Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010, 9:06 am

Obama’s Stance on NAFTA Rules, Military Aid Aggrieves Mexican Labor

BY Roger Bybee

Email this article to a friend

A Mexican farmer marches with hundreds of corn producers protesting against NAFTA, in Mexico City, in 2008.   (Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is related to my June 18 Working ITT piece on oppressive conditions at Johnson Controls' operations in Mexico.

The election of Barack Obama raised the hopes of workers not just in the U.S., but also south of the Rio Grande.

However, Obama's failure to act decisively has been deeply disappointing to Mexican workers who had hope that leverage from a progressive US president would force Mexico to revised its repressive low-wage labor policies. Mexicans had been expecting reform of the investor-centered North American Free Trade Agreement, a fair policy on immigration to protect the rights of immigrant workers, enforcement of NAFTA's labor-rights protections.

But positive action has failed to materialize. Instead, a major surge in U.S. military aid has been employed against workers in legitimate labor actions,  according to a delegation of Mexican workers visiting in Milwaukee last week.

The workers had come all the way from central Mexico in the hope of meeting with top Johnson Control officials at corporate headquarters about oppressive conditions and denial of union democracy at one of its plants in Puebla, but leader corporate officials refused to meet, and contemptuously told them to meet with the very same local Johnson Control officials who have been stonewalling them for about 17 months.)

Obama's performance contrasts sharply with his 2008 campaign, where he talked  about  transforming the North American Free Trade Agreement from a deal protecting only investor rights to a genuine development plan promoting labor rights, higher incomes, and environmental protections on both sides of the border.


This was greeted very positively in Mexico, said delegation members.
Obama campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement ,  primarily on the basis of industrial job loss to Mexico. But the notion of re-shaping NAFTA to help workers also struck a responsive chord among   Mexicans who oppose NAFTA because of the devastation caused to their  nation's agricultural and retail sectors.

"Polls show that most Mexicans think NAFTA was bad for Mexico," says economist Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute, who resides several months a year in Mexico.

While very cognizant of the intense opposition from Corporate America and the Right that Obama has faced, the Mexican workers had hoped for more from Obama.


"As a progressive president, we would have hoped for more," admitted Blanca Velázquez, a slim, intense woman who serves as coordinator the CAT workers rights center in Puebla. "We realize changes aren't easy to get done in the face of corporate power, but in my opinion, Obama has been failing by not  getting Mexicans status as legal immigrants.

"Also, there's been no responsibility taken for NAFTA, which made the situation worse in Mexico and caused so much immigration," she stated.

An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million farmers, especially those involved in
producing corn, have been forced off the land as they were undercut by
US-subsidized agribusiness. The retail sector composed overwhelmingly of small family-owned businesses has also taken a major hit with the entrance of Wal-Mart and other gigantic "big-box retail" operators, with an estimated 28,000 small Mexican firms going out of business..

While roughly one million jobs relocated to Mexico from Mexico since NAFTA's enactment in 1994, these have been converted from family-supporting jobs in the US to bare-subsistence wage levels even by Mexican standards.


A Wall Street Journal headline (9/24/92) brazenly proclaimed "U.S. Companies Pour Into Mexico, Drawn Primarily By One Factor: Low Wages. Real wages have actually been falling since then, typically about 10% of US pay and often in the 75 cents to $2 an hour range. Employers have almost exclusively located along the US-Mexican border and chosen to hire workforces that are 70% to 80% female.

The declining supply of decent job opportunities in Mexico, especially for males living in the central and southern sections of Mexico, has fueled the major surge in immigration into the US as migrants desperately  seek any job that will allow  them to send back money to Mexico to allow their families to survive.  


Shockingly, the Obama administration has continued the policy--followed under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush--of choosing not to enforce labor rights under the much-touted labor "side agreement" to NAFTA, said Carlos Ezquer, a leader of the Mineros miners union engaged in prolonged battle with the Grupo Mexico conglomerate at the immensely important copper mine in Cananea

While "side agreements" on labor and environmental protections were utilized in 1993 to persuade some Democrats to vote for NAFTA by allowing them to claim that not only corporate rights were safeguarded (as detailed in John MacArthur's The Selling of Free Trade), no labor complaint has actually prompted remedial action by a joint US-Mexican-Canadian commission, according to Jeff Faux in The Global Class War.


The denial of  labor rights in Mexico remains the cornerstone of its low-wage manufacturing strategy, with government officials collaborating with corporations to hold down wages with the aim of sharpening Mexico's "competitiveness."

Government-affiliated "protection unions" and police and military forces are
utilized to suppress labor rights on a massive scale.

But US and Canadian administrations have been unwilling to enforce rules against violations of labor rights, since American and Canadian-based corporations benefit so richly from a system based on denial of such rights..

"We of the Mineros filed a complaint under NAFTA in 2006 which the Bush
administration rejected as premature," noted Ezquer.  "But in the only case filed since Obama took office, involving Mexican electrical workers, the Obama administration has also postponed taking action."


Even more seriously, the Obama administration's stance on Mexico has been dominated by a military focus, funneling  huge amounts of military aid to the Mexican government in the name of fighting violence among Mexico's huge and well-armed narcotics traffickers.

"This narrow focus has minimized all the other key issues, and justified military action," observed Velasquez. The military and National Police have  been using its new forces and weapons against workers, like those striking at the Cananea copper mine since 2007 over safety issues.

Clearly, the existence of widespread violence among drug cartels--some with extensive connections to pro-corporate Mexican political leaders-- who have killed some 23,000 Mexicans since 2007 is an urgent  problem.


But the US under Obama has granted "unconditional support"  to conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderon, imposing no effective oversight against the misuse of military aid against labor and other dissenters

On June 6, some 3,000 troops descended upon Cananea to beat and tear-gas strikers and their families, says Carlos Esquer.

Such attacks led US AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka to issue a forceful call June 9 for a freeze on US military aid to Mexico, which has totaled $1.3 billion since 2008. Another $310 million in military assistance will soon be up for consideration.


In a extraordinarily important gesture of solidarity with Mexican workers, Trumka declared:

Sunday night's assault is yet another example of the Mexican government's unjustified persecution of miners who are bravely taking a stand against the country's largest mining company, Grupo Mexico.

U.S. support to Mexican security forces is enabling the Mexican government and Grupo Mexico to violate workers' most basic rights.  As long as the Mexican military and police continue to violate the fundamental rights of workers, the U.S. Congress should freeze current funding for these forces and any proposals for future support.

What do you want to see from our coverage of the 2020 presidential candidates?

As our editorial team maps our plan for how to cover the 2020 Democratic primary, we want to hear from you:

What do you want to see from our campaign coverage in the months ahead, and which candidates are you most interested in?

It only takes a minute to answer this short, three-question survey, but your input will help shape our coverage for months to come. That’s why we want to make sure you have a chance to share your thoughts.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

View Comments