Worker centers from Mexico and the U.S. share experiences face to face
April 15, 2009
While most of the recent news coverage about Mexico has focused on the issue of narcotrafficking and related violence “spilling over the border into the U.S.”, a bi-national initiative of different nature took place in January of 2009. This initiative consisted of a tour by six Mexican worker groups’ representatives through New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to meet primarily with worker centers and unions. The purpose of the trip was to exchange labor organizing experiences.
The visit lasted ten days and was organized by the Mexico City office of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (The Solidarity Center –a non-profit organization launched by the AFL-CIO in 1997) together with several score union members and activists from both countries. In fact, the tour mobilized more than 200 people and put them into direct personal contact with each other.
The CFO and International Solidarity Tours
Julia Quiñonez, CFO coordinator, talks about the benefits of the organization’s participation in international solidarity tours.
Why is it a good thing for the CFO to participate in international solidarity tours? “Because it opens up a possibility for our compañer@s and for workers to go and let others know about the work of our organization, and what is happening on the border with thousands of workers. The individual who goes gets a more global vision of what is happening, not just in Mexico and the United States, but in the world. At the same time, the trip helps as recognition of the work of the person who goes on it. The invitations to go to other places are good for us, since we wouldn’t be able to offer that possibility; we cannot afford paying for those trips.”
How do these trips contribute to the CFO? “In many cases we reconnect with groups and people we have met in the past (either in their cities or because they have come to the border). We have also met new groups supporting social struggles, and so have begun new alliances. And with sister grassroots organizations and other activists we have strengthened our ties of solidarity during the day-to-day experience of the tours. We also can meet individuals who may become CFO donors.
Another important aspect is that this type of tours has contributed to the strengthening of our alliances with partner groups that organize those trips. In the case of the January 2009 exchange where our organizer Camen Luría participated, we strengthened our unity with the Solidarity Center. Also, upon sharing the information in our group, we all take part, because we all supported Carmen’s preparation for the trip as well as her putting together a report on what she learned. This didn’t just help our compañera feel good for having undertaken the trip, but all of us who had a part in it.
On many occasions the relations of solidarity continue. An example of worker-to-worker support is that after the tour, the Chicago Workers Collaborative is interested in buying t-shirts and tote bags from our Dignity and Justice Maquiladora.”
What does the CFO expect of its representatives who go on the tours? “That the person who travels representing the CFO assumes a great commitment, honesty, and responsibility toward the organization and toward his or her direct work with working men and women. That he or she comes to a greater understanding of international solidarity and a greater recognition of the importance of our group.”
An important feature of this series of exchanges was the great variety of groups and people involved: from international unions like the SEIU and USW, to undocumented day laborers, as well as an assortment of worker centers and supporting NGO, churches, academics, and volunteers.
The foregoing shows that the topic of labor rights is being increasingly taken up from broader bi-national and global perspectives that cut across social sectors and expand traditional organizational boundaries. The tour of the three Mexican women and three men accurately reflected the active quest to find creative forms of worker organization, including undocumented immigrants, and labor rights advocacy.
Carmen Luría, organizer for the Border Workers’ Committee (CFO –Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s), represented the voice of the maquiladora workers from the Mexican northern region. Besides the CFO, other Mexican groups participating in the tour were: the Center for Worker Support (CAT –Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador), from Puebla; the Authentic Labor Front (FAT –Frente Auténtico del Trabajo); Innovation and Intervention in the Social Sciences (IICSA –Innovación e Intervención en las Ciencias Sociales); the Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ProDESC –Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales); and Development and Peace Service (SEDEPAC – Servicio Desarrollo y Paz), from Coahuila.
For the representatives of these groups, the tour was a learning experience in every way. Besides sharing their own experiences of struggle in the United States, they were able to learn about each other’s work, since they work in different parts of Mexico and did not necessarily know of each other. And of course they learned from all the people they met in the United States. In Carmen’s case, this tour was her first time outside of Mexico.
The exchanges were a dynamic worker-to-worker method for sharing the ways that they resist in both countries the abuses committed against them by a variety of employers and corporations. They of course also addressed the current impacts of the global economic crisis and sought out common points for the defense of labor rights.
In New York, for example, the six Mexicans visited day laborers who meet on a corner in Queens waiting for contractors who need them. The laborers, mostly Mexicans, have a community organization that they run called Latin American Workers Project (Proyecto de los Trabajadores Latino Americanos –PTLA) through which they defend themselves from the dangerous working conditions they are exposed to, from low pay, and from problems derived from the fall in contract work for day laborers due to the fact that the economic crisis has forced the closure of many companies. This has led to many families being unable to meet their expenses in the United States, and unable to send remittances in the amounts that they were used to send to relatives in Mexico.
