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Labor goes global.

Last September, California Teamsters hit the road carrying some unusual freight. They were hauling information on the potential impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Calling their convoy the "Economic Earthquake Express," they carried their message of economic disaster to work sites, union halls, and local events in fifty California communities.

The Teamster action was one of the most unusual anti-NAFTA labor events of the year and one that came from an unexpected comer of the AFL-CIO. After all, truck drivers didn't used to worry much about trade issues-they could haul foreign goods just as well as American. But the impending NAFTA, along with economic shifts, have jolted them out of their complacency.

U.S. exports to Mexico have tripled and imports doubled since 1987, when border tariffs began to tumble. The number of U.S.-to-Mexico truck crossings at the busy Laredo-Nuevo Laredo border, for example, tripled from 1989 through 1992. In the same period, Mexico began deregulating its trucking industry, which opened the way for U.S. companies to set up Mexican subsidiaries.

The wake-up call for U.S. truckers came in May 1992, when George Bush ordered California to recognize Mexican commercial drivers' licenses, putting drivers from the two nations into direct competition for the first time. Mexican drivers make one-tenth of what Teamsters make. But the Teamsters weren't content to adopt the usual "buy American" line of much of the AFL-CIO or to "just say no" to free trade.

Instead, the new Teamster reform leaders reached across the border and made their anti-NAFTA campaign a symbol of international labor solidarity. In addition to new Teamster Vice Presidents Jim Bensen and Ken Mee and California Teamster officials, the Economic Earthquake Express carried on board unionist Raul Marquez, the leader of the Authentic Workers Front (Frente Autentico de los Trabajadores), an independent Mexican labor federation. Unlike most labor federations in Mexico, the Authentic Workers Front has no ties to the government or the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) that has governed for sixty years. Marquez's group is one of the few labor organizations willing to buck the official pro-NAFTA line of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his trade-union acolytes in the PRI-dominated Congress of Labor. Like the Teamsters, other unions and even the AFL-CIO itself are beginning to organize across borders.

The AFL-CIO took a look at the future two years ago, when it backed the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. Maquiladora plants process U.S.-made components or materials for export back into the United States and their number has more than doubled since 1986 to about 2,000, employing 500,000 Mexican workers. Indeed, about two-thirds of U.S.-Mexican trade is in capital or intermediate industrial goods and materials. Half of that is "intra-firm" - trade within the same company.

Departing from the Cold War style of international "solidarity" carried out in Latin America by the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development, the federation assisted the Coalition for Justice in pulling together unions and community groups with diverse political outlooks. Instead of establishing contact with the official unions in Mexico, the Coalition for Justice works with individuals and organizations helping maquiladora workers in Mexico. Its major activity, however, is conducting campaigns to make U.S. corporations adhere to standards of conduct equal to those in the United States. One of its major campaigns is against Zenith, which, like other corporations operating along the border, violates even the most minimal labor, health, and environmental standards. The Coalition for Justice plans to bring its Zenith campaign to the U.S. Congress.

Other unions are following the Teamsters' example and attempting to establish more direct contact with their counterparts in Mexico. The Communications Workers of America has a formal alliance with the Communications Workers of Canada and Mexico's Sindicato de Telefonistas de la Republica de Mexico. The pact grew out of a fight against Northern Telecom, the Canadian telecommunications-equipment giant. Northern Telecom was moving out of its unionized Canadian plants and opening nonunion plants in the United States. The Canadian and American unions got together to back a CWA effort to unionize one of Northern Telecom's plants. With NAFTA coming down the fast track, the alliance was extended to the Mexican workers as well. U.S. telecommunications companies are already directly involved in Mexico. AT&T, along with several other equipment producers, operates plants in the northern border area. And Mexico's privatized phone company, TELMEX, is partly owned by Southwestern Bell.

The smaller United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers Union (UE) has taken on an even more activist project. Having watched many of the plants it once organized move to Mexico, United Electrical decided to pursue the runaways. The electrical appliance industry has a long history of restructuring, having farmed out much of its production to maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border. By the end of the 1980s, almost 40 per cent of all maquila workers made electrical machinery or electronics products. To address this new reality, United Electrical has launched an "adopt an organizer" program with the Authentic Workers Front. United Electrical finances the Authentic Workers Front to organize plants on the Mexican side, while it organizes in the United States.

Organizing maquiladoras is no easy job, thanks to rapid work-force turnover, and government repression. So the Workers Front works with such community organizations as the church-led base communities and environmental coalitions that are combating the massive health and ecological problems the multinational corporations have created in the maquila towns. It is much too early to say whether the United Electrical Workers Front project will work, but it is the first real attempt at cross-border union organizing.

