Unions Struggle for a Foothold

One hundred metal folding chairs sit in neat rows on the stark, tile floor of the Tucson union hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Seventy-nine are empty.
The rest are occupied by a mix of hard-boiled blue-collar workers, aging hippies and a handful of young activists from the local Quaker church.

They've come together on a Saturday in May to hear a lecture by Larry Weiss, a prominent union activist and board member of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. The subject: the new global economy, the maquiladora industry and the ramifications of both for America's labor movement.

A table in back of the hall holds a few bottles of soda, cups, ice, a bowl of chips and a stack of black-and-white pamphlets titled "Maquiladora Organizing Project." The fliers detail efforts by American activists to educate and organize maquiladora workers in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a city of 90,000 inhabitants, 13,000 of whom work in the city's 38 maquilas.

Weiss steps up to the podium. He's thin, with silver hair, wearing black work boots, jeans, and a blue, button-down shirt. Weiss is not a charismatic speaker, but a sense of urgency carries him.

He begins with three anecdotes that appear unrelated:
"The Smith-Corona plant in upstate New York recently closed its doors and shifted production to Mexico," Weiss says. "It was the last place in America to make typewriters."

This January, workers for a small electronics factory in Grover, Minnesota, got together on the weekend with an IBEW organizer to discuss forming a union.

"Just after the meeting began, the plant's human resources director burst into the room and says, 'If you even talk about forming a union, we're moving the plant to Mexico,'" Weiss says. "That's illegal, but she repeated her threat, the workers filed out of the IBEW hall, and the organizing effort was over."

Weiss goes into his third brief story, about a Mexican farming family that worked its land in southern Sonora for generations, but lost it to an agricultural modernization program in 1995.

"So they come to the border, and work in the maquilas for a while. But they decide it doesn't pay enough, so they cross to this country, and make their way to St. Paul, Minnesota," Weiss says.

The husband gets a job washing dishes, and the couple rents a small apartment, and, over time, have two children who, since they were born in the U.S., are U.S. citizens. "One day INS raids the restaurant, and gets the father," says Weiss. "The two kids go into state custody, and their parents are deported, so the family is torn apart."

Weiss holds up a newspaper account of the woeful tale.
"All these things are manifestations of what's being called the globalization of the economy," Weiss says. "And in this new, global economy, corporations scour the planet for the cheapest wages and most lax environmental and labor regulations they can find."

The question--and someone raises his hand to ask it--is, "Why should anyone in America care?"

First of all, Weiss says, it's just plain wrong for anyone to work full-time in a modern factory but sleep in a shack.

Beyond that, Weiss says, there are two reasons Americans--especially middle-class workers--should worry about the emerging trends of the globalized economy:

First, Americans are losing jobs as companies shift production to foreign countries where labor is dirt cheap.

Second, the wide availability of that same labor is driving wages in the U.S. down.

Is Weiss correct?
On the first count, yes.
On the second, perhaps.

The U.S. Department of Labor says 200,000 jobs have shifted from America to Mexico since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The United Auto Workers and IBEW say 500,000 is more accurate.

"It's a myth that the only jobs we're losing to maquiladoras are the ones no one wants," Weiss says.

General Motors is now the largest private employer in Mexico, with 72 maquiladoras. The automaker is also hiring 3,000 Mexican engineers for its new, worldwide design center in Juarez.

"The great majority of all the GM jobs in Mexico would be high-paying in America, and very high-tech on the electronics end," Weiss says.

U.S. unemployment is the lowest it's been in 27 years, but Weiss says that's a deceptive statistic.

"We're seeing a forced migration of U.S. labor from manufacturing to the service sector," he says.

If you lose a $16-an-hour union job making auto parts for GM, and start delivering pizzas, you're employed, but worse off.

The transfer of jobs to Mexico is one of the issues in the United Auto Workers strike against GM, now in its second month.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse