Charting the Growing Ties Between Mexican and U.S. Labor
by David Bacon
One indispensable part of education and solidarity is greater contact between Mexican union organizers and their U.S. counterparts. The base for that contact already exists in the massive movement of people between the two countries.
Miners fired in Cananea, or electrical workers fired in Mexico City, become workers in Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York. Twelve million Mexican workers in the U.S. are a natural base of support for Mexican unions. They bring with them the experience of the battles waged by their unions. They can raise money and support. Their families are still living in Mexico, and many are active in political and labor campaigns. As workers and union members in the U.S., they can help win support from U.S. unions for the battles taking place in Mexico.
This is not a new idea. It’s what the Flores Magon brothers were doing for the uprising in Cananea. It’s why the Mexican left sent activists and organizers to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1930s, and to Los Angeles in the 1970s. All these efforts had a profound impact on U.S. unions and workers. The sea change in the politics of Los Angeles in the last two decades, while it has many roots, shows the long-term results of immigrants gaining political power, and the role of politically conscious immigrant organizers in that process.
Today some U.S. unions see the potential in organizing in immigrant communities. But most unions in Mexico, in contrast to the past, don’t see this movement of people as a resource they can or should organize.
What would happen if Mexican unions began sending organizers or active workers north into the U.S.? In reality, active members are already making that move, and have been for a long time. Yet there is no organized way of looking at this. Where, for instance, will the people displaced in today’s Mexican labor struggles go? In 1998, almost 900 active blacklisted miners from Cananea had to leave after their strike that year was lost. Many came to Arizona and California. In Mexico City, 26,000 SME members took the indemnizacion and gave up claim to their jobs and unions. Many of them will inevitably be forced to go to the U.S. to look for work.
Cananea miners and Mexico City electrical workers have a wealth of experience and a history of participation in a progressive and democratic union. They can help both workers in the U.S. and those they’ve left back home, building unions in the places they go to work. But to use their experience effectively, unions on both sides of the border need to know who they are and where they’re going, and see them as potential organizers.
Solidarity and the migration of people are linked. The economic crisis in Mexico is getting much worse, with no upturn in sight. With a 40% poverty rate, the government still has no program for employment beyond encouraging investment with lower wages and fewer union rights. And since the maquila sector is tied to the US market, it experiences even worse mass layoffs than other Mexican sectors, with the waves of unemployed then crossing the border just a few miles away from their homes.
Six million Mexicans left for the U.S. in the NAFTA period, a flow of people that now affects almost every family, even in the most remote parts of country. Migration has become an important safety valve for the Mexican economy and also relieves pressure on the Mexican government. It uses the tens of billions of dollars in remittances to make up for social investment cut under pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Teachers’ strikes, like the one in Oaxaca in 2006, mushroom into insurrections because there is no alternative to migration and an economic system increasingly dependent on remittances.
Economic reforms and displacement create unemployed workers — for border factories, or for U.S. agriculture and meatpacking plants. Displacement creates a reserve army of workers available to corporations as low wage labor. If demand rises, employers don’t have to raise wages. In a time of economic crisis, unemployed people are used to pressure employed workers, making them less demanding, and more fearful of losing their jobs.Displacement and migration aren’t a byproduct of the global economy. The economic system in both Mexico and the U.S. is dependent on the labor that displacement produces. Mexican President Felipe Calderon said on a recent visit to California, “You have two economies. One economy is intensive in capital, which is the American economy. One economy is intensive in labor, which is the Mexican economy. We are two complementary economies, and that phenomenon is impossible to stop.”
To employers, migration is a labor supply system. U.S. immigration policy is not intended to keep people from crossing the border. It determines the status of people once they’re in the U.S. It is designed to supply labor to employers at a manageable cost, imposed by employers. It makes the laborers themselves vulnerable, especially those who come through guest worker programs where employers can withdraw their ability to stay in the country by firing them.
The economic pressure that produces migration has a big impact on relations between U.S. and Mexican labor. Today, for instance, governments and employers on both sides of the border tell unions that support for labor supply, or guest worker, programs is part of a beneficial relationship. Any movement for solidarity has to address this corporate pressure. A union alliance with employers on immigration policy, based on helping them use migration as a labor supply system, creates a large obstacle to any effort to defend the rights of migrants.
Instead, U.S. and Mexican unions need a common program on trade, displacement and investment, which calls for increasing the security of workers and farmers, and reducing displacement and forced migration.
