In the Shadow of NAFTA: A Budding Cross-Border Resistance

September 25, 2007

This past May, two independent Mexican labor federations, the National Workers Union (UNT) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) jointly brought a complaint against the U.S. government under the terms of the labor side agreements to NAFTA. The complaint alleged that the federal government was not enforcing minimally required levels of health care and wages among Mexican and Mexican-American apple-industry workers in the state of Washington. The complaint was brought before the NAFTA administrative office in Mexico City, and was timed to support ongoing organizing drives by the Teamsters and United Farmworkers (UFW) in the orchards and packing houses of Washington. An administrative office—called the National Administrative Office (NAO) in the United States—was established in each NAFTA country to hear complaints of labor-law violations in any of the other member countries.

The UNT-FAT complaint came three years after the first use of the side-agreement mechanisms by a Mexican union. In 1995, the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM) brought a complaint on behalf of 235 bilingual telephone operators, many of whom were Mexican-Americans, who had been abruptly fired by U.S. Sprint just a week before a union representation election called by the Communication Workers of America (CWA). That complaint was also timed to bolster the organizing drive of a U.S. union, this time the CWA. The structures established by the side agreements have no enforcement power whatever. So even though Mexican labor officials supported the STRM complaint against Sprint, all they could do was mandate hearings in Washington, D.C. The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also ruled in favor of the workers, but the ruling was overturned by a U.S. District Court in Washington, and none of the workers were rehired.

Last December, a ten-union, trinational alliance then called the Echlin Workers Alliance—now called the Dana Workers Alliance following a mid-summer corporate takeover—filed a complaint under those same side agreements, alleging the “violation of workers’ associational rights”—i.e. union busting—as well as the right to a safe and healthy workplace in one of the Echlin Corporation’s Mexico City auto-parts plants. The complaint also challenged the way union-representation elections are held in Mexico, since workers in the Echlin plant in question had to cast oral votes in a deliberately intimidating atmosphere controlled by the company. As with the Sprint operators, even though the U.S. NAO ruled in favor of the Dana Alliance, ordering cabinet-level consultations to remedy the situation, the called-for consultations between the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the Mexican Minister of Labor have yet to take place.

Despite its lack of teeth, the NAO mechanism has provided a useful framework for a budding set of cross-border alliances. The Dana Alliance, for example, has made creative use of the NAFTA side agreements to build its own organizing agenda. The Alliance consists of unions in different industries and three different countries, all representing the same firm. Dana, the Ohio-based auto-parts manufacturer that took over the Echlin Company last year, employs over 79,000 workers in 270 plants worldwide, and its sales last year were just under $12 billion. The ten unions in the Alliance—the United Electrical Workers (UE), the Teamsters, UNITE, the United Paperworkers, the U.S. and Canadian United Steelworkers, the United Autoworkers (UAW), the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW), the Machinists (IAM) and Mexico’s FAT—represent Dana workers in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The group, which came together in March 1997 to provide mutual support to its members in contract negotiations and in new organizing, promises to confront Dana with a stronger, more united labor movement in all three NAFTA countries. Its NAO complaint, though it has brought no immediate results, has bolstered its resolve.

“As a three-country alliance, one of our goals is to prevent the company from pitting us against one another,” says Mary McGinn, a UE organizer who coordinates the trade-union coalition. “We are now committed to supporting our Mexican partner, the FAT.” This kind of international labor solidarity is not new, she adds, “but in the past it has taken place around a specific event, like a strike or a particular organizing drive. This, on the other hand, is an ongoing alliance to strengthen all of our hands at the bargaining table and in organizing the company’s workers in all three countries.”

While labor’s situation remains bleak throughout the Americas, this growing cross-border cooperation is encouraging, at least to some organizers. In an interesting, if not-yet victorious case, the UE tried to tap into this North American solidarity last year to resolve an 11-year-old conflict just outside of Chicago. The conflict involves the attempts of a small group of workers to gain a contract at a small plant called Acme Die Casting. The UE had won a representation election there in 1987, but the company has yet to sign a contract.

“Acme refused to recognize the election even though the union won it two to one,” says UE organizer Terry Davis. “They didn’t even sit down to negotiate it for three years while they appealed the election. Then they refused to put anything on the table that wasn’t a pay cut. At this point the contract is almost completely negotiated because we were willing to settle for the minimum, but not for the pay cuts.” The company’s 140 full-time workers are almost all Mexican-Americans who live in Chicago.

