Labor Goes Global

Article excerpt

Last September, California Teamsters hit the road carrying some unusual freight. They were hauling information on the potential impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Calling their convoy the "Economic Earthquake Express," they carried their message of economic disaster to work sites, union halls, and local events in fifty California communities.

The Teamster action was one of the most unusual anti-NAFTA labor events of the year and one that came from an unexpected comer of the AFL-CIO. After all, truck drivers didn't used to worry much about trade issues-they could haul foreign goods just as well as American. But the impending NAFTA, along with economic shifts, have jolted them out of their complacency.

U.S. exports to Mexico have tripled and imports doubled since 1987, when border tariffs began to tumble. The number of U.S.-to-Mexico truck crossings at the busy Laredo-Nuevo Laredo border, for example, tripled from 1989 through 1992. In the same period, Mexico began deregulating its trucking industry, which opened the way for U.S. companies to set up Mexican subsidiaries.

The wake-up call for U.S. truckers came in May 1992, when George Bush ordered California to recognize Mexican commercial drivers' licenses, putting drivers from the two nations into direct competition for the first time. Mexican drivers make one-tenth of what Teamsters make. But the Teamsters weren't content to adopt the usual "buy American" line of much of the AFL-CIO or to "just say no" to free trade.

Instead, the new Teamster reform leaders reached across the border and made their anti-NAFTA campaign a symbol of international labor solidarity. In addition to new Teamster Vice Presidents Jim Bensen and Ken Mee and California Teamster officials, the Economic Earthquake Express carried on board unionist Raul Marquez, the leader of the Authentic Workers Front (Frente Autentico de los Trabajadores), an independent Mexican labor federation. Unlike most labor federations in Mexico, the Authentic Workers Front has no ties to the government or the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) that has governed for sixty years. Marquez's group is one of the few labor organizations willing to buck the official pro-NAFTA line of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his trade-union acolytes in the PRI-dominated Congress of Labor. Like the Teamsters, other unions and even the AFL-CIO itself are beginning to organize across borders.

The AFL-CIO took a look at the future two years ago, when it backed the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. Maquiladora plants process U.S.-made components or materials for export back into the United States and their number has more than doubled since 1986 to about 2,000, employing 500,000 Mexican workers. Indeed, about two-thirds of U.S.-Mexican trade is in capital or intermediate industrial goods and materials. Half of that is "intra-firm" - trade within the same company.

Departing from the Cold War style of international "solidarity" carried out in Latin America by the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development, the federation assisted the Coalition for Justice in pulling together unions and community groups with diverse political outlooks. Instead of establishing contact with the official unions in Mexico, the Coalition for Justice works with individuals and organizations helping maquiladora workers in Mexico. Its major activity, however, is conducting campaigns to make U.S. corporations adhere to standards of conduct equal to those in the United States. One of its major campaigns is against Zenith, which, like other corporations operating along the border, violates even the most minimal labor, health, and environmental standards. The Coalition for Justice plans to bring its Zenith campaign to the U.S. Congress.

Other unions are following the Teamsters' example and attempting to establish more direct contact with their counterparts in Mexico. …