NAFTA: Storm Warning for Labor

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Mary McGinn

WHEN TOM LANEY, Recording Secretary for United Auto Workers 879 Ford Local in St. Paul, Minnesota heard about the death of a Mexican Ford worker in a union struggle for democracy and full profit-sharing, he invited a Mexican Ford worker to speak at his local. Later, with other members of his local, Laney travelled to Mexico and together with Mexican and Canadian auto workers, decided to organize a tri-national commemorative event for Cleto Nigmo on the anniversary of his death.

On January 8, Ford workers from Canada, the United States and Mexico wore black armbands in their plants, in front of Ford Motor Company headquarters, and in a commemorative mass with fellow workers and family. Canadian and U.S. workers also participated in stockholders’ meetings protesting the violation of human rights, wrote to the Mexican and Ford Company presidents, and visited the Ford-Cuautitlan plant to show direct solidarity.

As Tom Laney says, all 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 between all Ford workers.”

Dialogue Across Borders

In a similar vein, in November 1991 sixty auto workers from the United States, Canada and Mexico, from shop floor to national leadership, met in Mexico to discuss the restructuring of the auto industry in light of free trade. Workers broke into groups by country and then by company to discuss the restructuring of the auto industry in North America. Participants compared how these changes were reflected in conditions in their plants including wages, benefits, job security and company investment plans.

To understand the effects of deregulation on both an international level as well as its implications on the shop floor, the participants then compared levels of management-by-stress. Flexibility, reorganization of work, automation and new technology were prominent in the newly built Mexican plants. U.S. and Canadian workers shared experiences from their struggles to get team concept out of their plants and/or to maintain union control over such programs.

Loaded with information about their counterparts’ union structures, specific company profiles and also a better understanding of common concerns, auto workers then discussed their ideas for tri-national solidarity. The conclusions were two-fold: plans for action by company (GM, Ford, and Chrysler), and a tri-national committee responsible for overall coordination.

Ford workers committed themselves to exchange information on company plans in their respective countries, labor laws, new technology, new work processes, the situation of the union and the dates of their contract revisions. GM and Chrysler workers came up with similar ideas for information sharing, including a directory of union contacts in all the locals. Chrysler workers promised to send out a quarterly report from each country. Some talked about using electronic networks and faxes. Information sharing was to be the first step toward tours and invitations to each other’s locals and council meetings.

For both Chrysler and GM workers, health and safety issues were paramount. Chrysler CAW members promised to send bilingual materials on chemicals banned in the United States and Canada, which are still in use in Mexican plants. They also promised to distribute flyers to all their plants if Chrysler refused to eliminate these materials in Mexico. GM workers called for a tri-national auto workers’ solidarity day to protest the deaths caused by the push for increased productivity and the use of toxics in the workplace.

Willow Run auto worker Brad Markell said, “I was able to gain direct knowledge about the conditions and attitudes of the Mexican workers. I now have a greater appreciation for their understanding of the whole situation regarding the Free Trade Agreement and the growing internationalization of auto production. I learned that they’re just as concerned as we are about companies pitting Mexican workers against U.S. workers.”

A second kind of worker-to-worker exchange is among workers in labor intensive, highly mobile, women-dominated industries such as electronic and garment assembly, and in services like health care and teaching. This kind of networking is not dependent on one single employer, and may include shelter operations, or major sub-contracting jobs.

Traditional organized labor has tended to avoid these industries as too difficult to organize because of their mobility and high percentage of immigrant and women workers. In their place, community-labor organizations have proven extremely effective with innovative organizing strategies and/or working with unions in this sector.

As community-based organizations, they practice social unionism vs. the business union model in most industrialized unions. Their strength lies in developing alliances among religious, citizen, local government, and other community groups. Focus is not only on wages, but concerns workers have as parents, consumers, church members, and concerned citizens. Community-labor organizations emphasize leadership development, participatory decision-making, and accountability to all the members of the community. In this way, they challenge bureaucratic union structures and protectionist attitudes that restrain the ability to form broad alliances.

One example is the work of La Mujer Obrera/the Woman Worker (c/o Centro Obrera, P.O. Box 3975, El Paso, TX 79923). For fifteen years, LMO has worked with garment workers in El Paso, and is currently developing links with workers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. As a community organization, LMO has developed strong ties in the Mexican community of El Paso, and its schools, local government, churches, and industry.

It also sees its work not only addressing the working conditions of women garment workers, but their role in affecting the social, political, and economic system as women and as workers. Mujer Obrera has a workers’ training center for leadership development and organizing skills, a food co-op and health care clinic, and holds regular cultural events.

When workers in four garment factories walked out on strike for the first time in twenty years in El Paso, Mujer Obrera was central to developing a broad-based strategy with community support that would address the womens’ multiple needs. LMO also entered into an alliance with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) believing that together they could improve working conditions through a contract, and help overcome unions’ bad name among workers in El Paso.

LMO organized press conferences, hunger strikes, and sought support for the workers struggle from churches, the community, and other organizations. They sought support from other garment workers in Mexico and Canada, and viewed the struggle as one of a fight for not just one contract, but an example of womens’ fightback in the face of free trade, and need for community-labor alliances.

The alliance, unfortunately, ended after several months. LMO pulled out, citing the ILGWU’s lack of respect for womens’ leadership, lack of commitment to a struggle broader than just economic demands, and lack of workers’ access to decision-making to direct the struggle. LMO continued to support the workers, and they did win a contract (see “La Mujer Obrera–Latina Workers in El Paso” by Pam Galpern in ATC 37).

