Growing Ties Between Mexican and U.S. Labor
This is the fourth article of a series on border solidarity by journalist and immigration activist David Bacon. All articles in the series were originally published in the Institute for Transnational Social Change’s report Building a Culture of Cross-Border Solidarity. To download a PDF of the entire report, click here.
IN Mexico, the NAFTA debate led to the organization of the Action Network Opposing Free Trade (RMALC), which in turn helped to spark the relationship between the U.E. and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT). That relationship, examined in detail in several books, remains a model for solidarity between two unions, based on equality and mutual interest, preserving each union’s ability to make its own decisions autonomously. It has been a relationship based on real campaigns on the ground – organizing drives, strikes, and resistance to proposals like the PRI labor law reform. Rank-and-file workers in both unions have played an important part in those efforts.
In the solidarity upsurge of the late 1990s onwards, other unions also have found counterparts across the border, and tried to develop ongoing relationships. The Communications Workers first supported efforts by maquiladora workers in a small Cananea factory, and then established a close relationship with the Mexican Telephone Workers. The ILWU sent delegations, first to Veracruz when its longshore union was smashed, and then to Pacific Coast ports as they were being privatized. The union has a relationship with the Federation of Stevedores there, part of the Revolutionary Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM). The PRI affiliation of this old, official union, however, is very different from the leftwing culture of the ILWU. While they have a common interest facing their mutual employers — huge shipping companies — neither union has been able to put forward a plan for mutual action.
Frustrated with the slow pace of union organizing in Mexico, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center assisted the formation of the Workers Support Center (CAT) in Puebla, which led to pitched battles in the state’s maquiladoras, and some important victories. The first came at Mex Mode (Kuk Dong), where the CAT helped set up an independent union. The United Students Against Sweatshops then successfully pressured Nike Corporation into forcing the sweatshop’s management to recognize it and bargain. Subsequent campaigns at clothing plants met with heavy repression. But recently, the CAT helped workers organize at a Johnson Controls plant. The UAW in the U.S., which had earlier organized plants of the same company, pressured it into recognizing the union in Puebla.
The CAT drives developed a sophisticated strategy using cross-border leverage against Mexican and U.S. employers in a well-defined geographical area, producing for the U.S. market. Those campaigns only received lukewarm support from the Mexican independent labor movement for the first few years. Recently, however, that has changed. The Puebla union at Johnson Controls joined the Mexican miners union after it won recognition. The mineros, who have begun a process of merging with the United Steel Workers, are locked in an all-out conflict with the Mexican government and Grupo Mexico. Yet the union is committed to offering resources to Puebla maquiladora workers, and the workers in turn are unafraid to join a union engaged in fierce battles.
The decision by the mineros and USW to draw together rises from their joint struggles in the mines along the U.S./Mexico border, especially the strike in Cananea. Workers in U.S. and Mexican mines have a long history of mutual support, even family relationships. While the Cold War restrained such support activity for some years, the Cananea strike in 1998 restarted relationships. Mexican miners came up to Arizona, and their appeals led to caravans of trucks filled with food going south. Support came from the Tucson labor council, headed by Jerry Acosta, and from USW mine locals in Arizona.
When Napoleon Gomez Urrutia became president of the mineros, and increasingly challenged Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government, the USW support efforts increased. Grupo Mexico bought ASARCO, giving the two unions a common employer. Then in June 2007, the mineros struck the Cananea mine, and Gomez Urrutia was forced into exile. The USW offered him a home in Vancouver, Canada, and the union became a critical source of support for the Cananea strikers, contributing food and money. It organized U.S. health and safety experts to go to Cananea to expose the dangers of silicosis in the mine, one of the reasons for the strike. The USW brought the AFL-CIO into its support activity, and together they pressured both the U.S. and Mexican governments.
USW legal and political assistance, coordinated by Manny Armenta, helped the mineros win a series of court decisions upholding the legality of the Cananea strike, and defending the mineros’ leadership against government legal charges and repression. After three years the government and Grupo Mexico finally used armed force to reopen the Cananea mine, but they had to do it in the face of numerous decisions declaring such action illegal. Reopening the mine is one of the clearest examples of the unwillingness of the Mexican government and large corporations to respect the rule of law. The conflict may grow even more intense when the USW contract with ASARCO expires. During the last negotiation of that agreement, Grupo Mexico, although it was the owner of the bankrupt U.S. employer, could not control it in bargaining. Now Grupo Mexico will face the USW directly. After years in which the union has defended Gomez Urrutia from the corporation’s attacks, and supported the strikers in Cananea, a sharp conflict is almost inevitable.
