Sunday, December 9, 2018


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


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

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.


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.


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.


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

Thursday, November 1, 2018


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, October 31, 2018

Nicolasa Lopez Gonzalez signs a membership card for the union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Workers in the berry fields of the United States and Mexico have the same transnational employers. Now, farmworker unions in those two nations have begun to work together.

Surrounded by blueberry and alfalfa fields near Sumas, Washington, just a few miles from the Canadian border, a group of workers last week stood in a circle behind a trailer, itemizing a long list of complaints about the grower they work for. Lorenzo Sanchez, the oldest, pointed to the trailer his family rents for $800 a month. On one side, the wooden steps and porch have rotted through. "The toilet backs up," he said. "Water leaks in when it rains. The stove doesn't work."

His wife, Felipa Lopez, described mistreatment in the fields. "The old man [the grower] sometimes walks behind us and makes fun of us," she charged. "He yells at us to make us work faster." Other workers in the circle nodded in agreement.

Ramon Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, listened and then took union membership cards from the pocket of his jacket. "This is the first step," he said. "Join the union. But you have to agree to support each other in this. If he fires any one of you, the others have to stop work to get the grower to give the job back. If he tries to evict you, you have to act then, too."

Everyone signed the cards. They'd actually gone down to the union office in Bellingham two weeks earlier to ask for help-they'd had plenty of time to think about the consequences. After the cards were signed, they all agreed that the following Monday, instead of going into the field to work, they'd confront the grower and demand changes.

Two days later at sunrise, Torres and Edgar Franks, another union activist, joined the workers at the edge of a highway, next to the field where they'd been pruning blueberry bushes. Soon the grower, Gill Singh, drove up with his two sons. Torres gave him a letter from the union. "You don't have the right to treat people like this," he told the father. One son responded, "That's true, they do have that right. But don't we have the right to require them to work?"

Soon the workers were angrily recounting to Singh and his sons the pressure and the insults they'd endured, adding complaints about low wages and deteriorating housing. In the end, the grower agreed to fix some housing problems, to stop mistreatment in the fields, and not to retaliate against the workers for joining the union or stopping work over the problems. By then it was mid-morning, and the pruners went into the rows to begin their daily labor.

"This is how we're building the union," Torres says. "There are a lot of paros [small work stoppages] here all the time, and we come out to help the workers get organized."

Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, tells the son of the grower, Gill Singh, the reasons why workers are refusing to go into the field.

FAMILIAS UNIDAS POR LA JUSTICIA was born in 2013 out of a work stoppage like this one, when blueberry pickers refused to go into the fields of Sakuma Farms after one of them had been fired for asking for a wage increase. Workers then mounted a series of guerrilla work stoppages over the next four years to raise the piece-rate wages. At the same time, they organized boycott committees in cities up and down the West Coast to pressure Sakuma Farms' main customer, the giant berry distributor Driscoll's Inc. In 2017, Sakuma's owners agreed to an election, which the union easily won. Familias Unidas then negotiated a two-year contract with Sakuma Farms.

Since then, work stoppages have hit many nearby ranches, and workers have successfully used them to win concessions from growers. Most of those workers are Mixtec and Triqui indigenous migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico, who now live permanently in rural Washington. In some cases, however, the paros have been organized by H-2A contract workers, brought to the United States under temporary work visas. In 2017, 70 H-2A workers refused to work at Sarbanand Farms after one of the fellow workers collapsed in the field, and later died.

A union contract has given Familias Unidas a support base for helping the workers in these spontaneous outbreaks. And because the piece rates for picking berries at Sakuma Farms has increased dramatically (allowing some workers to earn as much as $30 per hour) farmworkers at other farms have taken action to lift their own wages.

Job actions like these are not unique to U.S. farmworkers. In fact, the pruners' job action seemed very familiar to two farmworker unionists from Mexico, who'd arrived in Bellingham to explore another way to give farmworkers more power: cooperation across the border. Their trip was organized by the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO and the UCLA Labor Center.

"We're very similar," says Lorenzo Rodriguez, the general secretary of a Mexican union, the National Independent Democratic Union of Farm Workers (SINDJA in its Spanish initials), "not just in using tactics like stopping work, but in the ways we recruit workers and organize them. The way Ramon and others lead these movements gives workers the message that we can make a change, that together we can organize, together we can walk out. Above all, that we can represent ourselves."

