forcing the Soviets to back down and ultimately diffusing the crisis.
  • 1967: Racial violence sweeps America's cities, as Harlem, Detroit, Birmingham, and other towns erupt with riots.

Event and Its Context

The United States and Latin American Labor in the Late 1940s and the Founding of the CIT

In the years following World War II, Latin America was largely unimportant in U.S. foreign policy. With the emergence of the cold war, the U.S. government concentrated on Europe and Asia. When U.S. government officials did take Latin American issues into account, they were often accepting of right-wing governments that were anticommunist. In contrast, U.S. convictions saw the traditionally left-leaning Latin American labor movement as a potential enemy. The U.S. government did not approve of Latin American labor's support of economic nationalism and protectionism. The United States occasionally tried to influence the region's working classes through the International Labor Organization (ILO), programs that brought Latin American labor leaders to the United States, and the labor attachés at U.S. embassies. All of these efforts failed to affect the Latin American labor movement.

It was in this context of U.S. government failure and inaction that the AFL took the initiative to influence and mold the labor movement in Latin America. To this end, the AFL sought to create a rival for the CTAL by founding the Confederación Inter-America de Trabajadores (CIT) in 1948. The AFL was able to take advantage of the fact that CTAL was losing support, especially as the position of its leader, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, in his native Mexico declined and a number of CTAL affiliates defected. Many noncommunist unions in Latin America had grown unhappy with the increasing communist influence on CTAL. In addition, in the late-1940s there were numerous splits in the national labor confederations in various Latin American countries. In general, these splits took the form of a divide between communists and their former left-wing allies such as socialists, populists, and nationalists. Thus, groups emerged that were willing to work with the AFL to create a new inter-American labor federation. For example, in Chile a split between the communists and socialists prompted socialist leader Bernardo Ibañez to call for the creation of a new inter-American labor confederation and for increased contact with the AFL. In Peru a split between the communists and Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) led the latter to seek a closer relationship with the AFL. In Venezuela a coup led by the military and the Acción Democrática (AD) party produced a flurry of union activity and opened the door for AFL inroads. In light of this situation, the AFL sent Romualdi to seek allies in Latin America.

In January 1948 the AFL succeeded in establishing the CIT as a more conservative counterweight to the traditionally leftist CTAL. The founding conference took place in Lima, Peru. Some 150 delegates from 16 countries participated in the conference.

The new inter-American labor organization was weak and short-lived. Its weakness resulted from a number of factors, including lack of support from the U.S. government, opposition by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and weak allies in Latin America. Indeed, many Latin American unions chose not to join CIT. In addition, there was a significant divide between the goals of the AFL and those of the Latin American labor movement. The AFL sought to promote an integrated world economy, whereas many Latin American labor leaders preferred economic nationalism. Furthermore, the AFL opposed political activity by labor organizations, but many in Latin America criticized the AFL for its lack of political participation. These factors would contribute to the rapid demise of CIT.

The Founding of ORIT

The transformation of the CIT to ORIT was a result of international labor developments. By 1949 the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) had split as many noncommunist affiliates withdrew. Many of the unions that left the WFTU joined with both the AFL and CIO to found a new international labor organization known as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). In light of these events, at its second congress the leaders of the CIT decided to disband their organization in favor of forming a new inter-American labor confederation that would be an affiliate of the ICFTU.

The founding convention of ORIT convened in January 1951 in Mexico City. The first two days of the conference went smoothly, as labor leaders made speeches, held elections, carried out committee work. On the third day, however, dissension quickly became evident. The main cause of disagreement was a dispute over the participation of Argentina's Confederación General de Trabajo (CGT). The leader of Mexico's Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM) wanted to include members of the Argentine confederation in the meeting. Representatives from the United States agreed that the Argentines could be present, but only as guests and not as official delegates. This attitude was a result of the U.S delegates' dislike for Argentine president Juan Peron and the accusation that his government exercised too much control over the country's labor movement. Both the AFL and CIO opposed the entrance of the CGT, and the CIO's Jacob Potofsky even went so far as to say that his confederation would withdraw if the CGT was admitted. When the convention's delegates failed to vote formally in the Argentine confederation, a number of Latin American representatives were unhappy. Fidel Velázquez Sanchez, leader of Mexico's Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), resigned his post as president of the convention and claimed that ORIT was simply an instrument of the U. S. State Department and that it was manipulated by U.S. labor groups. His CTM withdrew from the CIT. Also in response, CROM formed its own Latin American labor organization known as the Asociación de Trabajadores Latino Americanos (ATLAS).

