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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Looking at the Root Causes of Migration
By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense | September/October 2018

Sammy Gutierrez and Filipino community activists join 3000 people outside the West County Detention Center on a national day of protest, called Families Belong Together - Let Our People Go

For eight years at the West County Detention Center in Richmond, Calif., monthly vigils were organized by faith communities and immigrant rights organizations to support those inside. These protests, and the testimony of detainees' families, were so powerful that the county sheriff in July announced he was canceling the contract he signed long ago with the federal government to house the prisoners.

While that was a victory, it did not lead to freedom for most of them, however, who were transferred to other detention centers. Instead, it has forced us to examine deeper questions. In those vigils we heard the living experiences of people who have had no alternative to leaving their homes and countries to escape violence, war, and poverty, who now find themselves imprisoned in the detention center. We have to ask, who is responsible? Where did the violence and poverty come from that forced people to leave home, to cross the border with Mexico, and then to be picked up and incarcerated here? Whatever the immediate circumstances, there is one main cause for the misery that has led migrants to the United States: the actions of the government of this country, and the wealthy elites that the government has defended.

Taking Responsibility
I went to Guatemala several times over the last two decades with my friend Sergio Sosa. Sergio was brought up in the church. As a young man he was on his way to becoming a priest. Then he became a combatiente (a participant in the social struggle and war in Guatemala from the late '70s to the early '90s), but he remained a friend of Bishop Bobadilla in Huehuetenango, a disciple of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador (who was assassinated at the beginning of El Salvador's insurrection and war of the same period). One evening Bobadilla, Sergio, and I spent a long time talking with about the civil war of the 1980s, and the fact that the massacres of tens of thousands of indigenous inhabitants of the mountains above Huehuetenango were carried out with guns that came from the United States, by soldiers whose officers had gone to the School of the Americas in Georgia.

Liliana comforts her niece, crying after a visit with her mother, who has been detained for 8 months in the West County Detention Center.  The children were unable to see their mom for 8 months because they lack California ID.  On this occasion, because the sherriff announced he's closing this immigrant detention center, they were allowed to see her.  They came all the way from Fresno, a four hour drive.

Yet in all the talk I felt no anger from the bishop toward me as someone from the United States. "Why not?" I asked. "Because we know you have as little control over your government as we do over ours, probably less," Bishop Bobadilla answered. "But you're interested in us. You want to hear about what happened, you know it was wrong, and you want to take some responsibility for it." Today when I read about the women and children from Guatemala in detention, when we hear their voices and see their photographs, I think about what Bobadilla said. It sounds so unbelievably hopeful-this idea that as people here in this country we want to take responsibility, and recognize the history of all that's happened between us and the people of Central America.

How did these children come to be here? And what does taking responsibility mean? It's not enough to believe that all children should be valued and cared for with the greatest tenderness and love. We need to know why they're here, in such an obviously dangerous and painful situation, enduring separation from their families and the adults in their lives.

You don't hear much discussion of responsibility or acknowledgement of history in the discourse of our national leaders. And it's not just the racist slurs of Trump.

To Sergio, migration is not just a journey from one point to another. Migration is a form of resistance to empire. "People from Europe and the U.S. crossed borders to come to us, and took over our land and economy," he points out. "Now it's our turn to cross borders. Migration is a form of fighting back."

U.S.-Sponsored Wars
Migration from Central America has been happening for very long time, but modern migration began with the wars. Refugees fled El Salvador and Guatemala because of massacres. Sergio says, "Our army was trained at the School of the Americas, and they would come back afterwards and kill our own people. The United States used its power, and we buried the dead."

This means we have had separated families for at least 35 years. When families settled in U.S. cities, many lived in the MacArthur Park neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. In the 1990s this neighborhood was the focus of the Ramparts scandal, which exposed massive corruption in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (or C*R*A*S*H) anti-gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In the name of combating gang activity among young immigrants from Central America, cops dished out unprovoked shootings and beatings, planted false evidence, framed suspects, stole and dealt narcotics themselves, robbed banks, lied in court, and covered up evidence of their crimes. It was one of the most extensive cases of police misconduct in U.S. history. The young people they targeted were imprisoned and then deported. The names of their gangs in Central America refer to Los Angeles streets.

Some 129,726 people convicted of crimes were deported to Central America from 2000 to 2010. With the deportations, the two most prominent Los Angeles gangs-the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18-quickly became the two largest transnational gangs. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, U.S. law enforcement assistance pressured local police to adopt a mano dura or hardline approach to gang members. Many young people deported from the United States were incarcerated almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment.