Lorenzo Sanchez denounces the terrible condition of the trailer the grower rents to him.

SINDJA is a new union for farmworkers in the San Quintin Valley, the agricultural center of Baja California. It also was the product of action by workers in the fields. In 2015, thousands of farmworkers in the valley stopped work to demand better wages. Strikers were beaten and even shot by police. In the end, they convinced the government to raise the minimum wage in Baja California for farmworkers.

Out of that upsurge, workers organized SINDJA, and with the help of other progressive Mexican unions successfully pressured the government to give it a "registro"-the legal right to exist and represent workers.

Abelina Ramirez, SINDJA's secretary for gender equality, who accompanied Rodriguez to Washington state, says, "The situation in Washington is very similar to ours, especially for women-to their work and exploitation, and the bad wages. We can identify with what we've seen. The laws here seem a little more fair than they are in Mexico, but in both places we can't hope for the government to come in and solve our problems. As workers, we have to do it ourselves."

Abelina Ramirez talks with Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community2Community, a farm worker advocacy organization that helped start Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

ACCORDING TO RODRIGUEZ, the giant ranches of the San Quintin Valley employ 50,000 laborers in over 150 companies. Most of the companies, especially all the biggest ones, have "protection contracts." These are agreements with company-friendly unions that have ties to Baja's conservative state government. Workers have no choice in these arrangements, and often have no knowledge that such unions or their contracts even exist. Instead of helping workers raise wages, these "charro" unions help enforce a low-wage environment designed to encourage foreign investment.

Both in Washington and in Baja California, Familias Unidas and SINDJA have few legal protections, and rely more on action by workers to force changes. The San Quintin union has active workers in many companies, called "delegados." When an incident of abuse takes place, they meet with the union's leaders. If there is enough support in the crews for a job action, then workers stop work to demand changes.

"Our situations in Baja and in Washington are somewhat different," Rodriguez says. "But the most important thing we have in common are the people. The big majority of the people working here come from the same places, the same towns we come from. Even the same families. And wherever we go the exploitation is the same. That's what we have to focus on in order to change things."

To Torres, the leader of the Washington union, the network among indigenous migrants often makes building a union easier. "I think this comes from the culture of their [Mixtec and Triqui] towns, because it's not that difficult to organize the workers in spite of not having laws in our favor. The majority of our members come from Oaxaca and Guerrero-Triquis and Mixtecos. Many of our members have family in San Quintin. When they went on strike there [in 2015], we knew what was happening because there are so many families with relations there, who were participating in their movement."

Lorenzo Rodriguez, general secretary of the Mexican union, the National Independent Union of Farm Workers, talks with Ramon Torres and workers joining the union.

Moreover, workers in Mexico and the United States often have common employers. "The companies are the same," Rodriguez says. "Driscoll's, for example, is here in the U.S. and in San Quintin, as well as other countries. There are a lot of other transnational companies. Because of these similarities, it's important that we form alliances with the workers of different countries to make our struggles stronger. That's the only way we'll be able to face the companies. They are all coordinated. We have to realize this."

The workers involved in the strikes at Sakuma Farms became the core of local groups that picketed the stores selling Driscoll's berries, in the long effort to win the union contract. Strikers also traveled to Oregon and California to set up other boycott committees with students and other unions. At the same time, the fledgling union in San Quintin declared its own Driscoll's boycott. The Reiter family, which owns Driscoll's, also owns the largest berry grower there, MoraMex. Driscoll's distributes MoraMex's berries.

Once the contract was signed at Sakuma Farms, however, Familias Unidas por la Justicia had to agree to end its participation in the Driscoll's boycott. SINDJA continues to support it. "They have a contract with Driscoll's and we are promoting a Driscoll's boycott," Rodriguez says. "But we can compare our experiences in ways of organizing workers. The way they do things here in the U.S. could help us. And some of the things we do in San Quintin could be implemented on this side of the border. So cooperation could benefit us a lot."

Encouraging the participation of women is one area for such cooperation. Both unions have trouble encouraging women, who often make up a majority of the workers, to become active. "Women don't just have a double job," Abelina Ramirez explains. "We have a triple job. We are the first to get up in the morning, and the last to go to bed. We don't just take care of the family-we produce economically for all of society."

