Workers Say NAFTA’s Neoliberal Foundations Need to Be Dismantled from the Left—Not the Right

Jeff Schuhrke October 23, 2017

Workers gathered in Chicago to call for transnational labor solidarity in the fact of NAFTA. (Jeff Schuhrke)

Reject­ing both eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism and free-mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism, work­ers across North Amer­i­ca are build­ing transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty and demand­ing labor rights for all.

Last week, near­ly 60 rep­re­sen­ta­tives of unions and civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions from Mex­i­co, Cana­da and the Unit­ed States gath­ered in Chica­go for a two-day meet­ing to dis­cuss strate­gies for col­lab­o­ra­tion as their gov­ern­ments rene­go­ti­ate the 23-year-old North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA).

The meet­ing was coor­di­nat­ed by the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE), UCLA Labor Cen­ter and Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung, an inter­na­tion­al civic edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tion affil­i­at­ed with Germany’s Left Par­ty. While many Mex­i­can unions are dom­i­nat­ed by the gov­ern­ment, only the country’s more inde­pen­dent and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly run labor orga­ni­za­tions attended.

We’re dis­cussing what kinds of rela­tion­ships can be built, either bi-nation­al­ly or tri-nation­al­ly,” Bene­dic­to Martínez, a nation­al co-coor­di­na­tor of Mexico’s Frente Autén­ti­co del Tra­ba­jo, or Authen­tic Labor Front (FAT), told In These Times. At the fore­front of our vision would be the rights of peo­ple, includ­ing bet­ter wages, bet­ter edu­ca­tion, bet­ter health­care and immi­gra­tion rights.”

Crit­ics argue that NAF­TA has accel­er­at­ed the glob­al race to the bot­tom,” where gov­ern­ments dis­man­tle work­place and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions in order to attract cap­i­tal investment.

NAF­TA has had many neg­a­tive impacts. Big com­pa­nies come to Mex­i­co accom­mo­dat­ed by the gov­ern­ment as work­ers’ rights are con­stant­ly vio­lat­ed,” Julia Quiñones, coor­di­na­tor of the Comité Fron­ter­i­zo de Obrer@s, or Bor­der Work­ers’ Com­mit­tee (CFO), told In These Times.

CFO orga­nizes maquilado­ra work­ers in the north­ern Mex­i­can states of Tamauli­pas, Coahuila and Chi­huahua. The for­eign-owned maquilado­ras along the U.S.-Mexico bor­der, which pro­duce goods for export, embody the most per­ni­cious aspects of free trade”: exploit­ing low-paid, major­i­ty-women work­ers and pol­lut­ing their surroundings.

Quiñones explained that maquila work­ers often face sex­u­al vio­lence from their man­agers, are exposed to dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals, work 12- to 14-hour days and are fre­quent­ly fired or black­list­ed for try­ing to organize.

Nobody ben­e­fits from these trade deals oth­er than cor­po­ra­tions,” said Kari Thomp­son, UE’s direc­tor of inter­na­tion­al strate­gies, in an inter­view with In These Times. Not work­ing peo­ple, not the envi­ron­ment, not women, not peo­ple of col­or, not farmers.”

The tri-nation­al par­tic­i­pants in last week’s Chica­go gath­er­ing protest­ed out­side the Mex­i­can Con­sulate Fri­day after­noon, call­ing on the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Enrique Peña Nieto to lis­ten to the demands of Mexico’s work­ers in the NAF­TA rene­go­ti­a­tions. Adher­ing to neolib­er­al ortho­doxy, Peña Nieto’s nego­tia­tors say that more trade, not more labor pro­tec­tions, will ben­e­fit workers.

We’re denounc­ing the fact that inde­pen­dent, demo­c­ra­t­ic unions like the ones we rep­re­sent are not being heard,” Víc­tor Enrique Fabela Rocha of the Sindi­ca­to de Tele­fon­istas (Tele­phone Oper­a­tors Union) told In These Times. We want a strong labor com­po­nent in NAF­TA. We want decent work as expressed by the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Organization.”

In par­tic­u­lar, the con­sulate pro­test­ers demand­ed Mex­i­co raise its min­i­mum wage. They argue that the increase would not only ben­e­fit Mex­i­can work­ers, but also work­ers in the Unit­ed States and Cana­da, by mak­ing it less prof­itable for com­pa­nies to move pro­duc­tion to Mex­i­co. The cur­rent min­i­mum wage in Mex­i­co is rough­ly $4 per day.

Abra­ham Gar­cila­zo Espinosa, a minework­er from Mex­i­co City and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Sindi­ca­to Minero (the Nation­al Union of Min­ers and Met­al­work­ers), told In These Times that the wage dis­par­i­ty in the min­ing indus­try is espe­cial­ly glaring.

