Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Photo Essay: MARRIOTT WORKERS CELEBRATE VICTORY ON THE PICKET LINE


Photo Essay: MARRIOTT WORKERS CELEBRATE VICTORY ON THE PICKET LINE
By David Bacon,
Truthout, January 9, 2019
https://truthout.org/articles/photo-essay-marriott-workers-celebrate-victory-on-the-picket-line/



UNITE HERE Local 2 representative Rafael Leiva tells strikers at the Saint Francis Hotel that a settlement has been reached in the Marriott strike.

To hear their own accounts of the strike and why the union won, read Truthout's exclusive interview with UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh and UNITE HERE Local 2 organizer and Marriott campaign coordinator Kevin O'Connor, posted yesterday on this blog.  Click here.



For 61 days members of UNITE HERE Local 2 struck at seven Marriott hotels in San Francisco during a national campaign targeting the world's largest hotel corporation. The San Francisco union was the last to settle and go back to work.

Room cleaners won a $1.75 per hour raise retroactive to last August, and significant raises in the next three years, while fully employer-paid health care is guaranteed for the life of the contract. Housekeepers won workload reductions. The new contract strengthens workers' rights around the introduction of technology in the workplace, the "Green Choice" program, sexual harassment of room cleaners by guests, employee safety, and immigration. The strike stopped Marriott from contracting out room service and food service in a number of hotels. In San Francisco, workers won unprecedented job protections - if they're laid off their names go into a pool where they'll receive preference for rehiring at other hotels.

The agreement was the result of the strike's meticulous planning and the participation of workers in the seven hotels. In four hotels, not one Local 2 member crossed the picket line. Only a few did in the other three hostelries at which workers were on strike.

The images in this photo essay were taken on the last day of the strike. In the photographs, the workers react on the picket lines to the end of the strike, weigh the proposed agreement, vote on it and then celebrate it.



Saint Francis strikers listen to an outline of the strike settlement on the picket line on the last day of the strike.



Striker Richard Mason, one of the longest-term workers at the Saint Francis, shows his happiness on hearing that a settlement has been reached in the Marriott strike.



In front of the St. Regis Hotel, striker Camucha King and other Local 2 members celebrate the end of the strike.



 Strikers celebrate the end of the strike at the St. Regis Hotel.



Camucha King and other St. Regis strikers put up Christmas decorations on their picket line when Marriott Corporation stonewalled negotiations at Thanksgiving, as a way to tell the company they were prepared to continue the strike through the holidays.



UNITE HERE Local 2 Treasurer Tina Chen and other Local 2 members and organizers with their picket signs celebrating the 61st and last day of the Marriott strike. Local 2 members stayed on strike longer than any of the other eight cities involved in the national Marriott strike.



UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh explains to strikers in detail the contract settlement agreed to with the Marriott Corporation, ending the strike at its seven San Francisco hotels.



Nonunion workers at the downtown JW Marriott Hotel come to the contract ratification meeting ending the Marriott strike, asking strikers to support them in their unionizing effort.



Marriott strikers listen to the explanation of the terms of the contract settlement ending the strike.



Hotel housekeepers bring their children and infants to the strike ratification meeting.



Strikers vote on whether or not to accept the contract settlement.



Happy over the gains in the contract ending the strike, strikers turn their vote on the agreement into a kind of celebration.



The children of strikers help count the votes on the ratification of the contract settling the Marriott strike in San Francisco.



The vote to ratify the contract is almost unanimous, with only a handful of votes against and over 1,000 in favor. Workers cheer when the vote total is announced.



Outside the contract ratification meeting strikers cheer during a press conference to announce the results.

WORKERS RAN THEIR OWN STRIKE AND BEAT MARRIOTT

WORKERS RAN THEIR OWN STRIKE AND BEAT MARRIOTT
By David Bacon,
Truthout, January 9, 2019
https://truthout.org/articles/workers-ran-their-own-strike-and-beat-marriott/


UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh is overcome with emotion at the end of the press conference announcing an end to the Marriott strike.


The most successful social movements are highly organized, not spontaneous upsurges.

An inside look at the recent victory of hotel workers in San Francisco shows that a very democratic process, controlled by the workers themselves, was combined with multicity coordination to win substantial wage increases, workload reductions and job protections.

In the reflections below, which were drawn from an exclusive interview with UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh and UNITE HERE Local 2 organizer and Marriott campaign coordinator Kevin O'Connor, two organizers offer an inside account of the campaign that lays bare the strike's strategy and history.

Two prior pieces in Truthout covered the original vote and decision to strike before the strike actually started, and then life on the picket lines, featuring the voices of the workers in the middle of their struggle. The reflections below, which have been edited for length and clarity, complete the picture, explaining exactly how the victory was achieved.

To see the workers' powerful responses to the end of the strike, see Truthout's exclusive photo essay documenting reactions on the picket lines, to be posted in this blog tomorrow.

Reflections from Anand Singh, president, UNITE HERE Local 2:

In my experience, when you articulate a vision to the members and challenge them, and you have a bold plan to win, the members will rise to the occasion. They will take the reins and run the union. That's what happened in each of the cities where we struck [San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Boston, Honolulu, Maui and Detroit].

Early on we had a series of discussions among our members in Marriott hotels. It wasn't just our most militant members. It was a cross section of our rank and file. People were working two and three jobs to make ends meet. There was this burning frustration, and more than frustration - a real concern that they were just a paycheck away from being out on the street. 

While the strike was a bold step, especially for folks who'd never done it before, we were just at a moment when the membership really was hungry for something. Not just for your run-of-the-mill kind of contract campaign, but aspirational demands like "One job should be enough!" ["One job should be enough!" was the slogan of the Marriott strike.] That reflected the experience they were living, and they really drove this fight.

The slogan and signs from the Memphis garbage strike [in Memphis in 1968, during which the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated] - "I am a man!" - were our inspiration. We wanted picket signs with the same handmade kind of feeling. And our message was developed right around the anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and the events that happened in Memphis.

"I am a man!" really calls out the racism. "One job should be enough!" doesn't necessarily do that on the surface. But when I see your photographs - our members holding those signs, out on the line, leading the chants - that's exactly what it does.

This is a civil rights struggle. Our union is a union of immigrant workers, of people of color, working class people. When you see them in those images, holding those signs, that's what you see.

Our international union president, D. Taylor, said this should be a rallying cry for working people everywhere. The power of the message resonates with people who are speaking it on behalf of themselves, but also the public at large. It's such a commonsense, modest demand. We need to continue raising it beyond 2018 and the Marriott campaign and our union.

Local 2 has a lot of history and a lot of strike experience, but that's not true for all the hotels here that were in this strike. The St. Regis, the W and the Courtyard never had a strike. At the Marquis we had a limited two-day strike during the organizing - a majority strike but with a lot of folks who weren't out. There were many cities in this campaign that had never struck.

We all relied on those of us who had experience. Some Local 2 leaders like Kevin O'Connor and Mike Casey had a lot of strike experience. [International Union President] D. Taylor in Las Vegas has been on picket lines in the center of many long strikes. And we also have rank-and-file leaders who have been out on strike. In San Francisco we have the benefit of a great history, and their energy and expertise is translated across the city. It was always something we could rely on.

Our union historically has been a decentralized union. We have an international union [local unions like Local 2 belong to an overall union, called an international union because it includes local unions in Canada], but decisions are made local by local. Acting together was years in the making. Ultimately, that's what won the strike. We took action collectively, across these cities in a militant fashion. I'm not sure the industry believed we'd do that.

