The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border

Article excerpt

David Bacon The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border University of California Press, 2005, 348 pp. ISBN: 0-520-244729 (pbk) £12.50

David Bacon's book is a salutary alternative to many mainstream accounts of globalisation. Written by an ex-union organiser and labourerturned-journalist, The Children of NAFTA chronicles Bacon's 'firsthand education in the global economy' (p. 3) as it affected one part of its 'basement': the expanding workforce of the maquiladora economy along the us-Mexican border, where he has lived and worked. A series of significant working-class social movements has developed there in response to the savage working conditions established under the NAFTA regime-movements that are absent from the mainstream media. Bacon sets out to right the balance, recording the voices of those directly experiencing these changes and the character of their struggles, especially their elaboration of cross-border organisations and campaigns as a foil to globally preponderant capital.

The growth of the maquila economy has been marked over the last decade or so: it employed, at its height, up to 1.3 million people. Its status as a freetrade export processing zone has attracted masses of capital (primarily us and Asian) keen to reap the benefits of its low-wage, anti-union environmen-as well as flocks of impoverished, displaced labourers from the Mexican south. Many of the latter are victims of NAFTA'S agricultural freetrade destruction of their peasant-based subsistence. Spectacular arrays of hightech manufacturing plants and industrial parks consequently surround cities like Tijuana and Juárez, whose growth far outstrips their provision of housing and the necessary infrastructure for these internal migrants. The NAFTA regime is producing a new division of labour in the Americas, says Bacon, with production relocation from the USA taking place alongside mass migration to the border zone (and beyond, into the north). This is not only an industrial phenomenon: agricultural processing is also moving south en masse in order to capitalise on low wages and the widespread use of child labour.

Bacon's main focus is on the condition of labour in the maquila industrial plants, where a regime of super-exploitation is enforced: long hours, low pay, unsafe working conditions, intimidation and even physical assault by managers. Efforts to improve this desperate situation have been difficult to achieve, as Bacon's case studies of labour disputes vividly record. A barrage of obstacles confronts workers' collective action. Predictably, there is the intransigence of employers and their political supporters at local and national state levels. Less common in western experience is the role of the official Mexican trade union federations, whose close ties to the employers and state result in the widespread existence of'protection contracts' by which they ensure labour peace in direct exchange for a place on the employer's payroll.

Struggles to obtain effective union representation thus loom large in the 'labour wars' of the border. Workers must first confront the existence of hitherto-secret official union agreements already signed by their employers. In order to establish an independent alternative, they have to petition the local labour board for registration, then take part in open elections at plant level to secure rights of representation. Under the peculiarities of Mexican law, elections involve workers making vocal declarations in the presence of employer, official union and local state representatives-an open invitation to their opponents to deploy intimidatory tactics and secure support for the status quo. Major protests and strikes at such plants as Plasticos Bajacal, HanYoung, Duro Bag and ITAPSA over workers' rights and conditions all followed this pattern, each succumbing to the stronger powers of the official-union-local-state-employer nexus.

The range of countermeasures uncovered by Bacon that are used to block effective worker representation is staggering and includes economic blacklisting, sackings, plant closures, state coercive intervention, arrest, imprisonment and electoral fraud. …