Organization of ORIT

Organizationally, ORIT was divided into three parts. The administrative committee, located in Mexico City, received reports from the secretary general and heard from official missions from countries of the hemisphere. The executive board, which met in different cities throughout the hemisphere, dealt with administrative and policy questions. For example, in March 1951, at the executive board meeting in Havana, ORIT leaders sent a statement to the Organization of American States. This statement outlined many of the organization's main concerns. It also handled the organization's budget and expenditures. Finally, ORIT's congresses, which generally met biennially, discussed hemispheric activities, such as the economic integration of the hemisphere, the repudiation of communism, amnesty for democratic political prisoners, freedom for trade unions, and regular democratic elections. For example, ORIT's major concern in its early days was the plight of labor under military dictatorships in countries such as Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic. ORIT called on democratic nations, especially the United States, to support oppressed workers in such countries. This attitude, however, would not always continue in practice, as ORIT leaders later supported military regimes as anticommunism became more important in the organization's ideology.

After its formation, ORIT carried out several activities. One of the organization's activities was education. ORIT shared information and spread its message through publications such as the Inter-American Labor Bulletin and Facts and Figures. It also sponsored workers' seminars to train leaders. ORIT also offered correspondence courses for union leaders.

A second function of ORIT was to provide aid for labor organizations, helping those in need and creating new organizations where they were lacking. ORIT aid was both advisory and material. Sometimes the organization sent experts to countries where labor organization was weak or nonexistent. For example, ORIT leaders began an organizing drive in Central America and the Caribbean, where the organization was weakest. Also, drawing on ICFTU funds, ORIT provided material aid such as office equipment to Latin American unions. Furthermore, among ORIT's other early activities was providing aid to labor leaders in exile. To this end, it lodged human rights complaints wit the ILO, the OAS, and the UN.

ORIT's third function was to inform workers in the American hemisphere about economic and political issues, and to find solutions to such problems. Thus, ORIT missions often dealt with issues such as low living standards, poor working conditions, and unemployment.

ORIT's Role in Latin America

ORIT played a significant role in the labor movement in Latin American countries on a number of occasions. For example, in Guatemala, ORIT became involved in events that brought about the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The AFL in particular opposed the Arbenz government, as seen in Romualdi's description of the Guatemalan president as "procommunist." Labor organizing had begun in earnest with the 1944 revolution in the country and continued under Arbenz, who won the 1950 presidential election. In October 1951 many Guatemalan unions merged into the Confederación Central de Trabajadores de Guatemala. The new confederation soon came to be dominated by communists. Romualdi went so far as to describe the situation as a "veritable communist trade union dictatorship." Indeed, there was persecution of the old labor leaders and of noncommunists unionists.

In response, ORIT and the AFL helped to create the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores Libres (UNTL) in 1953, which organized both urban industrial workers and agricultural laborers. This new organization claimed to oppose government control of the labor movement and the interference of political parties. UNTL faced much oppression, and in January 1954 there was a violent assault on its headquarters. Many UNTL leaders then played a role in the 1954 movement to overthrow President Arbenz. Later, ORIT was influential in helping to organize Guatemalan unions in the post-Arbenz period.

In keeping with its anticommunist stand, ORIT opposed the Cuban Revolution and the government of Fidel Castro that came to power in 1959. ORIT leaders were unhappy that Castro replaced the old leaders of Cuba's Confederación de Trabajadores Cubanos (CTC). Originally, communists controlled the CTC, which Cuban labor leaders formed in 1938. In 1947 more conservative elements led by Eusebio Mujal drove the communists out of the CTC. In 1949 Mujal became secretary general of the CTC and subsequently had the Cuban confederation withdraw from CTAL. In turn the CTC, now linked to the Batista government, became friendly with the AFL and soon began to participate in ORIT. After the Cuban Revolution and the removal of the old leaders, ORIT claimed that the Cuban labor movement was no longer free. In response to these accusations, in late 1959 the CTC withdrew from ORIT, calling the organization a tool of the U.S. State Department.

ORIT also played a significant role in Brazil. In 1961 Brazilian president Jâ nio Quadros resigned and vice president Joã o Goulart became president. Along with groups such as the Brazilian military and the United States, ORIT leaders felt that the Goulart government was overly influenced by communism. ORIT feared the new Brazilian regime would threaten its influence in the labor movement and would allow for the spread of communism.

In response, ORIT sent a mission to Brazil, established programs there, and brought a team of 33 Brazilian labor leaders to Washington, D.C., to learn more about democratic trade unions. In 1963 ORIT led a major push to gain control of the Brazilian labor movements. Two developments in particular upset the ORIT leaders. First, at an inter-American conference of labor leaders, the Brazilian delegation took a decidedly anti-U.S. stand and criticized the Alliance of Progress. Second, many ORIT leaders were concerned about the desire by some in Brazil to create a single national trade union center and feared that it would be dominated by left-wing labor leaders. ORIT leaders such as Romualdi saw such developments as a prelude to a communist takeover in Brazil.