Thousands of women participated in the 2015 San Quintin strike, she says, but afterward, when the organization of the union began and leaders were trained, few women participated. "Really, there are only two or three trying to jump over those walls of ignorance, lack of time, and machismo," she says angrily. "Women aren't just good for serving children and husbands. Our world of farmworkers has ignored and failed to recognize what is possible. It has to be everybody's decision, not just women. It's important for the men to offer support and help in the home so that we can participate and get involved in the work of society and in social struggle."

Lorenzo Rodriguez, general secretary of the Mexican union, the National Independent Union of Farm Workers

BOTH SINDJA AND Familias Unidas are worried about the explosive growth of the H-2A temporary work visa program, which creates a pool of workers with virtually no rights. In 2017, Washington growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, and the number for 2018 will undoubtedly be much higher. Last year, about 200,000 H-2A workers were recruited nationwide and brought to the United States. This year, the number is expected to exceed 230,000.

"Many of our countrymen are coming through this program," Rodriguez says. "Many of them don't have good food. They get abused. The company controls them completely and the workers can't defend their rights. The companies are the ones who get the visas for these workers. The workers can't raise their voices, and if they do, the companies threaten them and blacklist them to prevent them from returning the following year."

Torres and Franks have helped Washington's H-2A workers organize a number of strikes and protests in the last two years, despite the challenges such workers face. Employers, says Torres, "don't tell them where to get medical attention, or even where to get a bus so they can move from one place to another. If there's an emergency, they don't know what to do. So if they can get this knowledge in their hometowns [in Mexico], it will make it easier for them to organize here."

Recruitment from San Quintin is rising quickly, which has an impact on the ability of SINDJA to organize. "Many workers who have participated in the strikes and social movements in Baja have been blacklisted," Rodriguez charges. "No company will give them work. So then they're presented with the possibility, through H-2A, of coming here." The difference in wages between the United States and Mexico is also a factor, particularly for those who can no longer work in San Quintin. "A farmworker with a stable job in Baja earns 1,500 pesos [$77] a week, but that's not enough in Mexico to pay for the most basic needs for a family of four or five people. If they come to the U.S., where the minimum wage is $11 an hour, for them it's better. So of course people take advantage of that opportunity."

Edgar Franks (l), an organizer with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, supports a worker who complains about bad treatment to the grower, Gill Singh, and his son.

That can also be an opportunity, however, for those workers to become part of organizing efforts in the United States. "It would help us to know who's been active in the movement in San Quintin," Torres says. "If we could identify those people, it would be much easier to take action when the workers aren't given breaks or lunch, or if there are other violations." Rodriguez adds: "Many of the people coming are members of our union. Some are even in the union executive committee. It's important to have contact with them. Then when they begin to organize, we will know who will help them and give them support. We should prepare them for what they'll find here, and we should organize these H-2A workers."

"We have basic rights," Ramirez says, "to education, to health care, to the welfare of our children-regardless of what country we live in. We produce what the whole society eats and drinks. So this work should be recognized and well paid. And we've discovered that if we unite and get organized, we can achieve these things."

Torres agrees. "It was very important that Lorenzo and Abelina came. We can accomplish a lot together."

The family of Lorenzo Sanchez and Felipa Lopez, in front of the broken-down trailer the grower rents them for $800 a month.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Photo Essay by David Bacon
Truthout, 10/31/18

Striking workers and supporters sit down in Fourth Street in San Francisco in an act of civil disobedience to dramatize the impact of the strike against Marriott hotels.

Three weeks on the picket line will either weaken a strike or make it stronger.  But workers at the Marriott hotels in eight cities around the US show no signs of wanting to go back to work anytime soon, at least not without resolving the reasons why they went on strike to begin with. Instead, the noise on the picket line is getting louder. Workers bang on pots, drums -- even old folding chairs -- making a racket loud enough to penetrate thick walls and double-paned windows. As a result, many hotel guests not dissuaded by their initial encounters with picketing workers are giving up and leaving.

"Over 20 guests have told me they're checking out and moving to the Waterfront Hotel," said Kenneth Walker, the veteran head doorman at the Marriott City Center Hotel in Oakland, California. The Waterfront Hotel, just a dozen blocks down Broadway, is not on strike.

