A Knife in the Heart
by David Bacon
COACHELLA, CA (10/4/95) -- NAFTA plunged a knife into Jose Castillo's heart.
Its first thrust he felt almost on the same day the treaty took effect. He lost his job.
That same New Years in 1994, the Zapatistas rose in arms in southern Mexico, denouncing NAFTA's marginalization of poor Mayan farmers in the Lacandon jungle. Videocameras closed in on their skimasks and ancient rifles, uplinking to satellites a new iconography for the underside of the global economy. Three thousand miles north, Castillo and 1000 Mexican farmworkers were pushed to the social margins as well, on the desert fringe of southern California. Their image also is a haunting icon of the impact of free trade, but unemployed Mexicans in California have less media appeal. No one from the Times or CNN noticed.
NAFTA's second wound was the denial of its promised benefits. A safety net - retraining and extended unemployment - was ready to catch the unfortunate few whose out-of-date skills, according to President Clinton and Labor Secretary Robert Reich, made their jobs expendable. Jose and his wife Ingracia found this promise like the hot wind blowing around their home in the Coachella Valley - elusive, empty and incapable of sustaining life.
But the third thrust was the cruelest of all. And for this, you have to understand just who Jose and Ingracia are. They are the veterans of the union wars which swept California fields for three decades. They are the ones called in Spanish "de hueso colorado." All the way "to the marrow of their bones" they are Chavistas, and they lost their union.
"I felt like I lost my child." Ingracia's voice aches at the memory of the change which turned their life inside out, and threatened the meaning their struggle gave it.
Their story is part of the real history of NAFTA, part of the truth about its consequences for working people on both sides of the border.
Because it's so far south, just a couple of hours north of Mexico, Coachella's grape harvest comes in at the beginning of the season, in late May. Bringing their grapes into supermarkets before anyone else, valley growers always made premium prices. Coachella growers used to get over $20 for a 22 lb. box in May. By July, when the harvest had moved north to the San Joaquin Valley, the price had usually dropped by half.
General Augusto Pinochet was the first to put a dent in that privileged position, when, looking for exports to revive Chile's economy after the coup, he discovered a winter market in his patron country. Ironically, Chile now stands next in line to join the NAFTA club.
But the real blow to the Coachella growers was Mexico. U.S. ranchers like Delano's Jack Pandol, who began growing in Chile under Pinochet, later began planting in the Sonora desert south of Arizona. This year, after NAFTA dropped restrictions on bringing in Mexican grapes, 7 million boxes flooded across the border. Coachella Valley's harvest was 10 million boxes this same season, only slightly more than the Mexican imports. And to make matters worse for Coachella growers, the Mexican harvest starts at the same time. Their profitable position vanished overnight.
Since NAFTA passed, no new fields of grapes have been planted anywhere in Coachella Valley. Heaps of dry dead vines, their roots torn from the earth and pointing at the sun, are the sentinels of a dying industry.
The Bluestone Farming Co. was one of the first to start tearing up its grapes. On January 6, 1994, Bluestone sent a letter to the Castillos and hundreds of workers like them, informing them that the company was giving up its business growing table grapes. By that time, the company was only a shell of its former self, of the days when its huge vineyards, spreading out across the desert, belonged to Lionel Steinberg.
Steinberg's company, the David Freedman Co., or just Freedman as workers called it, is a legend in the United Farm Workers. It was one of the world's largest grape growers through the 1960s and 70s, and it became the home of the union.
While other grape growers fought the UFW with everything from lawyers to the gloved fists of strikebreakers, and even bullets, Steinberg was the exception. His different attitude made him a very wealthy man. In 1970, grape growers in California had been squeezed for five years by the UFW's first grape boycott, a social movement which was a symbol of economic justice in the minds of millions of people. The boycott had spread across the country, and kept the growers' grapes locked up in their coolers, instead of moving across supermarket shelves.
