Looking at the example of unionism in Mexico, Richard Leitch discusses different approaches to building union internationalism.
My recent review of ‘Global Unions, Global Business’ by Croucher and Cotton (here) raised a couple of concerns about the authors’ preferred perspective of ‘regional minilateralism’. These revolved around its applicability to all areas of the global economy, and whether or not the alternative approach (which they call ‘rank and file bilateralism’) has some purchase for international trade unionism. Here I want to expand on these points, and look in particular at the example of building independent trade unionism in Mexico.
There is, regrettably, little evidence of the partnership approach Croucher and Cotton advocate operating in the Mexican context. Rather than independent trade unions and global union federations (GUFs) establishing dialogue with employers, there exists a harsh regime of state – official unions – employers yoked together in a ‘triple alliance’ to police labour disputes and struggles, and prevent genuine representation or collective bargaining emerging.
A key part of this regime is the ‘protection contract’, an agreement signed by official unions and employers to buy labour peace in exchange for a place on the employer payroll. These unions undertake no genuine representation and workers are generally unaware of their existence at the level of the workplace, hence their description as ‘ghost unions’.
Studies estimate less than 10% of union contracts are from active union organisations. It is only when workers seek effective representation that these shadow bodies emerge to claim prior representation rights and force a workplace election. Under Mexican labour law these elections were, until very recently, conducted in public, by vocal declaration, and hence subject to intimidation and corruption. There are numerous examples of this practice recorded in David Bacon’s book ‘The Children of Nafta’, illustrating one of the many obstacles facing independent trade unionism, especially in the northern maquiladora zone of the Mexican economy.
More generally a wide range of countermeasures have been deployed against genuine organisation involving all parts of the triple alliance: economic blacklisting and sacking of activists, state coercion (including arrest and imprisonment), electoral fraud and plant closures. Vivid examples of this coercive apparatus in action have been seen in the last two years. Consider the struggle of the miners at Cananea; or the decimation of the independent electrical workers union (SME) by the closure of its Light and Power Company stronghold, throwing 44,000 people out of work, in a calculated act of political revenge for their union’s opposition to government privatisation plans. So the context for building independent trade unionism in Mexico is difficult. Yet there are organisations trying to achieve this.
One of these is the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) which has, since the early 1990s been working closely with its North American ally, the United Electrical workers union (UE) – a prime example of ‘rank and file bilateralism’ . I have covered the story of their efforts in two previous pieces for New Unionism: the next chapter of the story, dealing with the events of 2009, can be followed in Dan la Botz’s ‘Review of the Year’ on the Mexican Labor News and Analysis website, hosted by the UE.
Here I want to look at the UE – FAT story in relation to Croucher and Cotton’s critique of rank and file bilateralism. To repeat, their concerns centred upon its short duration; Western focus; and limited leverage over employers. Let’s take each point in turn.
In terms of time span, there is nothing short term about UE – FAT relations. Their joint organising stretches back to the mid 1990s, when efforts were made to establish genuine unions at factories in the northern maquiladora zone owned by US firms. Recognising a shared interest in preventing destructive competition amongst workforces in an increasingly global economy, UE – FAT have mobilised and campaigned since then to build effective workers organisation: the Mexican Labor News and Analysis online archive conatins reports right back to 1996 on these activities. Cementing these efforts, there have been regular exchange visits between their respective leaderships and rank and file workers to deepen understanding of each other’s struggles and issues. This actually seems analogous to Croucher and Cotton’s favoured ‘educational – participative’ approach in building global networks – long term and bottom up – but undertaken without any GUF coordination.
The overarching dynamic, building from initial contacts and fact-finding missions (the educational moment) then proceeding to organising activity is also similar. The scope of UE – FAT strategy goes far beyond the charge of a Western – centric approach Croucher and Coton level at rank and file bilateral projects. Now in some ways there are different priorities at work here. Croucher and Cotton are arguing for building union capacity outside the European heartlands of trade unionism – and especially with helping to convert the state dominated structures of the ex-Soviet bloc into effective organisations. For UE – FAT the pressing issue issue is to fashion an independent unionism against state supported union bodies and their powerful allies, a much harder challenge. Even so, they have over the years, built a degree of independent organisation across various sectors of the Mexican economy, establishing democratic organisations and taking over the leadership within some plants represented by official unions.
There is more to say though. Firstly the bilateral relations between UE – FAT are a genuine two way street. There have been organising campaigns launched by the UE at North American plants employing Mexican migrant labour that have relied on FAT organisers. And the more recent struggles to secure bargaining rights for US public sector workers in North Carolina have been buttressed by FAT sponsored challenges in the arena of international law.
Secondly, the range of UE – FAT activity goes beyond the sectoral divisions upon which GUFs and their strategies are built. Although both began in private sector manufacturing, they have now moved into public sector organising and set up projects to support each other, including the North Carolina campaign. From here UE – FAT have started working with relevant GUFs – notably Public Services International – on this issue of collective bargaining in the US public sector. They have also expanded their relations to include public sector allies in Canada, setting up a rank and file exchange programme and international network called ‘Public Sector Convergence’. Again this seems akin to the strategy of ‘regional minilateralism’ shorn of GUF involvement.
As for leverage over employers, the UE – FAT approach certainly lacks any of the long-term relations with senior MNC management evident in the ICEM – Anglo American example cited by Croucher and Cotton, and the advantages this brought. But in a situation where employers are incredibly hostile to independent trade unionism, there seems little immediate prospect of this relationship building, either at supplier or parent company level. The Colombian situation that the ICEM and its affiliates worked in is not therefore analogous, despite sharing much of the anti – union culture found in Mexico.
One further issue is worth considering. Croucher and Cotton are aware of the immense challenges GUFs face in terms of the explosion of informal work and ‘external labour’ outside direct MNC employment. This threatens “their legitimacy as representatives of global labour” (p67). They do maintain however that the GUFs are invaluable here, possessing a range of historical experience and educational capacity no-one else can match. What the UE – FAT story suggests however is that some aspects of this organising challenge can be addressed through a determined rank and file bilateral approach.
To reach the ranks of unorganised workers in the maquiladoras, and overcome the hostile anti-union climate at factory level, the FAT have turned to the ‘worker centre’ model of organisation, establishing bases in towns like Cuidad Juarez – the CETLAC project. From these centres the FAT have launched popular education programmes and planned organising campaigns in a space secure from management infiltration and intimidation. Bacon cites the case of the campaign at the EES plant as one example of this approach in action. Other worker centres have been established in Chihuahua and Monterrey, to support organising drives in the transport and municipal workers’ sectors. The original Juarez base has been used to organise street vendors and residents of surrounding urban colonias. All of which is simply to say that ‘rank and file bilateralism’ can be a viable strategy for international trade unionism in a globalised world. Indeed the UE – FAT example is one of considerable depth and richness: reaching out beyond traditional workplaces to organise groups of workers, employing educational and legal strategies, building sectoral alliances with other unions to form functioning regional networks.
As noted above, much of this is close to the regional minilateralism favoured by Croucher and Cotton; and UE – FAT has worked with GUFs in recent times. Perhaps given the immense challenges involved in building independent trade unionism today, we should not get too boxed in strategically at the outset. GUF regional approaches could be vital to union capacity building where weak organisations are in need of help. But equally there are vibrant rank and file projects underway as well.