The Global Economy
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 Mexicos 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.
|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 governments 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.
ORGANIZING FOR A JUST SOCIETY
"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, weve 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
theres no unity among the various sectors of society, its difficult to think
about making changes." "Its also a unionism that takes into consideration
the process of globalization the kinds of changes that this process has brought for
workers," added Lujan.
NAFTA: PAIN FOR MILLIONS
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 Mexicos cheap labor." "Financial
capital has taken advantage of NAFTAs provisions facilitating international
investment especially the speculators, who were largely responsible for
Mexicos financial crisis of 1994," added Lujan. "NAFTA has also benefitted
purveyors of intellectual property; Mexicos 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.
THE TOLL TAKEN BY
"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:
THE LIMITS OF
"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."
MEXICO'S LABOR MOVEMENT
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
"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 FATs 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
"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
"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 dont pay the most important tax in Mexico
the income tax for utilities, or the corporate sales tax. This is because the
maquilas dont sell their products within the country. So, one of the principal
problems is that the maquilas dont 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. Its a vicious cycle. And, in the face of these
terrible conditions of the workers, you find the maquilas built in the middle of gardens
theyre very clean, and you can imagine what the houses of the owners are
"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
"The FAT has a center for training and helping the maquila workers in
Ciudad Juarez. Theres 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 Mexicos 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."
SOLIDARITY ACROSS BORDERS
"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 NAFTAs labor side agreement, the ILO lacks the
ability to enforce its decisions in any country. Governments can ignore the ILOs
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.
UE ... UAW ... AND THE FAT
"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
"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. Its 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 its tri-national, and also because its 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 were 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. Were 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, Lujans opening remarks provide the most appropriate
"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