In 2018, we were able to act in the way we did because of the campaigns that came before. I started at Local 2 in 2004 during the lockout [In 2004 San Francisco's major hotels locked out their union workers for weeks, refusing to allow them to return to work]. The union's central demand was a two-year term so we could line up with other cities. It's been a long time coming. Each contract campaign set up the next. In 2018 we had multiple contracts expiring in multiple cities within a span of 12 months.

[By lining up the expiration dates of union contracts in different cities, the local UNITE HERE unions sought to create the possibility that they could strike at the same time, when those contracts expired. They were able to strike Marriott Corporation in eight cities at the same time because their contracts with the corporation had all expired. In some cities, like San Jose, Oakland, San Diego and Detroit, local unions had only one hotel under contract. In San Francisco, Boston and Hawaii, local unions had contracts covering multiple Marriott-operated hotels.]

Could it have been stronger? I think so. There are differences in what we're fighting for from city to city. Certainly Chicago had an expiration of 2018, but they had a different approach to the industry, because Marriott wasn't the dominant player there. Los Angeles is certainly engaged right now [Los Angeles was bargaining with Marriott at the time of the interview], but they had a much later expiration.

We're getting better at it each time, learning how to work in coordination each time we go through this. I don't look at 2018 as the seminal year. I look at it as a transitional year that sets us up for the next time around. I hope we're stronger in 2022. What's clear is that we're much stronger acting together than we are acting alone. With the industry evolving and players like Marriott dominating it, all the more reason for us to make our plans and figure out ways to connect across cities.

Our strike was based on workers' committees in the hotels taking responsibility, and being good communicators with workers, building a sense of accountability between the committees and the people they lead. We were really disciplined about our plan to build committees over the course of the past year. We were all approaching bargaining with similar demands, and we were ready to back those demands with action from our rank and file. Building a committee was the key to getting ready to strike. It gave each of the cities the confidence that we were all in this together, and we were looking at the same set of facts in each city.

When we launched the "One job should be enough!" buttons, our committee leaders went to the workers on their list, handed them a button and made sure they put it on. When we started doing public actions, they pulled people out to participate.

The committee person is the one who signs folks up and makes the reminder calls, and for the ones who don't show, goes back to have a conversation with them. [A committee member will ask those workers] "What happened? I expected you to be there. This is our contract. We're all in this together." That got even more real the day after the strike vote. Then committee members tell workers in their hotel: "I'm walking out. I want you to walk out with me. I need you to sign up for your picketing shift."

The strength and the conviction of the committee, going into a tough fight, is what everything is based on. In five of the seven San Francisco hotels nobody crossed the line, and in the other two it was just one or two people. The history and experience of members who have been on strike certainly helped. But really, it was the level of detail in planning and building the organization that carried the day. There isn't something special in the water in San Francisco or in these hotels. It's the discipline and the meticulous committee building that got us through this.

Marriott was never dismissive of us. They are a behemoth corporation, and it would have been easy to brush us off. They never treated us like that. I think they had respect for what we're capable of. And the closer we got to strike votes the more we saw things move in bargaining as we became more of a threat.

Then we walked out on strike. It forced a crisis for the company. I don't think Marriott believed we could do what we did in all eight cities. It was a monumental task for the union, but it changed Marriott's perspective on who we are. I do know that it had a major economic impact, some borne by the Marriott Corporation, and some by the owners of the hotels, probably the lion's share. What they were losing in each of the hotels had an impact.

[In the US hotel industry, the hotel itself - the building and the property - usually belongs to an owner or group of investors. The owner then signs an agreement with a hotel corporation like Marriott to operate the hotel. The corporation then runs the hotel as part of its chain. It hires the workers, and where they have a union, negotiates a union contract that covers wages and working conditions. Sometimes the owners have a different set of interests than the corporation. In the case of the Marriott strike, according to Singh, owners may have lost more money than Marriott did, and been more anxious to settle it.]

This was the largest hotel strike we've ever carried out - eight cities, with the look and feel of a real national strike. The damage the company endured, day in and day out, as the strike wore on, really hurt their reputation. The hit they took on their name will have a lasting effect.

Cancellations happened in spades, and in all of the cities. Many groups and conventions pulled out. Things happened so fast it was hard to collect all those stories and recount them on the picket lines. Strikers live for that. Every day that an event cancels you want to announce it on the line, because it means you won that day. Leading by example, the Shanti Project and the Chicana Latina Foundation cancellations at the beginning gave us something our customer campaign team could take to others. Guests walked out to the picket line and talk[ed] about what a disaster it was inside. That helped boost our spirits. They can't run these hotels without us, and we have to remind them of that, day in and day out.

We had many unions honor our lines, either for the duration of the strike, or right up until the moment their members would have lost their health coverage. And they were ready to come back out once they were eligible for their health care again.

The building trades didn't cross our lines to go in and do renovations. That had an economic impact on hotel owners, who then leaned on Marriott to get the projects up and running. Teamsters would not pick up garbage or deliver. That all shows the labor movement is alive and vibrant - when people identify as union members, not crossing that picket line, thinking "those strikers are my brothers and sisters, even though they're hotel workers and I drive a truck."

There's nothing better than having a member from another union walking the line with you. The drudgery of walking in a circle for hours and hours on end, for weeks and weeks, is difficult to maintain. The marches would lift people's spirits right when things seemed to be dragging. And the food distribution by the labor council lifted people's spirits too.

In the middle of all this, the workers at the JW Marriott [a non-union hotel in downtown San Francisco] sent a delegation to management and demanded a fair process for recognizing the union. We certainly believed that Marriott would go to the workers there, and at the non-union hotel at the airport, and point to the strike and say, "See, if you join the union this is what's going to happen to you." But our organizers had been talking to folks about the strike for months in advance. And the workers in those two hotels didn't say, "I'm glad I don't have to do that." Instead many felt power themselves because of what the union workers were doing. It led to a sense of "I want to be a part of this," because the strike was successful, and because the workers' spirits on the lines were high.

Companies like Marriott underestimate our union, and underestimate working people. People are willing to step up and do things at times when they seem almost impossible. Non-union workers are hungry for a voice. They want to be able to do the kinds of things the union workers demonstrated they could do with the union. Workers are hungry for a union that stands up and fights and wins.

So, our message to Marriott is, "We're not going away." We're just not going to lay down. The strike lasted 61 days and we got a great contract. But our campaign with Marriott is not finished. One job should be enough for non-union workers and for union workers both.

This strike was very much a work in progress. It was the first time we had negotiations on a national basis in the hotel industry. We had to struggle with the process, of how to do this in the right way. We had guiding principles, at least for this campaign. First, there were common issues we wanted to take on - technology in the workplace, food and beverage service, the Green Choice program, sexual harassment and employee safety, and immigration. We knew these things would bind us together in national talks, so we focused on them.

["Green Choice" is Marriott's program for allowing customers to skip room cleaning for days at a time. The company makes extra profit because it doesn't have to pay for workers to clean hotel rooms for days at a time. Workers object to this program because it is much more work to clean the rooms afterward.]

The second guiding principle was not to take the negotiations away from our members and rank and file leaders. In Local 2, given our history and our membership, that would be a recipe for disaster. Our rank and file would reject it. They would not stand for a contract negotiated outside of San Francisco without their input.

In each city we maintained local bargaining over the wages, benefits and local issues, with committee and rank-and-file leaders actively engaged and at the bargaining table. On the national level we'd reach agreement and bring it back to the committees. The president of each local went to national bargaining. We'd meet with the committees first, and talk through the initial proposals. Then, whether or not we had a tentative agreement or a counterproposal, we'd bring it back to our local bargaining committees.

Meetings in Las Vegas started prior to the strike, and then there were several sessions during the strike. It was a complicated process. We know we have more collective power when we bargain together, but we want to balance that with staying close to our roots. We know our power is in our rank-and-file leaders.