Steinberg broke the growers' ranks, and signed the first contract ending the historic grape strike which had begun in 1965. Other growers followed suit. But when those same growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters Union in 1973 to break the UFW, farmworkers struck again. The boycott once more squeezed off the sales of table grapes.
Steinberg stayed with the UFW. Socially conscious consumers were trained to look for boxes of Freedman grapes, with the UFW's black eagle stamped prominently on its side. Steinberg sold when no one else could, and got a higher price.
The Castillos were strikers in 1973. But when the union started a decade earlier, they had not been Chavistas. After coming north from Mexico, Jose Castillo began work as a seasonal worker at the beginning of the 60s. Like most farmworkers of that era, he was unemployed and hungry much of the year. But then he got a job as a year-round permanent employee on the big grape ranch of M. Karahadian.
With a dream of stability, he went back to Mexicali, a hundred miles south across the border. There he married Ingracia, a woman from his own home state of Jalisco, and brought her back to the vineyards in the desert. Mr. Karahadian rented them a house on the company ranch, a common privilege given to permanent employees. And in return, the Castillos were loyal workers.
"Those were hard times. We never had any breaks," Ingracia says. "I remember that I would bring food to work hidden in my clothes, and I would eat a little when I thought no one was looking. Today there's cold water to drink when we work, but in those days there was nothing. When women wanted to go to the bathroom, we'd just have to go find a place to hide ourselves in the vines. These were all things we had to battle for - time to eat, water to drink, bathrooms. We never had unemployment insurance before. We just had to work and work and work. As soon as one job ended, I had to find another one right away."
But in June of 1965, the first grape strike started in Coachella. Filipino workers walked out across the valley, to get the wages up from $1.10 an hour to $1.25. When the harvest moved north into the San Joaquin Valley around Delano, the Mexican workers organized by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta agreed to join it. The two migrant streams - the old Filipino manongs, who had been organizing field labor upheavals since the 1920s, and the vast wave of militant Mexican workers who flooded California fields from the 40s on - came together, and the United Farm Workers Union was born.
"I remember that I was very afraid," Ingracia Castillo recalls. "We were so green then. I'll never forget it. We were working in a field on 57th Avenue, which is just a dirt road. When the organizers first showed up, and started talking to us from the road, we went running into the field, so that we wouldn't be able to hear what they were saying, about how good the union was. We went running into the vines. We didn't want to have anything to do with the union."
This, of course, made Mr. Karahadian very happy, and he told his workers to run and hide whenever the organizers showed up. But as the strikes ground on, year after year, Karahadian's losses began to temper his enthusiasm for fighting the union.
Jose recalls: "In 1970 Karahadian couldn't sell his grapes because of the boycott. One morning, very early, he came out and told us he wanted to talk to us. We were all at the labor camp. At that time, we were all still very against the union, because we were with him. We always believed whatever the boss told us. 'Don't sign anything. I'm with you. You're with me.' When the boycott beat him, he said 'I don't want to go broke. I'm going to sign with Chavez. You have four days. If you don't sign within those four days, you'll be out of here.' From that time onward, we saw how he had used us, and we never believed him again. First he'd hidden us inside his vines, and then he'd just made us a meal on a plate on the table."
In the three years which followed, the Castillos and the other grape workers in the valley realized that the union's organizers had been right. The union was good for them. They may have been brought in by the growers' involuntary defeat, but once they learned how to make the union work, they discovered that their contracts provided benefits, job security, and a freedom from discrimination they hadn't known before. Despite all the UFW's tumultuous history of strikes and boycotts, most grape workers have only had those three years of UFW contracts to judge the union by. Yet it was enough to win their loyalty for the two decades of struggle which followed.