A mother and daughter protest the separation of immigrant mothers and children, and the detention of immigrants in centers like that in Richmond.

U.S. funding for law enforcement and the military still flows, two decades after the wars ended, through the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Marine Corps General John Kelly, when he was commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said that migration was a national security threat, calling it a "crime-terror convergence." Today he's Trump's chief of staff in the White House.

Imposing Economics
During and after the war, the United States imposed an economic model on Central American countries based on producing for export, in "export processing zones" where companies could operate without complying with normal taxes, environmental regulations, and labor standards. San Pedro Sula in Honduras, called a "murder capital" by the New York Times, is not just a city of gangs. It's a factory town.

One of San Pedro Sula's working women, Claudia Molina, described the conditions there: "Our work day is from 7:30 AM to 8:30 PM," Molina told me, "sometimes until 10:30, from Monday to Friday. On Saturday we start at 7:30 AM. We get an hour for lunch, and work until 6:30 PM. We take a half hour again to eat, and then we work from 7 PM until midnight. We take another half hour rest, and then go until 6 on Sunday morning. Working like this I earned 270 lempiras per week [about $30 at the time]." When Molina and her coworkers tried to organize a union, 600 women were fired.

Over 95% of the women in the Honduran plants are younger than 30, and half younger than 20. To keep women from getting pregnant and leaving the factory to have children, USAID funded contraceptive distribution posts staffed by nurses in EPZ factories, including Osh Kosh B'Gosh. You can make the clothes for U.S. babies, but don't have any of your own.

And kids themselves are workers. Girls between 10 and 14 make up 16% of the women in the factories.

Griselda, Adriana and Hulissa called for their family members to be released from the West County Detention Center, after the Contra Costa Sheriff announced he was canceling the contract with Federal authorities under which the jail has housed immigration detainees.  Families feared that the detainees would be transferred to facilites far away where they will no longer be able to visit them.

The U.S. government promoted policies providing low-cost labor to U.S. corporations, promoting economic development that tied the economies of Central American countries to U.S. corporate investment. By the end of the 1990s, the number of Salvadorans in the United States had reached two million. And U.S. taxes didn't just pay for war and maquiladoras; they funded an even larger strategy of encouraging foreign investment through privatizing state utilities, services, and assets, and of negotiating "free-trade" agreements with Mexico (the North American Free Trade Agreement-NAFTA) and with Central American countries (the Central American Free Trade Agreement-CAFTA).

Policy as Leverage
The United States used immigration as a lever to force governments to go along. In 2004 Deputy Secretary of State for Latin America Otto Reich threatened to cut remittances if people voted for the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador. After the FMLN lost, CAFTA was signed and implemented in 2005 by the government that Reich supported.

In Honduras, the congress had to ratify CAFTA in a secret meeting at midnight, when no opposition parties were present. Then, in 2009 a tiny wealthy elite overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya because he raised the country's minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates, and instituted free education. Raising living standards would have given people a future at home. Nevertheless, after a weak protest, the Obama administration gave de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the United States.

Many of the children and families coming from Central America to the United States today are therefore coming to reunite with their families, who were divided by war and earlier migration. They are responding to the threat of violence caused by criminalization and deportations. They are looking for economic survival in countries tied to the neoliberal economic model.

A daughter thinking about her father, imprisoned inside the detention center

These are the real causes. There is no lax enforcement, and the claim that kids are coming because they think they'll be allowed to stay is a myth. Around 400,000 people are still deported every year, and 350,000 people spend some time in an immigrant detention center. The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents, and the United States spends more on immigration enforcement than the FBI and DEA budgets combined.

The migration of Central Americans, including children, has been used by Tea Party and Border Patrol to push to expand that budget, to build more private detention centers, to increase funding for CARSI and the military, and to kill the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era order that allowed young people brought to the United States without documents as children to stay). The hysteria played a big part in electing President Trump, with chants at his rallies of "Build the Wall!"

But children will keep coming so long as we don't take responsibility for dealing with causes of migration. Knowing where the violence and poverty are coming from, and who benefits from this system, is one step toward ending it. But we also have to know what we want in its place. What is our alternative to the detention centers, and the imprisonment of the people inside? To the hundreds of people who still die on the border every year?