In Cana­da and the U.S., min­ers are doing the same thing we do in Mex­i­co, often for the same com­pa­nies, but Mex­i­can min­ers are mak­ing a lot less mon­ey,” he said. The work requires the same lev­el of spe­cial­iza­tion, train­ing and risk in all three coun­tries, but with very dif­fer­ent wages.” While the medi­an month­ly income of minework­ers in the Unit­ed States and Cana­da is about $2600, in Mex­i­co it’s about $600.

Prompt­ed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, the NAF­TA rene­go­ti­a­tions began in August and are expect­ed to con­tin­ue into 2018. As part of his Amer­i­ca First” vision, which has been wide­ly crit­i­cized for racist and xeno­pho­bic over­tones, Trump wants to reverse the U.S. trade deficit with Cana­da and Mexico.

We think NAF­TA is a bad deal, absolute­ly,” Thomp­son says. But just because Trump wants to rene­go­ti­ate this deal doesn’t mean he actu­al­ly has the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple in mind.”

Two key demands of the orga­niz­ers who gath­ered in Chica­go — end­ing cor­po­rate pro­tec­tions like the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic Investor-State Dis­pute Set­tle­ment (ISDS) and mak­ing it eas­i­er for work­ers in all three coun­tries to form unions — are not on the Trump administration’s agenda.

Cana­di­an Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has com­plained that the hos­tile legal envi­ron­ment for unions in the Unit­ed States com­pared to Cana­da cre­ates unfair labor mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion between the two coun­tries. In response, Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren intro­duced a bill last month that would pro­hib­it states from pass­ing anti-union right-to-work” laws.

Although Cana­da has few­er legal obsta­cles to form­ing unions, activists there say guest work­ers from Mex­i­co and oth­er coun­tries are rou­tine­ly exploited.

Cana­da bills [its guest work­er pro­gram] as a best-prac­tice mod­el of labor mobil­i­ty, but the work­ers have no mobil­i­ty. They get fired if they speak up and have no recourse,” said Eve­lyn Encal­a­da, a found­ing mem­ber of the Cana­di­an non­prof­it Jus­tice for Migrant Work­ers who par­tic­i­pat­ed in last week’s meet­ing. We want all work­ers in North Amer­i­ca to have mobil­i­ty, labor rights and the right to have rights,” Encal­a­da told In These Times.

The transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty on dis­play last week is based on rela­tion­ships that have devel­oped over sev­er­al years. The FAT and UE have been in a strate­gic alliance—con­sist­ing of work­er-to-work­er exchanges and cross-bor­der orga­niz­ing — since NAFTA’s orig­i­nal nego­ti­a­tions began in 1992. This August, the UE also entered into a new coop­er­a­tion agree­ment with the pro­gres­sive Cana­di­an union Uni­for.

The Mex­i­can union­ists who vis­it­ed Chica­go hope to draw inter­na­tion­al sup­port for activists with Sitra­jor, the inde­pen­dent union of employ­ees at the left-lean­ing Mex­i­co City news­pa­per La Jor­na­da. After Sitra­jor staged a five-day strike to defend wages and ben­e­fits this sum­mer, the com­pa­ny that owns the paper fired two of the union’s lead­ers. Activists say the dis­missals were retal­ia­to­ry and are call­ing for the fired work­ers to be reinstated.

Inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty has been fun­da­men­tal for the sur­vival of our union in recent years,” explained Gar­cila­zo Espinosa of the Sindi­ca­to Minero. His union’s leader, Napoleón Gómez Urru­tia, was forced to flee to Cana­da in 2006 after the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment — which he open­ly crit­i­cized — accused him of cor­rup­tion and issued an arrest war­rant. An appeals court over­turned the war­rant in 2014 for lack of evidence.

Gar­cila­zo Espinosa told In These Times the Sindi­ca­to Minero has with­stood repres­sion with the help of labor orga­ni­za­tions around the world, includ­ing the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and the glob­al union fed­er­a­tion Indus­tri­ALL.

The orga­niz­ers at last week’s gath­er­ing agree that transna­tion­al labor sol­i­dar­i­ty is bet­ter for work­ers than Trump’s brand of nation­al­ism. I don’t know who invent­ed those lines called bor­ders, but every­thing Trump is say­ing about putting up a wall — we’re com­plete­ly against all of that,” said Martínez.

If we just try to fight against these trade deals with­in the silos of our own indi­vid­ual orga­ni­za­tions,” Thomp­son warned, then the cor­po­ra­tions will win.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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