NAFTA and Cross-Border Unionism

The Resource Center Bulletin

The Resource Center Bulletin is published quarterly by the
Resource Center. The Bulletin explores U.S. influence in Mexico,
Central America, and the Caribbean.

Mail: Box 4506, Albuquerque, NM 87196
Phone: (505) 842-8288 / Fax: (505) 246-1601

	Winter 1993: Global Capitalism, Global Unionism

		By Harry Browne and Beth Sims

The proposal for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
sounded a wake-up call for organized labor in the United States.
Signed in December and due to be voted on in the legislatures of
Canada, Mexico, and the United States this year, NAFTA
represents a further step toward the globalization of the U.S.
economy. NAFTA will eliminate all tariffs and most other
barriers to trade and investment among the three participating
countries by the end of 2008. But the trade accord threatens to
intensify the runaway plant phenomenon, the loss of U.S.
production and jobs to competition from cheap foreign imports,
and the downward pressure on wages and benefits that have marked
most of the last two decades. The unimpeded flow of capital and
goods in the region will place workers in all three countries in
direct competition with each other, raising fears that labor
standards and wages will be dragged down in the United States
and Canada rather than raised in Mexico.
     Because of these concerns, NAFTA focused U.S. labor's
attention on Mexico, forcing a long overdue effort to evaluate
the labor movement there and to strengthen relations with its
various elements. Especially if NAFTA is adopted, U.S. labor
must continue to expand and deepen its contacts with Mexican
unions. Accelerating U.S.-Mexico economic integration means that
increasing numbers of laborers in Mexico and the United States
work for the same transnational firms. The unions representing
or seeking to represent these workers will benefit from sharing
information and coordinating bargaining strategies. On the
global scale, U.S. labor must continue to develop and promote
its view of an international trading system based on fairness so
that labor rights, living standards, and the environment are not
further degraded under the banner of enhancing competitiveness.
Expanding communication with Mexican unions is a crucial part of
this effort and is the focus of this excerpt from our upcoming
book, The Great Divide: The Challenges of U.S.-Mexico Relations
in the 1990s.
     Since the 1970s, Mexico has been one of the most important
battlegrounds in U.S. labor's struggle to keep jobs from moving
overseas. Low wages, minimal regulations, a largely unorganized
work force, and geographic proximity made Mexican maquiladoras
irresistibly attractive for many U.S.-based manufacturers. But
these same characteristics also made Mexico an excellent place
for U.S. unions to begin to develop a more effective
international strategy. Nevertheless, until the early 1990s the
AFL-CIO's approach in Mexico mirrored its international strategy
elsewhere: support for a stable, capitalist system outranked the
pursuit of genuine labor rights even when more vigorous
organizing efforts by independent unions were crucial to U.S.
workers as well as Mexicans.
     From the American Federation of Labor's support for the
most conservative forces in the Mexican Revolution to outright
racism against Mexican workers in more recent years, organized
labor in the United States seemed bent on alienating progressive
elements in the Mexican labor movement. Between the world wars,
some labor leaders organized anti-Mexican drives that involved
both intimidation and illegal deportation. For much of the
century many U.S. unions or union locals refused to admit
Mexicans or Mexican-Americans as members. And the AFL-CIO and
others frequently blamed Mexican immigrants--and more recently,
workers in the Mexican maquiladora industry--for causing
unemployment in the United States.
     For decades the AFL-CIO seemed undisturbed by its
alienation of Mexican unionists. But in the late 1980s, and
especially after the free trade proposal, the federation began
to pay for its neglect. The AFL-CIO's central role in organizing
and funding the binational Coalition for Justice in the
Maquiladoras, for instance, made some Mexican organizations wary
of the coalition's purposes. In at least one case a U.S. group
turned down the coalition's invitation to join for fear of
damaging its working relations with Mexican counterparts.