When the UFW grape contracts expired in 1973, "one night he signed with the Teamsters," Castillo remembers. "The next morning Mr. Karahadian told us, 'Senores, I'm with the Teamsters now, and for me its the better choice. You have four days to sign up.' But this time, a worker at the ranch named Hilario stood up, and he said to Karahadian, 'if you've made what's the best choice for you, well, we have too.' And he pulled a great big union flag out from under his shirt, and that's how the strike started there. And so Karahadian threw us off his property, into the street."
The Castillos took their children down to stay with Jose's mother in Mexicali. Ingracia and her sister pulled their crew out on strike, in a scene made famous in the UFW's film Fighting for our Lives. By the time it reached Delano in midsummer, it was one of the largest farmworker strikes in U.S. history. The Teamsters Union, still two decades away from reform under its present president, Ron Carey, furnished goons who beat up strikers on the picketlines. In rural, grower-dominated counties, the sheriffs either looked on approvingly, or themselves arrested strikers and carted them off to jail. Ingracia still remembers vividly a priest telling her that her own arrest was an act of conscience, and that God was on the side of the poor.
But when Juan de la Cruz and Nagi Daifullah were gunned down on the picketline, Cesar Chavez called off the strike. The union sent some strikers to reorganize the grape boycott in cities across the U.S. and Canada, but most went back to the fields to find work, after spending months on the picketlines. And they discovered the unpleasant reality of the blacklist.
For grape workers like Jose Castillo, Freedman was the only company where the union still had the right to dispatch workers to the job - the only company which would hire them. For twenty-one years, that right kept the Castillos employed - Jose as a permanent worker, and Ingracia as a seasonal one - and gave stability to their family. It helped them buy a house in a pleasant neighborhood in Coachella. Their children went to college, a rare achievement for farmworkers.
It was the blacklist which made Freedman such a vibrant heart of the union.
And the workers, despite all their skirmishes with Steinberg over workrules and grievances, almost looked at the company as their own. "All the people who had the consciousness that the union was a good thing were concentrated there," Jose remembers. "And with that consciousness, Freedman was very well organized. Lots of workers would tell us it was the best place to be. It had the best benefits and it had job security. In other companies, if you weren't working, you were afraid to even leave the house to go on an errand, because they might call you to give you work. In Freedman, we knew when we were going in to work, and when we would leave. We didn't have to please anyone today to get work tomorrow."
When Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the vote at Freedman to decide whether or not workers wanted the union was almost a celebration, when at most other companies it was like a war. Over nine hundred workers voted for the UFW at Freedman. Only 14 voted against it.
But as the years passed, Steinberg's son Billy left farming, and went to Hollywood to pursue a career as a songwriter. Lionel finally sold most of the ranch to new investors, including Prudential Insurance, who renamed it Bluestone Farming Co.
When Bluestone closed, the Freedman workers applied for benefits under the NAFTA-related Trade Adjustment Assistance program. A bone thrown to workers during the debate over the treaty, NAFTA-TAA extends the unemployment benefits and pays for retraining for workers who have lost their jobs due to NAFTA.
There were hundreds of workers at Bluestone, who depended on getting seasonal work every year thinning and picking grapes, and pruning, tying and girdling the vines. But the California Employment Development Department decided that, out of the whole workforce, only 43 people were eligible - just the permanent, year-round workforce. Jose got a little extra money from it, but not much.
EDD's rationale was that the company's layoff notice was dated January 7, when the seasonal crews were still a few days away from being called to begin pruning vines. Because they were on layoff, and not yet actively working at the time of the notice, EDD held that they didn't qualify. Ingracia and hundreds of other workers got no benefit at all from NAFTA-TAA, although no one - not EDD, the U.S. Labor Department, or even the company itself - disputes that Mexican grape imports under NAFTA caused the company to close.
EDD refused to discuss any of its findings for this article. Its claim of confidentiality seems an odd objection. The EDD office does virtually nothing to let workers know the program even exists. The workers laid off from Bluestone had to discover it for themselves, and then collected money and bought radio time to ask potentially eligible workers to come forward and make their application with the union.
