David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
NAFTA's Passage Will Reinforce Cross-Border Activity by U.S. Unions
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (11/29/93) - The most progressive voices in the U.S. labor movement are walking away from the bruising congressional vote on NAFTA more convinced than ever that unions must become as globally-oriented as the corporations they face. Perhaps as an unintended consequence, the base of these progressive unionists among workers in the labor movement is probably larger than it has been for decades.

The NAFTA debate forced millions of workers to try to understand the ways in which they are affected by the global operations of multinational employers, and the gulf which separates the standard of living in the U.S. from that in countries like Mexico. It has been a gigantic school for ordinary, rank-and-file union members.

They didn't just absorb knowledge passively. They talked about the effect of the difference in wages on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. They visited congressional representatives (and in some cases picketted them). They debated the treaty's supporters in the media, and in increasing numbers travelled to Mexico to see conditions for Mexican workers themselves.

Now they're calling for linking arms on a grassroots level across the border, to present a united front to employers who move production, or threaten to, in order to lower labor costs.

This is a genie that will be hard to stuff back into the bottle. Business as usual, whether it's lockstep support for Democratic Party candidates who voted for the agreement, or passive disinterest in the conditions of workers in other countries, was a casualty of the NAFTA debate.

"The fact that there was a debate at all, or that the public was educated by it, was because the labor and environmental movements made it happen," according to Ignacio DeLaFuente, a representative of the Glass, Molders and Plastics Workers Union, and an Oakland City Councilperson. Trade bills usually never make it past the business pages; NAFTA has been a 2-year front page story.

Frank Martin del Campo, a staff member of San Francisco's city workers' union, didn't feel defeated by the vote. "The challange is to continue this process which has involved so many workers," he said. "We have to take the logical next step, to develop much closer relations between workers internationally. It would be a big mistake to let things slide back to the status quo."

Many unions are slowly awakening from a slumber in which they left international affairs in the hands of the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department, widely discredited for its ultra-right and intelligence ties. Since World War 2, the IAD discouraged broad cooperation and rank-and-file involvement, and instead used international union activity as an arm of U.S. foreign policy.

Labor opposition to NAFTA wasn't based in Washington, and wasn't a an army directed by distant generals. It grew fastest on a local level, in workplaces, local unions, and in central labor councils. It was a coalition movement, in which factory workers found themselves rubbing shoulders with environmental activists for the first time. This new level of activity spread across the country, into every state, into every union.

It spilled across the border. Martin del Campo took working members of his own and other unions to meet their counterparts in Mexico. DeLaFuente brought support to Mexican unions organizing glass factories in Mexicali. Mexican unionists toured California in the "Free Trade Caravan," sponsored by the Teamsters Union, stopping at factory gates wherever workers congregated.

Latino unionists generally understood more quickly the importance of making connections with workers in Mexico, rather than simply viewing them as competitors for jobs. Many are immigrants themselves, with family on both sides of the border. An important new level of Latino leadership in U.S. unions played a leading role in mobilizing union members to participate in the NAFTA debate, while calling at the same time for grassroots relationships between workers in the two countries.

Important differences still remain unresolved. While many voices call for closer relations with Mexican workers, disagreements remain about how these relations should be established. "We have to have relationships with all unions across the border, including independent unions which are developing, as well as unions which are already established," DeLaFuente asserts.

This is a controversial position. Other unionists, like Martin del Campo, see more of a future in cooperation between U.S. unions, and community organizations and political parties in the Mexican opposition. Many Mexican unions are closely integrated into the governing Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, and support both NAFTA and increased U.S. investment in Mexico. "The doors of the CTM [Mexico's largest union federation]are closed to me," he said.

Abuses of workers' rights and pollution of the environment in the maquiladoras, the U.S.-owned factories which employ almost a million workers on the Mexican side of the border, were highly publicized as examples of the future under NAFTA. But for the first time in 30 years, unions began to go beyond exposing abuses. As NAFTA was debated, the United Electrical Workers in the U.S., and the Authentic Workers' Front in Mexico, signed an agreement pooling resources for joint union organizing efforts.

One obvious step which has yet to be taken is joint bargaining by U.S. and Mexican unions facing the same multinational employer. This is a development which still may not take place for some time. The Mexican government would certainly view such joint bargaining as an unfavorable condition discouraging U.S. investment It is unlikely that the U.S. government would view it more favorably. But for the first time, ideas like this are openly discussed in U.S. unions, and sound even more reasonable in the wake of NAFTA's approval.

The logic of NAFTA will propel unions in this direction. And for the first time in decades, there is a large base in U.S. union membership who will support it.

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