Tentative Beginnings

     The first signs of changing attitudes and strategies within
the labor movement appeared at the grassroots level. In the late
1970s a number of union locals and district offices of the AFL-
CIO scrapped efforts to prevent immigrants from entering the
United States, focusing instead on organizing new workers and
improving the observance of their labor rights. Not
surprisingly, the first to do so were mostly in the Southwest.
In California's Los Angeles and Orange counties the AFL-CIO
launched an organizing drive in 1977 targeted at undocumented
workers, and followed this several years later with a similar
drive in El Paso. Numerous Los Angeles union locals followed
suit, signing up undocumented workers and helping defend them
against deportation when necessary.
     In a context of increasing economic integration the
theoretical jump from organizing immigrant Mexican workers and
improving their working conditions here to working with Mexican
unions toward the same ends in Mexico is a small one. In both
cases empowering workers with the lowest wages and the worst
working conditions not only is morally commendable, but also
helps protect the standards of better-off workers. However, the
practical jump from working with Mexicans in the United States
to seeking cross-border partners, developing joint strategies,
and devoting limited resources to international solidarity is
daunting. As a result, cross-border work remained limited to
isolated efforts by relatively small unions (or by a few
individuals within larger unions) until the late 1980s.
     Farm labor unions, many of whose members are Mexican
immigrants, led the way in working directly with Mexican
organizations on common projects. Beginning in 1979 the Arizona
Farm Workers union won clauses in many of its labor contracts
requiring employers to contribute ten (and later twenty) cents
per worker-hour to a development fund. The fund paid for
agricultural and community projects in the workers' hometowns in
     In 1987 the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee
(FLOC) sought help from the National Union of Farm Workers
(SNTOAC) in Mexico. A year earlier, during FLOC's negotiations
with Campbell Soup, the company threatened to move tomato paste
production to Mexico, where it already operated a cannery. FLOC
overcame this threat, but anticipating Campbell's use of Mexico
as a bargaining tool in future negotiations, FLOC reached out to
SNTOAC, the union that represents workers at Campbell's tomato
paste factory in Sinaloa. The two organizations launched the
U.S.-Mexico Exchange Program and have continued to exchange
information and develop bargaining strategies to work for "wage
vs. living cost parity," full employment, protection of "guest
workers" in the United States, and the development of "strong
and democratic" unions in both countries. In 1989 FLOC's
solidarity and the mobilization of its support network helped
SNTOAC win a wage increase some 15 percent higher than the
government's legal cap for that year.

