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. PeaceNet:
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 Mexico. 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." Resources 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) 544-7198. 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.