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Union Building In The Global Village


As American labor began gearing up for the 2004 election, many activists joined high-profile protests a year ago against free trade, mistreatment of immigrants, and the erosion of union organizing rights.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride was the most widely publicized of these events, with stops throughout the country and a rally of 100,000 in New York City as its grand finale. Soon afterwards, industrial union members marched in Miami, as part of heavily-policed street demonstrations against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). And then, last Dec. 10, the AFL- CIO and Jobs with Justice held a nationwide day of action, with mass picketing and rallies in seventy cities, to promote “workers rights as human rights” and labor law reform.

There are no better election-year guides to these interconnected issues–globalization, trade, immigration, and unionization–than David Bacon’s Children of NAFTA and Leon Fink’s The Maya of Morganton. Their work confirms what many Kerry supporters in the ranks of labor already suspect. Even if we elect a new President who has, on the campaign trail, professed belated concern about union-busting, out-sourcing, and the adverse impact of free trade (which he helped to promote), unions will still be in trouble. Without major changes in labor law, trade policy, immigration rules, and our common political economy, the climate for organizing, bargaining, and strike activity will remain unfavorable–on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Bacon provides a sweeping, cross-border look at the deteriorating conditions of life and work in the decade since ratification of NAFTA–the North American Free Trade Agreement that FTAA would extend to all of South America. The author is a former United Farm Workers supporter and in-plant organizer for the United Electrical Workers (UE) in California. After retooling as a labor photo- journalist, he devoted nearly a decade to interviewing and photographing Mexican workers in their homeland and in “El Norte.” Children of NAFTA describes, in dismaying detail, how trade liberalization has intensified the exploitation of workers in the factories and fields of both countries.

Instead of raising living standards and promoting economic prosperity–as promised by boosters like Bill Clinton and John Kerry–NAFTA has spawned more child labor, horrendous health and safety conditions, downward pressure on wages and benefits, massive job loss, and increased management resistance to union ionization. To add insult to injury, many employers in Mexico’s maquiladora zone are now, on NAFTA’s tenth birthday, picking up and leaving for places where labor is even cheaper– China being their main forwarding address.

Fink looks at a narrower, but no less complex, example of labor displacement and migration. His book traces the odyssey of peasant villagers, who fled war-torn Guatemala in the 1980s to find work first as fruit pickers in Florida and, later as, chicken processors in western North Carolina. While teaching at the University of North Carolina, three hours away, Fink became a close observer of the Mayan community in rural Morganton that sustained a protracted organizing struggle at Case Farms, a 500- worker poultry plant.

Part of a larger Hispanic influx into the Southern poultry industry, the Guatemalans hired by Case spoke four different indigenous languages (Q’anjob’al, Awakateko, Ki’ich’e, and Mam). Most had never worked in a factory before. Nevertheless, the Maya–mainly single men without families–were initially seen as a boon to productivity and much preferred to Mexicans (because of the latter’s tendency to seek time off for holiday visits home). “Guatemalans can’t go home,” one Case Farms manager explained to Fink. “They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.” For that portion of the Guatemalan civil war diaspora that landed in Morganton, sanctuary from right-wing death squads came at a price. Chicken- plucking is hard, dangerous, messy work, with high turn-over and low pay. Not only were the new arrivals more willing to engage in this labor than local whites or African-Americans, they also proved far more resistant to factory discipline and management control. In September, 1991, Case Farms made a sudden scheduling change that imposed speed-up and a pay cut on the night shift–triggering a walk-out by twenty Guatemalans. This became the opening shot in an extraordinary shop- floor war–a kind of mini-J.P. Stevens saga, without the successful corporate campaign or happy ending. In addition to its insights into immigrant culture and community structure, The Maya of Morganton thus serves as a detailed case study in worker self-activity, organizing rights violations, and first contract frustration.

As chronicled by Fink, labor-management skirmishing at Case Farms continued for ten years. Its highlights included another spontaneous in-plant work refusal in 1993, resulting in mass arrests; a four-day strike in 1995, which drew the Laborers Union into a winning NLRB election campaign; more protest walkouts in 1996, culminating in an 8-day strike over the company’s legal foot-dragging and refusal to bargain; a Supreme Court decision compelling the start of negotiations in 1998; twelve months of fruitless talks, followed by further unfair labor practices that resulted in the company being cited for bad faith bargaining again; and, finally, after another round of court-ordered negotiations in 2001, LIUNA’s decision to abandon the costly campaign (in favor of a modest two-year commitment to fund a local “workers center” to aid Case Farms workers).

Fink brings this heroic yet ultimately tragic story to life with vivid portraits of in-plant leaders, rank- and-file workers who waged (and sometimes gave up) the fight, their helpers in local churches and community groups, and various outside union organizers and lawyers, who joined the fray along the way. (“Prompted in part by publicity about the Case Farms conflict,” the Clinton Administration promised to intervene as well–with an investigation of “sweatshop conditions” in the poultry industry; subsequent pressure from industry lobbyists, like Tyson Foods, caused Labor Secretary Alexis Herman to put the probe on hold instead.)