Counterproductive Alliances

     Until 1990 none of the industrial unions came close to
forging similarly close ties with Mexican counterparts. This
failure occurred despite the fact that U.S. corporations
frequently threatened to ship work to Mexico during contract
negotiations, and despite the steady ties that the AFL-CIO has
maintained with Mexico's official union, the Confederation of
Mexican Workers (CTM). Until recently the AFL-CIO posted a full-
time staff person to CTM headquarters in Mexico City. The AFL-
CIO also provides training in the United States for up to twenty
CTM staff members each year, in a program funded by the U.S.
Agency for International Development.
     But the U.S. labor federation has been unable to parlay its
relationship with the CTM into an effective organizing drive
among export-oriented assembly plants, the part of the Mexican
economy of greatest importance to U.S. workers. CTM officials
have repeatedly promised to make organizing these plants--
especially the maquiladoras--a priority, and just as repeatedly
have committed themselves to encouraging the growth of the
industry by ensuring labor peace. In the mid-1970s the official
unions collaborated with the government and maquila employers to
crush a series of strikes and the independent labor groups that
organized them. In 1983 CTM head Fidel Vel zquez intervened to
break a strike at Zenith's Reynosa plant--then the largest
maquiladora in the country--twice nullifying elections for local
CTM officials and cooperating with Zenith's forced resignation
of ten local activists. In 1989, after the CTM won an interunion
battle for representation at a number of plants in Reynosa,
Vel zquez reportedly promised visiting U.S. members of Congress
that there would be no further labor problems.
     There is not necessarily a contradiction between Vel zquez'
commitments to organize the maquiladoras and to promote the
industry. The maquiladora program competes directly with low-
wage export-processing zones around the globe, and one of the
principal arenas of competition is the stability of the work
force. Attracting investors means controlling worker activism,
and the most direct way the CTM and other official unions can do
that is to organize workers under their own banners. Accounts
abound of the efficiency with which official unions perform this
function. The Jalisco Maquila Association, for example, has
advised new members to accept the CTM, "especially since unions
in Guadalajara tend to facilitate rather than impede internal
plant relations."
     The founder of Mexico's first industrial park, located in
Ciudad Ju rez, had nothing but praise for the city's labor chief
in 1981: "Luis Vidal has always been understanding. He has been
a big help to us, and I think it's been to our advantage to have
a labor leader like Vidal--very, very advantageous." The general
manager of an assembly plant in Reynosa was even more explicit.
"We had some labor problems, so along with a dozen other plants
we went to Mexico City to make a special arrangement with the
CTM. It was time-consuming and expensive, but we arranged to
have a special union leader that our companies can deal with. .
. . If you have any disruptions in the plant, they are very
helpful with that, too."
     The CTM's reluctance to stray from government economic
policy, and its repression of independent labor activists who
might take a more militant stand has not persuaded the AFL-CIO
to support other unions or independent organizing efforts. Until
recently, the federation failed even to expand its contacts
outside of official union circles. The reason most frequently
cited for this commitment to the CTM is the weakness of the
independent union movements--it makes more sense, in this view,
to work with an imperfect partner that can get something done
than with a partner that agrees on important issues but is
powerless. But the AFL-CIO's overseas history suggests that
another reason for its past failure to support democratic union
movements in Mexico may be the U.S. federation's interest in
political stability, which includes preventing the emergence of
leftist labor movements.
     Yet another likely reason is that established unions and
labor federations in all countries are reluctant to deal with
dissident movements abroad for fear of setting a precedent. "As
soon as you start dealing with non-official labor unions in
other countries, you open it up to their dealing with non-
official bodies in this country," noted an academic observer of
international labor relations.
     Whether out of allegiance to the CTM or ignorance of the
Mexican labor situation, the attitudes of AFL-CIO affiliates
toward Mexico mirrored that of the federation until the late
1980s. In some cases, U.S. union leaders rejected the approaches
of independent Mexican labor groups. The September 19th National
Garment Workers Union--named for the date of Mexico City's
devastating 1985 earthquake--provides a case in point. Seeking
international support for its fledgling organizing effort among
the seamstresses of Mexico City's sweatshops, September 19th
union representatives traveled to New York and then across the
