Mario Azpeitia (1899–1982), the first Latino to serve as president of a national union, led the Cigar Makers’ International Union (CMIU) from 1949 to 1974. The child of Cuban immigrant parents with a Basque surname, Azpeitia was born in Key West, Florida, in 1899, during the interregnum between Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War and America’s exit from the island nation. Two decades earlier, his grandfather, Juan Modesto Azpeitia, served as the founding secretary of the Club San Carlos in Key West. It organized support for Cuban independence and opened a school for Cuban youth. Azpeitia attended the school, now associated with the San Carlos Institute, before following his father into the cigar trade. He susequently relocated to Tampa, which eclipsed Key West as the largest producer of clear Havana-style cigars. There, Azpeitia joined the Cirulo Cubano (Cuban Club), one of the city’s famed ethnic-based fraternal organizations, serving as an alternate director.
Azpeitia joined the CMIU Local 500 in 1935 as cigar unionism was entering a new phase. The CMIU signed the first union contract with the Tampa Manufacturers’ Association in 1933. Thereafter, the Tampa Communist Party (CP) decided to fully engage within the AFL union. Before then, many progressives refused to join what they saw as a conservative organization, favoring more radical alternatives. The CP’s decision reverberated through Local 500 and the other Tampa cigar union as hundreds of workers like Azpeitia joined the AFL union. One area of union life impacted by these developments was the annual election of officers. The CP proceeded to form coalitions with other progressive elements within the workforce to elect a succession of Popular Front–style candidates to Local 500 that challenged the international union.
This development created a dynamic that would launch and shape Azpeitia’s career as a union official. The structural conflict between Local 500’s progressive Latino leaders and the more conservative, white-led International Union officers reflected contested power, ideological differences and underlying demographics. Local 500, with some 5,000 members, was the largest local union in the CMIU; at times it comprised half the total membership. The International Union needed these members (and their dues) to survive as an institution, but the national officers were determined to deny the leaders of the mega-local the opportunity to hold office in or shape the larger organization.
Azpeitia emerged as a local leader in 1942 amidst a titanic power struggle between Local 500 and the International Union. The president of the International Union suspended the Local 500 secretary, the union’s chief administrative officer, in a bitter row over political differences internal and external to the CMIU. The local union membership elected Azpeitia as the new secretary. He held the position for the next 5 years, during which time he emerged as an able administrator and popular leader.
As secretary, Azpeitia promoted a progressive agenda in Tampa while coming to embody the struggles for democratic unionism and the need for a Latino voice at the helm of the nation’s majority Latino union. The year 1948 proved to be a turning point. Local 500 embraced Progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace, and Azpeitia formed an intra-union coalition of Spanish speakers and recently organized female machine workers that wrested power from the remaining elements of the Old Guard to elect him to the CMIU presidency. He chartered a more liberal course for the union, and in the early sixties visited President John F. Kennedy, a cigar aficionado, in the Oval Office. However, for the rest of his life he also had to deal with periodic questions about his own past affiliations. The Johnson White House, for example, ordered an FBI background check, but it proved to be a rehash of old allegations.