labor 3 Decades Ago, There Was a Deadly Attack on Mexican Autoworkers. Here’s What It Can Teach the U.S. Labor Movement Today.
Rob McKenzie is a writer and former auto worker at the Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minn., where he worked as an assembler, industrial electrician, and then as a full-time union representative for the United Auto Workers (UAW) until the plant closed in 2011. During his time as a steward at the Twin Cities plant in 1990, news hit of a deadly attack on a Ford plant in Cuautitlán, Mexico, a town just outside of Mexico City.
The autoworkers in Cuautitlán were part of a radicalizing union reform movement due to their union’s management colluding with the company to undermine them. The workers were demonstrating for improved pay when a group of 300 unidentified men, many of them local gang members and petty criminals, stormed the plant, wearing Ford uniforms, and attacked the workers—leaving one worker, Cleto Nigmo, dead and ten injured.
After this incident, autoworkers in Minnesota and across the United States stood in solidarity with the Ford Cuautitlán workers. Local chapters of the UAW invited representatives of the Mexican auto worker reform movement to their union halls to speak and wore bands around their arms to honor the death of Nigmo. However, the official narrative never provided McKenzie with closure and haunted him for years to come until his retirement when he decided to dedicate his time to investigating the truth of the attack at Ford Cuautitlán and who was really behind it.
McKenzie initially thought the project would be a five-page-long research paper. Instead, he wrote the book El Golpe: US Labor, the CIA and the Coup at Ford in Mexico, authored with historian, Patrick Dunne. Published in 2022 by Pluto Press, the book is essential reading for anyone in the labor movement looking to learn more about the foreign policy of the U.S. during the Cold War era.
The central argument of El Golpe is that the deadly attack on the Cuautitlán workers was tied to the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), a wing of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) that funded by the U.S. government, largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development. McKenzie hypothesizes that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a big—and overlooked—role in steering AIFLD as it schemed behind the scenes to stomp out radical labor and social movements in British Guiana, Brazil, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
As labor historian Jeff Schuhrke noted in his review of the book for Jacobin, “Despite his dogged research—which included issuing a plethora of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and interviews with retired U.S. labor officials—McKenzie did not find a ‘smoking gun’ undeniably proving either AIFLD or the CIA’s participation in the events in Cuautitlán. But he did discover a troubling amount of circumstantial evidence.”
This evidence is certainly concerning. McKenzie identifies links between the CIA, the corrupt Federation of Mexican Workers (CTM), and Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which all had a stake in smoothly ushering in NAFTA, a 1994 trade agreement that promoted free trade between Mexico, Canada, and the United States, and squashing burgeoning workers movements in the Mexican auto industry.
According to McKenzie, Hector Uriarte, the secretary general of the CTM, was especially close with AIFLD; Uriarte regularly met with AIFLD in the years leading up to the attack for some on and off record meetings and served as a go-between the Mexican union and the American intelligence.
And, according to the book, on the morning of the attack on the Ford Cuautitlán workers, Hector Uriarte was seen with Wallace de la Mancha, a notorious hitman who had a long history of working for both the CIA and the PRI to intimidate, kill, and attack dissidents. Wallace de la Mancha had a history of smaller scale hits. However, the onslaught at Ford Cuautitlán involved 300 attackers, indicating that he was involved with a larger and more powerful entity, McKenzie says.
After the violent raid, when some of the attackers were caught and questioned by Mexican authorities, they admitted to being contracted by Hector Uriarte. Uriarte was suspected by the workers to have been the only person who could have pulled off this attack considering the attackers had infiltrated locked areas of the plant, including the production line, and wore Ford uniforms. Someone from the inside was clearly aiding them, McKenzie asserts.
The investigation into the violent attack on the Ford Cuautitlán workers was marred with corruption, and many of the attackers were never prosecuted or were able to avoid real consequences.
Nonetheless, McKenzie was determined to dig into this history, and what he finds is concerning for anyone who cares about building a strong labor movement that is not confined by borders. In a conversation with Workday Magazine, McKenzie emphasizes that his research comes from a place of valuing the integrity of the labor movement, and he hopes that his findings are used to account for past mistakes in order to not repeat them in the future. While his critiques are hard-hitting, his commitment to the betterment of the labor movement is clear.