What's the Alternative?
We have had alternative proposals for many years. One set of alternatives was called the Dignity Campaign. The American Friends Service Committee had another. They all had certain commonsense ideas in common:

An end to mass detention and deportations, and the closing of the detention centers.
An end to the militarization of the border.
An end to the idea that working without papers should be a crime.

These proposals also tried to deal with the root causes by calling for:

An end to the trade agreements and economic reforms that force people into poverty and make migration the only means to survive.
An end to military intervention, to military aid to right-wing governments, and to U.S. support for the repression of the movements fighting for change.

Hulissa Aguilar came to a vigil to ask for help to get her father Hugo released.  After raising the bond and getting him out, the family was reunited at the last vigil, together with Hugo's sister Isela and brother Gonzalo.

The migration of Central Americans has benefited our labor and social justice movements. One big example was Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, where Central American janitors defied the police and were beaten up in Century City, but finally won a contract.

It is a powerful combination-workers on the bottom with not much to lose in minimum wage jobs, and politically sophisticated organizers hardened in a war zone.
That should inspire progressive movements in the United States to look at immigration in a different way. Simply being an immigrant may not bend a person politically to the left. But many immigrants bring organizing skills and working-class political consciousness with them, depending on where they come from, and their previous experiences.

The Right to Stay Home
Mixtec professor Gaspar Rivera Salgado says, "The right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to be poor, or the right to go hungry. Choosing whether to stay home or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future, in which we are all respected as human beings."

That right can't be achieved in Central America alone. The policies pursued by our government, whether through war and military aid, or through trade agreements and pressure to keep wages low, all produce migration. When we look at the families in detention centers today, we have the responsibility to give them a world in which the choice to leave Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras is truly voluntary-where they have a future with dignity if they choose to stay. The ability to stay home is as important as the ability and right to migrate.

If you think this is just a dream, remember that a decade after Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. That same year, 1965, Congress put the family preference immigration system into law, the only pro-immigrant legislation we've had for a hundred years.

That was no gift. A civil rights movement made Congress pass that law. When that law was passed we had no private immigrant detention centers. There were no walls on our border with Mexico, and no one died crossing it, like the hundreds who now perish in the desert every year. There is nothing permanent or unchangeable about these institutions of oppression. We have changed our world before, and our movements here can do that again.

Hulissa Aguilar and Victor Hernandez, along with many vigil participants, tied ribbons to the fence after writing messages on them expressing support for the families of other detainees.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


By David Bacon

Workers in seven San Francisco Marriott hotels, and the San Jose Marriott, went on strike on Thursday, October 4.  Workers at the Oakland Marriott walked out the next day.  These are the faces of the workers on the lines.  If you're in the Bay Area, you'd be welcome to walk with them as they tell the hotels "One Job Should Be Enough!"

You can see the full selection of images on these webpages:
San Francisco Marriott Strike - Day 1
Evening on the SF Marriott Picketline
Oakland Marriott Workers Walk Out
San Jose Hotel Workers Strike Marriott

San Francisco


San Jose

Tuesday, October 2, 2018


By David Bacon
NACLA Reports, October 2, 2018

Raul Alvarez' photograph, taken on another October 2 march a few years earlier, was carried as the banner at the head of the marchers in 2014. If he'd been alive, he would undoubtedly have been there in front himself.  (David Bacon)

A 2002 discussion with Raúl Álvarez Garín, a survivor of the 1968 student massacre, on the ongoing legacy of state impunity in Mexico.

Every year on October 2 thousands of Mexican students pour into the streets of Mexico City, marching from Tlatelolco plaza through the historic downtown to the Zócalo. They're remembering the hundreds of students who were gunned down by their own government in 1968, an event that shaped the lives of almost every young person in Mexico during that time.

Raúl Álvarez Garín was one of those students whose world changed at Tlatelolco. He was a leader of the national student strike committee, organizing campus walkouts and street mobilizations through the spring of 1968. This rebellious upsurge occurred simultaneously with student protests in France, the United States, and across the globe. When the Left resurfaced after a period of extreme repression in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Álvarez became a leader of the Mexican Left, publishing the leftist magazine Punto Critico, Corre la Voz and numerous articles. For more biographical information, see the 2014 article "A Hero of Tlatelolco," reprinted below.

In 2014, the commemoration march took on even greater significance. It occurred just days after the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, who had commandeered buses to travel to the march but were kidnapped and murdered before they left Guerrero. Álvarez Garín himself had passed away after a battle with cancer on the same day-September 26, 2014. His photograph graced a banner at the head of the march. If he had been alive, he would undoubtedly have been in front of the march himself, pointing out that the impunity of the Mexican state in 2014 has legacies in the impunity of five decades before.