Not all unionized workers are waiting for their top officials to catch on to the importance of international solidarity in North America's merging economy. When Green Giant displaced 800 Mexican and Chicana women workers at its Watsonville, California, plant, the workers and their local Teamsters union decided to do something about it. They started a national campaign against Green Giant. Then some of the displaced workers visited family in Irapuato, Mexico, which has become a center of frozen-food processing. They not only found where their jobs had gone, they discovered a desperately polluted town. Joining forces with women working in the Irapuato plant, Local 912 won extended training pay for the displaced Watsonville workers, and Green Giant agreed to build a waste-treatment plant in Irapuato.

Rank-and-file auto workers, who have seen their industry reorganize and downsize for a decade, have taken on an even more ambitious project. They are setting up a permanent, industry-wide trinational network. A pioneer in this effort was Tom Laney, recording secretary of a UAW local in St. Paul, Minnesota. When he heard of the murder of Mexican Ford worker Cleto Nigmo in 1990, he invited a leader of the Mexican Ford Workers Democratic Movement, a union-reform group from Nigmo's plant outside Mexico City. To further this work, Laney established the MEXUSCAN solidarity committee in his union local.

At one of the proliferating trinational labor conferences, Laney and other Ford workers from all three countries created a plan to have one of the first trinational worker demonstrations of the NAFTA era. On January 8, 1991, one year after Nigmo was killed, Ford workers in all three countries wore black ribbons bearing Nigmo's name. As Laney put it, these efforts "helped members begin to understand the connections between their disappearing work rights and Ford's ability to freely invest the money we've made for them in low-wage areas-both inside and outside the United States. More members began to consider the long-range benefit of solidarity among all Ford workers."

In November 1991, the Transnationals Information Exchange (TIE) held a trinational, grass-roots auto-workers' conference. TIE is based in Amsterdam and has been working on regional and worldwide worker networks in the auto and chocolate/cocoa industries for nearly fifteen years. Finding it too difficult to maintain global networks, it has recently emphasized regional groupings in Europe, East Asia, South America, and now North America. The Trinational Auto Workers meeting took place in Oaxtepec, Mexico. Most of the sixty-five workers present were from Big Three plants, including some of the newer state-of-the-art assembly plants in northern Mexico. The Mexicans represented both the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico locals and dissident rank-and-file groups-another first.

The workers at the Oaxtepec meeting did not try to set up a trinational organization. Rather, they exchanged information on working conditions, wages, toxic substances, flexibility schemes, and other pertinent topics. Learning about the toxics used in Mexico that have been banned in U.S. and Canadian plants made everyone more aware of the Big Three's strategies for weakening worker organization. Company-based committees were chosen to continue the exchange, and a number of the participants from all three countries met again at a trinational auto conference in Detroit the following year.

The first trinational meeting represented workers employed by the Big Three, mostly in assembly plants. But one of the biggest problems auto workers in the United States and Canada face is the growth of "outsourcing" or subcontracting work to independent contractors. So this February, TIE has organized a trinational conference for auto-parts workers that will draw in maquila workers as well. It will be held in Ciudad Juarez, where about 30,000 auto-parts workers are employed in both Big Three and independent suppliers' plants. Like the 1991 meeting, this will be only a first step in a long and difficult process of building networks in the post-centralized auto industry of North America.

The maquiladora plants represent one phase in a dramatic reorganization of production in a number of major industries. Decentralization, flexibility, "just-in-time" parts delivery, and "outsourcing" are all buzzwords in an industrial reorganization that stretches production across borders from Toronto to Tijuana. As more phases of production are broken out of the old system of centralized manufacturing, investment will tend to follow the trail of descending wages that runs from Quebec and Ontario, through the MiddleWest Rust Belt and upper South, and into northern Mexico. Not surprisingly, women are found in large numbers at the far end of this path to poverty.

Jorge Carillo of the Colegio de la Frontera del Norte in Tijuana speaks, for example, of the "feminization" of Mexico's auto industry. At the same time, new export-oriented maquiladoras are being planned for locations in central Mexico as wages in older industrial areas fall. This is one reason why the average Mexican factory worker's pay fell 48 per cent from 1986 to 1992.

In the garment and electronics industries, production has moved south, and Third World women increasingly fill the remaining sweatshops of the North. Immigrant women from Mexico, Asia, and the Caribbean are key to those industries in both the United States and Canada. The center of these industries has followed immigration patterns to such U.S. border towns as El Paso or to those cities favored by major immigrant groups: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Research by Patricia Fernandez Kelly of Johns Hopkins University revealed that electronics plants in Los Angeles, for example, would hire only Latina women for assembly jobs.