In fact, a constant theme during the tour by the Mexican groups was the negative impact of the global economic crisis on employment, wages, unionization, and grassroots organizing in both countries, and in the situation of immigrants in the United States.
Some union activists mentioned that within the unions themselves there is not yet a consensus about how to organize undocumented workers. Although just a few years ago the unions were not interested in including those immigrants, today the importance of this group for the future of the union movement in the United States is clear.
Toward this end, unions are identifying organizational forms that include undocumented workers. The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) has sought out ways to bring forward specific demands of the Latino community within unions. For its part, Wage Watch monitors violations of labor-related human rights and provides support to workers. This initiative is promoted by unions and workers’ centers with the support of the New York City’s Department of Labor.
SEIU and La Fuente (a worker and community fund) showed another good example. They have succeeded in helping union members to get involved in solving community problems. They demanded that the Presbyterian Hospital of New York guarantee that it would provide translation service to its patients. In Chicago, the Latino Union Day Center not only fights against falling wages and compensation for workers, but also organizes against police harassment of day laborers.
Carmen Luría was a worker in a maquiladora in Piedras Negras, where she was fired for defending her worker rights. For two years she has been an organizer with the CFO. It was an emotional experience for her when the group from Mexico visited the tombs where the Chicago Martyrs are buried. There she and the other visitors left an offering of red carnations, and brought away with them the message of a local organizer who told them: “Take this moment with you in your hearts; and let this be a motivation for your organization and an example to follow; because only by organizing ourselves and resisting can we move forward.”
Besides meetings and ceremonial events, there were street actions. In Los Angeles, the group from Mexico joined a picket organized by Enlace. The protest took place in front of a supermarket that sells squid. It is known that in Baja California there are seafood processing plants that employ children as young as nine years old. The owner of the supermarket came out to the street and in front of the demonstrators and the press committed to stop selling the product.
The six Mexican visitors also joined a picket organized by the Car Wash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers (CWWOC). Those workers throughout Los Angeles are fighting to secure basic workplace protections, and to address the serious environmental and safety hazards that exist in their industry.
Some ideas that labor activists from both countries want to develop that have grown out of these exchanges are: stay in communication and promote solidarity between us; report on the work that each does; have strategic conversations so that in the future we can undertake joint coordinated campaigns at the international level; analyze how the global economic crisis and the North American Free Trade Agreement affect workers on both sides of the border; and have groups from the United States visit Mexico.
Other useful aspects of the trip for the six representatives of the Mexican groups were: that they saw with their own eyes how abuses of workers’ rights are also committed in the United States; and that lessons must be taken away from the way that unions and worker centers in the United States plan and carry out their organizing work and systematize their results.
Another thing that drew the attention of the visitors was the alliances which have been formed of unions and the AFL-CIO with community organizations and worker centers. In the cases where not only workers but also communities are organized, the communities have achieved an understanding of the importance of unionization. This made the visitors think about the how Mexican unions should do their job, and also about the need to pressure governments in both countries to avoid the exploitation of Mexican workers everywhere.
Eddie Acosta, AFL-CIO’s National Worker Center Coordinator and one of the tour organizers, said: “I think the most important lesson learned from the visit of the Mexican worker organizations is the need to have more direct conversations between organizations across the U.S. and Mexico borders. The right to form unions and collectively bargain are under attack in both countries, albeit, in different forms. However, the same economic forces that drive down wages in one country is also driving down wages in the other. The more workers speak to each other about what they are facing and how they organize to defend their rights, the closer working people will become.”
Another emotional moment for Carmen on this trip provides a mirror of the reality of one of the many failures of the global economy. At the corner of a gas station in Chicago, during a visit to some day laborers, when Carmen was getting on the bus at the end of the visit, one of the laborers called out “Doña Carmen, don’t you remember me? I’m from Emiliano Zapata.” Without being able to speak with him, Carmen recognized that the man was from her home town, Minatitlán, Veracruz, where she had emigrated from to go to Piedras Negras. Emiliano Zapata is the name of a neighborhood near where she had lived.
Carmen said: “It gave me goosebumps and the experience was a bit sad. I was able to realize how many people have had to migrate, leaving their families and exposing themselves to dangers and to discrimination, but that gives me strength to go forward.”