"They Are the Experts:" a Workers' Agenda for Social Change in Mexico's Maquiladoras

By Huesca, Robert | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, July 2006 | Go to article overview

"They Are the Experts:" a Workers' Agenda for Social Change in Mexico's Maquiladoras


Huesca, Robert, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Abstract. This study explores theories of globalization and new social movements through the examination of an empirical case of the organizing efforts of maquiladora workers on the Mexico-U.S. border. The article is divided largely into two parts: a theoretical overview that introduces key notions surrounding globalization and new social movements, and an empirical research report that describes movement activities of a community organizing group called the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO, Border Committee of Working Women). The study demonstrates how grassroots organizing follows an internal logic based on the experiences of factory workers within the context of globalization that often goes unnoticed by scholars who rarely focus on the micro-experiences of the shop floor. The findings from the study demonstrate the relevance of models of globalization, flesh out theoretical accounts of new social movements, and illustrate consequences and limitations of grassroots organizations.

Resume. This study explores theories of globalization and new social movements through the examination of an empirical case of the organizing efforts of maquiladora workers on the Mexico-U.S. border. The article is divided largely into two parts: a theoretical overview that introduces key notions surrounding globalization and new social movements, and an empirical research report that describes movement activities of a community organizing group called the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO, Border Committee of Working Women). The study demonstrates how grassroots organizing follows an internal logic based on the experiences of factory workers within the context of globalization that often goes unnoticed by scholars who rarely focus on the micro-experiences of the shop floor. The findings from the study demonstrate the relevance of models of globalization, flesh out theoretical accounts of new social movements, and illustrate consequences and limitations of grassroots organizations. The growth and influence of Mexico's maquiladoras--factories that import component parts, assemble them into finished products, and export them under favourable tariff schedules--have generated a robust range of books and articles across academic disciplines. This range of research has examined both the general evolution of the industry as a principal development strategy for Mexico and the specific topics of gender dynamics, labour rights, health consequences, and economic impacts, among others (e.g., Cooney 2001; Cravey 1998; Fernandez-Kelly 1983; Kopniak 1995; Pena 1987, 1997; Salzinger 2003; Sklair 1989; Tiano 1994). Despite the breadth and depth of the research into maquiladoras, scholars have not paid much attention to the strategies and practices of ordinary workers struggling to improve their well-being within the factory setting.

This article attempts to contribute to our overall understanding of maquiladoras and their impacts by examining the everyday lives of factory workers, in particular their efforts to effect changes in the workplace. This research also attempts to contribute to the development of two conceptual fields--globalization and new social movements--that are highly relevant to an analysis of Mexican assembly plants. As sites of offshore production benefiting from advances in transportation, communication, and international trade reform, maquiladoras function as prototypes and laboratories of globalization that merit close scholarly attention. Within these settings, workers have demonstrated sustained efforts across industries and locations to organize, resist, and struggle informally (i.e., outside of official unions) for reforms aimed at improving workplace conditions. These informal, disparate, and seemingly inconsequential efforts shed light on how new social movements emerge, form, and proceed to engage various players in the structure of global capitalism.

Drawing on several seasons of ethnographic field research, this study examines one such informal effort on the U. …

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