The following interview, conducted on December 1, 2002, contains Álvarez Garín's reflections on the massacre. At the time, he and others were seeking to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to trial on the heels of the PRI's historic presidential loss after 71 years in power. On the 50th anniversary of this tragedy, his words bear remembering. His oral history is reprinted in abridged and edited form, below:

In 1968 I was at the school of Mathematics and participated in the Consejo Nacional de Huelga (National Strike Council, CNH) as the school representative. The 1968 movement was against government repression. It grew very large, but ended tragically with the events of October 2. That culminated in the arrest of many students and professors.

In order to explain the events of Tlatelolco, you can discuss at length every event leading up to them, for example, the actions taken by both the student movement and the government. There were student marches and dialogues between the two sides. There was also an effort by the government to blame the president of the university for the actions of the students.

Today there are discussions of whether or not these actions were indeed genocide.You can also discuss the resources used by both sides. There was the military occupation of the university. The movement was gaining strength when the government then decided to use excessive force. It was a planned attack using the element of surprise, which is against the law. It meant the death of political opponents. Today there are discussions of whether or not these actions were indeed genocide.

You can also look at Tlatelolco in theoretical terms. The PRI, the ruling political party at the time, had a way of repressing social movements using a firm hand. But it also wanted to be seen as a democratic government. There were many discussions between both sides until the tragic end.

After the massacre of October 2, the government opened the door to this new response method. In essence, it allowed the government to respond in the same way in the future. On June 10 it happened again. Ultimately it led to the formation of the White Brigades, an illegal entity with permission to kill political opponents. In legal terms, we are saying that from October 2, 1968 to 1982, which was the last documented existence of the White Brigades, there existed in Mexico a sort of political genocide. A decision was made to combat a sector of the population, the political opposition. The conflict between society and the government resulted in the extermination of the opposition.

The explanation given by the government is what we call the official version of the events of October 2. They first alleged that there had been a confrontation in Tlatelolco between guerrilla groups comprised of students and the Mexican military. They said that when the military arrived to break up a student march, they were met by gunfire.

It is the same explanation they give for the events of June 10, 1971. They also try to present that situation as a confrontation between two different student groups with different ideologies. They say that the police decided to not intervene. The truth is very different.

When you talk about repression by the Mexican government, it follows a constant line, that the student groups always attacked the military. This is presented as a rebellion or an act of violence that the military had to crush. This is how they explained the events of Tlatelolco.

They explained the events of September 15, 1961 in San Luis Potosí in the same way. At the time San Luis Potosí was a very important railroad town. It was relatively small, with about 300,00 to 400,00 people, but had a large number of 8,000 railroad workers. San Luis Potosí was the hub of the railroad industry of Mexico at the time. In 1959 there had been a nationwide railroad workers' movement centered in the area. This movement was crushed as well. One of the reasons for Dr. Salvador Nava's movement was to release all of the political prisoners from the railroad movement of 1959. In 1961, Dr. Nava decided to run in the elections. He won in the city, but the state was still controlled by the PRI.

The government declared to the rest of the country that [Nava's movement] was an extreme right-wing movement. That legitimized its actions. In order to crush Dr. Nava's political opposition campaign, the government utilized the same script. The military came in during the night, while the Independence Day festivities were underway. Police, armed and dressed as civilians, started shooting and the military stepped in. Many people died and were injured. This allowed the government to prosecute and jail the leaders.

The same government officials who led this campaign then led Tlatelolco. The government characterized the movement there as the opposite, that they were crushing opposition of the extreme left wing. We say there is a Mexican school of oppression, because they have a certain way in which they always respond to situations like this. In ideological terms, the government states that these groups were not made up of students, but instead were guerrilla groups or subversive agents, communists, or terrorists. When the labels escalated as they did, they felt their actions were justified.

It is the same tactic used during the Spanish Inquisition. It is like saying the government's opponents are not Christians. They are Jews, they practice a twisted belief and are the devil. Therefore, it is justifiable to burn them alive. It is a sequence of actions that they follow to oppress people.

In Atenco, it was the same. They are not agricultural workers, the government said. They are guerrillas. Everything was in place to respond in the same way. They don't explain the situation as frustrated agricultural workers who are victims of the social, political, and economic situation in Mexico. They define their opponents as a threat to authority. Therefore, they have to respond.