country to Los Angeles, visiting the headquarters and a number
of locals of the two largest U.S. garment workers' unions. The
Mexicans were largely ignored by the hierarchy of the
International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated
Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). What is more, both
headquarters sent instructions to their locals "warning them not
to receive the visitors, since they weren't part of the CTM,"
according to a U.S. labor activist working with the visiting
group. This attitude was especially surprising in the case of
ACTWU, since the union was an outspoken opponent of the AFL-
CIO's policies in Central America at the time.
     "The (U.S.) unions were uninterested" in the visit,
according to a former ACTWU staff member. "Mexico just didn't
exist in the minds of the trade union hierarchy at the time. All
they talked about was the [Caribbean Basin Initiative]." But the
farther the Mexican workers got from New York, the more
receptive U.S. unionists were. In Los Angeles, local leaders
organized a Labor Solidarity Network to support the new union's
efforts. They were forced to do so informally, however, without
official union backing.
     @B30HEAD-2 = A Change of Heart?
     NAFTA ended labor's inaction. A number of union officials
recognized that political activity within the United States was
only half of the response that NAFTA required. The anti-NAFTA
coalitions of labor, environmental, consumer, and other groups
represented exciting new possibilities in the United States,
but, as the political director of the United Electrical Work-
ers said, "Much of the work in those coalitions is ultimately
legislative. We don't think that's enough. . . In the last ten
years, [the UE] has lost 10,000 jobs to Mexico alone. The answer
that too often gets ignored by the labor movement is solidarity
across borders."
     The prospect of free trade with Mexico forced labor leaders
to take a long-term view. Gradually the AFL-CIO began to realize
that even defeating NAFTA--itself a great challenge given
labor's poor legislative record--would do little to keep jobs
and investment in the United States over the long haul. Capital
will move abroad with or without a North American agreement.
     What ties workers in different countries together is not an
abstract concept of worker solidarity, but the concrete
phenomenon of the internationalization of capital. The
internationalization of organized labor--in a variety of forms--
has to be part of the solution. But in what forms? And how to
get there? In developing answers to these questions, unions have
piggybacked onto the agendas for regional integration set by
their governments. In Europe labor organizations have joined
forces to shape the "social charter" that sets labor and
environmental standards for the European Community. In North
America, awakened by NAFTA, some unionists are attempting to
develop a similar continental social force in league with
Canadian and Mexican groups.
     Given the history of cross-border relations, however, both
Mexican and U.S. unions have proceeded cautiously. In many
cases, union staffers here have had only a dim picture of the
politically complex Mexican labor scene. A few unionists have
gained a head start in the effort to identify appropriate
Mexican counterparts through their participation in a series of
bi- and trinational exchanges launched in 1988. Sponsored by a
small, New York-based group called Mexico-U.S. Di logos, the
exchanges brought together North American counterparts from
different social sectors to share perspectives, problems, and
ideas for the future.
     Other U.S. unions have made contacts through efforts to
link NAFTA opponents across North America. At an October 1991
trinational, anti-NAFTA meeting in Zacatecas, Mexico, for
example, UE representatives met officials of the Authentic Labor
Front (FAT). The two groups have since embarked on the most
concrete example of labor solidarity to date, agreeing to
cooperate in organizing maquiladora workers. The effort is
focusing on "runaway" plants that started up in Mexico after
shutting down UE-represented shops in the United States. Other
unions, including the Communications Workers of America and the
Service Employees International Union, have also set up contacts
with Mexican unionists.
     Has there been a change of heart within U.S. labor? To be
sure, cross-border interest and activities have picked up
considerably, but to many long-ignored Mexicans this smacks of
opportunism, born of U.S. labor's struggle to defeat NAFTA.
Whether the interest endures, and whether the scope of North
American labor cooperation expands beyond mere statements of
solidarity depends on changes in the labor movements of both
Mexico and the United States. Mexican unions will have only
limited options for cross-border cooperation as long as they
remain dependent on the government and inattentive to their
membership. Unions in the United States will have to overcome a
legacy of arrogance, racism, and unilateralism, and an
entrenched hierarchy whose apparently inflexible world views
were shaped during the Cold War.