It's not just happening in Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle's Roland Li reports that organizers of the 2018 ComNet conference (a network of foundations and non-profits discussing better communications), which normally draws 1,000 attendees, moved their events out of the struck St. Francis Hotel. The St. Francis used to be a Westin property, but became part of the 700-hotel Marriott empire when Westin was bought out by what is now the world's largest hotel chain.

Other organizations pulling out of commitments at the Bay Area Marriotts include the Human Rights Campaign, the Shanti Project, the Chicana Latina Foundation and Bay Area Wilderness Training. In response, a huge wave of robocalls is hitting thousands of people in the region, trying to lure them into the Marriotts with offers of special deals.

However, not everyone is avoiding the hotels where workers are on strike. For instance, in Boston, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers did not cancel hotel reservations for their baseball teams. Instead, ballplayers, themselves members of a union, snuck into the rear entrances of struck hotels as workers yelled questions to them about their apparent lack of solidarity.

Nevertheless, the picket lines and the creative tactics used by the workers and their unions have largely been the reasons hotel customers have turned away. The impact of housekeepers walking picket lines, instead of making beds, has been hard for the company to deny. According to Tonya Lee, a PBX(AYS) operator on the hotel telephone switchboard for the Oakland Marriott for 28 years, "If our manager had to clean seven rooms, he couldn't do it. Right now he just strips the bed, which is the easy part. He doesn't then make it or do what comes next. The managers have told me that the strike has made them respect what we just do every day."

That's also how Walker describes his experience as a member of the negotiating committee of his union, Unite Here Local 2850. "We're going to win," he said. "I feel the people across the table have learned to respect us." 

To get Marriott's directors to pay attention to the union's demands, the picket lines have been augmented by street actions and marches. Forty-one hotel strikers and supporters were arrested on October 12 for sitting on Fourth Street in front of Marriott's San Francisco flagship, the Marquis. In Oakland, on the coordinated national day of marches a week later, hundreds of strikers and supporters took over the intersection of 10th Street and Broadway, outside the hotel entrance. As the police stood without intervening, children painted the strike's slogan in huge letters on the asphalt: "One Job Should be Enough."

The slogan underlines the main demand by Unite Here in negotiations -- enough pay so that workers don't have to work a second job in order to survive. Nicholas Javier, a server at the St. Francis, told the union's organizers, "I'm one rent payment away from living on the street, and I have no real job security, so I feel like I'm living on a razor's edge." The union is also trying to make sure the hotels continue to pay for health benefits, rather than throwing the burden of increasing premiums onto paychecks.

Workers want protection from the increased use of automated equipment for doing jobs from checking in guests to mixing cocktails. The hotel chain has implemented a "green hotel" program, encouraging guests on cards left in the rooms not to ask for new linen and towels.  Although it sounds like an environmentally friendly idea, workers accuse the hotels of using it to reduce the need for housekeepers, speeding up the work and putting their jobs in danger. Instead, the union seeks to reduce a punishing workload, especially for the housekeepers who clean the rooms and make the beds.

While Unite Here locals in each city holds bargaining talks for the hotels located there, the strike has coordinated actions by more than 7,700 workers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Detroit, Boston, Maui and Honolulu. Seattle Marriott workers have also voted to authorize a strike.

At some hotels, workers are veterans of strikes like this. In 2004, a strike by Local 2 in San Francisco became a lockout by the city's swankiest establishments. The struck corporations tried to force workers to return under their terms by ending their health coverage. Even after the union defeated the lockout and the workers returned without a contract, hotels refused to deduct workers' dues payments, thinking this would force the union to agree to concessions. Instead, for two years, the workers paid their dues voluntarily, and at the end, won agreement on the contract they sought.

Since then, what was once a network of large hotels and the companies managing them has become much more of a monopoly. Marriott owns six hotels in San Francisco where workers are striking. At two non-union ones -- Airport Marriott Waterfront near the airport and the downtown JW Marriott -- workers have declared their open support for joining Unite Here Local 2. They are demanding that managers agree to a fair process for recognizing the union.  

