Over the past 16 years, since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, U.S. labor policy has become an instrument used by transnational corporations and compliant governments — both conservative and liberal — to strengthen the power of capital over labor. Meshing with neoliberal trade policy, which opened markets to these corporations, labor policy has been intended to ensure that unions would be weak.
At the highest levels of power, this has usually meant collusion between governments and private companies to eliminate unions from export-zone processing plants, like the maquiladoras in Mexico and Central America, or to permit only “low-profile” government, company, or gangster unions, which provide employers with protection contracts offering only the minimum wage and government-mandated benefits. In Mexico, for example, most new employers choose a union for their plant—protecting them from a legitimate union—before workers are even hired. The union, known as a “ghost union,” is often completely unknown to the workers.
Where there are real unions and real contracts, employers have demanded “flexible” collective-bargaining agreements that eliminate worker protections. Ultimately this has meant extracting more out of workers for less pay while denying them the opportunity to organize and the ability to strike.
Where traditions of labor unionism and class struggle are too strong, as in some instances in Guatemala and Colombia, the alternative policy has been the assassination of union leaders. Elsewhere, NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have provided legal cover for both the Mexican and the Central American versions of U.S. labor policy in Latin America. The treaties skirt recognition of international labor standards, lack enforcement mechanisms, and rely on national labor laws, which are usually honored in the breech.
It is in this context that we must ask: What might a progressive labor policy look like? To begin with, Latin American workers, both through their labor unions and their support for political parties, have already indicated that, for them, “progressive” means two things.
First, “progressive” refers to a pro-union set of policies. Many Latin American workers have fought to create union movements that would not only negotiate standard union demands for wages, benefits and working conditions, but would also challenge military dictators, participate in general strikes, support civic demands, and in places like Bolivia and Venezuela, fight for socialist policies.
Second, for many workers, “progressive” refers to a set of policies that attempt to prevent the United States or U.S. companies from deciding who should rule their countries or how their national economies should be structured. Historically this sentiment has been channeled into calls for the right to sovereignty and self-determination, and into anti-imperialist political movements. To win national sovereignty, workers have supported ethnic uprisings, civic rebellions, and pro-sovereignty candidates and parties in national elections. In so doing, they have succeeded in turning more than a half dozen countries to the left.
A progressive labor policy, then, at least from a Latin American perspective, entails the struggle against imperialism in support of sovereignty and socialism. Given the importance of those struggles, a progressive U.S. foreign policy cannot dictate labor policy to Latin American workers. Rather, it must begin with a progressive domestic policy. Such a policy may involve the fight for pro-labor federal legislation, but beyond that, the most important labor policy in the United States may well be the reconstruction of workers’ power in the workplace.
Yet it is hard to talk about a progressive domestic U.S. labor policy because most U.S. unions are so bureaucratic and conservative. U.S. workers must first extricate themselves from the control of a bureaucracy whose highest aspiration is partnership with transnational corporations and affiliation with the Democratic Party. Business and government in the United States have virtually destroyed the strike as a labor union tactic and have reduced unionized workers to a miniscule 10% of the labor force.
While many progressives and union officials are pressuring the Democratic Party to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as a way to escape what has become the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) straitjacket, such support is really a defensive measure rather than part of an aggressive pro-labor agenda. EFCA would allow a union to organize without holding an NLRB supervised election wherever a majority of workers sign a card expressing their desire for a union. While this would make it easier for unions to organize, it is no guarantee of success. Under EFCA employers would suffer heavy penalties for illegal anti-union acts, and there would be a Canadian-style mediation and arbitration of the first contract. But this is only a first step.
The real issue is developing a U.S. workers’ movement — which, in the course of reconstructing itself, would necessarily be confronted with the issues of international investments and markets, and therefore of solidarity. Few U.S. unions today engage in much real international solidarity, though when they do, they quickly begin developing a progressive labor foreign policy.
Unions like the United Electrical Workers, with its long tradition of rank-and-file democracy, political independence, and international solidarity, have done better than others. The United Steelworkers (USW) has also shown a commitment to solidarity. The Steelworkers, a member union of the AFL-CIO, has become an advocate for basic labor rights in Latin America, above all the right of workers in a union to choose their own officials, and to engage in collective bargaining and strikes.
The USW has offered its solidarity to striking workers in the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union who have been engaged in a two-year long struggle for the right to control their own union, to maintain their collective-bargaining agreements, and to protect the safety of their members. The mining company Grupo México has attempted to break the union’s power, supporting the creation of phony company unions. With miners at the northern Mexican Cananea mine on strike for the past year, the USW has stepped in to support the strikers’ families. Both solidarity and a progressive labor policy in the shape of the demand for workers’ rights have thus emerged among rank-and-file steelworkers out of a miners’ struggle in Mexico, along with the experience of Canadian and U.S. steelworkers in the debates and protests over NAFTA and free trade.
More important than a blueprint or a list of specific policies is the idea that a progressive policy can only emerge from class struggle, as workers and unions grapple with the power of multinational corporations and with their own governments. We can imagine how such demands might emerge out of struggle. The labor movement would likely want the power to control corporate investments, whether at home or abroad. Unions across North and South America might join in the struggle for an international living wage. Migrant workers would want to have fully transferable labor union and citizenship rights.
Thinking this through is all the more important today, as the influence of the United States and the U.S.-dominated international financial institutions in Latin America are at an all-time low, and many South American nations have begun to chart a more independent course. The South American Community of Nations has transformed itself into the far more ambitious Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Founded in May, UNASUR brings together a dozen Latin American nations and two common markets, Mercosur and the Andean Community, to create a new broader economic and political union. In all of Latin America, the United States can now only rely on Colombia, Mexico, and perhaps El Salvador to do its bidding.
Some Latin American nations have begun to diverge dramatically not only from the ideals of neoliberal economics, but also from the principles of the existing world order. At the Ibero-American summit held in El Salvador at the end of October, President Evo Morales of Bolivia said, “What they call financial problems are more like problems of capitalism. Some say we have to save capitalism, but capitalism will never solve humanity’s problems.” In some countries, such as Bolivia and Venezuela, new workers’ movements and labor federations support the struggle for national sovereignty, and also struggle for new forms of socialism. Within this political moment, which now includes the ascension to power of a more moderate U.S. political leadership—as well as a global financial crisis and deepening recession—labor’s needs and options may be changing.
As we think about this, we might well come to the conclusion that developing a progressive labor policy is only possible if workers can become dominant within their own political party, a party that can then put forward a pro-labor policy. Whether or not such a party exists anywhere in the Americas is an open question. Latin America’s traditions of populism on the one hand and strongman leadership on the other have been powerful obstacles to the development of a mass labor movement that is also democratic.
U.S. workers trapped for decades in the Democratic Party found their ties to capitalism’s “pro-labor” party forged anew by the Obama campaign and subsequent victory. The likelihood, though, is that the combination throughout the Americas of the optimism and expectations surrounding new candidates and personalities — be they Chávez, Morales, or Obama — and the reality of the economic crisis, will set workers in struggle for what Chávez has referred to as a “socialism for the 21st century.” While the shape of any democratic socialism can only be defined and achieved in practice, ultimately such a struggle is the only source of a progressive labor policy.
Dan La Botz is the author of several books on U.S. and Mexican labor, most recently César Chávez and La Causa. He edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis (ueinternational.org) and is on the editorial board of New Politics: A Journal of Socialist Thought.