In the somber meeting room of Mexico's labor headquarters, one of the most powerful men in the country sat at the head of a long table lined with 22 chairs. Across from him were the portraits of seven presidents in office since his own rule began forty years ago.

It was an apt setting for this heavily built politician, Fidel Velanquez, whose silvery hair, dark glasses and enigmatic style have made him into a cartoonists' delight. In a country where power rotates and presidents must step down after six years, Velazquex has outlasted every one else on the political scene. And in a system where power is almost invariably granted by the president. Velazquez is powerful in his own right, though decidedly an adjunct of the ruling forces.

The secretary general of the Mexican Workers' Federation, known by its Spanish acronym as the CTM, Velazquez almost singlehandedly has made the 3 million-member labor movement into a pillar of Mexico's political system.

"Don Fidel," as most people call him, is often described as Mexico's George Meany, who was his friend. But unlike the recently retired and ailing American labor leader, the 79-year-old Velazques is still going strong. He said he plans to run again in spring elections. "We have good people here with long experience,"he said, but "not everyone enjoys the necessary consensus."

As Mexico enters a period of rapid, oil-financed industrialization, bringing even higher profits for businessmen and inflation affecting the poor, the government sees control over the labor movement as vital to prevent oil from becoming a source of unrest.

Already there is growing concern in the government that its general formula of control via co-option, and sometimes corruption, may not continue to work as well as it has during the past 50 years.

The changes expected on the Mexican labor scene are staggering. First, the development model of rapid industrialization will turn Mexico into a largely urbanized society by the end of the century. And second, the fast population growth will cause the work force to double in less than 20 years.

But trouble, if any, is not likely to come from the CTM, to which half of Mexico's 6 million non-farm workers belong. The union movement, after all, is the strongest arm of the official party which has ruled for half a century. It controls the workers and mobilizes them when the government needs to show popular support. In return, it ensures social benefits.

Even though the CTM delivers the best contracts and fringe benefits to the members, the continuing charges of "corruption" and "selling out" to the companies and the state have seriously discredited the labor bureacrats and are eroding their leadership.

Already, the newly leagalized leftist parties, including the Communist Party, who capitalize onthis are finding that their grass-roots following is larger.

Valazquez, is rare interview, brushed these challenges aside. A staunch anticommunist, he called his opponents "infiltrators" who had the government and the CTM worried "when they penetrated powerful unions like the electrical workers. They may be right," he said coolly, "but they fall, they can't deliver, they don't have enough strength."

With the soft-spoken, relaxed style of a man with power, Velazquez implied that he had seen worse in his long career, which is a virtual history of modern Mexico.

Just after the revolution when workers were being organized. Valazquez, then a milk delivery boy, joined the union of milk industry workers in 1921. It took him two years to become its secreary general. Soon after, in 1924, he said, "I met George Meany and Samuel Gompers. They came to Mexico for the inauguration of President (plutarco) Calles. From then on we kept in touch."

Velazquez wanted a stong, centrally run organization-like Meany's, and was more interested in making gains by driving bargains with management than by confrontation.

After taking over the CTM and purging Marxist leaders. Velazquez led it through the industrial revolution of the 1940s and 50s, supporting government repression of breakaway labor groups whenever they became a threat to CTM, hegemony.

Above all, Velazquez is one of the most genuine interpreters of Mexico's flexible mixed-bag ideology which came out of the 1910 revolution.

On the one hand, this political philosophy claims that the state, and the ruling party, paradoxically called the Institutional Revolutionary Party, are a revolutionary force to defend the poor majority. On the other hand, it staunchly defends the business elite, and has traditionally favored it.

While it has condoned great social distortions, it has always remained flexible enough to respond to social pressure and survive.

Now that the country is coming out of the most serious economic crisis of three decades, the flexibility of the system, and Velazquez, can be seen at work. For the past three years, the labor boss has kept the labor movement and wage demands in line with the government's austerity program.

Despite unprecedented levels of unemployment and double-digit inflation that has caused real income to drop by more than 20 percent in the past two years, labor trouble has been minimal as Valazquez has co-opted some of the independent leaders.

The more "stubborn" groups, so a labor lawyer explained, have since been punished in various ways. The government not only used the Army and police to break their strikes, but "some leaders were threatened or beaten up by secret police."

But now, as the crisis subsides and the progovernment labor leaders need to regain credibility, they are changing their tone again to more vigorous leftist rhetoric.

The trouble with Mexico, Velazquez said, "is that our private sector is extremely selfish. They're motivated by profits only and could care less about the people's misery. Most of the time they reinvest in businesses which don't generate jobs."

But as long as Velazquez remains in charge, so one prominent industrialist said, "we need not worry. He attacks us but he is also predictable and plays by the rules of the game."