We're just trying to work our way through this, the first time a sizable collection of locals bargained together with the world's biggest hotel corporation. We achieved some very meaningful results. But UNITE HERE is a decentralized union. Local 2 takes pride in our independence and who we are.

I'd like to believe we built something this time around, and showed we had success working together. The lesson I take from it is that, as difficult as it may be, with different locals and leaders (and we're all very opinionated people), we were all in a room together and went through a campaign together, and then we all walked out on strike together. And we all came out of it on the other end a lot stronger. How do we not replicate this, but build on top of it? How do we grow it to more cities? How do we take the next step in national bargaining, so that we have more common issues we're fighting for?

Now we're going to go to the other hotel chains in San Francisco, and [tell] them that they have to accept what we negotiated with Marriott. Marriott [overshadows] the others, but Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental are all waiting in the wings. Several other UNITE HERE locals have contracts expiring with Hilton, so we have to challenge Hilton to do right by their workers. I'm sure these other hotels are studying the terms of this deal. Can't imagine they're too happy about it.

I keep thinking about what the strikers did for 61 days. I remember right before Thanksgiving, Marriott moved maybe an inch in bargaining. I wondered what this was going to do out on the picket lines. Strikes really are won a day at a time. So I walked out to the lines and the leaders were talking about what happened in bargaining, and how insulting Marriott's offer was, and how it made them feel. Maybe the company thought that would be enough to make people go back to work. But they underestimated their own workers.

People rose to the occasion, running the lines strong when the downpour started, through Thanksgiving and into the holidays. After Thanksgiving they started putting up Christmas lights and decorations on the picket line tents. When we went into that final round of bargaining, we knew we were going to be fine.

The Saint Francis and the Palace and the Union Square Hotels have done this before. But at the hotels that had never gone on strike, and who were doing it for the first time, it was really moving to see people go through this experience together. People came together in a way they never had before. People who'd worked together for 15 or 20 years. It was one of the most moving and transformational experiences, one that only a strike can bring.



UNITE HERE Local 2 organizer and Marriott Campaign Coordinator Kevin O'Connor on the picket line in front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel.


Reflections from Kevin O'Connor, organizer for UNITE HERE Local 2 and Marriott campaign coordinator:

We won because there were a lot of workers on strike. That was the base everything else was built on. I don't know what Marriott expected. There were lots of places on strike, many of which had no history of strikes before. I think Marriott wondered whether it would happen at all.

National bargaining is the collective idea, that we can get things that we can't otherwise. We got an agreement on technology, for instance, that was better than any local could reach. This was the first time we've had multicity bargaining in our union.

Our message, "One job should be enough!" affected how people saw Marriott. Once we were on strike we did lots of outreach to customers. The customer campaign is a strategy we pioneered here in San Francisco, and is now built into the way the union conducts strikes.

To understand how we got to national bargaining we have to go back in history to 2001-2002, when the union first began talking about lining up cities. Chicago and Hawaii began to line up their contracts to expire in 2006. At that time the industry wasn't paying much attention to us.

Then in 2004 San Francisco had contracts expiring, and the union wanted a two-year agreement. The industry realized the danger [to the hotel corporations of increased union strength] and refused to agree in San Francisco. We went on strike in four hotels, of what was then the multi-employer group. All the big hotels belonged to this group. We were eventually going to pull the rest of the 14 hotels in the group on strike too, when they did our work for us by locking us out - 4500 workers were on strike or locked out.

We had a 53-day strike and lockout, and at the end, the hotels were forced to let us come back to work. We worked for two years without a contract because they wouldn't agree to the expiration date. They stopped collecting dues, and so we had to collect them ourselves. But our members stepped up, because they knew why we were fighting.
In September of 2006 we took another strike vote, and they did in Chicago and Hawaii also. The hotels then settled in all three cities. That's how Local 2 got on the same timeline [of common contract expiration dates] with Chicago and Hawaii.

There were more fights, all about staying on track. Hyatt workers in San Francisco went without a contract for three years, and Hyatt became the first multiple-city campaign. Hyatt and Hilton were our main targets historically, with Marriott in the background. But by 2017, most cities no longer had multi-employer groups. Meanwhile, Marriott bought Starwood [a corporation that operated some of San Francisco's largest union hotels], where we had important contracts, and we had to change focus. In San Francisco we then had seven Marriott hotels with contracts, Hawaii had five and Boston had eight. We could all see 2018 coming at us, so we had to really organize.

The purpose of organizing was to run a hotel strike. We weren't running away from a strike, but running toward one. So preparation started in 2017, a year ahead, with an eye toward building committees in all of those hotels. We had to figure out how to work together. We needed an aspirational approach to our demands - real economic improvements and job security.

In Local 2's analysis, we have certain advantages in the hotel industry. The hotels can't close and run away. The nature of the work is another. In the service industry the money [that is, the customer] walks in and out the front door every day. This is especially obvious at a hotel like the Saint Regis, which charges hundreds of dollars a night. The disruption of a strike is not what they're selling. So we can get to the core of their business in a consumer-driven industry.

We had to learn how to do this over the years [disrupt operations and reach out to customers], and defend our right to do it. Our first campaign like that, at the Parc 55, went on for three and a half years. The key to it is lots of people on the picket line. Our picket lines make a lot of noise, but noise itself is a two-edged sword. When picketers are drumming in rhythm it unites them, especially when people are chanting together at the same time. But we actually had to scale back the drumming this time in order not to lose public sympathy, especially the support of the workers in the area who were being driven crazy by the noise, day after day.

We discovered we need two factors to run successful picket lines, and we've been very aggressive in court fights to defend them, starting with the 1980 strikes in the hotels and restaurants. We were enjoined [by court orders] in all those strikes and we fought those injunctions. We have to defend our right to be out there in large numbers, and we have to defend our right to talk with the public. We've fought hard enough so that this time the company never tried to get an injunction against us. We've kept the ability to talk to the guests as they go in and out, and we use it.
Those picket lines are the heart of the strike. They are very participatory. We had 570 strikers at the Saint Francis - no one crossed the line. And almost all picketed.

The real work is building the union committee in each hotel, and relying on the workers. That happens at a natural pace. At first we organize people around the proposals we want to make in bargaining. Then we have a big strike vote, with big majorities. This time we had over 95 percent voting for the strike in every city. But what happens then is really the most important moment in building the committee on the shop floor. They go back into the hotel and sign people up for picket duty. This is the union acting like a union.

There are very charged discussions when they do this. They have to tell worried people that everybody has bills. But they never yell at people or threaten them, because we won't give anyone an excuse to do the wrong thing - that is, not walk out when the time comes. Sometimes it's hard to convince the committee that nobody is a scab until they actually go to work instead of striking.

The strike organizes people. A strike is our weapon and our power. We use the strike when and how we choose. Getting people out on strike is the work of the committee. They have to convince everyone that they're accountable to their coworkers. We never give up on people, because that just gives them an excuse to betray everyone else.

Getting our locals together meant getting a commitment from each city to run good strikes. If we do that right, then our members will be willing. The heart of that commitment is the picket line signup. That means we will go person by person in every hotel. We will know how each person thinks, and we will convince each person. The committee won't accept "I don't know" as an answer.

All eight striking locals adopted this, along with the "One job is enough!" idea. It's very flexible, and basically means economic fairness. It's saying we want a big step up, not 25¢. But we also need job security: What good is money if we lose our jobs? So the slogan works on two levels. For one group of workers, it's about stopping the hotel from combining jobs, getting rid of some people while overworking others. For another group, it means not having to work two or three jobs to survive. To the public it means saying that Marriott can afford to do this - that they're not some mom-and-pop company.