A similar cast of characters can be found in most chapters of Children. As Bacon reports, Case Farm- type situations arise routinely in Mexico–in the context of bitterly-contested independent union organizing drives. These are opposed by maquiladora managers, state and federal government officials, and the “charro” unions– corrupt labor organizations allied with the employers and the still-powerful Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI). One-sided though it may be, the conflict between new and old political forces in Mexico has given rise to what one left-wing activist hopes will be:

“A new labor movement, more intelligent and more innovative. Already, people building independent organizations along the border are much better than the leadership of the old unions. They are more concerned about health, and the use of toxic substances in the work process. Their movement is very spontaneous and makes allies with neighborhood organizations, with farmers and with teachers, and with people from across the border.” Bacon’s workplace tour includes a stop at Tijuana’s Plasticos Bajacal, a plant which relocated from the U.S. in response to a UFCW organizing drive and then– with its new, largely female workforce– became the scene of an early (but unsuccessful) workplace challenge to Mexican company unionism. The author devotes a key chapter to the better known story of Han Young de Mexico, where a tangled union recognition fight became ” the most important labor battle in Tijuana’s history…whose repercussions were felt from the U.S. Congress to the Los Pinos residence of Mexico’s president.”

The Han Young workers were initially aided by Mexico’s Frente Autentico de Trabajo (FAT), an anti- NAFTA, dissident labor group with close ties to the UE. After the new union in the plant was denied government certification in 1997–despite winning a representation election–its U.S. allies attempted to utilize the NAFTA labor side agreement, which created a cross- border complaint process. Unfortunately, as twenty other complainants found, “those side agreements, heralded as protection for labor and environmental rights…had already served their purpose long before. In 1993, their promise of protection provided political cover for liberal Democrats who wanted to vote with President Clinton, and thus produced the slim margin of Congressional votes needed to approve NAFTA.

The Han Young support campaign exposed this underside of NAFTA at a critical juncture–just as President Clinton was trying (in vain) to win “fast track” negotiating authority for future trade deals. At a hearing held in San Diego by the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Administrative Office (NAO), Han Young workers testified about management’s violations of both Mexican labor law and workplace safety rules. Neither had been enforced because that would be “contrary to the purpose for which NAFTA was negotiated in the first place–creating conditions favorable to investment.”

Not surprisingly–given her Case Farms role–Alexis Herman arranged a toothless settlement of the case with her Mexican counterpart. It left Han Young workers still exposed to hazardous conditions, unfair dismissals, black-listing, and strike-related violence by private thugs and police. Some were even roughed up when they attended a”Seminar on Union Freedom” organized by the Mexican labor ministry to explain the NAO settlement!

In Bacon’s view, NAFTA has nevertheless been a useful, if painful, dope slap here–”stirring workers into a profound debate, surging up from the floors of union halls and workplaces, prodding them into an extensive re-examination of their relations with their Mexican counter-parts.” As a result, “the border isn’t just a showcase for NAFTA’s victims.” It has become a laboratory for new forms of labor internationalism, as practiced by the various grassroots groups we meet in the book–the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the North American Worker to Worker Network, and others. According to the author:

“This cross-border solidarity movement not only provides material support for embattled workers. As maquiladora-style production itself transforms the economies of developing countries like Mexico, this movement in response to it offers a proving ground for a new model of international relationships between workers and unions.”

Bacon’s account of the tumultuous world of Mexican labor politics shows that cross-border cooperation is just one element of labor resistance to neo- liberalism. Another key ingredient is political independence. In Mexico, several important unions took a big step in this direction when, led by the telephone workers, they broke with the PRI-dominated Congreso de Trabajo (Labor Congress) and formed the rival National Union of Workers (UNT), which includes the FAT. As Bacon notes, the UNT has since led the fight for labor law reform in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, relying on allies in the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), the left-leaning alternative to the PRI and President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN), “We believe it’s indispensable to democratize the world of work,” says telephone union leader and UNT founder Francisco Hernandez Juarez,” because the workers have been kidnapped by their own unions.”

In the U.S.-even in the AFL-CIO’s progressive wing– there’s far less consciousness of the need for a new unionism based on workplace militancy, internal democracy, and independent politics. Even if their campaigning for Kerry succeeds this Fall, American unions will soon face the harsh reality emphasized by Bacon: “Whether liberals or conservatives hold office, in Washington, Mexico City or Toronto, they’re all committed to free trade.” To challenge that bi-partisan consensus–and the corporate domination it reflects– labor and the social movements must act together, more effectively, everywhere that workers are threatened “as the NAFTA model is extended southward.”

The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexican Border, by David Bacon, University of California Press, 2004, 348 pp.

The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South, by Leon Fink, University of North Carolina Press, 2003, 254 pp.

(Steve Early writes frequently about workplace issues and unions for Labor Notes, The Nation, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. He has helped coordinate cross-border solidarity work between members of the Communications Workers of America and a sister union in Colombia. He can be reached at [email protected])

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