Local 2's strategy, helping workers organize in the middle of a strike, contradicts accepted wisdom among some organizers, who fear managers will use strike threats to discourage workers from union support. Local 2 organizers say their experience is the opposite -- that the strike shows that the union is willing and able to fight for improvements against their employer.

In Oakland, Marriott workers are experiencing their first strike. At the beginning, they were unsure if the rest of the workers would support them, even though the strike vote was 98 percent in favor. "We weren't really prepared for this on the first day," said Tony Scott, a bellman for 35 years. Lee adds, "I came to work on Friday [October] 5th, and when it was time, I went in and told my coworkers to come out. I wasn't sure they would. When they all did, I felt I was 10 feet tall."

Strikes are an education in power, and its lessons haven't been lost on the picket lines. "Numbers are always important," Walker explains. "Marriott has used its numbers -- how much money they make and how many hotels they own. Now we're using our numbers to show them they can't do it without us."

"This is my first time being on strike, and I see the union is a very powerful force if we stick together," said Scott. "We have to stand for something. I'll stay on the line until this is over."


Strikers sit in outside the flagship Marriott on Fourth Street in San Francisco.  Anand Singh, president of Unitehere Local 2, is arrested.

Hotel workers picket the six struck San Francisco hotels on the first day of the strike.

Strikers and supporters picket the Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel.

Strikers sit down in the intersection in front of the Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel, whkle children pain the sstrike slogan, One Job Should Be Enough, on the pavement.

Strikers, non-striking hotel workers and members of other unions march through downtown San Francisco in a march of 2000 people.


Strikers at San Francisco's St. Regis and St. Francis bang on metal chairs and lids, and play cymbals to make noise and discourage guests from crossing picket lines to stay in the struck hotels.  

Women bring their children to the picket line at the St. Francis and Oakland City Center Marriott Hotels. 

More photos from the strike are here:

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


By David Bacon
International Union Rights, V. 25, N. 3, 2018

 Children of Versatronex workers on the picket line.

In the valley’s remaining factories, labor contractors have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels.

Today Silicon Valley remains the fortress of the country's most anti-union industry.  High tech industry dominates every aspect of life.  Its voice is largely unchallenged on public policy, because the workers who have created the valley's fabulous wealth have no voice of their own.  Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their workers and communities for years that healthy bottom lines would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs.  Economists still paint a picture of the industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.

The promises are worthless.  Today many giants of industry own no factories at all, having sold them to contract manufacturers who build computers and make chips in locations from China to Hungary.  In the factories that remain in the valley, labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels.  While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they’ve dropped for thousands of workers on the production line.  Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as production was moved out of the valley to other states and countries.

Apple Corp. has cash reserves in excess of $1 billion, while San Jose voters are told that there is no money to pay for the pensions of workers who’ve spent their lives in public service. The productivity of industry in the valley went up in the first decade of the current century by 42 percent.  But at the same time, average annual employment went down 16 percent.  The upper income stratum of the valley benefited from this productivity growth, but there was no corresponding growth in jobs.  Fewer people produced wealth for fewer people.  The rich got richer and the poor get poorer.  Between 2000 and 2010 the number of households with incomes under $10,000 more than doubled, from 11,556 to 26,310.

To make the economy serve the needs of working families, they must be organized.  It’s not enough to have a voice or a “place at the table.”   Silicon Valley’s 99% need the organized ability to effectively advocate for their needs, in the face of corporate resistance.  But despite obstacles, for its entire history Silicon Valley has been as much a cauldron of resistance and new strategies for labor and community organizing as it has been for the production of fabulous wealth.  Workers have opposed inhuman conditions.  Community organizations have fought for social justice and equality.  They will keep on doing that.

High-tech builds its anti-union model and workers respond

The anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and ‘50s bred a fratricidal struggle in the US labor movement. This led to the expulsion of the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).  While the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, the union that could have organized it, had it retained its strength and members won in the 1930s, was severely damaged.  In the rest of the labor movement, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared. 

From the beginning of the electronics industry in the late 1960s, high tech workers faced an industry-wide anti-union policy.. "Remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies…The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management,” said Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corp. The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining "a union-free environment."  Some of those techniques, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking. 

A co-inventor of the transistor and founder of an early Silicon Valley laboratory, William Shockley, espoused theories of the genetic inferiority of African-Americans.  As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in the Valley, they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce. 