The contracts started expiring in February, and in some cases, we had to delay the strike votes because we hadn't done enough bargaining. We finally took all the votes from September 10-18, and as a result we all went on strike within six days of each other. Every city was driving the same program, but every city struck when it was ready.

In Las Vegas we had national bargaining on issues like technology, and then each city settled its own economic issues. The economics in every city are very different. We told Marriott they had to settle the cities first that had only Marriott hotels, because the cities with multiple hotels had the most bargaining leverage. We couldn't leave the smaller cities hanging out without a contract there once the others had settled.

I knew we were on the right track when we had 23 hotels on strike in eight cities, and the strike vote came up in Seattle. They got a good contract without striking, and were the first of the "One job should be enough!" cities to settle. Marriott didn't want 24 hotels on strike in nine cities.

A NEW DAY FOR MEXICAN WORKERS

A NEW DAY FOR MEXICAN WORKERS
David Bacon
The American Prospect - 1/9/19
https://prospect.org/article/new-day-mexican-workers


A worker who lost his job in the privatization of the Ruta 100 bus line in Mexico City was overcome with emotion during the inauguration in the zocalo of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.


    NAFTA had been in effect for just a few months when Ruben Ruiz got a job at the Itapsa factory in Mexico City in the summer of 1994.  Itapsa made auto brakes for Echlin, a U.S. manufacturer later bought out by the huge Dana Aftermarket Group.  In the factory, asbestos dust from brake parts coated machines and people alike. Ruiz had hardly begun his first shift when a machine malfunctioned, cutting four fingers from the hand of the man operating it.
    It seemed clear to Ruiz that things were very wrong, so he went to a meeting to talk about organizing a union. When Itapsa managers got wind of the effort, they began firing the organizers.  Nevertheless, many of the workers joined STIMAHCS, an independent democratic union of metalworkers.
    Itapsa workers filed a petition for an election, but then discovered that they already a "union" - a unit of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).  They'd never seen the union contract – in essence, a "protection contract," which insulates the company from labor unrest. 
    The plant's HR manager told Ruiz that Echlin management in the U.S. said any worker organizing an independent union should be immediately fired. "He told me my name was on a list of those people," Ruiz recounted, "and I was discharged right there."
    Nevertheless, there was a vote, in September 1997, to decide which union workers wanted.  But before the election, a state police agent drove a car filled with rifles into the plant.  Two busloads of strangers arrived, armed with clubs and copper rods. 
    During the voting, workers were escorted by CTM functionaries past the club and rifle-wielding strangers. Some workers were forcibly kept in a part of the factory to keep them from voting.  At the polling station, employees were asked aloud which union they favored, in front of management and CTM representatives.



Police and the state labor board in Tijuana cooperated in bringing in fake voters and strikebreakers from the CTM to break the strike of an independent union at Han Young.


    STIMAHCS tried to get the election canceled. But the government body administering it, the Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JCA), went ahead, even after thugs roughed up one of the independent union's organizers.  Predictably, STIMAHCS lost.
    For 20 years the Itapsa election has been a symbol of all that's gone wrong with Mexico's labor law, which provides protection on paper for workers seeking to organize but which has been routinely undermined by a succession of governments bent on using a low-wage workforce to attract foreign investment.  Dana Corporation was just one beneficiary - Itapsa has been the norm, not the exception. 
    In 2015 thousands of farm workers struck U.S. growers in Baja California.  Instead of recognizing their new independent union, however, growers signed protection contracts with the CTM, which were certified by the local JCA.  Strikers were blacklisted.  Later that year workers tried to register an independent union in four Juarez factories.  Some 120 workers making ink cartridges for Lexmark were fired, as were another 170 at ADC Commscope, and many more at Foxconn and Eaton.
    The labor board declined to reinstate the fired workers in Juarez and Baja –  following the pattern it had set at Itapsa two decades earlier. Indeed, the JNCs have been key to the defeat of workers’ attempts to form democratic unions, invariably protecting employers and corporate-friendly unions.
   
    The new Mexican government, headed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), says that's all over.  Deputy Secretary of Labor in the new administration, Alfredo Dominguez Marrufo, promises that, "after all these struggles, we can finally get rid of the protection contract system.  We can make our unions democratic, choose our own leaders and negotiate our own contracts.  This government will defend the freedom of workers to organize.  That right has existed in theory, but we've had a structure making it impossible.  This will change."



Alfredo Dominguez Marrufo, the deputy secretary to Mexico's incoming Secretary of Labor, Maria Luisa Alcalde.


    That could have a big impact on political life in Mexico, where corporate union leaders have had an inside track to political power and corruption.  It could change the dominating role U.S. corporations have played in the Mexican economy, and affect relations between workers in both countries.  Most of all, it would raise a standard of living for workers that Lopez Obrador has called "among the lowest on the planet."  In his speech to the Mexican Congress during his December 1 inauguration, the new president charged that 36 years of neoliberal economic reforms had lowered the purchasing power of Mexico's minimum wage by 60 percent.  Today, on the border, that wage comes to a little above $4 per day.
    According to University of California Professor Harley Shaiken, "The Mexican government created an investment climate that depends on a vast number of low wage-earners.  This climate gets all the government's attention, while the consumer climate - the ability of people to buy what they produce - is sacrificed."
    Protecting corporations from demands for higher wages has made Mexico a profitable place to do business.  Big auto companies, the world's major garment manufacturers, the global high tech electronic assemblers - all built huge plants to take advantage of Mexico's neoliberal economic policies, starting more than two decades before the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
    That wild-west climate for investors produced more than low wages, however.  Between 1988 and 1992, 163 Juarez children were born with anencephaly – without brains – an extremely rare disorder.  Health critics charged that the defects were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the factories or their toxic discharges.  The Chilpancingo colonia below the mesa in Tijuana where the battery plant of Metales y Derivados was located experienced the same plague.



The Metales y Derivados battery plant on a mesa in Tijuana was responsible for toxic discharges that caused anencephaly in residents of the colonia below the mesa.


    As the companies came south, the people came north.  "During the neoliberal period [which he defines as the last 36 years, or six Mexican presidencies] we became the second country in the world with the highest migration," Lopez Obrador charged.  "They live and work in the United States, 24 million Mexicans [Mexico's population in 2017 was 129.2 million] ... They are sending 30 billion dollars a year to their families ... the greatest social benefit we receive from abroad."
    In his six-year campaign for office, in which he spoke in practically every sizeable town in the country, Lopez Obrador repeated what he later told the Congress - that only development "to combat poverty and marginalization as has never been done in history" would provide an alternative to migration.
    "We will put aside the neoliberal hypocrisy," he announced.  "Those born poor will not be condemned to die poor ... We want migration to be optional, not mandatory, [to make Mexicans] happy where they were born, where their family members, their customs and their cultures are."

    In his speech,  Lopez Obrador criticized two other neoliberal articles of faith - that privatization of the state-owned section of the Mexican economy would lead to economic growth, and that pro-corporate changes in its labor law would create jobs and higher incomes.
    Starting before NAFTA was passed, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari rammed through the Congress changes in the Constitution's guarantees of land reform, to make private land ownership easier.  Many of the communal ejidos, created in previous decades, were dissolved and their lands sold to investors.  Farmers became wage workers on land they'd previously owned.  Subsequent land reforms led to granting foreign mining companies concessions on over a third of Mexico's territory, allowing them to develop operations even in the face of local opposition.
    Prices on basic goods were decontrolled, and government subsidies on food were cut back or ended altogether.  In 1998, the government dissolved CONASUPO, a system of state-run stores selling basic foodstuffs like tortillas and milk at subsidized low prices.  At the same time, price supports for small corn growers were also ended. As NAFTA allowed U.S. corporations to flood the Mexican market with cheap subsidized imported corn, millions of farmers were displaced, no longer able to sell their corn at a price that paid for growing it. 