Characterized by tiny factories, garage sweatshops, and an increasing amount of home work, these industries have proved impossible to organize in the traditional manner of American unions. But organization has emerged among the women workers in one area after another.

Perhaps the oldest community-based organization of women garment workers is La Mujer Obrera in El Paso. Composed of both Mexican and Chicana women, La Mujer Obrera has set up an educational and meeting center, recruited a dues-paying membership of about 900, conducted strikes in several sweatshops, and shaped a plan to modernize and save garment production in El Paso when NAFTA knocks down the final tariff barriers that made these sweatshops competitive.

Until recently, La Mujer Obrera did not have much contact with organizations across the border in Ciudad Juarez. But NAFTA set off the alarm that turned family and friendship ties into a search for allies. These allies include a radical liberation-theology priest, community-based church groups, and political activists attempting to set up a workers' center similar to the one in El Paso. However, this plan for a workers' center did not arise from the La Mujer Obrera example. As with similar organizations as far away as the Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, the Asian Immigrant Workers Association in San Francisco, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York City, and the Toronto Homeworkers' Association, the idea arose out of conditions that fragmented industries imposed on these workers.

In the last couple of years, these workers' organizations have begun to establish contact. La Mujer Obrera, for example, has an exchange program for organizers from community-based labor groups. Recently, an organizer from La Mujer Obrera went to New York to help the Chinese Staff and Workers Association organize Latina workers on the Lower East Side.

For many U.S. labor activists, the first step toward trinational solidarity comes with a tour or a conference. Like the Green Giant workers from Watsonville, displaced nonunion workers from a Schlage Lock plant in North Carolina traveled to the border to meet with Schlage workers in Mexico. The Black Workers for Justice organized the tour. A similar group from the Tennessee Industrial Retention and Renewal Network visited Matamoros. Teachers, public employees, service workers, and the authors of this article have joined the industrial workers' trek to the border.

Sometimes the trips have a specific purpose. With the help of Labor Notes, which brought telephone workers from all three countries to its 1991 conference, a telephone operator from Toronto and a telephone technician from New York City traveled to Mexico in 1992 to meet with Mexican telephone unionists in Mexico City and Hermosillo. TELMEX was introducing new technology already used by operators in the United States and Canada. The U.S. and Canadian workers talked to the Mexicans about how this new technology affected work and how they had organized in the workplace to resist management attempts to use the new technology to speed up work and weaken shop-floor organization. TELMEX workers said the meetings were a big success.

Last year, activists from these diverse cross-border solidarity efforts came together to form the North American Worker-to-Worker Network. The Network consists of local unions, community-based labor organizations, and individual activists engaged in trinational solidarity activities. It puts out quarterly informational mailings to 700 unions, groups, and individuals that include an exhaustive list of current NAFTA and trinational solidarity activities.

Although it opposes NAFTA, the worker-to-worker network is not just another anti-free-trade coalition. It was formed to organize for the long haul. Its purpose is to promote concrete trinational solidarity and prepare labor in all three countries to confront common corporate enemies.

In some respects, these steps toward trinational solidarity are reminiscent of the labor-based Central American solidarity efforts of the 1980S. However, this solidarity has a clear base in mutual self-interest. U.S. and Canadian workers who think it through can see that their future depends on rising wages and living standards in Mexico. US. workers have no stake in enforcing Mexican austerity or debt payments; the only harmonization that benefits them is the upward harmonization of labor, environmental, and living standards. In addition, today's international contacts are free of the one-way solidarity that characterized much Central America work. The Mexicans, as participants in a common economy, know they have something to bring to the table-and insist on it. Perhaps most important is the gut knowledge that common action will ultimately make a difference.

Despite the magnitude of the forces unleashed by continental deregulation and international production, it just may be that capital has created a new form of opposition it didn't expect. In their endless quest for profits, the multinational corporations have tied the workers of North America and beyond together in common production systems. What they are bringing about is not merely competitive production but international class formation.

As worker networks move from sharing information to taking action, workers will learn the vulnerabilities of these new ways of producing. From this knowledge can come a renewed sense of power and a labor movement without borders.

Mary McGinn and Kim Moody are on the staff of Labor Notes and are co-author of "Unions and Free Trade; Solidarity or Competition." Both have recently visited the U.S.-Mexico border.
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Title Annotation:free trade politics
Author:Moody, Kim
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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