In electronics plants women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men.  Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley's production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees. African-American workers were frozen out almost entirely.  Although unemployment in the African-American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels, African-Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering. 

Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated to the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, and others.  Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants, or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

"It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of powerlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome ... It seems obvious that there has to be a long term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communities in which they live," said Amy Newell, who helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley.  .

By the early 1980's, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers.  Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, “The Union Voice,” in three languages—English, Spanish and Tagalog.  Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers.  "A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union," Manan recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals—all without a formal union contract.

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it.  The main strategic question, which the committee sought to answer, remains unresolved.  In large electronics manufacturing plants, union-minded workers are a minority for a long period of time.  Their organization has to be active on the plant floor to win over the majority of workers by fighting around the basic conditions that affect them.  But it has to be able to help its members survive in an extreme anti-union climate. 

This long-term perspective is very different from the organizing style of most unions today.  Many view union organizing as a process of winning union representation elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board.  Others try to use outside leverage to force management to remain neutral while workers sign union cards, and eventually negotiate a contract.  In high tech, however, huge corporations insulate themselves from their production workforce so well that outside pressure has little effect on them.  Most unions have simply abandoned the idea of helping workers in those plants to organize at all, saying that they are "unorganizable."

Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed.  The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace.  SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness.  The group's lawyer Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee) is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

"When we talk about organizing," explained Flora Chu, then the director of SCCOSH's Asian Workers' Program, "we have to talk in a new way.  Many immigrants, for instance, aren't used to organizing in groups at work.  SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively.  The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants."   
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the "clean industry," exposing large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers.  Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list. 

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry's policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley.  In 1983 the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 people ten years later.  While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell much more heavily on operators and technicians.  "What this really meant," said Romie Manan, "was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group."  Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the Valley in 1994.

Employers turn to contractors, unions to new tactics

In 1993 Intel built a new $1 billion plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered $1 billion to help finance construction.  Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing.  But contractors who provided services to large companies, from janitorial and foodservices to the assembly of circuit boards, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11-14/hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4/hour.  Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits. 

By contrast, because contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers' wages, to the lowest level possible, contract assemblers and non-union janitors got close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.   The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers' organizing activity.
In Fall 1990 more than 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters.  When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. Shine's actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the Valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple.  Using the same strategy, SEIU went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than those at Apple.  The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.
In September 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories.  The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time.  There was no medical insurance.  Sergio Mendoza worked in the "coil room," making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years.  "Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed," he said.  The conditions in the "coil room" were very different from those at the facilities IBM had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a "campus." 

Contract assembly provides a number of benefits for large manufacturers.  Contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers' wages, to the lowest level possible.  Today the contract assembly system, then in its infancy, has come to dominate high tech industry.  Corporations like Hewlett-Packard and Apple have no factories at all.  Their entire production is carried out by contract manufacturers in plants around the world.   

Workers at Versatronex workers went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton."It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons—tent encampments where workers live for the strike's duration," said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City.  "Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country.  Our culture is our source of strength."

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement's search for new ways to organize.  They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.   Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win.  As workers organized around conditions they faced on the job, they learned to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors.  Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry's basic production process.  In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be.  Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves. 

In the heyday of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee, the National Semiconductor plant had almost ten thousand workers, working directly for the company.  By the time Romie Manan was laid off, employment had fallen to 7000.  Over half worked for temporary employment agencies, including almost all production workers.  Manpower, the temp agency, had an office on the plant floor.  According to Mike Garcia, the late president of SEIU Local 1877,  "high technology manufacturing doesn’t create high-wage, high-skill jobs.  It patterns itself after the service sector.  Contractors in manufacturing compete over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest." 

DAVID BACON  is a journalist and photographer in San Francisco. He is a member of the Editorial Board of International Union Rights.  He was chairperson of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and an organizer for the UE at Versatronex.

Versatronex workers on strike.

Mexican and Korean workers march together in downtown San Jose to demand their labor rights.

Lino Pedres, an organizer for the janitors' union, came to the picketline to support the workers.  His bullhorn was confiscated by the police, who arrested him.

Maria Pantoja, UE organizer, helps workers set up their strike committee on the picketline.