In the streets leading into the zocalo vendors sold flags and banners celebrating the inauguration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as President of Mexico.


    "Mexico is the origin of corn, that blessed plant," Lopez Obrador noted bitterly, "and now we are the nation that imports the most corn in the world." He announced that a CONASUPO-like subsidized food production and distribution system would be reestablished.
    Privatization marked a 180 degree change in the direction of Mexican economic policy.  After its 1910-20 Revolution, nationalists believed that to be truly independent Mexico had to ensure its resources were controlled by Mexicans and used for their benefit.  The route to this control was nationalization, to stop the transfer of wealth out of the country and to set up an internal market, in which what was produced in Mexico would be sold there as well. 
    Mexico therefore guaranteed rights to workers that U.S. unions and workers could only dream of.  Severance pay was mandatory and workers had a right to profit-sharing.  During legal strikes, companies had to shut their doors until the dispute was resolved.  On paper, the government acknowledged the right of all people to education and housing. 
    In return, however, Mexican unions gave up autonomy and control of their own affairs.  The government registered unions, and oversaw their internal processes and choice of leaders.  It never tolerated independent action by workers and unions outside its political structure.  When the government changed its basic economic policy, using low wages to attract foreign investment, and producing for the US market instead of for Mexico, the government could and did punish resistance severely.
    Under Presidents Salinas de Gortari and Zedillo (1988-2000) privatization reforms became a whirlwind. Among the companies and industries affected were the Aeromexico airline, the telephone company, the petrochemical industry dependent on the state-run oil company, the Sicartsa steel mill, the railroad network, many Mexican mines, and the operation of the country's ports.
    The leader of the union at Aeromexico was imprisoned after he refused to accept the company's privatization and the layoff of thousands of workers.  The head of one of the largest sections of the union for employees of the social security system, IMSS, also spent months in jail in 1995 for denouncing government plans to privatize the enormous federal pension and healthcare agency. 
    In 1991 the Mexican army took over the port of Veracruz, disbanded the longshore union, and installed three private contractors to load and unload ships.  Hourly wages of Veracruz longshoremen fell from about $7.00 to $1.00, even as productivity rose from 18 to over 40 shipping containers handled per hour.
    When the Sicartsa steel mill was privatized in 1992, wages were cut in half, and 1500 of the mill's 5000 workers were laid off.  They were then rehired as temporary labor under 28-day contracts. 



Miners on strike in Cananea burn a flag with the image of German Larrea, the owner of the mine, who they also hold responsible for the deaths of 65 coal miners in Pasta de Conchos.


    The Mexican government sold the Cananea and Nacozari copper mines, among the world's largest, to German Larrea's Grupo Mexico at a fraction of their book value.  In 1997 Larrea bought the 4052-mile Pacific North railroad, in partnership with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific.  Workers throughout northern Mexico mounted a series of rolling wildcat strikes over cuts in its workforce of 13,000 by more than half.  They lost.  
    Thirteen Mexican financiers became billionaires during the Salinas administration, and Larrea was one of them.  Grupo Mexico forced Cananea's miners' union to go on strike in 2009, a conflict that is still unresolved.  After 65 miners were entombed by an explosion in Grupo Mexico's Pasta de Conchos coal mine in 2006, the union's president Napoleon Gomez Urrutia was forced into exile in Canada.  He'd accused Larrea of "industrial homicide" for giving up rescue efforts after only three days. 
    This October Gomez Urrutia was elected Senator in Sonora on the Morena ticket (Lopez Obrador's party-in-formation), and finally returned from Canada to take office.

    The harshest privatization came in 2009, when President Felipe Calderon dissolved the state-owned Power and Light Company of central Mexico.  In firing all its 44,000 workers, Calderon hoped to destroy one of Mexico's oldest and most democratic unions, the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME).  The company's operations were folded into the Federal Electricity Commission.  Private electrical generation was already permitted by Salinas and Zedillo, and Lopez Obrador's immediate predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, had set up plans for private power sale to consumers. 
    Meanwhile, the Federal Electricity Commission itself was slated for elimination.  Peña Nieto pushed a Constitutional reform through Congress to reverse the guarantee of national ownership of both the oil and electrical industries.
    Far from increasing productivity and investment, however, "the damage caused to the national energy sector during neoliberalism is so serious," Lopez Obrador charged, "that we are not only the oil country that imports the most gasoline in the world, but we are now buying crude oil to supply the only six refineries that barely survive."



Humberto Montes de Oca, the foreign secretary of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, SME.


    Humberto Montes de Oca, foreign secretary of the SME union, says, "The country is bankrupt.  Before we can redistribute wealth we have to recover it. We know the banks will act against reversing the energy reform along with the others. We will all have to participate in order to defend any changes this new government tries to make."  The SME has established a cooperative and has regained control of seven power generation stations, along with other property that formerly belonged to the old company.
          "The hallmark of neoliberalism is corruption," Lopez Obrador charged.  "Privatization has been synonymous with corruption in Mexico ... The robbery of the goods of the people and the riches of the nation has been a modus operandi ... In the last three decades the highest authorities have dedicated themselves to giving concessions to the territory and transferring companies and public goods, even functions of the state, to national and foreign individuals ... The government will no longer facilitate looting, and will no longer be a committee in the service of a rapacious minority."
    To date, only one economic reform enacted by Lopez Obrador’s predecessors has been repealed outright: the education reform that mandated standardized testing for students and testing and firing of teachers themselves. Mexico's teachers have a long history of resistance and radical politics.  More than 100 teachers in the state of Oaxaca alone were killed during their struggle over control of their union, and in defense of the indigenous communities in which they lived.  Years of massive teacher strikes against the government's education reform eventually led to a massacre in Nochixtlan in June 2016, in which nine people were gunned down by federal and state police. 
    The disappearance and murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa training school in September 2014 was also an indirect product of the corporate education reform program.  Their school had a reputation for turning out radical teachers, as do many rural training schools like it, and their students came from some of the poorest families in the countryside.
    Claudio X. González Guajardo, cofounder of the Televisa Foundation and the Mexicanos Primeros corporate education reform lobby, called such public schools “a swarm of politics and shouting."  He demanded the government replace them with private institutions.  Following Lopez Obrador's speech to the Congress, Gonzalez tweeted, Trump-style, "AMLO - Against the free market, against the energy reform, a retrograde, statist, interventionist, stagnant vision.  The markets will react negatively.  It will go very badly with us, very badly.  A shame."



Striking teachers march through downtown Mexico City to protest the pro-corporate education reform, which President Lopez Obrador has promised to repeal.


    In his address, Lopez Obrador had promised,  "The so-called education reform will be canceled, the right to free education will be established in Article 3 of the Constitution at all levels of schooling, and the government will never again offend teachers. The disappearance of Ayotzinapa's youth will be thoroughly investigated; the truth will be known and those responsible will be punished."  In meetings with the democratic teachers caucus he also promised free elections in their union, the largest in Latin America.  Eliminating the authoritarian group that has held power in the union for decades could shift the balance between the left and right in Mexico’s institutional politics.
   