In fact, EDD seems much more interested in holding down the number of claims, to avoid embarrassing Governor Pete Wilson. The governor, of course, claimed that NAFTA would produce hundreds of thousands of jobs, while his administration's own statistics prove the opposite result.
Wilson isn't the only public official facing embarrassment. Many Congressional representatives, including some liberal Democrats, were wooed and won by the same job promises. While the agreement was still being debated, corporate executives of companies belonging to USA-NAFTA, the agreement's corporate backing group, walked the halls of Congress, wearing red, white and blue neckties. They made extravagant claims that U.S. exports to Mexico would account for 100,000 jobs in its first year alone. Yet today, even these boosters can document only 535 U.S. jobs actually created by the agreement in 1994.
Everyone else documents a hemorrhaging of employment. In the first year of the treaty, the U.S. Department of Labor received claims for NAFTA-TAA from 34,799 workers, including those from Bluestone. In just the first five months of 1995, another 34,000 applied. These applications must be certified by DoL, in addition to state unemployment offices. But DoL, like EDD, has the same vested interest in keeping numbers low, since the president and his administration also promised, in order to get the treaty through Congress, that it would create thousands of new jobs.
But hard economic reality confounded those rosy predictions. First, the U.S.'s $3.9 billion trade surplus with Mexico in 1992 turned into a $8.6 billion deficit in the first six months of 1995 alone. The administration, when it promised jobs during the debate in Congress, calculated that each billion dollars in trade creates 17,000 jobs. The peso devaluation, which makes U.S. goods in Mexico more expensive, will practically wipe out most exports from the U.S. And exports don't always produce jobs anyway. In the five industries which account for most exports to Mexico, over 1.5 million jobs have disappeared since 1980, while exports increased.
NAFTA accelerated the export of capital, not the export of goods and services. Foreign investment in Mexican plants and equipment, mostly from the U.S., grew by $8 billion in the first half of 1994. General Electric's Mexican plants alone increased their sales in 1994 by 18%, to $1 billion. CEO Jack Welch told Business Week that General Electric's future lies in Mexico.
The picture wasn't any brighter for Canadians, who had the additional disadvantage of living under the U.S./Canada Free Trade Agreement for four years before NAFTA came on line. During that entire period, the official unemployment rate hasn't dropped below 10%. Today, Canadian manufacturing employs 365,000 fewer people that it did in 1989, a drop of 18%. In Ontario alone, there were almost 700 permanent plant closures.
In California, 3457 workers applied for NAFTA-TAA in the year-and-a-half since the treaty went into effect. This number is very low, in the opinion of many employment experts, because most workers losing their jobs aren't aware of the program. The unemployment office and employers themselves do little to publicize it. Unless workers have a union, few wind up knowing enough to apply. Further, people like the seasonal workers at Bluestone aren't counted at all.
But even of the 3457 laid-off California workers who did apply, only 914 were certified by the U.S. Department of Labor.
California's experience was echoed in Kingstree, South Carolina, when Baxter International laid off 830 workers after sending their jobs out of the county. The DoL certified 120 of those workers, agreeing that their jobs had gone to Mexico. The rest, it said, went to Asia, and rejected the claims of 610 workers.
In Eatonstown, New Jersey, 50 workers at Allied Signal lost their jobs in March, 1994. When they applied for NAFTA-TAA, they were also rejected, even though some of them had been sent to train their counterparts at the company's plant in Monterrey, Mexico, and Mexican managers were trained in New Jersey. Allied Signal workers had reason to be bitter. The CEO of their company, Lawrence Bossidy, was the chair of USA-NAFTA, and directly denied on television any intention of moving Allied Signal jobs south while NAFTA was debated on the floor of Congress.