There are two kinds of incidents. One is used to crush movements in the universities and the other to crush agricultural worker movements. There were conflicts in the Universities of Michoacán, Nuevo León, Sonora, Puebla, Tabasco, and Guerrero. They all were suffocated by military action. There were massacres in Chilpancingo in 1960 and 1967. The government's actions grew increasingly violent. By the time of the movement of 1968 the government had already taken military action against all of these groups.

The government jailed 50-60 students they labeled as communists, even though the students had done nothing illegal. In July that year, the government detained part of the communist group and student opponents of the government. They did not want protests and marches during the Olympics. The student groups continued to call for marches. The government jailed 50-60 students they labeled as communists, even though the students had done nothing illegal. Before the visits of foreign dignitaries like President Kennedy, or other big events, the government wanted to be sure there would be no student uprisings. They conducted preventive detentions of many students who had done nothing wrong. There were deaths, but nothing is documented. The National University was invaded on September 18 and confrontations took place at the Polytechnic University on September 23 and October 2.

The invasion of the Polytechnic University didn't crush the movement. Instead, the movement grew, incorporating other sectors in the protests. After the confrontations at the university on September 18, the movement began to receive support from workers. There were work stoppages at hospitals and schools in Mexico City. There were railroad worker stoppages. On October 2, a large number of railroad workers arrived in the city to join the marches. Petroleum and electrical workers also supported the student movement. Newspapers declared their disagreement with the government actions. Huge banners hung on buildings throughout the city expressed anger at the police.

The events that took place in the Plaza of Tlatelolco were very complex and all of us there have our personal view of them. Students who had the most privileged view of the day were the ones in the meeting on the third floor of the Chihuahua building. They saw what was happening in the Plaza only for a few seconds. It was a peaceful meeting and when they saw the massacre begin to unfold, they were immediately apprehended. They saw the police on the third floor begin to randomly shoot down towards the plaza, at the military and students alike. Everyone dropped to the floor.

I was in the Plaza and I observed police shooting down on us as the military approached from behind. The first reaction of some students was to try to advance to the third floor and assist our friends there, because we couldn't see them anymore. We were denied access by government agents. They were shooting, and we retreated again to the plaza. Students ran toward Manuel Gonzalez Street, which was then the only exit from the Plaza. Some of us ran inside the church, where we were later surrounded and apprehended. Each person had only a very partial view, because none of us could see the entire event.

A very important document was published three or four weeks afterward, which began circulating on October 27 and 28. It was a reconstruction of the events by the National Strike Council. It corresponded with our defense version in 1970, and we have been saying the same thing all of these years. From the first moment, we noticed there were three barricades. The first barricade was around the Chihuahua building which was put in place on orders of Ernesto Gutiérrez Gómez Tagle. He was responsible for blocking access to the building and for the strategically-placed officers in civilian wear. That was a crime.

The second barricade was around the entire plaza and led by Commander José Gómez Toledo. They had three battalions of military officers, which totaled 4,000 to 4,500 soldiers. The third barricade was around the entire property of Tlatelolco, which was led by Cristóforo Mazón Pineda, the leader of the First Brigade in the Mexican military. In that post, there were approximately 4,000 soldiers. This gives us an idea of the magnitude of the operation.

The first shooting started at 6:10 [PM] and ended at 8:30. There were two and a half hours of continuous shooting by hundreds of firearms. The operation lasted a long time. It wasn't something that happened only once and very quickly, like an explosion or a single gunshot. It was two and a half hours of an extensive military operation. They had sufficient time to make decisions one way or another. The actions they took were planned. It was not out of their control. It was very well planned out.

The time from the moment the shooting started until the Plaza was empty, except for the bodies of the dead and wounded, was not more than two minutes. From there on, action proceeded at the Chihuahua building, where there were snipers on the third floor. We are waiting for the explanation of the government about these individuals who shot at targets for two and a half hours. What was their purpose? For those of us in the Plaza, it was very evident that it was an oppressive measure by the government. The soldiers shot at the building and at anything that moved. I was very angered by what I saw.

When the shooting started, David Vega was talking. We were in the corner by the mural and the convent. The soldiers were a few meters away. I left immediately and when I turned I saw a group of people where I had been standing, who were injured or dead, including a child. At that moment I couldn't stop and reflect. It was different at the military detention center where we were all taken. For the first few days, I was under the impression that all of our fellow students on the third floor of the building had been killed. Fortunately, that was not the case.