From United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America denouncing the war in Vietnam in 1964 to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union opposing the Iraq War in 2008, McKenzie is one voice in a growing legacy of labor leaders demanding accountability for American labor’s complicity in foreign policy atrocities.
Workday Magazine spoke with McKenzie about how the labor movement must reckon with the past in order to move forward, the experience of working in auto manufacturing through the onset of NAFTA, and much more. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Isabela Escalona: Can you describe the main findings of El Golpe?
Rob McKenzie: I knew about this attack that had taken place on these workers at the Ford plant in Mexico in 1990. When I retired, I thought I would research it. I had heard rumors that this had been the CIA and that a labor front group called the American Institute for Free Labor Development had been involved.
Originally, I was thinking it’d be a four or five page paper, and I would need to get some academic help to do that, but as I went along, I realized that no labor historian had done a history of the AIFLD. I was really surprised by that. As I proceeded, I realized the AFL-CIO had never acknowledged or accounted for their relationship with the CIA in the Cold War. So I thought that was something I had to look at and define, which is the first four chapters of the book.
I think I really found out what happened in Mexico and what happened in the plant. It was a fairly complicated situation politically in Mexico, and there were a number of forces working together to crush a reform movement in Mexico, to the detriment of not only Mexicans but American workers too.
Escalona: What key insights do you think readers should walk away with after reading this book?
McKenzie: There’s no question in my mind, the CIA was involved extensively within labor, that they were running AFL-CIO foreign policy directly with agents during the Cold War. They were also active in suppressing dissent in labor over foreign policy. In Mexico, this relationship led to the defeat of a reform movement, led to the passage of NAFTA, led to the pouring of manufacturing work into low-wage Mexico, and U.S. labor participated in their own demise by their activities around Mexico.
When I started, I was thinking I wouldn’t have this much controversy. I didn’t have any career to lose or threaten. So I just went on to write what I believed to be true and what I felt I could verify through the research. But it ended up being quite controversial.
Escalona: When you were working at the Ford plant in St. Paul, and you heard about this incident in Mexico, how did that make you feel as a worker of a Ford factory?
McKenzie: We were outraged. Most of the union activists I knew were just appalled by this. There was a lot of support for this reform movement in our local union, and I think there would have been in other UAW local unions if the issues had been brought to them. But they weren’t.
We had an armband day where almost everybody wore a black armband to commemorate the worker who was killed in this Ford plant. Our local spent quite a bit of money, sending people down there to moderate union elections and bringing some of the workers up to Minnesota. That all had to be approved and voted on by the local, and there was a great deal of support for that activity.
Escalona: Do you see that same support happening today, in unions in the United States, for international workers’ movements?
McKenzie: It’s been a few years now since I’ve been active in labor. I think somehow that boat has been missed, and it needs to be rebuilt. And again, shown the connections, that the people who are in there now have grown up under NAFTA and have just grown up with all these jobs being in Mexico. They didn’t experience the loss that people in my generation saw. So I think in general, people are supportive, but in terms of specifically how that’s affected them—there needs to be some education done in labor on these issues.
Escalona: You were working during such a pivotal moment in history in the auto industry. How did it feel to be an auto factory worker during the onset of NAFTA?
McKenzie: People could really feel the jobs slipping away. In our plant, an assembly plant, they bring hundreds of thousands of parts to the assembly line. And then people would put them on the vehicles or put the vehicles together. I remember the first time someone saw parts had been made in Mexico. By the time I became a union president, bigger parts were made in Mexico, like transmissions. And so, people realized that these jobs were disappearing. And you could see factories closing all over the country. We really went through a period of deindustrialization. And then along with that de-unionization.
Escalona: In the book, you mentioned, at some point, that when you were getting closer to these findings, and as you were becoming more critical of the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, some labor leaders questioned whether your research would give ammunition to anti-labor groups. How would you respond to the need for internal criticism within the labor movement while still balancing a pro-union and pro-worker commitment?