Anti-immigrant policies were part of cold war politics in the U.S. labor movement. As late as 1986, the AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions, the section of U.S. immigration law passed in 1986 that essentially made work a crime for people without papers. They argued that that if undocumented workers couldn’t support their families, they’d deport themselves.
The growth of the cross-border movement coincided with rise of the immigrant rights movement. In the 1990s, as labor activists pushed for support for unions in Mexico, they also organized to repeal sanctions. First the garment unions called for repeal, then SEIU, the California Labor Federation, and others. They argued that employers used the law to threaten and fire undocumented workers to keep them from organizing unions. Unions trying to organize and grow began to see immigrants as potential members — workers who would strike and organize. They therefore opposed the idea of pushing Mexicans back across border, because they wanted them to become active in the U.S. They saw immigrants not just as a force on the job, but in politics. As people gained legal status and then became citizens, they could also vote and elect public officials who would act in workers’ interests.
Today, unions criticize the racial profiling law SB 1070 in Arizona for the same reason — not just that it leads to discrimination, but that it’s wrong to make workers leave.
In 1999 the AFL-CIO reversed itself and called for repealing sanctions, for amnesty for the undocumented, for protecting the organizing rights of all workers, and for family reunification. The federation already had a longstanding position calling for ending guest worker programs.
Gradually, unions have seen the importance of workers with feet planted on both sides of the border. This is an important part of building a culture of solidarity. Some unions, like the UFW, have gone further and tried to develop strategic partnerships with progressive organizations in the immigrant workforce, such as the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB). It has hired Oaxacan activists, fluent in indigenous languages, as organizers, and supported indigenous Oaxacan communities in protests against police harassment in cities like Greenfield in the Salinas Valley.
Oaxacan immigrants today are an important and growing section of many immigrant communities in the U.S., especially the rural areas where people work in farm labor. The FIOB is one of many organizations among Oaxacans that people have brought with them from their home state, or have organized as migrants on their travels. Many of its founders were strike organizers and social activists in Oaxaca and the fields of north Mexico. Years ago they saw the organizing possibilities among people dispersed as a result of displacement, but whose communities now exist in many places in both Mexico and the U.S.
For over half a century, migration has been the main fact of social life in hundreds of indigenous towns spread through the hills of Oaxaca. That’s made the conditions and rights of migrants central concerns. But the FIOB and its base communities today also talk about another right, the right to stay home. Asserting this right challenges not just inequality and exploitation facing migrants, but the very reasons people migrate.
According to the 2000 census, Hispanic American Indians (the category used to count indigenous Mexican migrants) in California alone numbered 154,000 — undoubtedly a severe undercount. These men and women come from communities whose economies are totally dependent on migration. The ability to send a son or daughter across the border to the north, to work and send back money, makes the difference between eating chicken or eating salt and tortillas. Migration means not having to manhandle a wooden plough behind an ox, cutting furrows in dry soil for a corn crop that can’t be sold for what it cost to plant it. It means that dollars arrive in the mail when kids need shoes to go to school, or when a grandparent needs a doctor.
“There are no jobs here, and NAFTA pushed the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore,” says Rufino Dominguez, former binational coordinator for the FIOB, and now head of Oaxaca’s Institute for Attention to Migrants. In the 1980s, Dominguez was a strike organizer in Sinaloa and Baja California. “We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”
Without large scale political change most local communities won’t have the resources for productive projects and economic development that could provide a decent living. “We need development that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity – the right to not migrate,” explains FIOB coordinator Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a professor at UCLA. “But the right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to be poor, the right to go hungry and homeless. Choosing whether to stay home or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future.”
At the same time, because of its indigenous membership, FIOB campaigns for the rights of migrants in the U.S. who come from those communities. It calls for immigration amnesty and legalization for undocumented migrants. It campaigned successfully for translation and language rights in U.S. courtrooms, and protested immigration sweeps and deportations. The FIOB also condemns the proposals for guest worker programs. “Migrants need the right to work, but these workers don’t have labor rights or benefits,” Dominguez charges. “It’s like slavery.”
Today there is increasing interest among U.S. farm worker unions in activity in Mexico, much of it concentrating on workers recruited into H-2A guest worker programs. In the past, farm worker unions opposed the programs on principle, arguing that the workers recruited were vulnerable to extreme employer exploitation, and deportation if they struck or protested. Today unions like the UFW and FLOC argue that they can organize these workers to win contracts, better conditions, and protection for their rights. But this comes at a price. Some no longer call for the elimination of guest worker programs, which exploit far more workers than those represented by unions. And if unions recruit guest workers themselves, how can they then strike or use jobsite actions against the employers hiring them?