Building Community Networks

Another example of tri-national solidarity is the innovative “adopt an organizer” campaign initiated by the United Electrical Workers (UE) for cross-border organizing. UE has hired Mexican organizers from an independent union federation (Authentic Workers Front–FAT) to organize General Electric electronic parts assembly workers on the U.S.-Mexico border. At the same time, UE will be carrying out organizing drives in the U.S. Although the organizers have an advantage in that GE is a well-known transnational (and therefore more susceptible to public pressure), GE’s assembly plants are highly mobile with low unionization.

To begin the campaign, UE and the FAT are depending heavily on community organizations in the neighborhoods where the workers live for contacts, support, and even basic information about the plant. They hope to build a broader, large-scale organizing effort which will be able to count on community co-participation in its leadership and support efforts, and address not only workplace issues, but the impact of the plant on the community.

Many of these cross-border alliances are among women, and particularly among Latino-Mexican communities based on cultural, historical, and language connections. When the Jolly Green Giant of Watsonville, California decided to move its predominantly Mexican women-operated food processing plant to Irapuato, Mexico, the displaced workers fought back–by getting in touch with their relatives in Mexico.

After a series of visits with the workers at the new plant in Irapuato, the making of a video about working conditions and Green Giant’s dumping of toxics in community waters in Mexico, petition drives, and marches, workers in Mexico and California have both won. Green Giant has agreed to build a water treatment facility in Irapuato, the first of its kind. In Watsonville, displaced workers have received two million dollars in retraining funds.

But workers are taking their joint struggle one step further. A delegation of U.S. unionists and community activists will visit workers and a broad coalition of small cooperative farmers, ecologists and community activists in Irapuato early next year. The purpose of the tour is to highlight the success of cross-border community-labor connections and to emphasize the need for more of these kinds of joint struggles.

A third kind of tri-national networking are efforts to build exchanges among women organizing in their neighborhoods, beyond the formal economy. Given the ever-growing impoverishment of working people, and local and national governments assuming less responsibilities for basic necessities, women are organizing around issues such as housing, child care, food, health care, and education.

The increasing crises in all three countries have led women to begin to develop new forms of self-organization and self-government in their communities. In Mexico, women have been developing participatory, community-based preventive health care. In South Carolina, poor African-American women are learning economic alternatives to traditional jobs, including family and community gardening. Women have also formed cooperative housing building projects, and are redesigning their own neighborhood according to their own needs.

Some tri-national exchanges have occurred among women, particularly housing activists. Mujer a Mujer in Mexico City organized a delegation of housing activists to the United States that helped lay some of the groundwork for now a Continental Front of Community Organizations. Women exchanged ideas on community self-government from control and decision making over housing (design and building), safety, and an education which responds to the needs of the community.

After the Treaty

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Mexico, Canada, and the United States announced on August 12, 1992 will be as devastating for working people of the three countries as Hurricane Andrew was to Dade County, Florida. In it, working people’s rights and environmental standards will be razed in a storm to last between two and ten years. In the aftermath, working people will be left fighting over the meager portions of retraining and displaced workers’ assistance, spurred into attacks of violence and racism, and forced into a competition where no one can win.

NAFTA permits the free flow of capital, goods, and services throughout the region, and, as President Bush is already negotiating, throughout the Americas. A week after the NAFTA announcement, all five Central American countries signed an agreement with the United States providing the framework for a free trade zone. The public has only been allowed glimpses of the text of the agreement through a leaked draft and carefully defined government summaries.

The agreement will in effect legislate virtual deregulation of what labor and other social movements have fought to defend against unbridled corporate self-interest. These include minimum wage laws, affirmative action, health and safety regulations, environmental controls, government-funded programs for unemployed workers, and all other services that would “compete” with those potentially provided by private companies. NAFTA essentially usurps the role of local, state, and federal governments by establishing super-national bodies with no public debate and accountable only to corporate interests.

Already in Canada, under the United States-Canada free trade agreement, the New Democratic Party was forced to drop its electoral campaign promise of publicly funded auto insurance when private U.S. insurance companies charged it would be an “unfair subsidy.” According to the U.S.-Canada accord, U.S. companies have the right
to national treatment in Canada. If the Canadian government subsidizes a national social benefit program, U.S. corporations can fine the Canadian government for monies lost because of “unfair competition”! The Canadian government has already privatized or reduce federal spending of subsidized medicines, unemployment benefits, education, and day care.

The North American Free Trade Agreement will supersede the U.S.-Canada Agreement, allowing for even greater transnational corporate control. Social services are not only diminished or cutback because of deregulation, but also privatized. Governments take on a laissez-faire policy with regard social responsibility, underfunding social programs (education, health care, pensions, etc.) and then pleading that privatization is the only answer to continue services and make them efficient.

Understanding the corporate agenda and its implications for workers and communities in all three countries provides us with unique opportunities for tri-national solidarity. Although there is certainly a sense of urgency to challenge this corporate agenda, industrial reorganization and even the implementation of the free trade agreement will take time. We still have the opportunity to plan for long-term relationships, built on direct contact and action, exchange and support.

We are challenged to develop grassroots union based education, information sharing and organizing that goes beyond traditional “just-say-no” policies, the protectionism and nationalism we see in the “Buy American” campaigns, and the underlining anti-Mexican racism. By identifying with our common interests for labor rights, democratic union representation, environmental standards, and health and safety measures in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, we can move on a positive agenda to raise ourselves up to the highest standards. This is also a unique opportunity to cross traditional trade union lines and unite our efforts and issues with those of environmental, women, community-labor, and other organizations.

Our agenda is one that needs to grow from the true roots of union history–a unionism without borders.

November-December 1992, ATC 41