Navigation Bar

Home -> UE News -> 1999 Archives -> Article

The Global Economy —
An International
View From Mexico

Speaking at the UE District 11 hall on February 23, 1999, Bertha Lujan, director of the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT), a federation of independent unions in Mexico, addressed how the global economy has impacted workers and poor people in her country. Lujan described the disastrous effects that neoliberal policies, as embodied in NAFTA, have had upon the Mexican masses, particularly in the maquiladoras, and then explained how independent unions, such as the FAT, have sought to overcome the obstacles presented by Mexico’s system of corporatist unionism. She concluded her presentation with examples of cooperation between labor organizations in the U.S. and the FAT, particularly the UE and the UAW. Lujan's address was part of a tour sponsored by the Mexico Solidarity Network,  a coalition of 72 organizations that "support struggles for democracy, justice and human rights in Mexico." Other tour stops included Toledo, Cleveland, Louisville, Memphis and Knoxville. Special to the UE Web by UAW Local 1268 member Hal Sutton.

At the UE District 11 Hall ... ... Crowd listens to Lujan ... Bertha Lujan, director, F.A.T.
These union members attended Bertha Lujan's February 23 presentation at the UE District 11 Hall, in Chicago: C. Paidock, first vice president of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Local 739; Sam Smucker, UE organizer; Stacey Schumacher, executive committee member, National Organization of Legal Services Workers — UAW Local 2320; Johanna Ryan, UAW Local 890; Terry Davis, international representative, UE; Lujan, Bob Clark, AFT; Pete Anderson, secretary of AFSCME Local 2858.


"We understand that international capital has put workers against the wall," said Bertha Lujan, director of the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT), a federation of independent unions in Mexico. "We understand how the process of globalization has harmed workers on both sides of the border," continued Lujan. "In the North, the corporations threaten to close factories in order to win concessions; in the Southern countries, we understand how the acceptance of neoliberal policies is conditioning our terms of employment."

Describing the recent elimination of the Mexican government’s subsidy of tortillas for the general population, Lujan asserted, "We can discuss a politics of extermination, because this leaves the people with nothing to eat." "We understand that this process of globalization must unify the workers who have common objectives and common enemies — neoliberal governments, corporations that seek to maximize profits by minimizing wages, reactionary sectors of society that want to promote this unjust system," Lujan told her audience of labor and human rights activists, who had fought through traffic for an NBA game between the Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks to pack the UE District 11 hall, in Chicago, on Feb.23, as part of a tour of six Midwestern cities organized by the Mexico Solidarity Network.


"There is already a lot of organizing experience among groups in the U.S. and Mexico — with political groups, human rights groups, women, environmental groups, indigenous organizations; and, we’ve also been able to see the opening of very interesting relationships among labor organizations," Lujan continued. "A very important part of this has been the economic assistance that we have received to help organize the workers."

"What is even more important is the political agreement that we have been able to reach on both sides of the border, toward organizing independent unions," said Lujan, who also described a "a more militant unionism," whereby the FAT strives to reach beyond the usual union battles at the workplace to forge links with community organizations — "a unionism that contemplates working toward more just conditions, depending on the agreement that society comes to; because, if there’s no unity among the various sectors of society, it’s difficult to think about making changes." "It’s also a unionism that takes into consideration the process of globalization — the kinds of changes that this process has brought for workers," added Lujan.


Asserting that "NAFTA has been a key part of the neoliberal policies," Lujan contended that while its proponents had promised that NAFTA would improve economic conditions, leading to a better life for the general population of all the countries it embraced, "NAFTA has only been beneficial for the large corporations that can easily move back and forth across the border — for example, the automotive industry, which has been attracted to Mexico’s cheap labor." "Financial capital has taken advantage of NAFTA’s provisions facilitating international investment — especially the speculators, who were largely responsible for Mexico’s financial crisis of 1994," added Lujan. "NAFTA has also benefitted purveyors of intellectual property; Mexico’s 300 export companies, most of which are transnational corporations; the largest agricultural producers, which have been affiliated with U.S. and Canadian producers; the maquila sector, which has enjoyed the greatest growth of all."

"However," continued Lujan, "many have suffered from the effects of NAFTA — the small and medium business owners, who have been displaced; the small farmers in all three countries, who have been destroyed by the large transnational exporting companies; and indigent workers, because NAFTA has caused a big increase in unemployment." According to Lujan:

"In balance, Mexico has lost much more than it has gained from NAFTA. Taking into account the industries where growth has occurred, about one million jobs have been lost. In Mexico, productivity has increased by about 30 percent since NAFTA was implemented, but the minimum wage has declined by 17 percent, to $4.00 a day. In spite of its growth, wages have fallen the most in the automotive industry — by about 50 percent, while productivity has increased by 70 percent. NAFTA has increased the concentration of wealth in Mexico, resulting in greater inequality within our society, as well as among the member nations. The beneficiaries of NAFTA have been the same people in all three countries.