The list of well-known companies which moved jobs to Mexico in 1994 includes KeyTronic computer keyboards (277 jobs in Washington), Matsushita televisions (295 jobs in Illinois), Nintendo games (136 jobs in Washington), Oxford shirts (435 jobs in Georgia), Sara Lee sweatshirts (245 jobs in Georgia), Woolrich sportswear (500 jobs in Pennsylvania and Colorado) and Zenith televisions (430 jobs in Missouri). California companies certified by the Department of Labor for NAFTA-related layoffs include Formglas, Canon Business Machines, Xentek, Baltimore Aircoil, A&W Brands, ITT Cannon, Kyocera International, American Metal Products, Plantronics, Bluestone, Hughes Aircraft, Amphenol, and Boskovich Farms.
South of Riverside in Perris, the workers at Boskovich Farms had to fight their way into the NAFTA-TAA program. No one keeps count of all the farmworkers who have lost their jobs, whether due to NAFTA or not, but only Bluestone and Boscovich workers have applied for NAFTA-TAA, because they had some organization to help them. At Bluestone, workers had the UFW. Boscovich farmworkers never had a union, but they did have the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, or Mexican National Brotherhood, a grassroots community organization which fights for civil rights and social services.
Over the years, some of the 170 Boxcovich workers, who cultivated and picked onions in the Perris Valley, had participated in Hermandad campaigns, especially the big fight with the city council to rename the town library after Cesar Chavez. When they were handed a letter on January 17 this year, saying the company was ending its operations in Perris and laying them off, they knew where to go.
Phil Boscovich, vice-president of Boscovich Farms, blamed the water district, saying that it was taking back land leased by the company for the Domenigoni Valley Reservoir, and that it wouldn't guarantee continued water to irrigate what was left. Workers knew, however, that Boscovich, which has offices in Oxnard, also farms in Arizona, and in the Sonora desert below the border. "We got really suspicious," recalls Luz Maria Ayala, who directs the Hermandad's Perris office, "when we saw irrigation pumps being taken out at night, and driven away on trucks."
In 1993, Ayala went to Washington DC, with a delegation led by legendary civil rights activist Burt Corona, to lobby against NAFTA. She understood the effect the treaty would have, and anticipated seeing the results of it in her own community. She didn't have to wait long.
Ayala, her husband and fellow Hermandad coordinator Antonio, and a retired Boscovich worker, Jesus Gonzalez, decided to follow the trucks. Their search led them to San Luis Rio Colorado, a small farmworker town south of Arizona's Gila River Valley in Mexico. There they found onion packing sheds, and workers who told them about Boscovich's operations. Armed with that information, Ayala went to the Department of Labor. Eventually, Boscovich personnel manager John Bautista admitted that the lost production had gone to Mexico, and DoL agreed.
Even then, the Boscovich workers had to fight against the EDD office in nearby Hemet, which they say mistreated them. "EDD never told anyone about TAA," Ayala says. "They think that because workers are immigrants from Mexico, and farmworkers, that we have no right to unemployment. In the end, we still don't have the jobs. But if we hadn't fought for TAA, if we hadn't made our own investigation, we would have nothing."
But Ayala says that the purpose of the fight was more than just getting TAA. "We're trying to wake people up," she explains, "to make them more conscious, so there'll be a change. As Mexicans and immigrants, we live here, and we have to take care of this country. No one else is doing it."
Certainly not the other big companies, who have relocated production since NAFTA passed, or who have used the leverage NAFTA gave them to win cuts in wages and conditions from their workers.
One of those companies, Zenith, has become the largest employer in the maquiladora zone, south of the U.S./Mexican border. Last year, Zenith closed its last television factory in the U.S., which once employed 4000 workers in Missouri. In 1987, its Missouri workforce agreed to an 8.2% wage cut to keep the plant open. "The story going around the plant was, if you didn't give them wage concessions, they were going to move to Mexico," remembers Lionel Hudspeth, a line inspector. The company left anyway, closing the doors on February 24, 1995.
