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Exchange Builds
International Solidarity

By Yvonne Pitts

UE members pose with a delegation of trade unionists from the Montreal-based CISO
UE delegation with Morales Brothers strikers

UE members pose with a delegation of Québécois trade unionists from the Montreal-based CISO (International Labor Solidarity Center) in Mexico (top photo). IN bottom photo: the UE delegation with Morales Brothers strikers. Norma Sprague is at left in the front row; in the second row, second from left is Charles Tangle with Yvonne Pitts, Sue Lukasik and Beth Austin.

Five UE members and Robin Alexander, UE director of international affairs, participated in a worker-to-worker exchange in Mexico during early July that fostered international solidarity and increased awareness of shared problems. As Local 1111 member Sue Lukasik observed, "The trip was eye-opening. We all have the same problems internationally, with different levels of severity."

Hosted by the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT), Lukasik, Charley Tangle, Local 683, Beth Austin, Local 893, Norma Sprague, Local 267, and Yvonne Pitts, Local 896 were part of an international delegation of trade unionists that also included workers representing unions in Quebec.

The FAT, founded in 1960, is a labor federation with unions that represent workers in over half the states of Mexico in manufacturing industries including textiles, garment, shoemaking, rubber, and auto parts, as well as in agriculture and construction. The FAT also addresses broader social and economic issues; the organization includes worker-owned cooperatives, farm worker and community organizations.

Under extremely adverse conditions, the FAT fights for social, gender, and economic equality as changes in local, national and global economies increasingly concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Beth Austin recalled, "I’m impressed by the resilience of the people and their commitment to the common cause of improving working conditions, against seemingly insurmountable odds."

Like UE, members of the FAT share a vision of international worker solidarity as a means to combat the negative effects of policies such as NAFTA, which has driven worker wages down on both sides of the border.

In 1996, UE and the FAT formed a Strategic Organizing Alliance to develop strategies to deal with the escalating problems associated with neo-liberal globalization. Worker-to-worker exchanges, which allow rank and file unionists the opportunity for in-depth dialogues with other unionists, increase awareness of common struggles and shared problems, such as privatization and downsizing.


In Mexico City, UE members toured a worker-owned and managed glass factory that workers took over after a successful four-year strike in the early 1980s. The glassworkers are affiliated with the FAT, which provides legal and technical counseling. The plant’s business model provides a viable alternative to corporatist models that sacrifice workers’ fair wages and human rights in the name of profits for stockholders. "Decisions about the plant were made for the general good through consensus," Yvonne Pitts noted, "giving workers responsibility for the plant’s success or failure. Comparing this system to our model of top-down management demonstrated that alternative strategies in which workers’ voices are heard are possible." With a broad vision of social and intellectual improvement, the workers designed educational programs in language, computer skills, primary and secondary school education and job training that are available to plant workers.

The UE delegation also spoke with workers currently engaged in labor strikes and visited the Morales Print Shop strike site in Mexico City. The strikers, mostly women with an average of 30 years with the company, had black and red strike banners hanging around the guard shack, which they maintain 24 hours a day. Corruption, delays, and intimidation from the employer have not weakened the workers’ commitment to the three-and-a-half-year-old strike. With help from the FAT, the striking print shop workers’ appeal is moving toward a final legal resolution. UE member Norma Sprague remarked, "The union movement here is impressive. Strikers stick together like true brothers and sisters. I couldn’t believe the conditions, when I learned what people actually made."

(Last April striking Morales worker Jovita Cruz Aguilar traveled to the U.S. as part of a worker-to-worker exchange. She visited several UE locals and spoke about labor conditions in Mexico and the need for worker solidarity. While in Mexico, UE members reaffirmed their commitment to solidarity and mutual support.)

UE members had the opportunity to speak with other Mexican labor, political, and human rights activists. The delegation spent a week at the RORAC compound in Temamatla. RORAC, an organization that supports educational activities and provides technical support for the FAT, provided an informal setting in which trade unionists and activists can interact, exchange ideas, and develop strategies. While at RORAC, UE members attended talks by officials from the Department of Labor in Mexico City.

Later, Mexican activists in agricultural reform explained how changes in the Mexican Constitution over land ownership had displaced peasants, causing huge migrations into urban areas. This change allowed multinational agri-businesses more control over land and food supply, while creating a pool of impoverished workers. Other union representatives linked declining wages and poor conditions to NAFTA and the rise of multinational corporations.


The UE delegation also met with Bertha Lujan, FAT coordinator, and member of RMALC (the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade), an organization dedicated to developing alternatives to neo-liberalist economic policies. Lujan and other RMALC members explained that treaties such as NAFTA minimizes worker wages and bargaining power while structural adjustment policies such as those imposed by the World Bank deprive countries of economic and national self-determination. Through investigation, action and building alliances to foster discussion between U.S., Canadian and Mexican groups, RMALC proposes alternatives to regional economic integration.

"As capital and multinational corporations globalize, so must labor. Otherwise both Mexican and American workers will continue to suffer declining wages, loss of important benefits such as medical coverage, decreased bargaining power, and will have no control over economies which are built on their labor" said Yvonne Pitts after hearing the RMALC presentation.

UE members returned to their locals with new understanding of the commonalities we share with workers in Mexico. Beth Austin reflected, "Overall, I think the trip was excellent. It helps put in perspective some of the things that we’ve been reading and hearing over the past few years. Being able to talk with folks who are involved is something I won’t ever forget."

"I learned that similar problems exist here too," says Sue Lukasik. "Although we claim to have progressed beyond discrimination and unfair policies against labor, it still exists, it takes different forms." The worker-to-worker exchange provided valuable opportunities for UE members and Mexican unionists to discuss shared problems and gain understanding of each other’s problems. Only through such conversations will we develop solutions to protect all workers’ rights.

UE News - 10/00

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