    Despite the move against education reform, most Mexican unions do not expect the new government to reverse the privatizations that have already taken place, at least not for the first three years of Lopez Obrador's six-year term.  Instead, they have concentrated on winning a basic reform of Mexico's labor law, which has changed radically during the past two decades.
    In May 2000, the World Bank made a series of recommendations to the Mexican administration, “An Integral Agenda of Development for the New Era.”  The bank recommended rewriting Mexico’s Constitution and Federal Labor Law by eliminating its requirements that companies give workers permanent status after 90 days, limit part time work and abide by the 40-hour week, pay severance when they lay workers off and negotiate over the closure of factories.  The bank called for ending the law’s ban on strikebreaking, and its guarantees of job training, health care and housing.
    The recommendations were so extreme that even some employers condemned them.  President Vicente Fox embraced the proposal, but it failed to pass the Congress.  After further attempts, however, President Felipe Calderon did get a similar reform adopted in 2012.  It allows companies to outsource, or subcontract, jobs, which was previously banned.  It allows part time and temporary work and pay by the hour rather than the day.  Workers now can be terminated without cause for their first six months on the job.
    Arturo Alcalde, one of Mexico’s most respected labor lawyer and past president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, called the reforms "an open invitation to employers, and a road to a paradise of firings."  As he predicted, subcontracting proliferated with disastrous results.  In just one instance, Grupo Mexico replaced strikers at the Cananea mine by contracting out their jobs.  Inexperienced replacements died in mine accidents, and allowed a huge spill of toxic mine tailings into the Sonora River, contaminating communities and sickening residents.   



Benedicto Martinez is the co-President of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT)


    According to Benedicto Martinez, co-president of the Authentic Labor Front, the union federation to which STIMAHCS belongs, "The motivation of the government, assisted by corporate unions, was to encourage the layoff of longtime employees, who could be replaced by subcontracted workers.  There are companies now where all the workers are subcontracted, who have no employees of their own at all.  The conditions are very low, just slightly above the legal minimum, and sometimes below."
    Last year, under pressure from the European Union, which sought a free trade agreement with Mexico, the Peña Nieto administration had to agree to reform some of the pro-corporate labor practices.  The government was forced to ratify Convention 98 of the International Labor Organization, guaranteeing freedom of association (something the United States has not done).  Peña Nieto then got the Mexican Congress to pass a Constitutional reform, embodying these changes.  Corporate unions like the CTM, clearly feeling threatened by the reform, introduced their own legislation in 2017 to nullify its effect.  They couldn't get it passed, however, as it became evident that Lopez Obrador would be elected the next president.
    In Martinez' eyes, the Constitutional reform is "the most advanced proposal that you could imagine.  It includes union democracy, and the disappearance of the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards, which have always been complicit with the bosses and the corporate unions.  In some states a union contract is treated like a state secret, that no one is allowed to see."
    Martinez believes the reform was the fruit of many years of groups like his fighting the government.  "It was like talking to a wall," he recalls.  "We were accused of being traitors to the country, because we organized international pressure with unions all over the world, denouncing the practices here in Mexico."
    Domingues Marrufo, Lopez Obrador’s Deputy Labor Secretary, agrees.  "If it were not for that support from the {U.S. and Canadian] United Steelworkers and other unions, it would have been impossible to achieve the Constitutional reform."
    But changing the Constitution does not change the particular laws that govern labor activity.  Implementing legislation must be passed to define rights and procedures, and set up the structure for enforcing the reform.  After Lopez Obrador won the election in July, but before he took office in December, Mexican unions and labor lawyers set up a discussion group, the Citizens Labor Observatory, and debated how far the new changes should go.
    Some wanted to undo Calderon's 2012 reform completely, by reversing, for instance, the reform laws that now allow subcontracting and temporary employment.  In the end, though, the consensus among the democratic unions was to limit the proposal to the implementing legislation that gives workers the right to vote for the union and union leaders of their choice, and to approve their contracts. It was clear this was Lopez Obrador's favored choice.  As Mexico City Mayor in 2000 he had appointed another dean of Mexican labor lawyers, Jesus Campos Linas, as head of the city's labor board.  Campos Linas then made public an estimated 70-80,000 protection contracts whose contents had never been released to the workers they covered.
    Two days before Christmas, deputies from Lopez Obrador’s Morena Party-in-formation introduced their labor reform bill into the Chamber of Deputies.  It will abolish the JCAs and substitute an independent system of labor tribunals.  Unions will be independent of the government and business, and leaders must be elected by a majority of the workers.  Union contracts will be public, and must be ratified by the majority of the workers in a free and secret vote.



The SME has established a cooperative and regained control over a number of plants and facilities of their former employer, the Power and Light Company of central Mexico, and are now training workers to do welding and other jobs.

   
    Sweeping though it will be, the new labor law is just a beginning.  On taking office, Lopez Obrador appointed Maria Luisa Alcalde the new Labor Secretary.  She is a former legislator, daughter of labor lawyer Arturo Alcalde , and at 31 the youngest person in AMLO's cabinet.  "She is very clear that the democratization of the unions will create a new situation and our society will have a much better chance to raise living standards," Dominguez says.  But, he warned, "We aren't accustomed to organizing ourselves.  We're used to waiting for some powerful person to come from above to help us." 
    And while waiting for unions and workers to use the new law, the government is still faced with many legacy strikes and fights inherited from 36 years of neoliberal administrations.  The telecommunications reform, for instance, mandated the breakup of TelMex, the old telephone monopoly sold to billionaire Carlos Slim.  In February it is set to be divided in two, a move the telephone workers union bitterly opposes.  They are threatening to strike if it isn't stopped.
    In the mid-1990s the telefonistas, together with the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and two other unions, formed the National Union of Workers, an independent labor federation.  They supported Lopez Obrador very strongly.  "Our corporate elite had to respond to the fact that the vast majority of Mexicans voted for him, and were unable to use their electoral fraud strategy to deny him victory, as they had in the past," says Victor Enrique Fabela, vice-president of the union.
    But he doesn't believe that Lopez Obrador will simply do what unions ask, pointing out that the new president invited Carlos Slim to hear his inaugural speech to the Congress, an invitation not extended to the union's general secretary, Francisco Hernandez Juarez, .  Further, long term operating concessions have been renewed for Televisa and TeleAzteca, two media giants with a record of rightwing politics.  "We have to be critical," he cautioned, "while understanding that we have to support the direction AMLO is moving."
    The strike in Cananea has yet to be settled, and there and in Nacozari, two of the world's largest copper mines, the miners' union was forced out by previous JCA decisions favoring the CTM and Grupo Mexico.  The communities on the Rio Sonora are still suffering the health effects of the toxic spill, three years later.  And on November 29 at the giant PKC wire harness plant in Ciudad Acuña, just two days before Lopez Obrador was sworn in, CTM thugs marched into the facility, shouting "Mineros Afuera!" [Miners' Union Out!] as workers were about to vote on the miners' union as their representative.  They overturned ballot boxes, the election was canceled, and the mineros say its representatives were beaten.



In the zocalo these people came to cheer the inauguration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, part of a crowd estimated at over a million.


    "We all want a change," charged Moises Acuña, the mineros' political secretary.  "We have a chance to move forward now, and we have to use it."  Meanwhile, a new federation of independent unions in the auto industry has also been formed, and plans to fight with the CTM over the right to negotiate contracts with the industry's giants.     
      In dealing with the workers’ upsurge and the emergence of new unions, however, Lopez Obrador’s government faces a complex situation.  The JCAs will disappear and the new tribunals will be formed.  But there are no judges yet, and they won't be in place for the first three years.  The tribunals have to be funded, and judges and personnel trained in administering a completely new law.
    "But during that time, in order to represent workers and negotiate, a union still has to be certified by the authorities," Martinez says.  "There must be some way to ensure that the workers have approved this union, and this approval must take place before any negotiation begins.  Plus, who are the inspectors now responsible for investigating the outsourcing, to make sure it's legal?  We need an army of them, and there's no money to hire them."
    Despite the institutional challenges, Dominguez believes that the time has arrived when Mexican workers may be able to reshape their nation.  "Today many workers live in poverty, on one or two dollars a day.  This is the fundamental problem.  But we're not just fighting for an economic goal, not just for decent wages, but for the revitalization of the democratic life of workers, of our unions and the organizations we belong to."