The same threat was used last year by Leviton Co. in Rhode Island. The company threatened to move production of electrical outlets to Mexico, and as a result, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers agreed to a contract with a wage freeze for two years, and 12-hour shifts paid at straight-time rates. In Webster, New York, Xerox Corporation won a 50% base pay reduction for new employees, and in El Segundo, a 20% cut for 700 workers, with the same threat.
NAFTA's supporters, including the administration, tempered dire predictions of lost jobs by offering a side agreement which it said would protect the rights of workers. Making violations of their rights more difficult, the logic went, would discourage companies from relocating production to exploit cheaper labor in Mexico. This agreement has been embroiled in controversy since the treaty's passage.
Three complaints have been filed in the last year-and-a-half alleging labor law violations in Mexico, and one alleging violations in the U.S. The first two complaints were filed by two U.S. unions, the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Teamsters, and a Mexican union with whom they work in partnership, the Frente Autentico de Trabajo (FAT). The UE complaint accused General Electric of firing union supporters during an organizing drive at one of its big factories in Ciudad Juarez, and threatening and intimidating workers before a union vote. The Teamsters complaint accused Honeywell of firing a large number of union supporters in Chihuahua.
Under the labor agreement, only the failure by a government to enforce its own laws is considered a violation of labor rights. The National Administrative Office in the Department of Labor, and a similar office in Mexico, receive complaints and hold hearings to determine only whether existing law is being enforced.
The NAO held its hearing in Washington, DC, far from the border, making it difficult for workers to provide testimony. Both companies refused to participate. Nevertheless, the NAO found that no action was required. Robin Alexander, attorney for the UE, calls the labor side agreement "toothless and ineffective."
A third complaint was brought last fall by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), the American Friends Service Committee, and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers. It was filed on behalf of workers at Sony Corporation's maquiladora in Nuevo Laredo, south of Texas. On April 12 last year, Sony fired 18 workers, who tried to run for office in the company union, a branch of the government-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). After the firings, workers stopped work. Sony brought in riot police, who beat them and forced them to return to their jobs. The workers' slate lost the election. Its supporters then organized an independent union in the plant, and tried, unsuccessfully, to register it with the government.
Guadalupe Carrillo, one of the fired workers, says the company union "just rakes money off to line the officer's pockets, and helps the company. We want our own union, to win real improvements in the plant."
The NAO held a hearing on the Sony case earlier this year. This time the hearing was held on the border, and the NAO issued a report criticizing the firings, the election, police violence, and the Mexican government's refusal to give legal status to the independent union. It recommended that Secretary Reich meet with then-Labor Minister Santiago O-ate on the last point. They met, but agreed only to study the problem of registering new unions in Mexico.
Jerome Levinson, lead attorney in the case, called the agreement "cynical in the extreme," since it does nothing more than advise workers about existing legal remedies. His point was underlined when, following the Reich-O-ate meeting, workers once again tried to register their independent union, and once again the Mexican government refused them.
A case was also filed in Mexico against the U.S. by the Mexican telephone workers union. It alleged that Sprint Corporation fired over 200 Latino workers in San Francisco, and shut down their workplace, a week before they were to vote for the Communications Workers of America in a scheduled union representation election. The U.S. labor board found last fall that the workers had been illegally fired, but a federal judge refused to issue an injunction to force their reinstatement. Once again, Reich and O-ate agreed to meet, but nothing has changed for the fired workers in San Francisco.
"The last year-and-a-half is the proof that the North American Free Trade Agreement is a bad model for development," concludes Harry Brown of Albuquerque's Interhemispheric Resource Center. " We need to do more than knock down tariffs."
Clearly NAFTA can't be blamed alone for Mexico's economic crisis and devaluation of the peso, for all U.S. and Canadian trade-related unemployment, or for the continuing lack of protection for workers, communities and the environment along the border. But critics of the agreement have long pointed out that NAFTA liberalized trade without changing social and political conditions. The promises made for it remain unfulfilled, while its negative consequences continue to unfold.