While farm worker unions and organizations like the FIOB disagree about guest worker programs, they do agree about the rights of workers. “Both peoples’ rights as migrants, and their right to stay home, are part of the same solution,” Rivera Salgado says. “We have to change the debate from one in which immigration is presented as a problem to a debate over rights.”
For many years the FIOB was a crucial part of the political opposition to Oaxaca’s PRI government, until the PRI was defeated in the elections of 2010. Juan Romualdo Gutierrez Cortez, a schoolteacher in Tecomaxtlahuaca, was the FIOB’s Oaxaca coordinator and a leader of Oaxaca’s teachers union, Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union, and of the Popular Association of the People of Oaxaca (APPO).
The June 2006 strike by Section 22 started a months-long uprising, led by the APPO, which sought to remove the state’s then-governor Ulises Ruiz and make a basic change in development and economic policy. The uprising was crushed by Federal armed intervention, and dozens of activists were arrested. To Leoncio Vasquez, a FIOB activist in Fresno, “the lack of human rights is a factor contributing to migration from Oaxaca and Mexico, since it closes off our ability to call for any change.”
During the conflict, teachers traveled to California from Oaxaca, and spoke at the convention of the California Federation of Teachers. Solidarity efforts between U.S. and Mexican teachers have barely started, but with the vast number of Mexican students in California schools, and with many immigrants themselves now working as teachers, the basis is growing for much closer relationships. Mexican teachers, members of Latin America’s largest union, have also organized a leftwing caucus that now controls the union structure in several states, including Oaxaca.
During the 2006 uprising, the state government issued an order for Gutierrez’ arrest, because he’d been a very visible opposition leader already for years. In the late 1990s he was elected to the Oaxaca Chamber of Deputies, in an alliance between the FIOB and Mexico’s leftwing Democratic Revolutionary Party. Following his term in office, he was imprisoned by then-Governor Jose Murat, until a binational campaign won his release. His crime was insisting on a new path of economic development that would raise rural living standards, and make migration just an option, rather than an indispensable means of survival.
Gaspar Rivera-Salgado believes that “in Mexico we’re very close to getting power in our communities on a local and state level.” He points to Gutierrez’ election as state deputy, and later as mayor of his hometown San Miguel Tlacotepec, and finally to the election of Gabino Cue as governor. The FIOB’s alliance with the PRD is controversial, however. “First, we have to organize our own base,” Rivera Salgado cautions. “But then we have to find strategic allies. Migration is part of globalization, an aspect of state policies that expel people. Creating an alternative to that requires political power. There’s no way to avoid that.”
FIOB presents an important example of another kind of binational organizing and solidarity that complements efforts by unions. It has a strong base among communities on both sides of the borders. It has a carefully worked-out program for advocating the rights of migrants and their home communities, discussed extensively among its chapters before it was adopted. And it sees the system as the problem, not just the bad actions of employers or government officials.
The interests of workers in the U.S. and Mexico are tied together. Millions of people are a bridge between the two countries, and their labor movements. A blacklisted worker in Cananea one year can become a miner in Arizona the next, or a janitor organizer in Los Angeles. Who knows better the human cost of repression in Mexico than a teacher from Oaxaca in 2006, or an electrical worker who lost his or her job and pension in 2009?
Raquel Medina, a Oaxacan teacher, spoke at the 2007 convention of the California Federation of Teachers. She did more than appeal for support for Section 22. She helped teachers from Fresno and Santa Maria understand why they hear so many children in their classrooms speaking Mixteco. She helped them see that the poverty in her home state, the repression of her union, the growing number of Oaxacan families in California, and the activity of those migrants in California’s union battles, are all related. She connected the dots of solidarity. Educators should go back to their schools and union meetings, she said, and show people the way the global economy functions today – how it affects ordinary people, and what they can do to change it.
The historic slogan of the ILWU (and of many unionists beyond its ranks) is “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Today, an updated version of it might say, “An attack on a union in Mexico is an attack on unions in the U.S.” Or it could say, “An attack on Mexican workers in Arizona is an attack on workers in Mexico.” Or it could say, “Organizing Mexican workers at carwashes in Los Angeles will help unions in Mexico, by increasing the power of those willing to fight for the mineros and SME.”
David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, “Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,” was just published by Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found at http://dbacon.igc.org. This article, part of a report for the Institute for Transnational Social Change, was originally published by the Americas Program, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.