I was detained in Tlatelolco. All of my fellow students in the Chihuahua building were immediately taken to the military detention center as a group. I was taken with another group to Santa Martha. They then realized that I was to have taken part in a meeting with them. They transferred me to the military detention center, but isolated from the group. The other students didn't know I was detained there and vice versa. We knew we were political prisoners and we would not be liberated immediately. I was detained for two years and seven months.

People became more aware of the many illegal atrocities taking place, and as a consequence, many decided to form a new political movement against the ruling party.The movement of 1968 triggered a change in the mind of many Mexicans. People became more aware of the many illegal atrocities taking place, and as a consequence, many decided to form a new political movement against the ruling party. Many committees started popping up. All of this activity spurred political participation and popular opposition to the administration. In 1971 President Díaz Ordaz left office, and Luis Echeverría became president, beginning a series of changes. Prisoners were freed, from both the railroad movement and our movement.

Some students were released in January and February. We were released in April, but we had to agree to leave the country. Our only condition was that we could decide which of us would leave the country first. We left to Peru and Chile, another chapter of our political struggle. Students with longer prison terms were the ones who left the country. That way students with shorter prison terms would have to be released and allowed to stay. After we were released in April, the students who were already free and in Mexico began a campaign, charging that we had been exiled. We used a quote from Porfirio Díaz, which referred to the treatment of political opponents, which called for imprisonment, banishment or death. The government said we hadn't been banished from the country and that they had not forced us to leave. They said we had a choice, so we then changed our minds and returned to Mexico on June 3, 1971.

Seven days later was the massacre of June 10. The movement of June 10 began at the University of Nuevo León. It called for a change in the political structure, with many issues. A march was scheduled in Mexico City to support the students in Nuevo León. The government used the march as an opportunity to attack with a paramilitary group called the Falcons. They were dressed as fellow protesters, and then suddenly attacked. A total of 37 people died, possibly more.

The government stated that the students who returned from Chile had provoked it and caused another confrontation.  That excuse didn't hold up very well. The press immediately told another story, and showed the planned coordination between the Mexico City police, the National military and the Falcons. Their government made an investigation but the findings were never reported.

In those days, the government would arrest you for two reasons. One was because you belonged to the Communist Party, and the other was because you were a leader in the student movement. Either was enough to be detained. The formal accusations depended on the moment. The students who were detained in July 1968, were charged with minor offenses, like robbery and illicit activities. As time went on, more serious charges were made. After September, the government began charging them with rebellion. After October 2, the charges included homicide. We were accused of 12 charges, which included robbery, illicit activities, rebellion, and homicide. The trials of 1968 were ridiculous. The prosecutor at the time has admitted that these charges were bogus, with no foundation. He became a witness for us, in order to dismiss those charges.

Yet Echeverría's image is associated with left-wing movements in Latin America. At that time, Mexico welcomed political exiles from Chile, like the family of Salvador Allende, and received a large number of Argentine and Brazilian exiles. Mexico was seen as a leader in Latin America. This is not in contradiction with extreme nationalism, a nationalism very close to fascism. But it put opposition groups in Mexico in a very difficult situation. For many years Mexico was seen by other countries as a very positive and democratic government, since it was receiving political exiles. That made opposition groups in Mexico seem extremely radical. If you were not completely aware of Mexico's situation is was easy to be fooled.

Another event like October 2 is not completely out of the question. Every time there is an uprising, the possibility of this happening is still present. We have been saying for the last 30 years that this action to stop. In 1988, with the victory of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the same thing could have happened when they voided his win. In his speech he stated, "they want a blood bath." But the same oppression could not happen again, he said, because we were going to build a party so big and united that they would have to retreat.

In 1993, a year before the elections of 1994, some said the two giant trains would collide-the PRI and the PRD, with its leader Cuauhtémoc Cardenas. Many feared that the PRI would use deadly force again. That year a commission was formed to find final answers about the events of Tlatelolco. They didn't have access to government documents, however. The government stated that for national security reasons they could not release military documents for 30 years. So we waited until 1998, when again a commission was formed to investigate the events, and once again they were denied information. Nevertheless, we made our own study and conclusions about what happened, with the purpose of prosecuting those responsible for the massacre.

Some people still say that excessive force is justified to pacify opposition groups. The only way to have people punished for their actions is to try them in the justice system. We had to say that we weren't interested in the reasons the government had for taking actions. What we wanted was an investigation to determine whether certain actions on October 2 warranted criminal charges.

We presented the charges, and at first we were not taken seriously. But the international community began looking at human rights issues seriously, like the Pinochet case. The situation changed. Now it is not as easy to dismiss our charges. They must respond to them.

