The Rebirth of Solidarity on the Border

David Bacon Jun 6, 2011

The growth of cross-border solidarity today is taking place at a time when U.S. penetration of Mexico is growing – economically, politically, and even militarily. While the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has its own special characteristics, it is also part of a global system of production, distribution and consumption. It is not just a bilateral relationship.

Jobs go from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico in order to cut labor costs. But from Mexico those same jobs go China or Bangladesh or dozens of other countries, where labor costs are even lower. As important, the threat to move those jobs, experienced by workers in the U.S. from the 1970s onwards, are now common in Mexico. Those threats force concessions on wages. In Sony’s huge Nuevo Laredo factory, for instance, that threat was used to make workers agree to an indefinite temporary employment status, even though Mexican law prohibited it.

Multiple production locations undermine unions’ bargaining leverage, since action by workers in a single workplace can’t shut down production for the entire corporation. The UAW, for instance, was beaten during a strike at Caterpillar in large part because even though the union could stop production in the U.S., production in Mexico continued. Grupo Mexico can use profits gained in mining operations in Peru to subsidize the costs of a strike in Cananea.

The privatization of electricity in Mexico will not just affect Mexicans. Already plants built by Sempra Energy and Enron in Mexico are like maquiladoras, selling electricity into the grid across the border. If privatization grows, that will have an impact on US unions and jobs, giving utility unions in the U.S. a reason to help Mexican workers resist it. This requires more than solidarity between unions facing the same employer. It requires solidarity in resisting the imposition of neoliberal reforms like privatization and labor law reform as well.

At the same time, the concentration of wealth has created a new political situation in both countries. In Mexico, the PRI functioned as a mediator between organized workers and business. PRI governments used repression to stop the growth of social movements outside the system it controlled. But the government also used negotiations in the interest of long-term stability. The interests of the wealthy were protected, but some sections of the population also received social benefits, and unions had recognized rights. In 1994, for instance, the government put leaders of Mexico City’s bus union SUTAUR in prison. But then it proceeded to negotiate with them while they were in jail.

The victory of Vicente Fox and the PAN in 2000 created a new situation, in which the corporate class, grown rich and powerful because of earlier reforms, no longer desired the same kind of social pact or its political intermediaries. The old corporatist system, in which unions had a role, was no longer necessary. Meanwhile employers and the government have been more willing to use force. Unions like the Mexican Electricians Union (SME) and miners face not just repression, but destruction.

In the U.S. a similar process took place during the years after the Vietnam War, when corporations made similar decisions. After the Federal government broke the air traffic controllers’ (PATCO) strike, the use of strikebreakers became widespread. Corporations increasingly saw even business unions as unnecessary for maintaining social peace and continued profits. Union organizing became a kind of labor warfare. A whole industry of union busters appeared, making the process set up by U.S. labor law in the 1930s much less usable by workers seeking to organize.

Labor law reform, national healthcare, and other basic pro-worker reforms became politically impossible in the post-Vietnam era, even under Democratic presidents whom unions helped elect. Public workers did succeed in organizing during this period, however, and eventually U.S. union strength became more and more concentrated in that sector. But much as the public sector in Mexico came under attack, the U.S. public sector became the target for the U.S. right, for similar reasons. This too changed the landscape for solidarity, giving the most politically powerful section of the U.S. labor movement, at least potentially, a greater interest in solidarity with Mexican labor.

In both countries, the main union battles are now ones to preserve what workers have previously achieved, rather than to make new gains. Mexican unions are enmeshed in the state labor process, in which the government still certifies unions’ existence, and to a large degree controls their bargaining. In the U.S. labor is endangered by economic crisis, falling density, and an increasingly hostile political system. This leads to a rise in nationalism and protectionism, creating new obstacles for solidarity.

As the attacks against unions grow stronger, solidarity is becoming necessary for survival. Unions face a basic question on both sides of the border — can they win the battles they face today, especially political ones, without joining their efforts together?  Fortunately, this is not an abstract question. Enormous progress has taken place over the last two decades.

The U.S. labor movement had to be dragged by its base into opposing NAFTA. The AFL-CIO’s international apparatus in Washington DC had a history during the cold war of supporting free trade and U.S. foreign policy. But the unions it supported in Mexico, especially the CTM, lined up behind the Mexican government, and therefore supported the treaty.

Individual U.S. unions began looking across the border for themselves, seeking new contacts with unions opposed to the free trade agreement. The FAT’s Benedicto Martinez traveled the US in the free trade caravan, organized by the Teamsters Union, to build rank and file opposition to NAFTA. He spoke in many meetings of the United Electrical Workers. He remembers, “NAFTA shocked a lot of US unions out of their inertia — not so much their national leaders, but people in local unions. They’re the ones who began pushing the structure to move on globalization, to form new international relations and look for solidarity. That’s what moved their leaders to pay attention to the border. It was people in local unions that began building the bridges across the border to unions in Mexico. The more local unions got involved, the broader this movement became.”

The NAFTA debate provoked discussion about the relationship between workers in Mexico and the US. Many union members responded by supporting efforts to organize independent unions in the border plants. “It was a kind of school,” Martinez recalls. “It was not so easy anymore for someone to say that Mexicans were stealing jobs. They could see there was a real problem.”