Sunday, December 9, 2018

MEXICANS GREET THEIR NEW PRESIDENT - MEXICANXS SALUDAN A SU NUEVO PRESIDENTE

MEXICANS GREET THEIR NEW PRESIDENT - MEXICANXS SALUDAN A SU NUEVO PRESIDENTE
Photos by David Bacon / Fotografias de David Bacon

A week ago in the zocalo, the main square of Mexico City, a million Mexicans came to greet their new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.  These are a few photographs of an event that made history.

Hace una semana, en el zócalo, la plaza principal de la Ciudad de México, un millón de mexicanxs vinieron a saludar a su nuevo presidente, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Estas son algunas fotografías de un evento que hizo historia.





















Saturday, November 24, 2018

THE RIGHT TO MIGRATE, THE RIGHT TO STAY HOME

THE RIGHT TO MIGRATE, THE RIGHT TO STAY HOME
How NACLA Reports Analyzed the Connection
By David Bacon
NACLA Report on the Americas
Volume 50, 2018 - Issue 3: NACLA at 50: Looking Forward, Looking Back
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10714839.2018.1525078
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10714839.2018.1525079
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10714839.2018.1525080



Silvestre Reyes, a striker at the Tijuana maquiladora Han Young, 1998


When it rains on downtown San Diego or its middle-class suburbs, the asphalt streets get shiny.  The runoff is swiftly channeled down the storm drains, and spills out into the Pacific.  On the hills of Tijuana, just a few miles south, rain creates a particularly sticky kind of mud called "barra." Cars traveling down all the little dirt streets, where a million Tijuanecos live, are immobilized.  If they start to move down a hill at all, even at a snail's pace, they lose traction in the mud and slowly slide into another car, or a wall, or just a hole in the road.  And there they sit until everything dries out again.
   
In this border city, the factories are like lords of the earth.  They occupy the high points, the tops of the mesas, while the neighborhoods of the workers spread down the slopes into the valley below. When it rains, the tens of thousands of workers who pour into the maquiladoras every day begin their trip to work with a long trek through the mud to the nearest paved road for a bus, or an even longer walk all the way to the factory.  Most workers don't have cars anyway.
   
The difference between the one side of the border and the other is the difference between poverty and wealth.  That differential inspired a building boom along the border, where 10 factories opened their doors each week during the first three months of the NAFTA era.  Tijuana is the dark side of the Southern California economy, where much of the region's industrial workforce lives on the south side of the border - the workers of the maquiladoras.
   
But companies aren't the only ones moving across the border.  As maquiladora workers have organized for better conditions, friends and allies have come from the north.  In the world of NAFTA, a significant and growing number of unions and workers in both countries are beginning to build a network to confront their common corporate employers.
   
And of course, people - mostly worker and farmers - themselves move across the border by the million, in an enormous wave of migration.  Migration has an economic function in a world capitalist economy, both in terms of the source and impact of the displacement in communities of origin, and the economic role and labor struggles of immigrant workers in the U.S.
   
Most mainstream coverage of Mexico focuses on the drug wars and the way the politics of the border play out in the U.S.  The border is important, to be sure, but while the "hardening of the border" has an impact on people, the border region is a lot more complex.  It is an arena of many social movements and struggles - maquila organizing, farm worker strikes, popular movements in border barrios, movements like the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales.   The border is more than a line people cross.
   
For the past quarter century NACLA Reports has published over a dozen articles examining displacement, migration, labor and the criminalization of migrants.  They all add to a framework that sees this as a system, not just a set of policies.  And they ask a question - "Who gains and who pays?" - that uncovers the rules of this system.  To gain justice and human rights for migrants and working people those rules have to be changed.
   

In August, 2005, NACLA Reports published an account of the human cost of border economic development, and the price paid by workers for it, Stories from the Borderlands:

Tijuana’s oldest maquiladora closed last year.

It didn’t fall victim to the dreaded Chinese competition, confounding a wave of near-hysterical alarms in south-of-the-border newspapers, warning that the days of all Mexico’s factories were numbered. Instead, Industria Fronteriza owed its demise to a more prosaic cause: women stopped wearing nylons.

For almost four decades, seamstresses in this sprawling sweatshop churned out what was once the height of haut couture. Starting in the mid-1960s, the sleek hosiery caressing the slim legs stalking down New York’s fashion runways passed through the rough working hands of hundreds of Mexican women bent over machines on a sweaty, deafening factory floor within a stone’s throw of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Given changing styles, perhaps the company’s end could have been easily predicted. Plans might have been made for easing these veterans of needle and thread into jobs in some other border sweatshop. Or they might have been trained to fill one of the high-value-added positions that policy wonks insist should, and will, replace the old labor-intensive jobs that started the industrial gold rush here 40 years ago.

Traditional Mexican labor law would have helped the dislocation of these seamstresses. Since the 1930s, when radicals wrote the country’s labor legislation (and made it a model throughout Latin America), the Federal Labor Law has called for something U.S. workers would love to have: severance pay. A week’s pay for every year at the machine seemed only just to the reformers of that more egalitarian age.

For today’s seamstresses, a little money to pay for training programs, some severance pay to live on and a government interested in finding new jobs for older workers might have made quite a difference.

Not in the world of the border. This world turns labor law on its head—old post-revolutionary legal rights are just so much ink on paper, and even the decisions of federal judges to enforce the law are simply ignored.

...

Raúl Ramírez, Baja California’s Human Rights prosecutor, faults the government’s desire to protect investment above all else. “The authorities don’t care about the poverty of these communities, or their social problems like lack of housing or drug addiction. But they are very concerned with the question of the land titles of the large landholders. They want to take care of their investments. So the government uses the law, the police, even the army. They say this provides safety and stability for investors. And they abandon the poor.”

The social cost of this policy, Ramírez says, can be found in Baja California fields on any given day during the harvest season, when workers pick tomatoes and strawberries for U.S. supermarkets. Whole families work together in these agricultural maquiladoras—children alongside adults. Félix, a 12-year-old boy picking cilantro in Maneadero in June 2003, said his parents were making about 70 pesos a day (a little over $6), while he was bringing home half that. “We can’t live if we all don’t work,” he said, in the tone of someone explaining the obvious.

At wages a tenth of those paid for the same job in Los Angeles, it might seem fair if maquila workers only had to pay a tenth of L.A. prices for food, rent or any of the basic necessities of life. But that’s not the world of the border either. Two years ago a group of New England nuns, who organized the Center for Reflection, Education and Action (CREA), did an exhaustive survey of border prices. They found that for a kilo of rice, a Tijuana maquiladora worker had to labor for an hour and a half. Even an undocumented worker bussing dishes in Beverly Hills at minimum wage can take the same rice home with only 10 minutes’ pay.

As usual, what appears to be a legal problem—in this case the enforcement of labor laws—is really about money. It’s a recipe for confrontation, and all along the border economic pressure is fueling a wave of industrial unrest.



In September 2008, as soon-to-be President Barack Obama promised voters that he would renegotiate NAFTA, NACLA Reports published Displaced People: NAFTA’s Most Important Product.  It found that workers on both sides of the border suffered lost jobs, eroded rights and declining living standards in the wake of the treaty.  Then it asked migrant rights activists what they saw as an alternative.