Since 2009, the two unions have discussed a merger of their organizations. The idea raises important questions about how such an organization would function under different labor law systems. It also poses challenging questions about how a binational organization would ensure the autonomy of its members in each country, and their ability to act in their own interest. Given the Cold War history of U.S. intelligence operations in Mexico, it’s not a question that Mexicans are likely to take lightly.
The support by U.S. unions for independent union campaigns in maquiladoras has always been attacked by rightwing Mexican media, government officials and employers, who have accused the Mexican workers and unions involved of betraying their country. They’ve charged U.S. unions with “trying to make trouble” in order to chase employers who have moved production to Mexico into returning to the U.S.
Progressive Mexican unions have had to fight to redefine what nationalism should mean. They’ve argued that the neoliberal development model itself undermines the true interests of Mexican workers, who have the right to fight U.S. and Mexican employers, and to solidarity from U.S. unions when they do it. Further, they charge, the real betrayal is by Mexican authorities who allow foreign companies to break Mexican labor law. Their position not only defends the historic rights of Mexican workers, but the motives behind the solidarity offered by US unions as well.
“We don’t want to live in a country that’s attracting jobs from other countries like the US and Canada, using the competitive advantage of low wages, the lack of enforcement of labor laws, and even ecological damage,” says UNT and telephone union leader Francisco Hernandez Juarez. “These jobs are bound to be temporary anyway, they don’t give us any permanent benefit, and eventually when there’s some unfavorable event, they move to countries where the labor is even cheaper. The majority of Mexicans are being plunged into poverty. It will get worse if we continue depending exclusively on producing for foreign markets, especially the United States, and if we ignore our domestic market. We won’t accept turning into a maquiladora country that’s attractive simply because of its cheap labor. Through our unions, we want to establish more complex and complete labor relations, that permit us to be competitive in making more sophisticated products.”
THE fight over that political direction is at the heart of the Mexican government’s attack on the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME). Here solidarity efforts from the U.S. are not based on a fight against a common employer, but instead challenge the free trade and free market reforms behind the attack on the Mexican union.
President Calderon declared Mexico’s oldest and most progressive major union “non-existent” in October of 2009. He dissolved the state-owned Power and Light Company for central Mexico, and fired all of the SME’s 44,000 members who worked there. Most Mexicans believe this is a prelude to privatizing the electrical industry. Already, despite the constitutional prohibition, almost half of the electricity generated in the country comes from private producers. Despite the attacks, the union has been able to win back its legal recognition, and is fighting for the rights and jobs of the 16,000 members who have refused to accept their termination.
U.S. unions stayed out of previous fights over privatization, especially around electrical generation, in part because the SME is still affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions. The WFTU was organized when the UN was founded, originally with CIO participation. But almost all U.S. unions later abandoned it at the beginning of the Cold War. The WFTU became the rival of the AFL-dominated International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
In Mexico, however, that Cold War barrier began to soften after the leadership of the AFL-CIO changed, and John Sweeney became president. “There’s more discussion with the SME,” said Stan Gacek, a staffer at the International Affairs Department in the early 2000s. “It’s on a de facto basis, although not on any grand scale. But a number of WFTU affiliates are talking to us because they’ve gotten over the Cold War and so have we. There are broader and more important common objectives.”
As the Mexico/U.S. labor solidarity movement grew, so did the number of U.S. activists who saw the important role the SME plays in Mexican politics. They respected its democratic structure and strong contract. In earlier confrontations with Mexican administrations, unions like the U.E., whose relationship with the SME goes back decades, mobilized U.S. support.
When Calderon launched his attack in 2009, that network was mobilized. The UE’s website, Mexican Labor News and Analysis, became a main source of news as the union fought to maintain picket lines at installations, and launched a hunger strike in the Zocalo, at Mexico City’s heart. News also came from the Solidarity Center’s Ben Davis, who was already putting out daily bulletins for the mineros. Progressive journalists began covering the fight, in the complete absence of any mainstream U.S. media coverage.