McKenzie: One of the real weaknesses of labor that I’ve seen over my life is an inability to critically examine the stakes. You can point to a lot of places where this has really hurt us. As a healthy organization, you have to be able to examine the past, acknowledge it, account for it, and move forward. Without that happening, you’re just stuck in a circular trap of chasing your tail and never really breaking free of these past mistakes.
A healthy labor movement has criticism and dissent. And when you look back to the ‘80s, we’ve come a long way back—there really was genuine debate, criticism, discussion, but the labor movement today is really weakened, and that is missing.
I don’t think you’re gonna have a hard time convincing me there’s somebody more concerned about the future of labor than me. Somebody needs to step up, acknowledge this, and account for it. I think there are people in labor who think, “Well, yeah, we had to do those things during the Cold War, and it was correct to do those things.” So that’s a debate that needs to take place.
Escalona: Why do you think it’s important for workers to have solidarity with workers across borders, especially American workers with workers in Mexico?
McKenzie: I think that’s one of the real lessons of this—how international solidarity isn’t just an ethical type of thing, but a very practical view. The only thing that was going to slow the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico was to improve the wages and conditions in Mexico. In every country in this international globalized economy, you really need to cooperate with workers and other countries and not compete. Even worse, in the case of Mexico, they try to squelch their movements. That’s an important lesson. If I could help current labor people learn any lesson, it is the critical importance for pursuing international solidarity, especially with Mexico, when it’s so easy to transfer work and jobs and in all sorts of fields now.
Escalona: What do you think it would take for the AFL-CIO to reckon with this history regarding its foreign policies or in the Cold War?
McKenzie: Well, that would really take a groundswell. It would take local unions and state federations demanding that they do that and asking questions. These are very simple questions to ask, I could never get any answer. It’s hard to defend the policy if we want to keep the secret, which is a position that’s hard to defend in public when the spotlight is on it. It just takes some people willing to speak out. If you look at the 1987 Minnesota AFL-CIO convention, where they passed the resolution against military aid to the Contras. That wasn’t easy. People had to really stick their neck out and spent months working around the issue.
Escalona: What guidance would you give to other researchers who are trying to uncover this history?
McKenzie: The problem is a lot of people are dying off. Labor historians have really missed an opportunity to interview these people and record it. It’s just a shame that more isn’t being done to record their personal recollections, and they may have personal documents about this stuff too.
Escalona: Last month, the UAW voted to change its leadership to a militant reform effort that started as a rank-and-file movement, with Shawn Fain as the newly elected president. Fain has promised to recommit the union to more democratic principles it was founded on and take a more militant approach in negotiating their contracts with these massive companies. What does this mean for your research and whether the union is ready to confront some of these questions of American unionism’s past as well as relations with Mexican workers?
McKenzie: Well, that’s a good question. I know a lot of the UAW leaders are very supportive of the idea of solidarity with the Mexican workers .
In an In These Times interview with Shawn Fain, he mentions supporting Mexican workers. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do something there. You can be as militant as you want. But unless you can do something to stabilize the wages and equalize the wages on the border, militancy is not going to be an answer in itself. You do organize the unorganized auto workers in the country, and there’s a lot of them. We need to do something to improve the wages and conditions in Mexico. I think those are priorities. Those are my priorities.
Unless you understand how we got where we’re at, it’s very hard to find the way forward.
There is definitely a more militant mood among American workers. In order to find a way forward for the auto workers, we really need to study the past and see what things we could have done better, where mistakes were made, and how we ended up where we’re at today. I think that’s really important to navigate the way forward.
Isabela Escalona is the Senior Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.
Workday Magazine holds the powerful to account while bringing the perspectives of everyday workers, and the organizations that defend their rights, to focus. We emphasize long-form investigative journalism to unearth the concealed and buried. Our publication is based in Minnesota and covers the greater Midwest, along with international issues that affect workers, like climate change and U.S. militarism.
Workday Magazine fulfills the mission of the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota by providing a public outlet to examine the conditions that workers face on a day-to-day basis. We began publishing in the summer of 2000 with support from Minnesota’s labor community. We were the first online labor news publication in the United States.