The border provided an area for experimenting with new ways to organize workers. The following decade saw an explosion of activity on the border. The maquiladora organizing drive at Plasticos Bajacal in 1993 first highlighted for U.S. unions the reality of public union representation elections and the lack of the secret ballot. The San Diego Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers raised enough money to pay lost time for fired workers, so they could continue organizing the factory.

The AFL-CIO’s Ed Feigan and religious orders set up the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras in the late 1980s, which was dominated at the beginning by U.S. unions and organizations. As it began to coordinate campaigns all along the border – CustomTrim/AutoTrim, Duro Bag, Lajat/Levi’s and others, the role of organizations within the coalition changed. Women from the local plants and communities became more assertive, while large unions and organizations grew uncomfortable, feeling they could no longer hold the coalition accountable.

The worker rebellion at the huge Sony factory was the first major battle under NAFTA, and the first place where the false promises of its labor side-agreement became obvious. Hundreds of workers were beaten in front of the plant when they ran candidates in their CTM union’s election. When that door was closed, they tried to form an independent union, and were blocked by the company and Mexican government. NAFTA’s labor side agreement did nothing to change the situation.

The leader of the Sony workers, Martha Ojeda, was smuggled by her coworkers across the Rio Grande to Texas, and she eventually became director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

In the late 1990s two strikes at Tijuana’s Han Young factory led to killing fast track authorization in the U.S. Congress for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The independent union there became one of the first to successfully force the government to give it legal status. Los Angeles’ big oil union, later a local of the Steel Workers, was a major source of support for the strikers. An investigation by the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network documented dangerous conditions and lack of inspections that violated Mexican law, as the network also did at CustonTrim/AutoTrim. Those experiences in maquiladoras were the precursors of the later investigation into silicosis among striking miners in Cananea.

The Comite Fronterizo de Obreras organized workers at Alcoa Fujikura, and even forced Alcoa’s CEO to negotiate over conditions there. Enlace, a unique coalition of Mexican and U.S. unions and non-governmental organizations, supported living wage campaigns among maquiladora workers in north Mexico, and battles for independent unions at Sara Lee. It became the support base for SITTIM, an independent union of workers in Baja California’s maquiladora industry. The union first organized garment workers in Korean-owned factories, and then workers in Korean-owned seafood processing plants, in Baja California Sur. Both during the Han Young and SITTIM campaigns the workers made contact with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a significant step since Korean corporations own a significant part of Mexico’s maquiladora industry.

Struggles have taken place in maquiladoras for two decades all along the border. Many centers or collectives of workers have come together over those years. Walkouts over unpaid wages or indemnizacion, or terrible conditions, are still relatively common. Local activists still find ways to support them, like the Collective Ollin Calli in Tijuana, and its network of allies across the border in Tijuana, the San Diego Maquiladora Workers Solidarity Network.

Over the years, support from many U.S. unions and churches, and from unions and labor institutions in Mexico City, has often been critical in helping these collectives survive, especially during the pitched battles to win legal status for independent unions. But overall that support has not been constant. Often the worker groups in the maquiladoras and the cities of the border have had to survive on their own, or with extremely limited resources. While workers may whisper in secret about Martha Ojeda, and call her when they’re in deep trouble, the resource base for the Coalition has diminished seriously during the current recession. Many organizations have stopped supporting it.

Maria Estela Rios Gonzalez, a CJM board member, former legal advisor to Lopez Obrador when he was Mexico City Mayor, and former president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, believes greater commitment still faces a perception in Mexico City that the border region is a remote area, far from the places where decisive changes are made in the country’s direction. “Local struggles on the border have never been successful in becoming national causes,” she charges. The same observation could be made about the way large U.S. unions and organizations see border struggles. In addition, the difficulties of maintaining a cross-border relationship in which unorganized factory workers play a leading role have never been adequately examined.

Despite the flight of many jobs to China, a U.S. economic recession that has caused massive layoffs in border plants, and extreme levels of violence in many border communities, the maquiladora industry in north Mexico is still enormous. Three thousand plants employ over 1.3 million workers. It’s not just the size of the industry that makes these plants important. They’ve been the laboratories for the rightward shift in labor law and labor relations, now being applied to workers across Mexico. The states are a stronghold of political conservatism and corporate power, because of the disenfranchisement of their working population.

A vibrant and strong labor movement on the border would change Mexico’s politics. The influence of the maquiladoras on U.S. employment and runaway production over the years is undeniable, and strong unions there would have a tremendous impact on U.S. labor too. The growth of labor solidarity in the last two decades between the U.S. and Mexico owes a lot to the border labor wars. It was there that U.S. unions first acquired a clear vision of the importance of their relations with Mexican workers. The decline in activity in border factories over the last few years, and in the support from major unions and institutions in both countries for it, is a real weakness in the efforts to build a culture of labor solidarity.

When Oaxacan migrants were striking in Sinaloa and Baja California fields in the 1980s, support from U.S. farm worker unions could have helped their movements survive. That, in turn, might have given the U.S. unions leverage in bargaining with those employers on the U.S. side. And when those Oaxacan migrants showed up in U.S. fields, they would already have had a history of friendship and cooperation with U.S. unions.

This is the third article of a series on border solidarity by journalist and immigration activist David Bacon. This article and subsequent stories 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.

David Bacon is a California writer and photojournalist. His latest book is Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.

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