Naturally, the judicial system tried to change or modify the cases, so that our side would get frustrated. The press responded favorably to us because they had also been affecting by censorship. At the center of everything was the military, and many have concluded that there must be a code of ethics in the Mexican military. The way the system works is that the military obeys all government orders blindly. We want them to have loyalty first and foremost to the nation and the law, not to their supervisors. This is a national cultural battle. An article in the newspaper La Jornada said this new idea should be taught and implemented in military schools.

During those years Mexico maintained a distance from the U.S. government. Until 1968 the Mexican military was trained to stop aggression from the United States. This had always been their frame of mind and didn't start to change until then. After 1968 new elements were incorporated, like taking a stance against national subversive groups like the Communists. Until 1976, Mexico did not participate in military conferences in Latin America. Nevertheless, there was some collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico.

After the attacks of September 11, the United States has asked for much broader cooperation from other countries. They have asked for intelligence information from their borders and the activities of possible terrorist movements and groups. They have a very broad definition of what they define as terrorism. All of this has to have some effect on intelligence and military factions of Mexico. This is alarming, because the people who hold offices in the intelligence community in Mexico is a relatively small group. That will be reflected in the outcome of the trials. These trials will have to investigate the intelligence community. They are the ones that gave information to the government, which in turn made decisions based on that information.

In 2002, a special prosecutor was appointed in the case filed by Alvarez Garin, Jesus Martin del Campo, and Felix Hernández Gamundi, but in 2007 a court hearing the case dismissed it.  Following the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of Mexico, however, hope increased that the case could be revived. On September 24 of this year the government issued a statement that confirmed that the Tlatelolco shootings constituted a massacre. As Jaime Rochin, chief of the Executive Commission for Victims' Assistance in Mexico (CEAV), a subsidiary of the Department of the Interior, wrote: "The Tlatelolco massacre, which took place on the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1968...represents a historical chapter in which the Mexican state showed its most authoritarian face by silencing the voices of the citizen's movement."

By David Bacon
NACLA Reports, October 20, 2014

Raúl Álvarez Garín, 1990 (David Bacon)

Every year on October 2 thousands of Mexican students pour into the streets of Mexico City, marching from Tlatelolco (the Plaza of Three Cultures) through the historic city center downtown, to the main plaza, the Zócalo. They're remembering the hundreds of students who were gunned down by their own government in 1968, an event that shaped the lives of almost every politically aware young person in Mexico during that time.

This year, just days before the march, the municipal police in Iguala, Guerrero, shot students from the local teachers' training college at Ayotzinapa. More demonstrations and marches are taking place all over Mexico, demanding that the government find 43 students still missing. Students marching on October 2 were in the streets for them as well, aware that the bloody events of 1968 were not so far away in some distant past.

Raúl Álvarez Garín was one of those whose world changed at Tlatelolco. He was a leader of the national student strike committee, organizing campus walkouts and street mobilizations through the spring of 1968. This rebellious upsurge was simultaneous with student protests in France, the United States and, it seemed then, the whole world. In Mexico it culminated in a huge rally at Three Cultures Plaza.

The Mexican government was preparing for the Mexico City Olympics that year. It had never tolerated political dissent beyond very narrow limits, but then it was even more defensive than usual, fearing any social movement that appeared to challenge its hold on the country's politics. The authorities decided to bring out the army and shoot the students down.

Somehow Álvarez survived the bullets in the plaza, and was then shut into a cell in the notorious Lecumberri prison for two years and eight months. He died two weeks ago on September 27, having spent a lifetime trying to assign responsibility for the decision to fire on the crowd. There was actually no mystery about it. The orders for the massacre were given by then-Secretary of the Interior (Gobernación) Luis Echevarria. But Echevarria was acting for Mexico's political establishment, organized in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Álvarez wanted the crime acknowledged publicly and the guilty punished. By spending the next half-century pursuing that goal, he became not just a hero to the Mexican left, but its conscience.

Álvarez was already a man of the left when he got to Tlatelolco. He'd joined the Young Communists, but then left before 1968. He married María Fernanda Campa, daughter of Valentín Campa, one of Mexico's most famous radicals who lived underground and went to prison after leading a railroad workers strike in 1958. After his release, Campa became the 1976 presidential candidate of the Mexican Communist Party, before it merged with other parties and eventually disappeared.