Then in 1964 the U.S. government basically gave the Brazilian military a green light by announcing that it would not oppose military regimes if they seemed to offer a stable government. So in April 1964 the military overthrew the Goulart government. Some of the 33 labor leaders who had gone to the United States under the auspices of ORIT participated in the coup. ORIT leaders initially praised the new military government, as they felt that Goulart had allowed the communists to gain control of the major labor unions in Brazil. The new government, however, proved to be antilabor, and it purged many unions of those workers considered to be "subversive" and closely monitored all labor activity, tolerating no labor dissent.

As in Brazil, the labor movement in the Dominican Republic also came under strict government control. Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who came to power in 1930, had dominated the Dominican labor movement. Upon coming to power, Trujillo eliminated many labor leaders, and the Confederación Dominicana del Trabajo was subordinate to the dictator. In 1956 the ICFTU, to which ORIT belonged, denounced the Dominican leader before the ILO. Furthermore, when the ICFTU sent a mission to the Dominican Republic in 1958, it found that Dominican unions did not operate independently of government control and that collective bargaining was nonexistent.

The AFL-CIO supported sanctions against Trujillo that had been called for by the Organization of American States. It also called on ORIT member unions to do the same. Then, in 1961 Trujillo was assassinated. In the aftermath of the dictator's death, ORIT sought to gain control of the Dominican labor movement, sending Andrew McLellan to carry out this goal and to unify the three Dominican labor organizations that had been formed in 1961. They attempted to do so through FOUPSA-LIBRE, using the specter of communism as a tool to make inroads into the country's labor movement. ORIT leaders organized the first FOUPSALIBRE national convention in November 1962, took control of the organization, and replaced it with the new Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores Libres.

As these examples show, ORIT took an active role throughout Latin America after its creation in 1951. This inter-American labor organization supported those unions and governments that shared a similar ideology and opposed those that ORIT leaders considered to be procommunist or that exerted too much control over a particular country's labor movement.

Key Players

Jáuregui Hurtado, Arturo (1920-): Born in Lima, Peru, Jáuregui was influential in the creation of both the CIT and ORIT. As a teenager he became a factory worker and was active in organizing unions and asserting workers rights. Jáuregui also became of a member of Peru's Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) political party and later a key national labor leader in Peru. He served as secretary treasurer of the CIT. He held high-ranking positions in ORIT until 1958, when he temporality left the organization. He later served as the secretary general of ORIT starting in 1961.

McLellan, Andrew: Born in Scotland, McLellan later moved to the United States and became involved in organized labor. He served as the inter-American representative of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers. He was also the first ORIT organizer in Central America. In 1961 he took over Romualdi's post as the AFL-CIO's inter-American representative. McLellan soon became the most powerful figure within ORIT. He was influential in the organization's efforts against Cheddi Jagan in British Guinea and Joã o Goulart in Brazil.

Monge, Luis Alberto (1925-): Costa Rican labor leader who served as the secretary-general of ORIT starting in 1952. Monge had been an organizer of CIT and also was the chief of the ILO's Latin American Trade Union Division. Later, from 1982 to 1986, he served as president of Costa Rica.

Romualdi, Serafino: As the AFL's labor ambassador in Latin America, Romualdi was influential in establishing ORIT. He worked closely with the U.S. State Department, briefing new U.S. ambassadors to Latin America on labor issues. This role reflects the traditional cooperation between the AFL and the State Department that dates back to Samuel Gompers. The State Department aided Romuladi in hopes of countering the activities of CTAL. Thus, Romuladi's main concern was anticommunism and maintaining the strength of traditional powers in Latin America. He played a role in British Guiana, Guatemala, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. After 1958 U.S. representatives in ORIT took a more active role, and Romualdi played a smaller part. By 1961 he had been replaced by Andrew McLellan.

Velázquez Sanchez, Fidel (1900-1997): Mexican labor leader who headed that country's CTM for more than 50 years. Velásquez served as the president of the founding convention of ORIT, although he resigned over a dispute involving the Argentine CGT. After initially withdrawing his CTM from ORIT, it later rejoined ORIT. Velásquez was a member of Mexico's dominant PRI political party and twice served as a senator in his country.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina; Congress of Industrial Organizations; International Labor Federation; World Federation of Trade Unions.



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—Ronald Young

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