"This entrance of international capital into distinct sectors of the Mexican economy has resulted in the destruction of institutions that have a history of many decades in Mexico. One such institution was the subsidation of popular consumption. One of the most important subsidies was for the tortilla, made of corn, which is the principal food staple in Mexico. In the Mexican countryside, the tortilla is the basis of nutrition. This year, we awoke with a very bad nightmare — that the cost of tortillas had suddenly doubled. For people earning about two or three times the minimum wage, this increase might not be so harsh. But for people earning the minimum wage of $4.00 a day, it was a terrible blow. Last year, people were consuming 2.2 pounds of tortillas a day; this year they are only able to eat about one pound of tortillas a day.

"So, this has caused a severe deterioration in living standards — especially for people with meager resources. The government has increased the price of basic foodstuffs; while decreasing the minimum wage. Prior to this, last year, the PRI and the right wing parties had approved a subsidy for the banks, to ostensibly rescue them from a national disaster. So, they provide subsidies to rescue the bankers, while they deny the impoverished masses their basic food staples. And, if the people are unable to pay their debts, they will confiscate their personal possessions."

Lujan added that leading strategists of the neoliberal model have come to the realization that their paradigm now requires modification, "to limit the movement of capital around the world." Lujan explained that such theoreticians are now discussing the necessity of limiting "the movement of international investment, to avoid crises like that of Mexico, or the ‘tequila effect,’ the ‘dragon effect’ in Asia, the ‘samba effect’ in Brazil." "So finally, they understand that it is an international effect that has come out of their own planning," said Lujan, who continued:


"What can we say, for people who have been most affected by these policies? It is necessary to change these policies that have made people even poorer, that have been concentrating economic power in a few hands. Apparently, the neoliberal policies have reached their limit. Because the people who are dying of starvation are not going to simply stand by with their arms folded and accept such a fate. In the case of Mexico there are movements, such as the mobilization of Indians — the Zapatistas in Chiapas, who say that they prefer to die with dignity rather than to just die of starvation.

"So, they are talking about distinct models, such as ‘sustainable development’ or ‘social justice,’ and from this we can talk about the proposals that came out of the networks, composed of unions and other social organizations from throughout the Western Hemisphere that participated in the ‘Social Summit’ in Santiago, Chile, last year, to formulate an agenda to present to all who have been victimized by NAFTA — an alternative to the policies of neoliberalism. What are these alternatives? What possibilities do they have? They should be discussed by all of the participating organizations as a potential common platform. Perhaps, workshops could be organized to discuss these proposals."


Lujan also described the state of the Mexican labor movement:

"For more than fifty years, a corporatist type of unionism that controls the workers politically, ideologically and organizationally has existed in Mexico. The ruling party in Mexico, the PRI, has exercised political control, managing the workers as if they were its electoral clientele. The principal union federation in the private sector, the CTM, has also been one of the principal pillars of the PRI. The CTM obliges its affiliates to support the PRI candidates with mobilizations. And, the CTM unions, as such, participate in the functioning of the party.

"The CTM union leaders think and talk as the PRI leaders, and there is no political freedom within those "official" unions. Furthermore, there is no real democracy within the official unions. And, transnational corporations have been accommodated very well within this system. Almost the entire maquila industry has official unions, and 95 percent of the multinational corporations have official unions. The workers have not elected these unions; they accept this union structure, when they accept work."


"Eighty percent of the unions in Mexico are official unions. But, there are democratic currents within these unions. And, there are also independent organizations, such as the FAT. Up to now, we have been the minority. So, the FAT represents part of this independent unionism that struggles for a representative and democratic unionism. Most of FAT’s members work in small and medium level businesses — sectors like textiles, shoes, metal mechanic, services, transportation. The largest industry is the maquilas. All of the public sector continues to be controlled by the official unions."

"The conditions in the maquilas are not all that different from the rest of the country," asserted Lujan, explaining that while the pace of work in many of the maquila shops is harsher than in Mexico proper, comparable working conditions and earnings exist for maquila workers employed by the large corporations. However, maquila workers, in general, do share a "special situation," according to Lujan, who elaborated:


"Workers from all over the country have been concentrated in the border areas. But, these borders cities were unprepared to receive this huge influx of workers. The maquilas pay the same miserable minimum wages as the rest of business in the country, but they pay no taxes. And, they don’t pay the most important tax in Mexico — the income tax for utilities, or the corporate sales tax. This is because the maquilas don’t sell their products within the country. So, one of the principal problems is that the maquilas don’t assist with the social costs of the cities in which they are located. This causes very serious social problems.

"So, you find conditions where a group of workers live in a single room, and horrible houses made out of cardboard or wood scraps, with no services, because the municipal government has no money to resolve these problems. And, besides that, the workers earn miserable wages. It’s a vicious cycle. And, in the face of these terrible conditions of the workers, you find the maquilas built in the middle of gardens — they’re very clean, and you can imagine what the houses of the owners are like.

