Building a Cross-Border Culture of Solidarity

Tijuana, Baja California Norte, 1998–Police arrive to escort strikebreakers into the struck Han Young maquiladora (David Bacon)

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement has been in effect, the economies of the United States and Mexico have become highly integrated.  Working people on both sides of the Mexico/U.S. border are not only affected by this integration: they are its object. Corporate-controlled integration seeks to maximize profits and push wages and benefits to the bottom, manage the flow of people displaced as a result, roll back rights and social benefits achieved over decades, and weaken working-class movements in both countries.

U.S. and Mexican workers are part of a global system of production, distribution, and consumption. It’s not just a bilateral relationship. Jobs go from the United States and Canada to Mexico in order to cut labor costs. But from Mexico, those same jobs go China or Bangladesh or dozens of other countries where labor costs are even lower.

Multiple production locations undermine unions’ bargaining leverage. Grupo Mexico, a giant Mexican mining corporation, can use profits gained in mining operations in Peru to subsidize the costs of breaking a strike in Cananea and then buy the copper mines in Arizona and force U.S. workers out on strike as well.

The privatization of electricity in Mexico, which the Mexican Electrical Union (SME) has fought for two decades, does not just affect Mexicans.  When Mexico’s laws restricting electricity generation to the government were weakened, a prelude to attacking the union directly, companies like San Diego Gas and Electric set up plants across the border. They produce power for the U.S. grid, at lower wages and with less regulation.

Energy maquiladoras, in effect, give utility unions in the United States a reason to help Mexican workers resist privatization. Cooperation, however, requires more than solidarity between unions facing the same employer. It requires solidarity in resisting neoliberal reforms like privatization and supporting the SME when it demands renationalization, as it does today.

It’s not just production. The United States also exports ideology. Education reform in Mexico comes from the Gates and Broad foundations. They are the same privatizers that attack U.S. teachers. In Mexico they’re supported by USAID, and their partner is Mexicanos Primero, which is run by Claudio X. Gonzalez and Claudio Gonzalez Guajardo, one of the wealthiest families in Mexico. Their attacks on teachers set the climate for the disappearance and murder of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa.

In both countries, the main union battles seek to preserve what workers have previously achieved, in a hostile political structure over which we have little control. Mexican unions are trapped in a state labor process, in which the government certifies unions’ existence, and to a large degree controls their bargaining. In the United States, labor is endangered by economic crisis, falling density, and a pro-corporate legal and political system. Trump and COVID certainly made this worse, but the crisis existed before they came along.

When Vicente Fox and the National Action Party defeated Mexico’s ruling party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI), in 2000, it created a new situation in which government-allied unions began to lose their privileged position. Employers and the government became more willing to use force and repression. Contingent employment became legal and widespread, as it has in the United States. Mexican unions today debate whether the situation of unions and workers has changed dramatically with the new administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom the left supported.

In the United States, labor law reform, national healthcare, and other basic pro-worker reforms have become almost politically impossible, even under Democratic presidents. The U.S. public sector, the most politically powerful section of the U.S. labor movement, has become the target of the U.S. right.

As the attacks against unions grow stronger, solidarity is becoming necessary for survival. Unions face a basic question on both sides of the border—can they win the battles they face today, especially political ones, without joining their efforts together?

Fortunately, this is not an abstract question, because important progress has taken place over the last two decades.

The Emergence of Trans-Border Solidarity

The years after the passage of NAFTA saw a big rise in joint activity by U.S. and Mexican workers. Benedicto Martinez, general secretary of the Authentic Labor Front, described it this way: “NAFTA shocked a lot of U.S. unions out of their inertia—not so much their national leaders, but people in local unions, who began pushing to move on globalization, to form new international relations and look for solidarity. That’s what moved their leaders to pay attention to the border.”

Martinez and grassroots activists from both countries organized during the NAFTA debate to show U.S. workers that Mexican workers were not their enemy. They had to do this bottom-up because the AFL-CIO still supported free trade and had relations only with the most corrupt unions in Mexico, because they were the most anti-Communist. These leftwing activists went from city to city and union hall to union hall to organize the Mexican Network Against Free Trade, which still exists today.

In the solidarity upsurge of the late 1990s, many unions found counterparts across the border. The first solidarity network, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, was created while NAFTA was still being debated. Most of its efforts were directed to supporting workers trying to organize independent unions on the border, to get out of the sweetheart protection contracts signed by pro-company unions behind their backs.

In Tijuana, workers organized an independent union at Plasticos Bajacal in 1992. When the company fired the leaders, union activists in San Diego raised the money to pay them their lost wages so they could keep on organizing. Workers rebelled at the huge Sony plant in Nuevo Laredo and were beaten and attacked with fire hoses when they tried to elect their own leaders. In the late 1990s, workers demanding their own union went on strike twice at Tijuana’s Han Young factory, one of the largest, longest, and most important efforts to organize an independent union on the border.

Other workers tried the same thing at Duro Bag, Custom Trim/Auto Trim, and Levis/Lajat, which are U.S.-owned companies. The Comite Fronterizo de Obreras organized workers at Alcoa/Fujikura, and is still doing it today in cooperation with the Mexican miners union (the Mineros) and the United Steelworkers.

The NAFTA debate helped to strengthen the relationship between the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT),, based on equality and real campaigns on the ground. The Communications Workers of America established a close relationship with the Mexican Telephone Workers. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent delegations, first to Veracruz when its dockers union was smashed, and then to Pacific Coast ports as they were being privatized.

After John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president, the old anti-Communist policies began to change, and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center was set up to take the place of the old Cold-War structures. The Solidarity Center assisted the formation of the Workers Support Center (CAT) in Puebla.

CAT used cross-border leverage against Mexican and U.S. employers, producing for the U.S. market. United Students Against Sweatshops protested garments sold in college stores produced at Kuk Dong’s plant in Puebla, where workers were beaten for trying to organize an independent union.  Student support helped win a contract. Auto workers in assembly plants in Michigan told Ford and GM not to bring in parts from Johnson Controls unless it signed a contract with the Mineros in Mexico.

The Mineros and the United Steel Workers are locked in an all-out conflict with the Grupo Mexico.  During the 12-year strike in Cananea U.S. unions sent money and food across the border, organized support actions in the U.S., and gave refuge to the Mineros president in Canada when the Mexican government would have thrown him in prison.

They built an alliance with environmentalists after a huge toxic spill from the Cananea mine devastated towns along the Sonora River. Then, even after years of deprivation, miners in Cananea sent support to their sisters and brothers in Arizona and New Mexico when Grupo Mexico forced them on strike a year ago.

U.S. unions stayed out of early fights over the privatization of electrical generation, in part because the SME was affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a big no-no during the Cold War. That prohibition changed, and the SME got support through the Trinational Solidarity Alliance and meetings between with AFL-CIO leaders. In 2013 over 50,000 workers, students, and human rights activists demonstrated at Mexican consulates around the world.

A Tri-National Coalition to Defend Public Education was organized in 1993, the year before NAFTA took effect. During the 2006 strike by Mexican teachers against corporate education reform, teachers from Oaxaca traveled to California and spoke at the convention of the California Federation of Teachers. California has a huge number of Mexican students in its schools, and many immigrants themselves now work as teachers, so cross-border teacher solidarity is growing.

Gradually, unions are seeing the importance of workers with feet planted on both sides of the border. The UFW, for instance, developed a strategic partnership with the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB). It hired Oaxacan organizers, fluent in indigenous languages, and protested police harassment and immigration raids in indigenous communities in Greenfield in the Salinas Valley of California.

Between 2013 and 2105, Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers, migrants from Oaxaca, went on strike in both Baja California and Burlington, Washington. They then mounted an international boycott of Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company. They won a contract in Washington, and in Baja California they organized an independent union that’s still fighting for a contract there. Bonifacio Martinez, a farmworker in Baja California, explained, “If the companies are international now, we the workers must also become international.”

In the 2000s, though, the level of cross-border activity declined. The war on terror in the United States and the drug war in Mexico had a big impact on workers and unions. Along the border, the murders of women maquila workers in Juarez, the discovery of the bodies of hundreds of migrants in mass graves, and vastly increased violence all took a toll on workers.

Despite the terror, workers went on strike for an independent union in Juarez in 2017 at some of the largest factories in North America. Then, in Matamoros, over 40,000 workers struck U.S. assembly plants when their owners refused to pay the increase in the minimum wage ordered by AMLO just as he took office in 2018. And most recently, workers struck U.S.-owned plants that refused to obey the government’s order to stop production during the COVID crisis. At the Lear plant alone, 13 workers have died from the virus.

In response, the companies called on President Trump. The U.S. defense industry increasingly depends on continuous production from those plants. The U.S. State Department threatened the Mexican government, and the companies were allowed to restart production. Yet there was virtually no outcry by labor activists and leaders in the United States when the government forced workers back into those plants, knowing that many of them would die as a result.

The Future of Cooperation

In north Mexico, the maquiladora industry is still enormous. Three thousand plants employ over 1.3 million workers. A vibrant and strong labor movement on the border would change Mexico’s politics and U.S. politics too.

Millions of people coming to the U.S are a bridge between the two countries. Organizing Mexican workers at carwashes in Los Angeles and Chicago, for instance, will help U.S. unions grow, without a doubt. But it will also help unions in Mexico, by giving more power to workers who know how important it is to support miners in Cananea or electrical workers in Mexico City.

U.S. labor’s support for ratification of the new trade agreement, however, did not live up to the idea of fighting together, and defied what unions know to be true from three decades of experience. U.S. unions know what the purpose of NAFTA was, on both sides of the border: to bring the U.S. and Mexican economies closer together, lower the price of labor in both countries,  and weaken unions and the social protections for workers. And they know what NAFTA did. The United States lost a million jobs. Millions of Mexicans were thrown off their land and out of their jobs as well. The number of people who had to cross the border to survive rose from 4.5 to 12 million in just 15 years.

The purpose of the new trade agreement, the USMCA, is no different, and the large-scale impact will be the same. Labor shouldn’t confuse the bones thrown to get votes in Congress with the real social, economic, and political effect they know it will have. Mexican labor law reform, something Mexican union have fought decades to win, was treated as a bargaining chip to protect jobs in factories in the United States. To defeat the free trade regime requires a common fight.

After all, miners blacklisted in Cananea, or electrical workers fired in Mexico City, become workers and union organizers in Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York. The farmworkers of the west coast, whether they work in San Quintin, Watsonville, or Burlington, Washington, come from the same communities, speak the same languages, and face the same agribusiness giants.

As painful as it has been for Mexicans themselves, Mexican migration to the United States has been a source of strength for U.S. unions. Millions of people are a bridge between the two countries and labor movements. Fighting for the rights of Mexican and immigrant workers in the United States is part of solidarity.

A culture of solidarity means that workers understand that their own welfare is connected to the welfare of other workers, and that they’re ready to act on that understanding. Workers can’t simply be satisfied that they have a job and a contract with a wage that can support a family, and then turn away from a worker on strike in San Quintin or Cananea, or an electrical worker on a hunger strike in Mexico City, or a worker fighting the closure of a factory in California.

We are all tied together.

David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte, University of California Press, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017. This article is based on a presentation given to a webinar organized by Global Exchange and the California Trade Justice Coalition, an affiliate of the Citizens Trade Campaign.