In the meantime, delegations of SME leaders, including Humberto Montes de Oca and Pepino Cuevas, came to the U.S., hosted by the San Francisco chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and local labor councils. Their efforts led eventually to press conferences and meetings between SME and AFL-CIO leaders in Washington DC, and complaints at the ILO and under NAFTA’s labor side agreement. Los Angeles unionists sent a delegation to the Mexican consulate, as did other areas.
In February five international union bodies, the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), UNI Global Union, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), cooperated in organizing actions in 40 countries. Over 50,000 workers, students and human rights activists demonstrated at Mexican consulates or otherwise showed their public opposition to the reform. Twenty-seven actions took place in Mexico itself.
The international federations and Mexican unions formed a coalition, which agreed to press the government to abolish the protection contract system and to stop the use of force against strikers at the Cananea mine, the Power and Light Company, and in other similar situations. The unions demanded an end to repression against the miners union and the SME; and that government officials be held responsible for the explosion at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine.
U.S. solidarity activists used several arguments to win U.S. labor support. With power workers, they explained that the destruction of SME and privatization of generation would lead eventually to Mexican power exports to the U.S., using low wages and a lack of unions to undercut U.S. production costs. This argument also helped win support from fair trade organizations.
The solidarity effort with the SME did not have a base in a particular U.S. union, however, as the FAT has with the UE or the mineros with the USW. That limited the Mexican union’s ability to plan and carry out a long-term cross border campaign. But after the struggle had gone on for a year, the U.S. Utility Workers Union organized a tri-national conference of unions in the electrical generation industry. SME leaders made a successful appeal for support, and have hopes for creating a more permanent relationship. The struggle against privatization is still not a high priority in U.S. labor, but many U.S. utility unions represent workers at public utilities and understand the threat. In addition, the current attack against U.S. public workers has created a labor audience more sympathetic to appeals to defend public workers in Mexico.
THE big turn away from the Cold War in U.S. labor came when John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995. Richard Trumka, then secretary-treasurer and now AFL-CIO president, called for dropping the Cold War prohibition on relations with leftwing unions like the SME, and declared that solidarity should be based on cooperation between unions facing common employers, regardless of their politics. The USW/mineros relationship is based in part on that idea.
Cross border solidarity in U.S. labor is still oriented towards private industry, and mutual support during confrontations with huge corporations. It’s less focused on opposition to the neoliberal policies pursued by both the U.S. and Mexican governments, regardless of which political party is in power. U.S. unions often see their own needs first. A heightened sense of solidarity requires fighting the battles prioritized by other unions, not just fighting your own battles in someone else’s country. U.S. unions are still learning what it would mean to Mexican labor and progressive movements if the SME were destroyed. They would find it much more difficult to develop Mexican allies in a climate of growing repression and a weakened left.
When many U.S. workers think about Mexico, they envision it as the place their jobs have gone. If U.S. workers have lost those jobs, then Mexican workers must have gotten them. Ross Perot captured their imagination by referring to Mexico as “the giant sucking sound.” The message from Perot and rightwing broadcaster Lou Dobbs is that Mexican workers are the enemy, the ones who “stole your job.”
In the U.S., most workers don’t understand displacement, or the enormous impact NAFTA and neoliberal policies have had on Mexicans. When Mexicans, as a result, cross the border looking for work, many U.S. workers often don’t understand who they are or why they’ve come.
The labor movements on both sides are paying a heavy price for giving a low priority to the education of their members. Anti-immigrant hysteria and hostility towards solidarity go hand in hand, and unions must take education more seriously. In the U.S., former AFL-CIO education director Bill Fletcher initiated a program called “Common Sense Economics” — an effort to teach union members about globalization and the way it affects them. The program was terminated, however, and Fletcher was reassigned. That effort has to begin again, but so far no such plans are underway. This is a serious brake on winning a mass base for solidarity activity among rank-and-file workers.
A culture of solidarity asks workers to take a long-term view of their interests. It asks them to look beyond getting a contract tomorrow for their own union or getting a card signed so the union can start bargaining. Both are necessary. But so is a better understanding of their stake in helping workers beyond their country’s borders. Solidarity means knowing that workers in one country can’t keep their contracts or jobs if workers across the border are losing theirs.
David Bacon is a California writer and photojournalist. His latest book is Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.