“The company has tried to buy us out one by one,” says the president of the local, Jorge Valenzuela. “They take people aside and offer them supervisory jobs or more overtime or white collars instead of blue collars. ‘See, you don’t need a union; you can get ahead without a union,’ they tell them.” But in the face of cooptation and intimidation, Acme workers have not given up the fight. They have kept their organization intact, and they continue to struggle for union recognition. “Even though they don’t have a contract and can’t really function as a union,” says organizer Davis, “they went on strike for a couple of weeks in September but still couldn’t get a contract. After two weeks some people became so discouraged that the group decided to go in together rather than drift in one at a time.”

“I have worked here for 27 years,” says Valenzuela, a husky, middle-aged man who came to Chicago from central Mexico nearly 30 years ago. “I was the first Mexican in the plant. We have been trying to organize a union since 1980 but in the early days we lost three straight union elections. The workers needed their jobs and were basically afraid to be singled out. We were fighting for rights, benefits, respect, but the company was fighting for money. And that seemed to be more powerful. ‘Yes I’d like to fight for the union, but I need my job,’ the workers would say. That’s fear. We went to the UE in 1987 and finally we won a representation election. But the company won’t talk to us.”

“Last year,” says Davis, “the UE decided to intensify our efforts to get them a contract.” The union realized that about 60% of the company’s output goes to a single customer, an ex-Baby Bell telecommunications giant called Lucent Technologies. They decided to approach Lucent, which is known to have a considerably smoother approach to labor relations than Acme. The company, which is very protective of its highbrow image, highlights “social responsibility” on its Web page and gives large foundation grants to community college programs which retrain and reskill workers for high-tech industries. “The Acme people have been unavailable for conversation,” says Davis, “so we decided to raise this issue with their main client, Lucent.”

Lucent, which grew out of the prestigious research institution, Bell Labs, does a great deal of business in Mexico. It has 12,000 employees in the country, many in joint ventures with Philips Consumer Communications in border maquiladoras. They have won contracts with virtually every Mexican long-distance provider. They provided switches and optic-fiber cable for the principal Mexican phone company, Telmex, and digitized the entire Telmex grid in early 1997. And Telmex, their biggest customer, is organized by the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM), the union that brought the NAFTA side-agreement complaint in 1995 on behalf of the CWA.

The U.S. unions at Lucent, the CWA and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) agreed to cooperate with the UE on the Acme case and approached Lucent management who promised to “look into it.” In February the UE went to the Lucent stockholders meeting and its representatives were allowed to speak. Arguing that Lucent should take responsibility for its suppliers under its announced policy of “social responsibility,” the union prodded Lucent management to take some action. The company agreed to fax the union’s organizing leaflet to Acme for comments.

The President of Acme’s parent company, Lovejoy Industries, called all the employees into the cafeteria minutes after the fax came and told them the UE was trying to take away their jobs and close the plant. “Stop them,” Valenzuela remembers him saying, “before they destroy us.” Valenzuela, the local leader, stood up and responded, saying: “We are not trying to bring down the company. We just want a contract, so why don’t you sign it.”

And that brings us back to Mexico. The UE’s Davis travelled to Mexico City last winter to meet with some of her Mexican counterparts, including officials from the telephone workers union. The idea was to have the STRM put pressure on Telmex, so that Telmex (prodded also by pro-labor Mexican politicians) would put pressure on Lucent, so that Lucent (prodded also by its own union) would put pressure on Acme. The STRM was willing, but in the end, there were just too many steps, and the strategy got a little too intricate to pay off. The episode nonetheless points to future strategic alliances and cross-border strategies. As Mexican and U.S. unions begin working with, relying on and trusting one another, the groundwork is laid for fruitful cross-border activity.

Many unions are clearly beginning to think of the ways in which concrete mutual aid can flow across borders. These cases of South-North solidarity tend to have one of two things in common: companies that have moved south or workers who have moved north. As jobs and workers continue crossing borders, so do union organizing efforts. Solidarity is not easy to come by in the midst of what Carlos Vilas refers to in this issue as “the war of all against all for a job,” nor is there any support in the offing from the structures put in place by NAFTA. But organizers have begun to transcend national borders—thanks in part to the simultaneous internationalization of production and migration of workers, which is creating the natural basis for a cross-border labor movement.

Fred Rosen is co-editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Tags: NAFTA, labor organizing, US-Mexico border, solidarity, labor rights

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