NAFTA, we were told, would create prosperity in the US and Mexico by breaking down trade barriers. But the reality for workers on both sides of the border is that NAFTA has impoverished millions and made life much less secure for workers.
In Mexico, one of the results of NAFTA has been that the country’s labor code, which on paper provides many protections for Mexican workers, has been largely ignored and gone unenforced as Mexico’s leaders strive to make their workforce more flexible–that is, a workforce willing to work for low pay with few benefits and little job security– to attract foreign investment.
Ciudad Acuna is the home to hundreds of maquiladoras, factories moved across the border by US companies to take advantage of Mexico’s flexible workforce. Life is hard for the people who work at the maquiladoras–pay is low, job security non-existent, and work is often unhealthy and dangerous. Unions have been kept out of the city by a local power structure more concerned with protecting profits of foreign maquiladora owners than standing up for the rights of Mexican workers.
However, for more than a decade, the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras/os (CFO), which means the Border Committee for Working Men and Women in English, have been helping workers in Ciudad Acuna and other border cities organize for social and on-the-job justice.
During this time, CFO has established a close working relationship with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, an Austin-based solidarity and educational group that routinely sponsors delegations from the US to the border to give people North of the border an opportunity to see first hand the effects that NAFTA and neoliberal globalization, (unrestrained capitalism) have had on workers in Mexico. The next solidarity and education delegation will be traveling to Ciudad Acuna in May. Information about the trip will be posted on the Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera website.
During the last trip in January, delegates from the US learned about the fight to organize workers at one of Ciudad Acuna’s largest employers, Arenses y Accesorios, formerly owned by Alcoa, but now owned by Platinum Equity, a private equity company in the US.
CFO has been helping an organizing committee made up of workers inside the six maquiladoras owned by Arenes y Accesorios, which makes electric harnesses and other auto parts, to organize a local of the National Union of Mineworkers and Metalworkers, known as Los Mineros, an independent union with a militant history that has won exceptionally good contracts for its members.
In order for the union to be recognized as the bargaining agent for the workers, the organizing committee must get 50 percent plus one of the factory workers to join the union by completing a union membership application.
“(The CFO and the organizing committee) have now rallied 30 percent of the factory workers (over 1,200) to their unionizing cause,” writes Bianca Hinz-Foley, a member of the January Austin Tan Cerca delegation, in a report on the visit. ” They need 50 percent plus one to be recognized by the employer, and they are in the “recta final,” the final push, to get the other 20 percent plus one that they need to win recognition.
CFO and organizing committee members are “going door-to-door in the colonias dispelling myths about unions as (being) inherently corrupt and talking about union rights,” writes Hinz-Foley.
“Many of these workers have been kept in the dark about the rights under the law,” said Judith Rosenberg of Austin Tan Cerca. “They are often surprised and enthusiastic when they learn what their rights really are.”
During the January visit, delegates from the US met with rank-and-file workers and CFO members active in the organizing drive. “CFO members, without judgment, opened up their lives and homes to strangers from another country and culture,” writes Hinz-Foley about the reception that the Austin Tan Cerca delegation received.
And for the delegates it was an eye-opening and moving experience. “One delegate remarked on the sense of responsibility she felt to share her experience with the CFO with family and friends back in Austin,” writes Hinz-Foley. Another delegate said, “I need to send my boys on this trip. It would give them perspective; it would change their lives.”