While working families in the U.S. have ample experience of those consequences, no one has experienced them more sharply than workers in Mexico. The Zapatista rebellion defined those consequences. What purpose does economic development serve, the rebels in the skimasks ask, if it does not better the lives of all Mexicans, especially the poor?
Mexicans got their answer, albeit a bitter one, on New Years Day this year. Newly-inaugurated President Ernest Zedillo was forced to devalue the peso as almost his first act in office. From 3.1 pesos/dollar, it fell immediately to 5.7. Interests rates climbed to 30%, as Zedillo agreed to a package of reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund as the price for a $20 billion bailout, organized by President Clinton.
IMF conditions included further privatization of national enterprises, measures to hold down inflation, and the use of oil revenues to guarantee repayment, making them unavailable for economic development. The Task Force on Trade of the AFL-CIO commented that the bailout provided "protection for speculative investors who placed more than $75 billion in Mexico."
There was no similar effort to help ordinary Mexican workers, who paid for the crisis with their standard of living. Prices are rising at a government-estimated annual rate of 42% this year. A worker at the Zenith television factory in Reynosa, across from Texas, now earns an average weekly wage of 135 pesos, worth $19.27. Bus fare to work alone is 3.5 pesos. At the runaway Monterrey plant of Allied Signal, the dollar value of the average wage dropped from $1.30 to $.82 in the month of the devaluation. The company, which sells the products of the plant for dollars in the U.S., had a corresponding increase in profits.
Juan Jose Delgado, a member of the Comite Para Todos Todo in Tijuana, says child labor is increasing. With a minimum wage the equivalent of $2.50 per day, expenses are five times the earnings of the average family, even with children working. "Workers receive incredibly low wages," according to Eduardo Badillo, the secretary for coordination of the Border Workers Regional Support Committee (CAFOR). "They earn three dollars for an 8-hour day, when the same business in the U.S. pays workers five dollars for a single hour, even if those workers are not legal immigrants. Here a worker can't earn that same five dollars with a whole day's work."
In 1994, maquiladoras displaced tourism and oil as Mexico's top dollar earner. Their workforce grew by 6.2% in NAFTA's first year, to 600,000. Next year, the 2140 plants along the border, almost all belonging to U.S. companies, are estimated to increase by 600.
Economic policies in both the U.S. and Mexico place a very low value on workers and communities. "The problem," says Eric Meyers, of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras in San Antonio, Texas, "is that this path of economic development, which in Mexico especially seeks foreign investment at almost any cost, is basically incompatible with the protection of workers' rights."
There is no doubt that the global operations of large corporations and financial centers have linked people together across borders in North and South America as never before. The recent Mexican economic crisis shows how tight those links have become, and how people on both sides of the border are directly affected by them.
But most labor, environmental and community organizations, while recognizing this fact, call for a different solution. They are creating people-to-people relationships, across borders, to find a basis for mutual cooperation in this new era. The challenge they face is forcing governments to give precedence to the needs of workers, communities and the environment, over the trade imperatives of the corporate world.
In Coachella, Jose Castillo spent a year without a job after getting laid off. He applied at all the other grape companies, but never got a call. Finally, he got a job at a golf course. Ingracia got hired, with a number of other Chavistas from Bluestone, by Bagdasarian, another big non-union grape company. But when the crew forelady found out they were all ex-Freedman workers, they suddenly had no more work.
The UFW won other contracts over the years in Coachella, especially with citrus companies. Gus Romero, the UFW rep in the valley, worries that grapefruit will be the next crop lost across the border. The union's negotiating a new contract now with Dole, which has become a transnational agribusiness giant, with land and operations all over the world. The fight of Dole's Coachella workers for a contract, is also part of the iconography of the global economy.
"That fight is certainly going to continue," Romero says, "to find some justice and good wages for workers here. But our people have been hit hard. And the safety net just wasn't there to catch them.
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