Forging Cross-Border Links

     A new international outlook for U.S. labor would of course
have to extend beyond the Western Hemisphere. But North America
is the first testing ground, and whether optimism or pessimism
is warranted will be determined by the evolution of nascent
U.S.-Mexico-Canada labor ties. Activists see two paths that must
be blazed: one that leads to coordinated bargaining strategies
among employees of individual transnational corporations, and
another that leads to the adoption by all three countries of
enforceable minimum labor standards.
     In February 1992 the UAW did make a concrete expression of
international solidarity, contributing $15,000 to the strike
fund of a maquiladora union in Matamoros, Mexico. The
contribution came in response to the Mexican government's arrest
of that union's leader, Agapito Gonz lez, on charges of tax
evasion. The arrest was a blatant and effective effort to give
maquila operators in Matamoros an advantage in their
negotiations with the union. Gonz lez, a long-time CTM official,
was released nine months later. He heads the Industrial
Journeymen and Workers Union, which represents workers at
numerous plants owned by U.S. auto makers. His relatively
assertive negotiating tactics achieved wages in the Matamoros
maquiladoras roughly 25 percent higher than those in other
border cities.
     As a first step toward joint bargaining strategies and in
order to prod the union hierarchy into greater activism,
grassroots groups began conducting cross-border worker
exchanges. These exchanges proliferated after a group called
Mujer a Mujer (Woman to Woman) began sponsoring visits by
Mexican unionists to the United States in 1985. Such exchanges
play a crucial role in enhancing rank-and-file understanding of
the process of globalization and add a human significance to
calls for international solidarity.
     ACTWU has promoted several such exchanges, and has begun to
share information about specific companies with several Mexican
labor organizations, including some independent groups. "We're
talking with anybody we can talk with" in Mexico, said ACTWU
research director Ron Blackwell. In some cases the talking
includes programmatic work, potentially involving joint
campaigns targeting specific companies. Several locals of the
Service Employees International Union have traveled to Mexico to
meet with counterparts. Representatives of Local 790 in San
Francisco were impressed with opposition party leader Cuauhtmoc
C rdenas--an ally of FAT--and sent observers to monitor state-
level elections in Michoac n in 1992.
     Another joint effort sprang from the labor violations that
are all too common in Mexico. After the murder of a Mexican Ford
worker in January 1990, several of his co-workers traveled to
the United States and Canada seeking support from the United
Auto Workers (UAW) and the Canadian Auto Workers. The Canadians
and a couple of UAW locals--in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Kansas
City, Missouri--launched publicity campaigns and encouraged
their members to write Ford's corporate headquarters and the
Mexican government. Delegations of U.S. and Canadian auto
workers traveled to Cuautitl n--just north of Mexico City--to
meet with the dissidents and to leaflet at the plant's gates.
Officials of the St. Paul local publicly challenged Ford
executives to explain the company's apparent violation of basic
labor rights in Mexico. The activists caused enough trouble for
Ford in the United States that the company demanded that Mexican
unionists cut their ties to U.S. groups before they would
receive their severance pay.
     If the UAW as a whole had picked up on these members'
efforts, activists argue, Ford would think twice before abusing
its Mexican workers' rights again. But the UAW hierarchy was
reluctant to follow the activists' lead and refrained from
organizing a symbolic unionwide action, much less sponsoring
trips to Mexico or providing financial support to the Mexican
dissidents' Ford Democratic Workers Movement.
     In addition to building direct contacts and forging joint
strategies with cross-border counterparts, a second
international labor strategy involves the establishment of
enforceable minimum labor standards. Enforcing existing laws is
a first step in this process. In the United States, this means
using the provisions of the 1984 Trade and Tariff Act that
require countries to meet internationally recognized minimum
labor standards in order to gain duty-free access to the U.S.
market for their goods.
     In 1991 a group of U.S. activists filed a petition with the
United States Trade Representative (USTR) requesting that
Mexican exports be denied eligibility for duty-free treatment,
based on the violation of workers' rights at the Ford plant in
Cuautitl n, among other items. The USTR rejected the petition
out of hand, illegally failing to detail its reasons. "How do
you overlook the fact that Mexican workers are routinely fired,
beaten, disappeared, shot, and even killed for exercising their
right to democratic trade unionism?" asked petitioner and Ford
worker Tom Laney in a "reminder letter" to USTR Carla Hills.
"The only reason for their rejection I can think of is that it
would mess up their negotiations of NAFTA," he said.
     The trade office's rejection of the petition highlighted
the difficulty of relying on individual nations to enforce
international labor rights. The process as it is now structured
is hostage to the political priorities of the executive branch.
But labor rights activists argue that only by bringing cases,
filing suits, and demonstrating the system's ineffectiveness
will they be able to force the issue onto the national agenda.
And only by working closely with labor organizations around the
globe will activists be able to build trust, incorporate
concerns, and create an international movement to include labor
rights in international trade and investment agreements.
     This is an area ripe for U.S.-Mexican labor cooperation.
Such issues as occupational health and safety, the rights to
bargain collectively and to strike without being fired, and the
enforcement of child labor laws are issues on which both sides
should be able to agree. The debate over NAFTA provides a
platform for raising labor standards in policy circles, even if
NAFTA itself is not modified.
     Much trickier, however, and more important in the long run,
is the question of how to guarantee that workers are free to
join the union of their choice and democratically elect their
leaders. It may well be that working toward these goals means
that U.S. labor will have to weaken or sever its ties with
official Mexican unions. It almost certainly means providing
moral and material support to independent unions in Mexico and
applying strong political pressure in the United States.
     But U.S. unions must also strengthen their own positions
through grassroots organizing, democratize their own internal
structures, and learn to think on a consistently global plane.
"Corporations already make plans and build alliances as though
national borders were not even there," notes Joe Fahey,
president of Teamsters Local 912, which lost hundreds of jobs
when its Green Giant plant ran away to cheaper pastures in
Mexico. "Labor has a long way to go to catch up."


American Labor Education Center, 2000 P St. NW #300, Washington,
DC 20036. Phone: (202) 828-5170.

Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, 3120 W. Ashby, San
Antonio, TX 78228. Phone: (512) 732-8957.

International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, PO Box
74, 100 Maryland Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Phone: (202)

Dan La Botz, Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico
Today (Boston: South End Press, 1992).

Kevin J. Middlebrook, ed., Unions, Workers, and the State in
Mexico (San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 1991).

Kim Moody and Mary McGinn, Unions and Free Trade: Solidarity vs.
Competition (Detroit: Labor Notes, 1992).

North American Worker-to-Worker Network, 7435 Michigan Ave.,
Detroit, MI 48210. Phone: (313) 842-6262.