Later in life it was hard to imagine Álvarez as he was described by friends in '68-a skinny intense youth of 27. When I met him in 1989 he was already a man of substantial girth. We'd go to lunch with his brother, economist Alejandro Álvarez, and spend hours talking politics. Raúl would get animated, talking beneath his huge mustache faster than my broken Spanish could keep up. He'd ask a hundred questions about Mexicans and unions in the U.S., and we'd plan articles for the newspaper he edited, Corre la Voz (Spread the Word).

Álvarez believed that words have power. Long before Corre la Voz, he started another famous Mexican leftwing journal, Punto Crítico, with other 1968 veterans. His goal was to make his politics accessible to ordinary people, not to inspire debate among dogmatists. "He put our debates into context and showed their limits," remembered Luis Navarro, now an editor at Mexico's leftwing daily La Jornada. "His language was always understandable."

Through the years after 1968 he supported every worker's fight that seemed capable of improving conditions, but that also challenged the political order. As Mexico's political structure began to change in the 1980s Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran for President in 1988, against the PRI his father had founded 40 years earlier. Álvarez and others saw the Cardenas campaign as an opening to wrest power from the PRI, 20 years after Tlatelolco. As the votes for Cárdenas were being counted, and it was clear he was winning, the election computers suddenly went down. When they came back up the next morning the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, one of the country's most corrupt politicians, was declared the winner.

During and after that campaign, many currents of the Mexican left came together and organized the Democratic Revolutionary Party. Álvarez was a founder. He began to look for a way to break workers and unions free of the PRI, to give the new party a working-class base. I met him that year after the election, when I came to Mexico with other U.S. trade unionists. The North American Free Trade Agreement was already on the horizon. Raúl and Alejandro Álvarez were some of the first people who saw the advantage of cooperation in trying to fight it on both sides of the border.

I was beginning to work as journalist north of the border. Raúl and Alejandro helped me understand that for all of NAFTA's disastrous impact on the workers of my country, the trade agreement would have much worse consequences in Mexico. I spent last week as a judge in the Permanent People's Tribunal investigating the causes of migration from Mexico to the United States and the terrible violations of the rights of migrants in both countries. It's clear that if anything, they underestimated the damage. And repression in Mexico is not just a thing of the past. As we met as judges in the Permanent People's Tribunal, just days after Raúl Álvarez died, we heard testimony about yet other mass killings-of 73 migrants killed and buried in the desert in northern Mexico, and the discovery of 193 more in 47 graves less than a year later.

The PRI finally lost the Presidency in 2000, although not to the left but to the rightwing National Action Party. Nevertheless, Álvarez believed it might be possible to get a new government, even a conservative one, to call the murderers of 1968 to account. A new office was created, the Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past. Álvarez, Felix Hernández Gamundi and Jesus Martin del Campo filed a legal case against Echevarria over the Tlatelolco massacre, the killings of other students in a street protest in 1971, and the "dirty war" in which the Mexican government targeted leftists for assassination through the rest of the 1970s.

Formal charges were finally made against Luis Echevarria Alvarez and Luis Gutierrez Oropeza for the Tlatelolco murders, and Mario Moya Palencia and Alfonso Martinez Dominguez, among others, for the 1971 attacks. In the end, however, these former functionaries were able to avoid trial after invoking legal technicalities challenging the ability of prosecutors to indict them. In reality, the political system itself was reluctant to unearth a network of responsibility that would have spread to include many others. Nevertheless, Raúl Álvarez and his two co-complainants felt their work made plain to the Mexican people the terrible acts of repression that had cost many lives, and who had given the orders for them.

Bringing up the rear of the October 2 march were members of the only union visibly present-the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME). Both Álvarez and this union have been anchors of left wing politics in Mexico City. For twenty years the SME campaigned to stop the Mexican government from turning over the nationalized oil and electrical power industries to private corporations. To neutralize its opposition, the SME's 44,000 members were fired five years ago. The PAN administration of Felipe Calderón ordered the army to occupy the generating stations and declared the union "non-existent." When the PRI came back into power last July, it pushed through a constitutional amendment permitting the privatization.

Raul would have pointed out that there is really no difference between the pro-corporate policies of PRI and PAN. He fought to keep parts of the PRD from supporting the same privatization reforms. Just days before his death, a delegation of SME leaders went to his home in Mexico City, and gave him a union card, making him member #16,600. He told them he was proud to be a member of this "union in resistance."

David Bacon is a California writer and photographer, with numerous published articles about Mexican politics and labor. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte (University of California Press / Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017). He was a friend of Raúl Álvarez Garín.