"Another problem is the kind of work that is carried out in the maquilas. There is a kind of permanent rotation of personnel in the maquilas. The people work in various places from year to year, with no permanence in their employment. Under such conditions, it is very difficult to organize the workers.

"And so, the principal problem that NAFTA has created is that it has amplified and consolidated this method of industrialization. NAFTA contemplates converting Mexico into a huge maquila, without national industries, but a maquila industry with workers who are very poorly paid — serving the transnationals by producing for the rest of the world."

Lujan explained the methods through which the FAT is striving to confront these difficulties:


"The FAT has a center for training and helping the maquila workers in Ciudad Juarez. There’s a very interesting process of organizing the maquila workers along various parts of the border. In Tijuana, Metamoros and Reynosa, the object is to consolidate an organization for the future, and not just concentrate on immediate goals that will achieve no long-term benefits.

"In other sectors, the struggle has been more permanent. For example, the railroad workers have a rich history of struggle. Now, they are fighting against the privatization of the railroads. And, their struggle is going to be a great help with other struggles against privatization."

Lujan, who contended that political change will be necessary for real progress to occur in Mexico, said she was encouraged by the "apparent democratization within the political life of the country." Lujan added she anticipates that if, as occurred in the most recent municipal elections in Mexico City, the opposition unseats the PRI in Mexico’s national elections scheduled for the year 2000, it would strengthen independent organizations such as the National Union of Workers (UNT) or the FAT. "This is a process that we can see in the intermediate term."


"There is a great importance for the independent unions, such as the FAT; the UNT; the democratic unions in the public sector, including the teachers and railroad workers; as well as for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights organizations, in order to change the unjust situation that exists," Lujan continued. She also described the importance of alliances that are forming among independent unions in Mexico and similar unions in the U.S., as well as other nations:

"So, on this tour, we are discussing the concrete forms of solidarity that can be constructed among the various organizations. How can we go beyond discussion, and discover concrete forms of mutual assistance? Obviously, the theme of communication is very important. How do we improve communication and circulate information among our organizations? And, how can we think in terms of concrete forms of assistance that would include campaigns around specific labor conflicts? For example, campaigns that would oblige transnational corporations to abide by codes of conduct. Or mobilizations that would oblige transnational corporations to change their practices, in both the Northern and Southern continents.

"One mechanism that has appeared to work very well is parallel accords, such as the labor side agreement to NAFTA, which function as a forum where we can publicize violations of workers’ rights. In Mexico, we have also presented demands and denunciations before the International Labor Organization (ILO), and received favorable decisions. However, as with NAFTA’s labor side agreement, the ILO lacks the ability to enforce its decisions in any country. Governments can ignore the ILO’s recommendations, because there is no provision for their enforcement.

"Another possible direction was provided by the Social Summit that was held in Santiago, Chile, last year. As I mentioned earlier, one of the groups that was very important at the summit presented a document outlining alternatives to neoliberalism that we think should be discussed by these various organizations, as a common platform.


"One of the most interesting examples is the experience we have accumulated between the FAT and the UE. Our brothers and sisters from the UE are helping us to organize workers in Mexico to struggle for more democracy. But also, brothers and sisters from the FAT have come to help the UE in organizing within the Latino districts. This is a very concrete form of solidarity that we can work to improve upon in the coming years.

"The movement of the UAW toward independent unions involved with the automotive industry in Mexico is also very important. The UAW and FAT have reached an agreement to mount a campaign against the Dana Corporation. It’s a strategic agreement to develop a relationship among the Dana workers in all three countries, and to especially try to improve the conditions of Mexican workers. This is an historic relationship, because it’s tri-national, and also because it’s directed at a corporation where there is a labor union from the UAW in the U.S. and Canada, and the FAT in Mexico. I think that this alliance is going to bear fruit, very quickly. I think this is an example of how we’re beginning to construct a level of solidarity that transcends the border.

"Sometimes we have affiliates of the FAT, but we also do educational work and advisory organizing work within the affiliates of the CTM. At Ford, the union has already gone through a process of democratization for several years. We’re also doing work at General Motors, especially in the Northern part of the country. And, in this way, we hope to create independent unionism in the automotive industry."

Perhaps, Lujan’s opening remarks provide the most appropriate conclusion:

"Here in the U.S., we talk about networks of solidarity with Mexico; perhaps we in Mexico should be obliged to form networks of solidarity with the U.S. So, we are going to take this proposal back to Mexico and see if we can achieve a more equivalent relationship in terms of solidarity."

— Hal Sutton, UAW Local 1268

UE News - 03/99

Home -> UE News -> 1999 Archives -> Article

Home  About UE  Organize!  Independent Unions  Search  Site Guide  What's New  Contact UE
UE News  Political Action  Info for Workers  Resources  Education  Health & Safety  International  Links

Copyright 2003 UE. All Rights Reserved