Han Young strikers write their demands on the wall of the struck plant in Tijuana.  1998
 

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, the U.S. Congress has debated and passed several new bilateral trade agreements with Peru, Jordan and Chile, as well as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Congressional debates over immigration policy have proceeded as though those trade agreements bore no relationship to the waves of displaced people migrating to the United States, looking for work. As Rufino Domínguez, former coordinator of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB), points out, U.S. trade and immigration policy are part of a single system, and the negotiation of NAFTA was an important step in developing this system. “There are no jobs” in Mexico, he says, “and NAFTA drove the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the United States to work because there’s no alternative.”

Economic crises provoked by NAFTA and other economic reforms are uprooting and displacing Mexicans in the country’s most remote areas. While California farmworkers 20 and 30 years ago came from parts of Mexico with larger Spanish-speaking populations, migrants today increasingly come from indigenous communities in states like Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero. Domínguez says there are about 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca living in the United States, 300,000 in California alone.

Meanwhile, a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment has demonized those migrants, leading to measures to deny them jobs, rights, or any pretense of equality with people living in the communities around them. Solutions to these dilemmas—from adopting rational and humane immigration policies to reducing the fear and hostility toward migrants—must begin with an examination of the way U.S. policies have both produced migration and criminalized migrants.

Trade negotiations and immigration policy were formally joined together when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. While most attention has focused on its provisions for amnesty and employer sanctions, few have noted an important provision of the law: the establishment of the Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development, to study the causes of immigration to the United States. The commission was inactive until 1988, but began holding hearings when the U.S. and Canadian governments signed a bilateral free trade agreement. After Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari made it plain he favored a similar agreement with Mexico, the commission made a report to the first president George Bush and to Congress in 1990. It found, unsurprisingly, that the main motivation for coming north was economic.

To slow or halt this flow, it recommended “promoting greater economic integration between the migrant sending countries and the United States through free trade.” It concluded that “the United States should expedite the development of a U.S.-Mexico free trade area and encourage its incorporation with Canada into a North American free trade area,” while warning that “it takes many years—even generations—for sustained growth to achieve the desired effect.”

The negotiations that led to NAFTA started within months of the report. As Congress debated the treaty, Salinas toured the United States, telling audiences unhappy at high levels of immigration that passing NAFTA would reduce it by increasing employment in Mexico. Back home, Salinas and other treaty proponents made the same argument. NAFTA, they claimed, would set Mexico on a course to become a first-world nation. “We did become part of the first world,” says Juan Manuel Sandoval, coordinator of the Permanent Seminar on Chicano and Border Studies at Mexico City’s National Institute of Anthropology and History: “the backyard.”

Contrary to NAFTA proponents’ predictions, the treaty became an important source of pressure on Mexicans to migrate. It forced yellow corn grown by Mexican farmers without subsidies to compete in Mexico’s own market with corn from huge U.S. producers, subsidized by the U.S. farm bill. Agricultural exports to Mexico grew at a meteoric rate during the NAFTA years, at a compound annual rate of 9.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 2007, annual U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico stood at $12.7 billion.  In January and February 2008, huge demonstrations in Mexico sought to block the implementation of the agreement’s final chapter, which lowered the tariff barriers on white corn and beans.


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The root problem with migration in the global economy is that it’s forced migration. A coalition for reform should fight for the right of people to choose when and how to migrate, including the derecho de no migrar—the right not to migrate, given viable alternatives.

At the same time, migrants should have basic rights, regardless of immigration status. “Otherwise,” Domínguez says, “wages will be depressed in a race to the bottom, since if one employer has an advantage, others will seek the same thing.” To raise the low price of immigrant labor, immigrant workers have to be able to organize. Permanent legal status makes it easier and less risky to organize. Guest-worker programs, employer sanctions, enforcement, and raids make organizing much more difficult.

Corporations and those who benefit from current priorities might not support a more pro-migrant alternative, but millions of people would. Whether they live in Mexico or the United States, working people need the same things—secure jobs at a living wage, rights in their workplaces and communities, and the freedom to travel and seek a future for their families.



Finally, in April 2014, NACLA Reports published Immigrant Labor, Immigrant Rights.  As Congress finally gave up trying to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the article traced the genesis of the political coalition behind it, and unpacked the class forces at work.  It concluded with the analysis put forward by the pioneering activists of the Oaxacan diaspora - that migrant rights includes both the human and labor rights of people as they migrate, and the right to stay home, for a future that can make migration a truly voluntary act rather than the product of the desperate need to survive.


Tijuana police arrive to escort strikebreakers into the struck Han Young maquiladora.  1998


In the late 1970s, Congress began to debate the bills that eventually resulted in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) — still the touchstone for ongoing battles over immigration policy.  The long congressional debate set in place the basic dividing line in the modern immigrant rights movement.  IRCA contained three elements.  It reinstituted a guest worker program by setting up the H2-A visa category;  it penalized employers who hired undocumented workers and required them to check the immigration status of every worker; and it set up a one-time amnesty process for undocumented workers who were in the country before 1982. Guest workers (i.e. workers whose immigrant status was tied to temporary, specific jobs), employer sanctions and some form of legalization still occupy the main floor of the debate.

Once the bill had passed, many of the local organizations that had opposed it set up community-based coalitions to deal with the bill’s impact.  In Los Angeles, with the country’s largest concentration of undocumented Mexican and Central American workers, pro-immigrant labor activists set up centers to help people apply for amnesty.  That effort, together with earlier, mostly left-led campaigns to organize undocumented workers, built the base for the later upsurge of immigrant activism that changed the politics and labor movement of the city.

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The critique shared by all these organizations is that the CIR framework ignores trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, which have undercut workers bargaining power and employment opportunities in Mexico and Central America.  Without changing U.S. trade policy and ending structural adjustment programs and neoliberal economic reforms, millions of displaced people will continue to migrate, no matter how many walls are built on the border.

Changing corporate trade policy and stopping neoliberal reforms is as central to immigration reform as gaining legal status for undocumented immigrants.  There is a fundamental contradiction in the bipartisan policies in Congress that promote more free trade agreements, and then criminalize the migration of the people they displace.  Instead, Congress could end the use of the free trade system as a mechanism for producing displaced workers.  That would mean delinking immigration status and employment.  If employers are allowed to recruit contract labor abroad, and those workers can only stay if they are continuously employed (the two essential characteristics of guest worker programs), then they will never have enforceable rights.

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A new era of rights and equality for migrants doesn’t begin in Washington DC, any more than the civil rights movement did.  Human rights reform is a product of the social movements of this country, especially of people on the bottom, outside the margins of power.  A social movement made possible advances in 1965 that were called unrealistic and politically impossible a decade earlier.  An immigration reform proposal based on human and labor rights may not be a viable one in a Congress dominated by Tea Party nativists and corporations seeking guest worker programs.  But just as it took a civil rights movement to pass the Voting Rights Act, any basic change to establish the rights of immigrants will also require a social upheaval and a fundamental realignment of power.



NACLA coverage of Mexico, labor and migration by David Bacon:

Han Young and NAFTA's Labor Side Agreement - 1998
Electricity Privatization in Mexico - 2003
Stories from the Borderlands - 2005
Displaced People - NAFTA's Most Important Product - 2008
Immigration Raids Spark Protests - 2008
San Jose del Progreso - Mining and Migration from Oaxaca - 2012
Immigrant Labor, Immigrant Rights - 2014
A Hero of Tlatelolco (Raul Alvarez Garin) - 2014
Voices from the Juarez Workers' Movement - 2016
Twenty Years of Cross-Border Solidarity - 2016
What Donald Trump Can and Can't Do to Immigrants - 2017
The Border Wall, in Photos and Music - 2017